It’s been a joy. Four impressionists, but 600 voices to choose from
Alexander Armstrong, 48, is back in the hot seat as host of new high-octane panel show The Imitation Game, which will feature top impressionists going head to head in a range of challenges. GEMMA DUNN finds out more
How did you find hosting The Imitation Game?
I HUGELY enjoyed it. It’s got such charm. It’s a fun, slightly smutty, incurably childish parlour game.
What is especially ingenious is that no one has come up with this idea before. It is the perfect vehicle for impressionists; you get 30 impressions an episode, so in a one-minute burst, you can have Theresa May, Donald Trump, Mary Berry, Andy Murray and Stormzy.
And no one has had to spend three hours in make-up. It’s dish after dish of treats.
How would you describe the atmosphere on set?
SATIRE is part of its real charm, because it’s not trying to be cool.
It’s [also] got a really nice team feel to it. So often, panel shows are about individuals with sharp elbows, racing to get to the line first and tread on everyone else’s toes.
This show is different; it makes huge space for everyone and encourages all the contributors to go for it.
Is the satire in The Imitation Game ripped from the morning’s headlines?
NO. It is not a topical show, which is very much in its favour. It means we have to go for timeless and classic jokes, rather than bang-up-to-the minute gags about, say, Network Rail.
What has it been like working with some of the UK’s favourite mimics and comedians?
IT’S been such a joy. When I’m sitting in the host’s seat, there are only four impressionists with me, but I’ve got 600 voices to choose from.
You can hurl voices at them without warning, and they can do them on a sixpence.
In the first episode, our guest impressionist, Luke Kempner, is more Biggins than Biggins himself.
Watching team captains Rory Bremner and Debra Stephenson must be quite something too?
ABSOLUTELY. Watch Rory as he limbers up to do Trump. A quick intake of breath, and suddenly the US President is right there in front of you!
It’s the same with Debra’s Tina Turner. It’s her dance. Debra has got it so completely right. That on its own makes the show worth watching.
Are you a good impressionist?
NO. I’m a poor impressionist, but I’ve always loved doing them. I worked on Spitting Image during its fading days. I did catch-all, walk-on voices as junior ministers and lawyers.
I was a ‘rent an Establishment’ figure. But it takes an impressionist to have a particular love of other impressionists.
As a sort of part-time dabbler in impressions, I just obsess about how other people do them.
Can you recall when you started doing impressions?
YES. My first showbiz experience was when I discovered I could do the maths teacher at school. When I found out that I could also do the pottery teacher, I was suddenly a star and started building up my repertoire.
As soon as your features assume a particular face, that helps you create a familiar voice.
Sometimes characters come alive for writers and start speaking to them. It’s the same with impressions. They take on a life of their own and wonderful, tangential flights of fantasies can emerge.
Why do audiences love impressions so much?
WE take such delight in watching them because a very good impression is really addictive. You sit on the edge of your seat and laugh like an idiot child as someone brings a celebrity to life right in front of you.
Without being mean, there’s something conspiratorial about it. Impressions trigger a chemical reaction and release endorphins in your brain. That’s why impressions give you such pleasure.
Will you be able to sit back and enjoy the show with your family?
I WATCHED it with my wife, who’s normally so harsh that if I watch anything with her I’m often slightly on edge. But she loved it and said, ‘Can we watch the next?’
So we watched two on the trot, which is just unheard of. And she roared with laughter.
Do you have a favourite moment from the series?
I ABSOLUTELY loved Debra doing Miss Piggy. That was a proper moment of classic TV. It’s five minutes of solid viral gold – if that doesn’t sound too much like something you buy over the counter at Boots! The Imitation Game starts on ITV, tomorrow at 10.05pm.
Making a strong impression: Rory Bremner, Alexander Armstrong and Debra Stephenson
Rory and Jess Robinson