I should start by saying I'm a fan of Nina Conti and her act. To put that into context, I'll copy and paste a review I once made for her live stand up Talk To The Hand here;
'Tom's daughter consistently does the impossible; reminds us that the humble vent act, when done right, can not only be a thing of joy and entertainment and very funny but can also be wonderfully subversive and irreverent too.
Needless to say Nina does it right. Seriously there are times when she is addressing the audience, thinking up material on her feet, that you forget the character she has her hand up isn't actually a separate entity in this 'double act', reacting for itself. And that's really no mean feat at all.'
I'm also a big fan of the unique legend that was Ken Campbell; the bushy eyebrowed theatrical subversive, playwright, actor, comedian and all round eccentric, the man turned down for the role of the 7th Doctor Who as he was deemed too dangerous to play a children's hero (for shame!) and the part went instead to his more palatable protege Sylvester McCoy. He was truly a man only these isles could create and when he died in 2008 we lost a true visionary and one off. Ken was Nina's mentor and her lover, a fractious yet intensively loving relationship having developed secretly between the pair when she was in her twenties and he was almost 60. He died just as she summoning up the courage to tell him her plans to quit the vent act he encouraged her to undertake. Now, I'm fascinated by this odd spring/autumn relationship and so, when I heard that Nina had made a documentary that explored what Ken meant to her as both a person and a performer via an odyssey to Kentucky for a ventriloquist convention, I was naturally eager to watch it.
"I was planning to do something in his lifetime and I ended up doing something after it. It's really annoying"
That comment from a teary eyed and understandably rueful Nina comes during one of the film's highlights; a strange conversation she instigates about her relationship with Ken between herself and her puppet Monkey. Watching a woman visibly welling up as she essentially talks to her puppett as if it were a separate entity ( like an interviewer or perhaps more tellingly a counsellor) about her regrets regarding the relationship and the heartache she feels in knowing that she has just one small piece of video footage to remember their time together is extremely poignant and affecting.
There are a few heart tugging scenes like this, including one of Nina visiting Ken's monument in a forest and breaking down before it, as well as several somewhat unsettling bittersweet conversations that she has with an array of both her and Ken's puppets, including most affectingly of all, the one modelled after Ken himself with which she conducts a seance through at one point.
As you can probably guess, the documentary is not afraid to traverse dark terrain and as such, it's not always an easy watch. Equally, it's clearly not an easy experience for her either; as a performer who clearly thinks on her feet it's obvious she doesn't always seem to know what the puppet is going to say until it is out there, and she never ever allows herself room to hide. Her secrets are laid bare in a painfully honest and revealing way, including her discussing an abortion and the possibility that her puppet Monkey purchased 7 months later was in fact some kind of substitute. In confronting this notion, she forces herself into a staged event which sees Monkey run over in a road traffic accident, which seems to cause her genuine pain and grief as she is made to consider her true feelings.
What is ultimately clear from this film is that Nina's drive and ambition in the entertainment field she has chosen stems from Ken himself and that he still casts a long shadow across all aspects of her life even to this day. That said, this pilgrimage does appear to have exorcised some demons, noticeably in her leaving behind one of Ken's puppets at Vent Haven, the home for bereaved puppets and giving the Ken modelled one to a young American boy in the closing credits. It's something of an honour to witness a form of therapy masquerading as entertainment, because that is what this is.
Her Master's Voice is a little flawed - its seemingly made for TV constraints mean a time limit of one hour and the occasional uneven tone and cul de sac in terms of what Nina is actually feeling. Nevertheless it is a memorable production; at once deeply strange, uneasy, poignant and thought provoking as well as very funny and engaging. It has a real flavour of what goes on behind the curtain and the old notion of the tears of a clown. It's a deeply personal film to Nina but also, like Ken himself, it's a true one off.
Trust me, watch this and you'll really feel emotionally for puppets. No mean feat indeed.