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TV LIFE: Double talking.

Byline: Phil Gould

MAN of a million voices Jon Culshaw shot to fame after convincing 10 Downing Street he was the former Tory leader William Hague and needed to speak to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The 34-year-old impressionist, who can be seen playing George Bush, Michael Parkinson and Robbie Williams in BBC Two's Dead Ringers, made the national headlines in 1998 when he fooled the Downing Street switchboard after he adopted Hague's Yorkshire brogue.

But he didn't manage to convince Blair that he was actually his political opponent.

Culshaw, a former DJ, recalls: "I was working at Capital Radio and we used to make these phonecalls pretending to be famous people. So we decided that I should be William Hague and call No 10.

"I didn't think that there was any way the switchboard would put me through. When I first spoke they told me that for a moment I didn't sound like myself.

"Then I spoke again and I obviously sounded more like William Hague. Before they put me through they told me that they had to be careful as they did get a lot of impostors.

"I had a moment of panic when I thought, 'What am I going to ask him?'

"But I didn't fool Tony Blair. My big mistake was calling him by his name, apparently Hague always referred to him as Prime Minister. But he played along with the gag.

"We ended up in the newspapers and even on the News At Ten."

Dead Ringers is a mix of sketches and gentle digs at famous politicians and well-known celebrities - George Bush, Thora Hird, Russell Crowe and Anne Robinson are all in it. There had been eight series of the show on Radio 4 before it transferred to TV.

Culshaw feels that the show has had a pretty smooth transition in a similar way to The League Of Gentlemen, Goodness Gracious Me and Room 101 which all started their lives as radio programmes.

He says: "I think we all let out a sigh of relief after the first show was transmitted. Getting the chance to do visual gags allowed us to expand on the Dead Ringers sense of humour.

"We got around 3.8 million viewers for the first show which is pretty good."

Culshaw admits he has a soft spot for some of his victims. His favourites include art critic Brian Sewell and former Dr Who actor Tom Baker.

Just to prove his point, he switches from one voice to the other as he talks about the two well-known luvvies.

So far the team has only received a positive response from the celebrities who they have portrayed.

Culshaw says: "I do another show called Alter Ego where I interview celebrities and then get transformed into them. It uses some lavish make up techniques but we don't let them see me until the last minute. I love it the first time they see me. The look of shock on their faces is great - they are just left open mouthed."

But it is not only celebrities who are finding themselves getting duped by the team - the general public are not even safe.

In the first show a builder was called out to do a job at some Roman ruins. When he turned up on site he was greeted by Maximus Decimus Meridius, none other than Culshaw.

He says: "When you get the public involved you have to be prepared for the unexpected. But if you persevere with them you know that they will always repay you.

"When I asked the builder how we could make the ruins look better he told me that he could sort things out by using decking."

Born in Ormskirk, Lancashire, Culshaw realised he had a knack for mimicry when he was still a child. But he started his career as a DJ working for a number of radio stations including Red Rose in Preston, Lancashire and Viking in Hull, East Yorkshire.

"It was a gradual process but I started using famous voices in my shows and there came a point when I realised I'd had enough of DJing. The turning point came when I decided to have a go at doing it properly and moved to London. I got myself a voice-over agent and landed a job on Spitting Image. I knew I would have to move to London to see if I could hack it.

"When you first arrive it seems like a huge city and I admit it took about two years to settle down but now I love living here."

And Culshaw, along with the rest of the Dead Ringers team, have just received the accolade of being invited to appear in the Royal Variety Show for the second year running.

He says: "We are appearing in both halves. I think we are sandwiched between Shania Twain and Kylie - so you can't complain."

Dead Ringers is on BBC Two on Mondays.

CAPTION(S):

TRUTH OR BLAIR: Culshaw as the PM; Handout picture showing Jon Culshaw as Tony Blair in BBC Two's impersonation comedy 'Dead Ringers'. See PA feature TV Culshaw. PA Photo/handout/BBC.WARNING: This copyright image may be used only to publicise current BBC programmes or other BBC output. Any other use whatsoever without specific prior written approval from BBC TV may result in legal action.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2002
Words:889
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