❉ We’re asking, they’re answering. This week: West End leading lady and indie comic creator, Jessica Martin.
Jessica Martin tells We Are Cult about her inspirations and influences, cult heroes and fave raves, her love of Hollywood and Broadway musicals, the highlights of her glittering career and some of the talented individuals she has worked with. Jessica also shares some insights into her creative endeavours as a writer and illustrator of graphic novels.
What were you like at school?
I was quiet and studious at school although my close friends may have been privy to my more theatrical side. I always made sure to audition for any school productions that were in the offing. I think people at that time (primary school and early grammar school) were somewhat surprised by this secret flamboyant self. I was also good at art and my favourite place to be was the art hut for long, meditative sessions of observational drawing.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I definitely wanted to be an actress from a very early age.
So how did your theatrical career begin? What was your first big break?
My theatrical career was supposed to begin, according to my personal grand plan, when I graduated from Westfield College and Central School of Speech and Drama with a degree in English and Drama. I was offered a year’s post graduate place at Webber Douglas School of Acting but my parents couldn’t afford the fees and so my conventional route to theatrical stardom was denied me. Instead I did a series of singing gigs with my late father who was a jazz pianist and at the same time was doing a double act with a friend from Uni. That was how I reconnected with Rory Bremner. He and I had first met when our colleges shared the same venue at the Edinburgh festival in my first year at university. He saw me doing impressions at an impromptu cabaret night.
So when we met again, the double act I was in happened to be following Rory’s act at a fringe venue in London. He took down my phone number and said he wanted to introduce me to a radio producer who was doing ‘News Revue’ and needed a girl to do topical impressions. That little favour he did me opened many gates. Six months later I was scouted for ‘Spitting Image’, auditioned and got ‘Copycats’ and then became Bobby Davro’s partner in his prime time television series. All before my 25th birthday!
The opportunities to work in theatre came about because producers saw that my singing and dancing abilities utilised in all those television variety shows could be translated to the musical theatre stage. My first professional musical was Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Babes in Arms’ at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park and the following year I was cast as Sally Smith in the West End hit musical ‘Me and My Girl’.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
I would have advised my teenage self to not worry about the future so much and stop trying to fit in with conventional society’s notions of beauty, hipness and understand that a lot of what and who is ‘in’ is ephemeral. And to be proud of the fact that my cultural tastes lay in classic films, musicals and the greatest performers of the 20th century.
What are your best and worst qualities?
My best qualities are that I know who I am and what I like. I no longer seek the approval of a mass of people with whom I share nothing in common (the performer’s curse). That perhaps makes me come across as a bit of a snob. But there are worse things!
My worst traits are my tendency to take on too many projects with enthusiasm and then run out of energy when it comes to executing them. Also taking the universe personally when things don’t go my way. In other words, coping with disappointment. I am getting better at this. The art of detachment. And actually, my very best trait is that I am esssentially an optimist and always find a way of looking towards tomorrow with a degree of hope!
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
The worst job I ever had was working in an office for credit data on a Saturday. Basically it entailed looking up the credit records of some unwitting customer who might be in the process of renting a television from, say, Curry’s… If they had a county court judgment against them well…no purchase for them! I can still remember the corridors of filing cabinets, fluorescent lighting and mind numbing boredom as if it were yesterday!
Who were your pop culture heroes growing up?
My pop culture heroes growing up were very ‘vanilla’ I’m afraid. I loved The Osmonds, dallied with The Bay City Rollers, sang Abba medleys on the school coach, flirted with being a Mod when Quadraphenia came out at the cinema…thought The Who were amazing and then moved into my New Romantic era when I went to Uni. So that was everyone from Adam and the Ants, Duran Duran to OMD and of course David Bowie was perennial.
Secretly however, I was not as excited about pop music as I was about my collection of film soundtracks and Broadway recordings. I remember loving the fact that Lullaby of Broadway from the 1930’s film ‘Golddiggers of 1935’ got into the pop charts. And I really loved Manhattan Transfer with their unique brand of nostalgic pastiche.
What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?
The single greatest piece of television ever? At the moment, that would be a tie between ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Mad Men’.
Monty Python: Is it funny?
Monty Python is, without doubt, funny! I first got into it as a teenager. My friends and I would quote whole chunks of Monty Python from our vinyl records. And break into laughter before we could get to the punchlines.
What was the last film that you watched?
The last film I watched was ‘La La Land’
What film could you watch every day?
‘La La Land’.
What’s your favourite film soundtrack?
‘Gone with the Wind’ by Max Steiner.
Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?
Ryan Gosling, Joaquin Phoenix, Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange in a character driven family drama.
Which film, book or album last disappointed you the most?
The film that last disappointed me the most was ‘The Light between Two Oceans’ with Michael Fassbinder and Alicia Viskander. So dreary.
Which album would you recommend and lend to a friend?
I would recommend and lend the soundtrack of ‘La La Land’ …It is sublime.
Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?
My double album ‘Judy Garland. The Hollywood Years’. I’ve had it since I was 12.
Which book would you save if your house was on fire?
The book ‘A Pictorial History of the Talkies’ by Daniel Blum. I was given it as a Christmas present when I was 8.
What are you reading at present?
I am currently reading ‘The Muse’ by Jessie Burton.
For many years you were a regular on ‘Copycats’ and ‘Spitting Image’ as an impressionist, and you’ve stepped into Judy Garland’s ruby slippers a few times. How demanding is it to recreate another performer’s mannerisms; how much preparation does it involve?
The art of vocal and physical impersonation is something that is part natural ability and part acting technique. You mention the fact that I have portrayed Judy Garland on more than one occasion. I was a fan of hers from a very young age and I attribute my early singing skills to my obsessive playing and singing along to Judy Garland records. I never set out to be an impressionist but I could always mimic accents and had an ear for people’s pitch and timbre. When I got my first ‘job’ on a weekly radio news satire show called ‘News Revue’, I literally learnt on the job. If there was a personality I had to imitate who I’d never done before it was a case of listening to clips of the voice on my Sony Walkman and mimicking it back till it felt close. With ‘Copycats’ and ‘Bobby Davro On the Box’, it became more sophisticated: I would watch videos, and when we had to do imitations of pop icons like Madonna and Wham we had the back up of very skilled choreography to bring it to life.
Although you’re still working in musical theatre, you now have a second career as a graphic novelist. How exactly did that come about, can you tell us about that?
My latest career turn as a comic creator came about by accident or maybe not. The more I look back on how my life has unfurled it’s always been a case of something that has been a passion project turning into a career opportunity.
About six years ago I took up sketching again after a long gap. I hadn’t seriously drawn anything since doing my ‘A’ level art. The trigger for all this was a visit to the Tate Modern which pretty much left me with the impression that anyone in the world can declare themselves an artist if they have a ‘concept’. And after picking up a book entitled ‘The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to be the Artist You Truly Are’ by Danny Gregory… it felt like the Universe was saying, ‘Well? What are you waiting for?’
A period of avid sketching every day began and then I did ‘Spamalot’ on tour with Phill Jupitus who is a keen comic book fan and it was he who casually suggested I create a graphic novel after seeing my sketchbook. The rest is recent history!
About a year after that I was already developing ‘Elsie Harris Picture Palace’ and my inaugural self-published comic, ‘It Girl’ in 2013 set the ball rolling. It was very well received and I was invited to enter the Myriad Editions First Graphic Novel Prize for which I was shortlisted and then in 2015, ‘Elsie Harris Picture Palace’ was published by Miwk Publications.
You’ve become a Doctor Who icon thanks to your role as Mags, the Goth werewolf in ‘The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’ (1988). What’s it like being part of the Dr Who family and what are your abiding memories of that particular serial?
Being part of the Doctor Who family has been one of the lasting and most glittering highlights of my entire career. The producer John Nathan-Turner became a very dear friend.. How I miss that man. He loved creative people and I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me my place in Doctor Who iconography as Mags the intergalactic werewolf. Sophie Aldred likewise became a good friend. We really hit it off and I am delighted that the recent resurgence of interest in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy has given me a chance to reconnect with some of my Doctor Who alumni. One of the loveliest times I can remember was all of us doing an impromptu cabaret after a day’s filming down in a quarry in Dorset. And hearing T.P McKenna’s distinctive Irish voice regaling Sylvester McCoy with tales of his hell-raising days on some big feature film.
What have been the highlights of your theatrical career, and who have you most enjoyed working with?
Highlights of my theatrical career? Too many to mention but they will be in my memoirs one day. ‘Me and My Girl’ has got to go down as one of the jobs I look back on with immense pride. I co-starred with Gary Wilmot who was the first person I ever met when I began my television career and, by coincidence, we worked together recently on ‘Big: The Musical’. I have always enjoyed working with him… A charismatic man of great talent and a fabulous, un-showbizzy down to earth-ness which I find refreshing. There are many unique, talented individuals who I have been fortunate enough to cross paths with in this industry.
What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
The best piece of advice was given to me by the late, great T.P McKenna who played the Captain in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. He said most of the art of acting is about listening and reacting. I hope that some of that influenced my screen performance as Mags!
Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?
I got to meet Julie Andrews when I took part in the Cameron Mackintosh gala ‘Hey Mr Producer!’ She was utterly delightful, gracious and so warm…just as I dreamed she would be. Conversely I passed Spike Milligan in a corridor at LWT once and he was obviously having a ‘dark’ moment. He glared at me and asked why I was staring at him! I suppose I was looking at him, all starstruck, but he just saw me as a bloody pest.
As a comic book creator in the digital age, what are your tools of the trade?
I have made it my business to acquaint myself with Photoshop, Illustrator and I have toyed with Manga Studio. But really all these gizmos are for enhancement and I truly believe there is no shortcut for the discipline of drawing as accurately as you can. It’s not easy but when there is is discernible improvement it pays off. It’s the equivalent of a classical pianist practising scales. Master the basics and then you can fly.
What’s your definition of what makes something cult?
Oh… that is something not recognised in the mainstream on first exposure but gathers cultural significance in the fullness of time usually attracting a small group of prescient devotees which expands as the subject of the ‘cult’ eventually becomes cool!
My whole career is a textbook definition of ‘cult’! I’m like a showbiz “Zelig” … turning up in all manner of eclectic high moments of showbiz but never noticed.. till now!
What do you do to chill out?
Chill out?!! I am not a natural chiller outer but I suppose it would be the obvious… Box set of something like ‘Boardwalk Empire’ or watch a DVD of a classic film with a plate of something delicious not cooked by me!
What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?
In all of my work, be it acting, singing, drawing or writing I always get immense satisfaction that I am putting something out in the world that has a little bit of my soul in it. The monetisation of these activities is always secondary and greeted with surprise and gratitude. We live in a world that has yet to value creativity in the same way as it does other commodities. Yes.. There are successful celebrities, sports people and brands etc. but the wealth of talent and ingenuity that I come across in the fields of performance and comic creation is rarely given remuneration befitting its merits.
What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?
The most rewarding project of my career was so far has to be the creation of my graphic novel ‘Elsie Harris Picture Palace’. It brought me into contact with so many wonderful people including a man who is now a good friend and my mentor in the comics field, Mark Buckingham. Mark has been a successful artist at DC Comics for many years and when I showed him my very early pages for ‘Elsie’ he was incredibly encouraging and offered to help me on my quest to create a graphic novel and become a pro artist. I also loved researching the book which is essentially a rags to riches story set in the film industry of the 1930’s. I felt quite sad when I finished it. Like I was saying goodbye to close friends. I need therapy!
Your old friends at Miwk recently published a biography of ‘Doctor Who’ producer John Nathan-Turner. What are your memories of JN-T?
As I mentioned before, JN-T was a dear friend. He was a larger than life character who enjoyed the company of showbusiness people. He also had a nose for thinking outside of the box. For instance, the now famous story of how our storyline was threatened by an asbestos scare at Elstree Studios. What did JN-T do? He suggested we move our set to the car park. And as the story was set in a circus tent anyway..that was a master stroke of genius!
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I do have an upcoming project which unfortunately I’m not at liberty to share right now…but your readers will be excited when it’s confirmed. I have my own plans to write and draw a graphic memoir. As you can see from this interview, the road has had many twists and has been immensely colourful.
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to We Are Cult!
❉ You can also follow Jessica Martin on Twitter