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7 Questions with… Matt Forde: ‘To be asked to impersonate the President of the United States – you never think it’s going to be you!’
Comedian, broadcaster and writer Matt Forde talks exclusively to BT.com about how he became Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and other well-known voices on Spitting Image, how the topical show is made within such a short timeframe and how he deals with social media trolls.
Almost a year after it introduced us to a Coronavirus-loving Donald Trump, weird alien Dominic Cummings and vampire Priti Patel, Spitting Image is back for a second series on BritBox.
For 10 weeks, some of British TV's most talented comedy writers, voice artists and pupeteers - and of course the creators of those rubber caricatures themselves - will join forces to lampoon the great and the good of politics, sport and showbusiness and hopefully keep us laughing at home too.
Someone who fits two of those categories is stand-up comedian, writer and radio presenter Matt Forde, who is not only part of the show's writing team but who also provides some of its most recognisable voices, including Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and Trump himself.
We caught up with Matt to find out how he joined the show, how they keep the programme topical and who would be his dream Spitting Image puppet.
1. You’re a writer and voice artist on Spitting Image – how did that come about? Were you a writer first?
It was the other way round. There had been rumours of Spitting Image coming back for ages, and you think "Well, I’ll believe it when I see it".
There was always a suggestion that I might be involved in it. In this line of work, until things actually happen, there’s no point in really dwelling on them.
Then I got asked to do Trump for what was a trailer really – a four-minute mini-episode to try and get it commissioned. I do Trump as part of my live stand-up show. Just to be from Nottingham and to be asked to impersonate the President of the United States, you just never think it’s going to be you that’s asked, or I didn’t anyway!
As a stand-up I write a lot of political comedy and worked on a lot of telly shows and I thought, I kind of want to write on it as well – I find it very satisfying.
So then firstly I was asked to do the voice and when it got commissioned I was asked to write on it as well.
2. You voice the Boris Johnson and Donald Trump puppets. Are some voices more difficult than others?
The ones that are more difficult I don’t do!
I do Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer, Alex Salmond, Phil Foden, Chris Whitty and I think there might be a couple more. We’re adding more puppets now, there’s more puppets this series. As it runs and runs, the more puppets get added.
The puppets themselves are amazing, grotesque caricatures of these rich and powerful and famous people. And the way they move adds so much comedy – the hand movements, the tilts of the head.
In fact, I interviewed Keir Starmer a few weeks ago. There’s a way that he sort of moves his hands and his head – sort of like a chopping motion. And I’d never noticed it before. And then I thought, they do that on Spitting Image – they have him move like that. So they obviously picked up on that body language before anyone else.
The puppeteers notice so much of the physical. It was surreal. It was almost like a magic trick sat opposite him going "Oh my God, I don’t think anyone’s noticed he does that apart from the guys who work the puppet and they noticed ages ago". Incredible!
3. How intense is it when you’re having to react quickly to topical subjects? Do you ever have to work through the night?
I think some people do, but I don’t!
It’s divided into different segments. On a Monday we’ll have a writers’ meeting where we pitch topical ideas. You might do something about a thing that happened at the weekend. As writers, you knock it about – "Oh you could do this! You could say that!", you kind of workshop an idea. So I would go away and write that up, it would then go back to the room, we go through it line by line and improve it. And everyone else is doing that, so you’re all working on each other’s sketches.
Then the voice artists have to record it. So that’s the next bit, you record your line and then it's played into a studio where they film the puppets.
It’s like a huge car factory. And you’re at your bit of the production line, doing your bit, and I’m very lucky that I get to be at two parts of the production line and that gives me a bit more of an insight into how it’s made.
I don’t have to work through the night but I think the people in the puppet workshop probably often do.
4. Do you ever worry about offending people with your Spitting Image work?
I think you can probably get away with a bit more [with puppets]. People want you to push it a bit. That’s what comedy like this is for.
But I just think when you’re working on these things all the time – if it’s not Spitting Image it’s another show, or it’s your own stand-up or whatever it is – you’re always operating within the parameters of the time in which you live. So you can’t really operate worrying about that. You know what the rules are and try to operate within that.
It’s not as if we’re all sat there thinking "If we write this we’re going to get cancelled". You’re just trying to write really funny sketches within the boundaries of taste we all broadly agree with.
5. Who’s your dream Spitting Image puppet?
I mean Trump was my number one. I was so pleased there was a Trump puppet and I got to do it.
I always enjoyed impersonating Ed Miliband, so if we could get an Ed Miliband puppet just for my own personal satisfaction. I just think he’s got a great voice and I think he’s a Spitting Image puppet waiting to be made. [Puts on Ed Miliband voice] I just think that would be great to have on Spitting Image.
He’s got the face, he’s got the voice, he’s got everything! He really should be a puppet.
6. You have a varied career in comedy and stand-up – what’s your favourite part of your job?
I love them all. If you can find something you really enjoy working on, it doesn’t feel like work. Obviously there’s still pressure, just the pressure to be really good.
I enjoy all the different things. I love doing radio, I love doing podcasts, I love doing telly, I love live performance and being in front of an audience.
I think really as a comedian there is no substitute for making a room full of people laugh. That feeling is very, very special. I’m very lucky to do the job that I do, being on the radio’s a great privilege, as is working on a TV show like this.
But being in a room, with a joke that you’ve worked on and got down, thinking "I’m about to say this" and then the pleasure of the reaction of a huge laugh or round of applause… there's something very special about being in a room of people and making them laugh that I think is very pure and really is the essence of comedy.
7. How do you deal with social media trolls?
I just mute or block. I think blocking’s better now. I think blocking is good, because with muting the person doesn’t know they’ve been muted. They’re just howling into the void. And I guess there’s some small satisfaction in that. But I think with blocking, people should know they’ve crossed the line.
But I still think the positives of being on social media far outweigh the negatives which is why I’m still on Twitter because I actually think it’s very good and very positive in many, many ways. I’ve made friends through social media, a huge positive impact on my life.
Periodically something happens where you just get absolutely piled on and in a way that washes over you, actually. I can deal with it, it’s just people being idiots. But the people who are doing it, they’re not having a good time. They’re not, on the whole, happy. I would occasionally reply and they’d go "Oh sorry mate, I didn’t think you’d see it". So sometimes when you pick people up on it, they go "Oh, I was just angry".
Spitting Image returns on Saturday, September 11, exclusively on BritBox.