It is nearing the end of 2018 and what we like to do here on The Phoenix Remix is celebrate the world of improv and what a year it has been! There has been so many great acts and shows this year and it has been really hard to decide who to interview for our mini awards that we hold at the end of the year. So on the run up to new year we will have a couple of exclusive interviews with some of the best acts that we have had the privilege of seeing or listening to this year.
If there is one thing that I really love whether it is theatre or improv is great character work. I love when someone can bring a character to life and there is something pretty special about one that is improvised. This year there was one person I wanted to give it to because every time i have seen his show with Newsical there has been a character that is so entertaining and the audience react very well to it that they sort of expect it as part of the show. Our winner of Best Improvised Character Of the Year is Boris Johnson performed by James Witt
Congratulations James Witt you have won the award for best Improvised Character of the year for your Boris Johnson How do you feel?
I am honoured to accept this award. Thanks to everyone who everyone who ever gave me a platform to perform and everyone who’s ever come to watch one of my shows. Most of all thanks to the Phoenix Remix for their unwavering support and encouragement.
How did the idea of improvising Bojo come around?
I played Boris in Brexit the Musical in 2017 at the Edinburgh Fringe then a short run in London. There are rumours afoot we are bringing it back for a U.K. tour in 2019.
You do Bojo quite a lot, are there any techniques you use to get into character?
Yes. When I first got the call from my agent about the Musical in June 2017 I decided to trawl the archives of footage of him. I noticed a big difference between Boris’s physicality and voice when he’s delivering political speeches to fellow MPs to when he’s relaxed with a friend like Jeremy Paxman (there’s a Newsnight clip where they’re riding bikes through London together) or when he’s being totally destroyed in an interview. My favourite examples of the latter are the two interviews he did with Eddie Mair (2013 and 2017) where his secretly hidden bolshy, bullying and brazen sides are exposed. So I listened to these almost daily while preparing to audition and performing the show (along with his Desert Island Discs episode) as they gave me great basis of his personality and voice. I learned really important things like his love or Winston Churchill – which you can clearly hear in his delivery of speeches.
I then made notes on any phonetic patterns I could hear. Like his changing of words like “About” to “Abite” which is pure Eton RP, his sibilant “s” and his bombastic B’s and P’s. Finally I watched clips of some of my favourite impressionists: Lewis McLeod, Rory Bremner, Luke Kempner and Alistair McGowan doing their Bojo impressions which really helped me consolidate / validate my ideas and bed in the character.
Do you have plans to bring Bojo into shows in 2019?
Yes definitely. Steve Roe and I loved performing “Sexy Tories” at the Hoopla Impro Marathon, so would like to bring them back.
Also Newsical : the improvised News Musical will be back in 2019 and I plan to release some more videos on my Witty_Leaks Instagram and James Witt YouTube and Facebook accounts.
Why do you think people really enjoy him as an improvised character?
I think people enjoy my version because it comes from a place of absolute hatred. Before my agent called me about the role I was actively switch my TV off or leave the room when he came on. I loathe him. I always have. Even when he first burst into the public consciousness in the late nineties. I’ve always viewed him as a duplicitous snake in the grass. Somebody who presents this shambolic and dumbed down version of himself when he’s actually a very manipulative, bullying and Machiavellian character.
Tell us all about how 2018 has been for you?
Performing wise it has been rather quiet compared to the crazy adventures of Brexit the Musical when I was doing press interviews every day to people like the BBC, ITV, Al Jazeera, Sky, German TV and American Public Radio . (Just to name a few). My agent has been getting me some good auditions which I’ve got close to getting including one to play Frankie Howerd (in a one man play) and another as Basil Fawlty in a brand new dining experience being produced by John Cleese himself (I was really gutted not to get that one). I did film my first ever advert playing yet another iconic Brit – due out at Christmas. But contractually I’m not allowed to discuss specifics until it’s been aired on TV at Xmas. (Sadly it’s not not John Lewis though 😂).
I have been super busy with Hoopla.
I’m currently teaching 4 nights a week which I love. This week saw the graduation shows of two of my level 2 performance students and I was like a proud dad. Some of them have spent 24 weeks with me. I’ve also been performing monthly Saturday headline slots with Dreamweaver Quartet (which I also direct and produce) AND we’ve just recorded the first four episodes of our upcoming podcast to be released in early December.
What has been some of your highlights of performing as Bojo of this year?
Definitely the TV interview stuff where I got to be in character and push my political agenda 😂. Singing a duet with my improv stage wife Rhiannon Vivian who was playing Theresa May with a magical ulcer that was simultaneously killing her and making her invincible.
Lastly causing a stir at Hoopla Impro Marathon in the early hours with Steve Roe as David Cameron. We burst onto the stage and insulted the audience calling them plebs and paupers. Then gave Star of Gamez and many Nursery Originals : Harry Turnbull a lap dance. I go so carried away I stripped off to my Union Jack pants.
What have been some of your favourite improv shows you have seen this year and why?
I loved The Long Weekend by Unmade Theatre at the Nursery. It had some of the country’s finest talents in one place and was naturalistic slow burn joy.
I also really love everything Alexander Fox is involved with Bumper Blyton, Shaken not Stirred, Sally and Fox AND when he guested with The Actor’s Nightmare. I love his brain and his wit. He and Sally Hodgkiss are competing for the Power couple of improv crown with Amy Cooke Hodgson and Jonah Fazel / James Irving and Rhiannon Vivian / Steve and George Roe.But my favourite at the moment have to be Christian Adore and Eaton Messe of Dragprov Revue. They are just exquisite humans and consistently blow my socks off.
Plus a special mention to The RH experience as they are masters of the art form who keep getting better year after year whilst constantly innovating and developing new ideas. Their set at Hoopla Marathon was one of the best ones I’ve ever seen them do and I’ve been watching them for 8 years.
With Brexit just around the corner, do you think politics is going to have an effect on how certain scenes are played out in Improv?
Most definitely. I already see a more sensitive approach to depictions of non British characters and I think this is a good thing. I encourage my students to avoid any “tropes” and stereotypical language when depicting people from overseas. Instead I encourage them to concentrate on story and humanity whilst playing at the top of their intelligence. Never punch down for a cheap gag. It’s just a lot more jarring with our current political climate and we need to check our white British privilege if we think this is “PC gorn mad”.
I had a new very international group of students start my Hoopla Beginners Class last night. I love it. In it I have representatives from France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Spain, America, Canada, Nigeria, Australia, Wales and England.
What are some of the characteristics of Bojo that stand out that make him so easy to perform as?
The blonde mop. It took five attempts of online shopping to get the right wig and even then it needed cutting. I took it to a barber in Edinburgh who wouldn’t accept payment she was very kind and just wanted a video with me in character for her Instagram.
Also his jowly head wobble and “pwah pwah pwah pwah” which Dead Ringers star Lewis McLeod taught me in Edinburgh when we had a Boris Off (see attached vid).
Also hunched shoulders, belly out and gravely backwards placement of the voice.
What characters from other improv groups have you seen this year that you have enjoyed?
Eaton Messe and Christian Adore of Dragprov Revue.
Every character Jinni Lyons plays in “Jinni Lyons is an Only Child” is played with such precision and truthfulness it blows my mind. Similarly unique and dripping with believability are Susan Harrison’s improv creations.
Plus all my teammates in Dreamweaver Quartet. In the last year we’ve had a wealth of characters including a giant arachnid, Sexy Jesus, Julie Andrews as dominatrix to Jason Donovan , lovestruck potatoes (Rhiannon Vivian and Greg Birks), a jive talking bee (James Irving), and most recently Noel Edmonds (me) in a show down with Beyonce (Francesca Reid). But the most fun characters to play in that show are the person whose dream we base the show on. We have had some fabulous dreamers – my favourites to play have been Sandra, Leif and Jennifer.
If you’ve had a weird dream you’d like us to turn into a musical then come along to one of our shows at Hoopla Impro on Saturdays : check out Facebook page for dates going to the end of 2019. Including Bristol Improv Theatre.
If you can’t make it along to one of our live shows then please email us your strangest ever dream with the subject line Dreamweaver Quartet to