Actress Jessica Martin: a life in three acts
PUBLISHED: 13:04 17 July 2017 | UPDATED: 10:32 18 July 2017
From Spitting Image impressionist to West End star, Jessica Martin’s career has had many highs. But she continues to reinvent herself, with a new career writing and illustrating graphic novels. Matt Adams met the vivacious Watford artist over coffee in St Albans
Not content with being a master impressionist, West End actress, and even a punk werewolf on Doctor Who, Watford’s Jessica Martin has now carved out a third career as a graphic novelist.
A familiar face to television audiences of the ‘80s, Jessica appeared on shows including Copycats, Bobby Davro’s TV Weekly and Spitting Image – as one of the small number of female impressionists of that era, before going on to star alongside Gary Wilmot in the smash hit stage show Me and My Girl. The success of that production led to a wealth of other West End appearances in South Pacific, The Wizard of Oz and Sweeney Todd as well as numerous radio credits and voiceover roles.
Her ambitions were clear from an early age: ‘When I was at school I wanted to be an actress, but nobody was encouraging me to follow that path. It was like a dirty secret. I tried RADA, but didn’t get in there.
‘When I was 14 I started keeping a detailed diary, and on the first page I said I was going to be an actress and my life story would not be ghost written. But I never expected to be an impressionist, I never expected to be on Doctor Who.’
So how did she make the break into TV in her early 20s?
‘When I was at uni we went to the Edinburgh Festival with two very serious plays. But I was always the light entertainment girl. I was known for my dad being a jazz musician and me doing jazz singers. But I could also do Kate Bush, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand... There was this impromptu cabaret going on with all the different London colleges, including King’s College, which had Rory Bremner. He was their star impressionist and he was getting up there doing all his sports commentators. Everybody started shouting for me to get up there, but I had no material, and they were saying “Do Toyah Wilcox! Do Julie Andrews!” Rory was just bowled over: “Oh my God you’re a girl and you can do impressions! You must join our revue group!”’
Female impressionists were a rare commodity back then, Jessica remembers. ‘Before me there was just Faith Brown, June Brown and Karen Kay – she was Jay Kay from Jamiroquai’s mum – and she had a Saturday night show. She was the one I really wanted to be because she was a really good singer, she could do Edith Piaf, Shirley Bassey.’
After graduating from Central School of Speech and Drama she dived headfirst into London’s fringe theatre scene.
‘By happenstance I was in a double act with a guy from uni. Both of us wanted our Equity cards and so we were doing these fringe cabaret things all over London. We went to (pub-theatre) the Finborough Arms and I could hear this person doing Richie Benaud, and it was Rory bringing the house down! We swapped phone numbers and he asked if I was free on Monday as he was meeting someone for this radio show on LBC and they needed a girl who could do impressions. That was probably about six months after I’d graduated, and I was then on my path.’
It was the groundbreaking Spitting Image series, one of the defining political satire shows of the era, that came knocking next.
‘I got that gig because of my Barbra Streisand impression. They were also casting a light entertainment show at London Weekend Television which was to become Copycats, and that was it, my career basically set off like a mini rocket at the age of 22. Fate will always step in if you’re seen to be stirring the pot!’
She says that imitating famous people is like a form of magic: ‘It was getting into someone’s being – their thought processes, their voice – and hoping some of that would rub off on me.’
Her impressions on Spitting Image included The Queen, Princess Diana, Duchess of York, Edwina Currie and Mary Whitehouse, and she starred alongside Harry Enfield and Steve Coogan.
We’re chatting over coffee in St Albans’ Carluccio’s, after bonding over the surprising discovery that I’m neighbours with some of her closest friends, and Jessica can’t resist recounting anecdotes by dropping into pitch-perfect impressions ranging from Doris Day to Tammy Wynette. I ask her what prompted the transition away from performance art to writing and illustrating graphic novels.
‘The graphic novel part of my identity is something that has been emerging for the last four years. In 2010 I had a sort of artistic epiphany when I took up sketching, having not drawn a thing since art A-level. A year later, I was touring in the musical Spamalot with Phill Jupitus and showed him one of my sketches. He said, “I love it, it’s got movement in it. You should do a graphic novel.” That for me was my lightbulb moment.’
After the Spamalot tour, instead of returning to the usual round of auditions, Jessica decided to use the time to study graphic novels and discover what style appealed to her.
‘The first thing I did was make a comic, It Girl – not a graphic novel – about a 1920s actress called Clara Bow who did a film called It in 1927. She was kind of like Marilyn Monroe – she was discovered and just shot to fame practically overnight. She had this presence, this vivacity, that even now is tangible – you can feel the heat off the screen.
‘When the talkies came in it wasn’t that she couldn’t have made it but she lost her confidence. She married a cowboy actor (Rex Bell) and they went out West to live in the middle of nowhere. He decided to go into politics and she became the little wife and let him be the main focus. She basically fell into obscurity.’
Having successfully produced It Girl, Jessica certainly wasn’t going to stop there. In 2014 she created and published Vivacity about another star actress, Vivien Leigh, and was shortlisted for Myriad Editions’ First Graphic Novel prize for Elsie Harris Picture Palace, subsequently released by Miwk Publishing in 2015.
‘Elsie was inspired by my reading of Alfred Hitchcock’s life story, and the realisation that it was his wife Alma Reville who taught him everything he knew – she’d been in films since she was 16 and after they got married he was the front man and she was his sidekick. She’s also inspired by Ida Lupino, who was in movies with Humphrey Bogart, kind of a Bette Davis type, but who wanted to be on the other side of the camera. So in the 1940s she made melodramatic documentary type things, but she never reached the heights of John Huston and her contemporaries.’
Jessica eventually plucked up the courage to show her work to acclaimed artist Mark Buckingham, who became her mentor.
‘He said Elsie was an intriguing story and he’d like to help me. I couldn’t believe I’d lucked out and suddenly had Mark steering me creatively. Now that he knows me he critiques me in a very harsh way!’
Jessica’s Vivacity artwork is currently exhibited at London’s Cartoon Museum as part of The Inking Woman, a celebration of female comic artists from all over the world which runs until December, and she is hard at work on her biggest project to date, a comic book autobiography.
‘I’m currently crowdfunding my graphic memoir with Unbound Books, Life Drawing: A Life Under Lights, which recounts my adventures from TV impressionist to Doctor Who cult figure and musical theatre, and now my life as a writer/artist.
‘As I’ve been doing interviews I keep thinking I’ve done so much in my life, it really is time to get it down on paper. It’s going to be tasteful and respectful of my family and friends. I’m not going to be over-sharing! It’s the highlights of my career, and all I’ve got to do now is produce it,’ she laughs.