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Terry Mynott is the phenomenally talented impressionist who, along with Morgana Robinson, brought a host of characters into our living rooms in the noisily hilarious sketch show VIP last year. His new project is something altogether gentler – an affecting, wry comedy drama called The Mimic. Here, Mynott discusses his unusual rise to stardom, a disastrous start to his comedy career, and doing the worst job imaginable.
What’s the Mimic about?
I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s about a guy, Martin, who is stuck in a bit of a dead end job, who entertains himself by mimicking the voices of famous people. And then something comes along in his personal life that changes everything for him.
It’s a very different direction for you, doing what is essentially a comedy drama. How did that come about?
It’s written by Matt Morgan, who was the head writer on VIP [Mynott’s impressions show with Morgana Robinson]. We also share the same management and basically he had the idea after seeing me corpse doing some impressions. He wrote a fantastic script, and it got picked up by Channel 4.
Did you have misgivings about taking on a role that was a bit more serious and subtle?
Not at all. Since I started on the circuit, in about 2004, I’ve always had my eye on playing many different types of roles, on trying different things.
How did you feel on your first day on set?
You’re shitting yourself! It’s like when you do the read-throughs for Channel 4, you’re alright, but by the time the sixth person has asked you if you’re nervous, you’re like “Shit! Should I be nervous?” I was fine, I’d been prepping and training endlessly, I just wanted to get everything right, I didn’t want to let anyone down. And then you turn up on set and there’s the catering trucks and the office trucks and everything, and you’re like “Oh shit! This is mega.” I think everybody’s very nervous on their first day. It struck me that some of the best performers in it were very nervous, so I don’t think it ever leaves you.
Did you approach the job in the same way as when you’re filming a sketch show?
Not really. All the voices in the series I could already do, so there was no prepping for that, whereas with VIP it was a whole world of preparation, because we wanted a wide range of characters that no-one had done before. So VIP was a nightmare. You just lock yourself in the garage and go through them over and over and over again until you’ve got Obama right. It’s mental. For this I did a lot of prepping when I was out walking about – that’s how I learned my lines, pacing around, going out walking, acting it out, so that when you come to do it for real it’s not such a freak-out. It’s a completely different process to VIP, but equally scary.
People who have seen VIP will be expecting something that’s quite knockabout, but Martin’s a very gentle character, isn’t he?
Yes. We’re building a story. Martin is like the opposite of all those people who go on The X Factor that really shouldn’t – the people you’re only interested in watching in the first few weeks, who come on and say “Everyone says I’m brilliant, I don’t know why you think I’m crap”. I think there’s quite a contingent of performers out there who can do it, but just do stay very quiet.
Do you quite enjoy playing a character with a bit more depth and pathos?
It just comes quite naturally. It’s a side of my character, but it’s exaggerated. I’m still me when I’m playing Martin. He’s not really that sad, he’s just stuck in his own world. He’s very reserved. When you grow up in the normal, working class society, it is all about being low key and not getting ideas above your station. Martin’s been in the same job forever, so he just totally underestimates himself. He’s just one of those people who needs an injection of mojo.
Like him, you’ve done your fair share of crappy jobs in your time, haven’t you?
Yeah. I started work at 15, and I’ve been all over the place. When you’re unskilled, you end up doing a load of jobs. My second job was very bad. I started off as a plumber’s apprentice, and got fired for flooding the house. The people were due to move in two days later, and I didn’t put the toilets in properly upstairs, and it drenched the fusebox. So I lost my apprenticeship, and somebody rang up and offered me a job cleaning the gullies at the side of the road. So the first week, you do that, and then as soon as you sign the contract, you’re being lowered into a vat of shit. Literally. I ended up working in the sewers. In the end, my mum made me leave it. She used to make me get undressed by the back door, and she just said “I can’t have you do it no more.” You used to pass out, because it runs out of oxygen down there all the time. There’s air pockets and gas pockets. You’d hear the alarm go off, and you’d try and get out, but you’d just run out of oxygen. They’d winch you out, and you’d wake up, covered in poo.
So whatever showbiz throws at you, frankly, you’re prepared for it, having done that.
Yeah. When people get things that they want early, I think they can get a bit spoilt. I’m just in love with acting and doing it all, so nothing is too much, no hours are too long, it’s fine. And most of my friends still have to do really hard jobs, as do most of the real people on the planet.
Martin’s quite clearly not very comfortable in the spotlight. Are there elements of that in you?
Yes, very much so. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cornfields, and I think my voices came from being on my own. I was never a sad kid, I enjoyed myself, but my friends were all sticks. My mum used to sit and watch me play down at the bottom of the garden and think “God, I hope he gets some social activity.” But it comes back to that working class thing of not showing off too much. That’s why the Americans do it so much better than we do. They do pep rallies at their schools, those mental things where the whole town gets excited before a basketball game. I wish we had that lack of inhibition.
So you have inhibitions yourself?
Oh yes. My first stand-up gig didn’t go very well. I had to run out into the night, I bolted off the stage. I put myself up for a competition, and I had no idea what I was going in for. I started doing my Terry Wogan, and these two girls in the front row looked up, and I looked at them, and they looked at me, and I just couldn’t do it. I had just forgotten everything. So I ran out into the night like a bad Barbara Streisand film. I rang the wife and said “I’m going to live in a ditch from now on. Goodbye, cruel world.” Luckily, the organiser rang me up the next day and said “Look, the 3.6 milliseconds that you did was fantastic. Would you like to come back?” SO I went back, and I just kept bludgeoning it until I got better. And ever since then, I’ve just been getting better.
Martin does his impressions to amuse himself, sitting at home, or in his car. Do you ever do that?
Yeah. I was a delivery driver for about nine years, and I didn’t have a cassette player in my car. It didn’t work, so in the end, after it chewed yet another tape up, I ripped it out and smashed it into a thousand pieces. I remember the bloke at work saying “It’s good to see people do that every now and again.” And for the next five years, I didn’t put anything in, and I would drive the length of the country just totally talking shit the entire way and working up stuff. That’s where Terry Wogan came from. My mum used to listen to him, and I just used to take the piss out of the nonsense that he spouted. For our generation, I don’t think we knew what the hell Terry Wogan was talking about most of the time.
In The Mimic, Martin gets some voiceover work, doing stuff like celebrity SatNav. What’s the weirdest voiceover work you’ve done?
I think the weirdest is I did a David Attenborough voiceover for him while he was out in Botswana. I narrated it, and they built an animation around it, and then he came back and recorded his own voiceover. So they had me come in and do it because it sounded like him and had the same inflection and pace for them to build the animation around. I also did Jean Claude van Damme’s Coors adverts before he ever did. The advertising company got me to record his lines, then they took the advert to Coors and said “Let’s get van Damme to do it,” and showed them how it would sound.
Do people ask you to do their voicemail messages the whole time?
Yeah. Even my voiceover agency asked me to do it.
Does that drive you round the bend?
No, but every now and again, people will ask at completely the wrong time. But I never say no to anybody.
Did you improvise on The Mimic, or was it all scripted?
Me and Matt and the director, Kieron [Hawkes] worked very closely on a couple of scenes in the series which feature Martin doing a lot of different impressions, and all of that is me just sitting in a room doing my thing. And Matt then took that and rewrote it, and we redid it. So when it comes to the impersonations and stuff, yeah, you get a lot of freedom. But you have to stay true to what the writer has in mind – otherwise you might as well be doing your own thing.
Since VIP went out, do you find you get recognised a lot more?
No, not at all. I was in prosthetics the whole time. Morgana gets recognised a lot more – she’s got a bigger profile. We were in a hotel in Manchester, and the woman behind the desk completely changed her whole demeanour with her. And Morgana said “Terry’s in it as well,” and she just went “Yeah, whatever.”