Ventriloquism: Unheimlich manoeuvres

June 2014

Sarah Angliss traces the vocal-throwing art's continued persistence in the face of obsolescence, and the peculiar relationship between performers and their knee pals.

On 26 January 1926 a handful of journalists and Royal Institution scientists huddled together in a flat in London’s Soho, as a face appeared before them on a sheet of glass. Blurred and faint, it was an image of Stooky Bill, a ventriloquist’s dummy belonging to inventor John Logie Baird. That morning, Baird was giving one of the first public demonstrations of his televisor, an apparatus that performed a new species of magic: capturing a moving face at one end of Baird’s London flat and conjuring it up at the other.

Stooky means plaster in Baird’s Scottish dialect and this plaster figure had been a regular stand-in for his human assistant William Taynton, who was unable to withstand the intense heat and glare of the televisor’s lightbulbs, even when he was encouraged with a bonus of half a crown. Baird owned several stookies and two of them survive. One is on display in Hastings Museum, the other is in the National Media Museum, Bradford. The Hastings stooky still shows the scars of his early televisor appearance. His face is cracked, his hair matted and singed, and his features accentuated with kohl-like paint so they could be discerned on Baird’s primitive, mechanical television system.

Centre screen on the televisor, Baird’s Stooky Bill can be seen as an interloper from an earlier age. Historian Steven Connor notes “no matter where you start... ventriloquism is always anachronistic, never quite on time”. This is true, but ventriloquism also has a remarkable ability to repurpose itself despite being perpetually earmarked for obsolescence. This is one of many contradictions at the heart of ventriloquism, a sonic parlour trick that entertains as it disquiets.

Ventriloquism is an audiovisual feat, yet it has been a hit on the radio, in shows such as Educating Archie. It’s the cruise ship entertainment where two performers, one human, the other a dummy, teeter on the brink of a profound existential crisis – one that’s often taken to its conclusion at the climax of the act when the dummy’s head is removed, the ventriloquist’s arm is spotted or the dummy is given the chilling revelation that he is nothing more than a lump of plaster and wood – a “flophouse for termites”, as WC Fields said in a moment of cruel honesty to Edgar Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy.

The classic vent doll is a middle-aged man, booted and suited, in a body the size of a prepubescent boy. He’s the archetypal uncanny or unheimlich entity: simultaneously familiar but strange; childlike but adult; alive but inanimate. One transliteration of unheimlich is unhidden. Appropriately, ventriloquism is a form of open magic, one where the illusion isn’t broken, even when the ventriloquist shows the guts of the doll and threatens to unravel the trick. Ventriloquism is used by the necromancer to summon voices of the dead or converse with the devil, yet is equally beloved by many Christian ministers, whose ventriloquial evangelising techniques are described in Mary Rose Pearson’s Perky Puppets With A Purpose.

My own stage companion Hugo is a ruddy-cheeked 1930s dummy I’d stumbled on when some magicians invited me to a Magic Circle bazaar. I roboticised Hugo’s eyes, neck and mouth and hooked him up to Max/MSP so he could speak vocal samples live from my laptop. I thought he’d be good for a couple of songs, but somehow Hugo, the guest artist, has become the centrepiece of the act. In this era of disembodied music, where any sound imaginable can be conjured in software and circuitry, this throwback to the music hall era seems to capture the attention of the room. I see Hugo as a bridge, a means of bringing together the uncanny qualities of ventriloquism and recorded sound. Perhaps Hugo's physicality points up the disembodiment of the recorded vocals he's uttering. I know he creates an emotional charge, albeit one of mild revulsion and fear, that my former act was lacking.

Ventriloquism wasn’t always associated with a dummy. It originated as a purely vocal technique: the conjuring of utterances that emanate from the belly (from the Latin venter: belly; loqui: to speak). And this was the basis of gastromancy, the Ancient Greek practice of divination through spirits in the stomach of a prophet. In truth, ventriloquists rely on the vocal organs rather than their bellies to create the effect. Troublesome sounds, such as p, v and m, are replaced with near approximations – the p in peach, for example, can be replaced with a slow soft t from teach, a sound which relies on the tongue rather than the lips. To reinforce their illusion, skilled ventriloquists use a fair amount of visual suggestion, looking towards the dummy or some other fabricated source of sound. They also exaggerate differences in pitch, accent and other attributes as they slip between their natural and ventriloquial voices. Male ventriloquists often cover their Adam’s apple with a bow tie or cravat.

In Connor’s book Dumbstruck: A Cultural History Of Ventriloquism, he recalls those who‘ve used these skills in prophesy or spiritual communion. One of the most striking cases dates back to 1566 and concerns the young Nicole Obry in Laon, France. According to contemporaneous reports, when Obry’s mouth was “open wide enough to allow the passage of a walnut”, demonic voices issued from a swelling in her throat. An exorcism was conducted. “After a grinding of teeth, and pushing out of the tongue further than before... it could be heard, mingled, but distinguishable... the cry or groaning of a great pig, the barking of a great dog, and the roaring of a great, agitated bull...” By the end of the exorcism, all but one of the demons occupying her body had fled. Obry then put on a stage performance of sorts, when a scaffold was built in the cathedral so crowds could hear her most tenacious lodger, Beelzebub himself, sparring with the local Bishop as Obry herself lay “hard, stiff, mute and deaf... as a statue of wood”.

Ventriloquism has never quite shaken off its occult associations, even when investigators such as Joannes Baptista de La Chapelle in 1772 and JS and C Adams in 1834 explained the methods behind this vocal trick. The Adams's praised open fraudsters such as Thomas King who presented ventriloquism as an entertainment: King would invite fashionable Londoners to hear him kill a calf. Behind a curtain could be heard three butchers shouting and whetting their steel knives as they wrestled the unfortunate calf, while a dog barked excitedly. “The whole scene was represented to the ears of the audience with perfect accuracy... but when the curtain was raised, King was alone, on his carpeted stage, and the butchers, dog and quartered veal, all vanished like the midnight ghost”.

A strikingly similar scene would be reported in 1877, when Thomas Edison gave the US Senate an early demonstration of his phonograph, the first machine to record and playback sound. According to a Washington correspondent who was there at the time, all listened intently to “the whole repertoire of barnyard music, from the cooing of a dove to the quacking of a ducks... and lowing of cows”. The phonograph then burst into poetry before whistling, crying, laughing, shouting then breaking into song.

Today, we’ve become habituated to the strangeness of sound that’s taken flight from its source – a phenomenon R Murray Schafer describes with the unfortunate term schizophonia. Sound recording domesticated the ventriloquial feats of voice throwing and necromancy. We summon the dead every day on our earbuds.

Arguably, the ventriloquial voice has always been schizophonic. Now rich, dissociated sound experiences can be accessed at the touch of a button, the unwieldy techniques of the ventriloquist would rendered obsolete. But ventriloquism wasn't dented by the arrival of sound recording – nor even broadcasting. Even under the close scrutiny of the television cameras, where you could see the ventriloquist’s lips moving, technically accomplished ventriloquists thrived, including Edgar Bergen, Ray Alan, Shari Lewis and many others. We’re well aware of the mechanics of ventriloquism, but the most compelling ventriloquism acts have always played with this tension between the desire to suspend our disbelief and jolt us with a Brechtian awareness of their artificiality. In a routine from the 1970s, Ray Alan’s dummy Lord Charles attempts his own ventriloquial demonstration and we observe Alan, himself watching Charles’s tiresome, drunken efforts.

Alan’s virtuosity points up the artifice of Charles’s own act. Similarly, when Nina Conti’s cheeky sidekick Monk dives into a basket then instructs her to take out her hand, he becomes her bare, talking arm. “Do you like me naked?” he asks. Monk then dematerialises altogether before entering Conti’s own body. There are resonances with the 1566 incident at Laon as Monk – or is it Nina? – declares: “It’s quite sweet on a little monkey, isn’t it, but with breasts it’s bloody terrifying.”

As the phonograph and later the gramophone proliferated, stage ventriloquists shifted their attention from polyphonic (voice throwing) techniques to working with a dummy. With this shift, a new genre of horror was born as film makers fantasised about the disturbing psychological relationship between ventriloquists and their dummies. Hugo Fitch, the dummy in Dead Of Night (1949), is hard to forget, advancing on Maxwell the ventriloquist and biting his hand, before Maxwell pummels him into a pile of plaster dust. Hugo and Maxwell’s relationship is almost certainly inspired by the earlier The Great Gabbo. Released in 1929, just two years after the advent of commercial sound film, The Great Gabbo used the film maker’s new ventriloquial techniques of lip syncing and voice dubbing to conjure the voice of the dummy.

More recently, sculptor Asta Gröting expanded on this theme by presenting the relationship between ventriloquist and dummy as a metaphor for our own internal dialogues. In her series of films The Inner Voice (1993–2003), we see a succession of ventriloquists engaged in a mesmerising but strangely stilted conversation with a shrouded, expressionless dummy. As each ventriloquist argues with the dummy about their self-worth, berating it for misunderstanding them, their conversation feels like the expression of a private moment of self-doubt.

“Just let me feel good”, says ventriloquist Ronn Lucas.

“Feel good with all your faults?” retorts the dummy.

“Well, I think I’m OK.”

“Can you do anything special?”

“Why?”

“You’re insignificant.”

“But I feel great.”

“But I don’t think you’re great. Anyway, everything you do is wrong.”

In truth, many professional ventriloquists are blasé about their knee pal. Arthur Worsley, the silent ventriloquist who only spoke through his dummy Charlie Brown, even in rehearsals, famously dropped the pretence as soon as he was off duty.

Undoubtedly though, in the act of ventriloquism, a performer sublimates into two personalities: ego and alter ego; male and female; adult and child. Sarah Jones, a ventriloquist currently on the circuit, mixes archaic polyphonic and doll-based techniques to conjure a baby in her belly, which makes its way into a blanket. Her own favourite ventriloquist, the brilliant comic Terri Rogers, assumed a well spoken, haughty persona on stage, which enabled her to play up her disgust with her own, foul-mouthed knee pal Shorty Harris.

Walter Lambert, who appeared as the female nurse Lydia Dreams in the 1930s, and Bobbie Kimber, who toured the UK in the 1950s, both mixed female impersonation with ventriloquism. Considering their chosen profession, the interesting gender histories of Rogers, Lambert and Kimber are moot (Rogers herself was transgender and had pioneering gender reassignment surgery in the 1960s). At the very least, these artists had an advantage over their contemporaries as they could access their vestigial male vocal range as well as their chosen female voice. And perhaps, at a time when expressions of gender variance were taboo, ventriloquism gave these performers a safe space in which to explore multiple or fluid gender identities.

“All too often one sees a ventriloquist dragging on to the concert platform some monstrosity which he calls a ‘figure’ or some hideous shape that has been homemade and is the apple of his eye, but absolutely grotesque and almost repulsive to an audience,” declared Maurice Hurling in 1951. The dummy’s startling appearance is actually due to practicalities of working on stage in the pre-electric era. Accentuated features helped the audience to see the doll’s eyes and lips moving in a poorly illuminated theatre, where the air had a thick fug of tobacco smoke. Looking through casting books of the time or early silent film, it’s evident that actors wore similarly garish makeup and indulged in an exaggerated pantomimic style of acting, for the same practical reasons. Grotesque makeup like this made a brief reappearance during Baird’s experimental televisor broadcasts, when unfortunate actors and presenters had to apply a thick mask of blue and yellow makeup so their features could be seen on screen.

Striking makeup can be seen today on the face of Richard Boyce, a performer who presents multiple identities through his own body, when he performs as his lip-syncing alter ego Dickie Beau. In one of his performances, Minette, Dickie is clutching a handbag and dressed in vampish female attire. Around him, the blackout is so effective his feet seem to be abstracted from his head and torso. Dickie seems to be part Hollywood vamp, part televisor presenter as his face is painted with thick black and white paint. He mimes to a vocal recording of Minette, a female impersonator who had some minor notoriety in New York the 1970s. Every word, inflection, breath, gulp and pause is timed with pinpoint accuracy, to eerie effect. The uncanniness of the performance – an astounding act of inverse ventriloquism – heightens your awareness of the prosody of the speech. This physical feat creates a hyperreal listening experience, as though Dickie Beau is a compressor of emotion.

Boyce, who trained in physical theatre in Italy, was introduced to lip syncing on the drag scene. “Minette captures the idea of fabulation which I’m quite fond of – the idea of projecting images so intense, they take on a life of their own,” he explained. Like any sampling musician, Boyce edits source material extensively, often recontextualising it, to create new meanings, before he painstakingly constructs its live performance. “Sometimes, I start off by doing an impersonation of the voice, so I can get an idea of the accent and what the voice would sound like if it came through me. And that creates physicality. I reduce the voice, bit by bit, until it becomes a whisper, then eventually I take it away. But then the breaths are still there. And by the time I’ve got to that point, a physical memory has developed.”

In Dickie Beau’s fabulation, we see Stooky, the necromancers, those early forays into dubbed film, even the music hall grotesques. Dickie has become both ventriloquist and dummy; disembodied recording and physical mouthpiece. Through his act, ancient and modern instantiations of the uncanny collide. Watching Minette, I can’t help thinking ventriloquism has reinvented itself one again.

Minette from Dickie Beau on Vimeo.

Dickie Beau will be performing at London’s Barbican The Pit from 28 October 2014. Sarah Angliss will be appearing at Supernormal, Oxfordshire, which runs between 8–10 August 2014, and at The Wire's Off The Page festival at Bristol Arnolfini.

Many of the dummies in this article are on display in the Vent Haven ventriloquism museum in Kentucky, US.

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.