Steve Nallon, the man who made a living as Margaret Thatcher's Spitting Image puppet, has written a book inspired by his difficult childhood in Leeds

He might be best known as the voice behind Spitting Image’s Margaret Thatcher but Steve Nallon is now an author having written a book inspired by his tough upbringing in Leeds.
Steve NallonSteve Nallon
Steve Nallon

Steve Nallon was just 15 years old when he first did an impression of the then leader of the opposition Margaret Thatcher while touring working men’s clubs around Leeds.

Little did he know some four decades later he would still be asked to ‘be’ the former Prime Minister after he was the voice behind her Spitting Image puppet.

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“I did impressions of my teachers at school and realised quite early on that I enjoyed making people laugh, although my real ambition was to be an actor. I entered a talent contest in Leeds when I was 15 and did lots of impressions including Margaret Thatcher and I won.

“I’d grown up with Mike Yarwood and would later perform with him, but I never thought his Margaret Thatcher was any good. So I thought I’d give it a go. I had quite a high voice and I think that helped.”

Nallon had a tough upbringing. His mother died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage when he was nine and his father was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“I remember the night my mother died. I remember knowing that my life was never going to be the same again. There was the before and then the after.

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“My dad was a really clever man and wanted to be a maths teacher, but he really struggled with his mental health and in those days if you had a mental health diagnosis such as schizophrenia it was impossible to find work. In the end the church took him in and he worked as a caretaker.”

Eventually Nallon and his sister went to live with their maternal grandmother, the formidable Mary Oddy and their grandfather Jack Oddy who ran a team of paper boys, including Nallon, delivering the Yorkshire Evening Post.

“We were rescued by my grandmother; she was our rescuer. We were always loved, even by our father who struggled with mental illness for a long time. I’d go to visit him every week at the church and he liked it but he never had any money.

“We lived for 18 months in Burmantofts in a slum clearance area that was set for demolition; it was tough,” recalls Nallon.

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“When we lived with my grandparents three of us slept in the attic and at times my childhood was rocky. I know all this sounds like the ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ Monty Python sketch, or the dilapidated house in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but that’s what it was like. And neither Roald Dahl nor John Cleese ever lived in those sorts of worlds for real.”

He was a bright boy and attended the then St Michael’s College, Leeds, an all boys Jesuit run grammar school where he started to do impressions and first took to the stage.

Being other people and making his fellow students laugh gave Nallon some respite from his tough home life.

Throughout this tumultuous upbringing strong female figures dominated in the form of both his grandmothers and aunts.

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Nallon has drawn on these women for the character ‘Granny’ in his first solo novel The Time That Never Was. He also co-wrote I, Margaret with Tom Holt, a spoof autobiography of Baroness Thatcher, published by Macmillan.

“Granny is an amalgamation of all those strong women in my life. My grandmother was born before the Titanic sank and you could never complain about anything as she’d lived through two world wars so what did we have to moan about? Even the teachers at school thought she was terrifying. She wasn’t very huggable whereas my other grandma was very different. She was always wanting a hug. And then there was this completely bonkers aunt.”

The Time That Never Was is about teenager William Arthur. He is a Swidger who can sense future catastrophes and so change your timepath from certain peril. After a mind-boggling incident leaves him confused and questioning his place in the world, William is rescued by a wise and bizarre lady by the name of ‘Granny’. Together they embark on an epic journey of hilarity, danger and intrigue.

Nallon says it is probably aimed at 11 -14 year old ‘developing children’ although adults seem to be enjoying it. “I have always been fascinated by the ‘what ifs’. When I was young I came home from school and a tile fell off our roof and just missed me. The roofer said if I’d been a few seconds earlier then I would have been killed. It got me thinking about the things that made me that but later and what would happen if you could change time slightly to stop things happening and that’s where The Time That Never Was came about.”

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He spent a lot of lockdown writing and has just completed the second in the trilogy. But getting the book published was far harder.

“I got an awful lot of knock backs which as an actor I am used to but this was such a personal story to me that it was harder.”

But then his acting agent put him in touch with a small publishing house in Edinburgh, Loath, who said they wanted to publish the trilogy.

Nallon writes his book in long hand – using a 3B pencil – and then dictates it into his computer before editing it.

He also uses his talent for mimicry to help him.

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“Every time a new character came along I’d use one of my old Spitting Image voices as the basis for how they spoke. Improvising lines and making up jokes. And I read recently that Charles Dickens used to do much the same thing in front of a mirror!”

He also thanks the Yorkshire Evening Post for some of his content taken from the 1950s’ booklet 501 Yorkshire Home Hints.

After leaving The University of Birmingham where he studied English and Drama, Nallon saw an advert for a new series called Spitting Image who were on the lookout for people to impersonate politicians. “When I did Margaret Thatcher they signed me up immediately,” he says.

For 16 years from 1984 Nallon was also the voice of Roy Hattersley, The Queen Mother, Alan Bennett, David Attenborough, Harold Wilson, Bruce Forsyth, Robert Runcie, Edward Heath, Shirley Williams, David Frost and Malcolm Rifkind. He was also involved in the first series of the recent return of Spitting Image – as the ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

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Nallon, who now lives in London but still has family In Leeds, is busy promoting his book as well as continuing to write the third and final in his series. ”I know how it ends but I’m not sure how I get there .”

The Time That Never Was: Swidger Book 1 by Steve Nallon is published by Luath Press Lt £8.99 from Waterstones, independent book shops and Amazon.