The Mimic: Terry Mynott on impressions, failure and being the Muppets for a whole year

We talk to the star of Channel 4's beautifully understated sitcom about how he found his voice, and how not to impersonate Nicolas Cage

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The Mimic: Terry Mynott on impressions, failure and being the Muppets for a whole year
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The Mimic was last year’s comedy sleeper hit. Arriving quietly on C4 on Wednesdays, it was a downbeat sitcom - yes, another one - starring the second most famous impressionist from celebrity take-off show VIP, which itself hadn't been a huge hit. Tough pitch.

But slowly an audience arrived, drawn by the tired, gentle travails of sighing maintenance man Martin Hurdle, a deadbeat hiding an extraordinary talent for impersonations. Terry Mynott downplayed the role beautifully, in brave contrast to his work on the brash VIP.

Martin is more interesting than a showbiz wannabe struggling to get onto the bottom rung of the fame ladder. He doesn’t know if he even wants to climb out of his feeble existence. Series one ends with him finally scoring an appearance on a TV show, having gone viral on YouTube by mistake – an opportunity the fatally self-effacing Martin blows by losing his nerve and refusing to go on.

Penned by VIP’s head writer and Russell Brand’s old radio sidekick Matt Morgan – also stepping sideways from his previous work to deliver something with soul – The Mimic meditates bittersweetly on inhibition, self-destruction, English embarrassment, wasted potential and Eeyoreish pessimism. It’s comfortingly sad. 

“We had this way before VIP,” says Mynott who, at 39 and with more than one showbiz false start in his past, has a healthily self-deprecating attitude to his new success. “We built it very slowly. We did a four-minute one, we did an 11-minute episode, we even got a pilot, so it’s always been on the back burner. Matt said, why not do something not a million miles from what you’re like?

“We didn’t want Martin to be a go-getter. We didn’t want him to get dinner at The Ivy through his impressions. We wanted him to try to get dinner at The Ivy, but end up washing dishes.”

The Mimic isn’t a laugh-free bleak-com. Martin’s only friends, ditsy soulmate Jean (Jo Hartley) and rampantly paranoid Neil (Neil Maskell) – Martin is a lot smarter than either, but too polite to think he might outgrow them – are funny every time they appear. Martin’s performances, normally delivered just to Jean or to nobody at all, are often uproarious, showing a scything satirical wit that he always, always keeps under wraps when talking in his own voice. Yet at heart it’s a show about those old staples of great literature and film: loneliness and failure.

Somehow, this awkward-sounding mix has broad appeal. “I can’t get my head round the age range,” Mynott says. “I thought people my age would like it. But it’s all over the place: 14-year-old girls - most of them can’t get who I’m doing - to people well into their 60s and 70s. And I love this new world where people can find you when they want, online. Last night I had a message from an American who’d seen it on a cruise in the Antarctic.”

Aside from improvisations that are later reworked as part of the final scripts, Mynott doesn’t contribute to writing the show. “It’s Matt’s baby. As an ac-tor” – he adds a camp, la-di-dah “hmm hmm!” to underline that he doesn’t see himself as a proper actor – “I’m a slave to his words.”

Yet it's one of those performances that makes you wonder to what extent it's actually acting, and to what extent Martin and Mynott are the same person: pleased with their weird talent but profoundly unshowbizzy, with no craving for attention.

When people asked me that last year I fought it, but: yes. I will push on a door for hours when it quite clearly says pull. I will trip up in front of everybody. I will be the quietest person on set. But I’ve got much more tenacity than Martin to have got where I am now, to keep throwing myself against the wall of showbusiness, until finally I made it through. He’s like me if I’d not had all the drive I’ve got.”

Mynott also does not hide behind his impressions as Martin does, using them as a means to avoid revealing a real self he fears won't interest anyone. After filming he is not to be found in the pub, entertaining his friends by doing voices. “No, never! I’d be the last person to do that. I’m not intellectually funny, and I abandoned the hope of being cool a long time ago. I am quite happy talking about Romans or Neolithic mounds. I’m a very silly person, but you have to know me before I’ll open up.

“But put a camera on me, if I know there’s lots of money invested, and people expect me to be funny - then I’ll be very funny.”

“I like listening to other people because I have to walk around practising voices all the time, so by the time I’ve finished with work I’m very much a listener. I get bored of the sound of my own voice.”

Mynott isn’t Martin because, while they share a talent, Martin has perfected his voices through lack of anything to do or anyone to talk to. Mynott is a professional with a plan. Nailing a new impression is a process that takes weeks, stretching into months. “I will listen to that person solidly for a week. I will not try to recreate them until I can hear them in my head. Then I’ll take one thing, one word or phrase. With Morgan Freeman it was 'The first time I saw Andy…' [a slight misquote from The Shawshank Redemption]. I worked with nothing larger than that. Don’t run before you can walk.”

Series 2’s new impressions include the cast of Game of Thrones, and a brilliant take on Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston as Jesse and Walter in Breaking Bad. “It was the same with Walter White, it was: “I am, I am the one who knocks. I AM the one who knocks. I am the one who KNOCKS.” The impersonation is spookily, delightfully accurate. “You just keep going, until you get closer to it. Then I was walking around saying, ‘Who do you think you’re talking to right now? Do you even know how much money I make in a year?’ for ever and ever. The writing in Breaking Bad was amazing. That’s when it's a dream job, when you get handed something like that.”

Sometimes, an awful lot of work goes into discovering that a particular celebrity won’t be joining the repertoire. “I convinced myself I could do Tom Hanks. I spent six months chasing it down and I couldn’t do it at all. And Nicolas Cage. I couldn’t get past “Oh”. [in a very recognisable Cage voice] Ohhh! Urrgh. Ohhh. Oh. Ugh. Ahhhh. Oh. That’s all I could do. You grab onto that little word and you slowly try to make it into a sentence. You craft it like a big bit of wood. Sometimes you’re just left with sawdust. And you won’t know until a month down the line that you can’t do it.”

Mynott came to professional impressions and comic acting late, but had been performing on the quiet, a bit like Martin, since childhood. “I lived in the middle of nowhere, in a tiny village on the border of the Fens. I wasn’t lonely, I was very happy, but I literally would wander the fields. I would do characters. I’ve always enjoyed my ability to shut my brain off and just let myself talk, and I might come up with something funny, just for my entertainment.”

The classic story is of a kid who impersonates the teachers at school. “Yes, I did! Mrs Jeffries, that’s the start. My maths teacher. She strangely sounded like Julian Clary, and that was when I was about 13, and Julian was quite shocking then. Also I had this staple remover, and I used to walk around being in a Spaghetti Western, saying to every kid, ‘Maybe. Maybe not.’”  

As an adult who’d done various menial jobs before deciding he did want to perform, Mynott at first was a musician, with some success. “But it stopped quite abruptly. I got dropped from my publishing deal and nobody wanted to work with me. I was just... out.”

Then another disappointment, as a stand-up comic: “I was rubbish, I just didn’t have the showmanship that stand-ups have.” But performing on stage was where Mynott found his voice and, indeed, his voices. “I started to incorporate them slowly into the act until eventually they absorbed it and I gave up stand-up altogether.”

Surely a failed singer-songwriter who's now found fame somewhere else won't be able to resist whipping out his guitar soon? "Nah. I got to a certain age where I realised I wasn’t an amazing songwriter. I had a nice voice but I never was a true musician. We toured with Faithless, and Rollo was a fan, he championed me. But I was always just being stupid in the studio, so when I started doing comedy and cartoons and stuff, it was like seeing The Matrix. I could create whole worlds."

The problem, for a man who now makes a living pretending to be other people, was that his music had no identity of its own. Even now, when asked which famous artist he sounds like, Mynott claims not to know. "I liked all sorts of music and I wrote with all sorts of people. I wrote with Chaz Jankel from the Blockheads and Mike Pickering from M People. I was a chameleon. That’s why I was destined not to make it – I was always everybody else, I was never really me."

Mynott is a fan of The Trip ("I love it"), but the scenes that appeal to him are Coogan and Brydon bantering - he avidly quotes the "Gentlemen! To bed!" routine - rather than the impressions. He's not taking notes, wondering if Steve and Rob's Michael Caines are better than his. "I never sit in judgment and I always enjoy other’s people’s impersonations more than my own. I’ve surrendered my ego.”

This sounds odd coming from someone who spent several weeks of his life trying and failing to sound like Nicolas Cage, but Mynott insists: “I don’t care if I don’t do a good one, I’m gonna be silly with it, and I’m gonna have fun, and I’m gonna overdo the intonation, ramp it up. These people already exist, they already have that voice. So to be uppity about how good it is, I think that's pretty mental."

Much of Mynott's work, in fact, is never heard by more than a handful of people. Welcome to the strange, lucrative but glory-free world of impersonating superstars for adverts. Not ads where we hear a soundalike voiceover sneakily reading the script in the style of Benedict Cumberbatch or Chris Evans - "No! I won’t do that. They always want me to do Matt Berry, but I’m good friends with Matt Berry, so I will not do that" - but placeholder narration, put in by an ad agency at the pitching stage, to illustrate how the spot might work with a certain voice on it. "I’m the guy they get before they get the star in. The brand will give several companies money to come up with an idea. I did the Muppets all last year for Lipton Ice. Solidly for a year. I did all of them, Gonzo and everyone. I sang, it was so much fun.

"I did the Jean Claude van Damme Coors adverts before him, and then I did them all again as Steven Seagal, while they approached those people. Then they etched me out."

It's work that's destined to be deleted and forgotten? "Don’t care. Got paid, brilliant. As long as you’re being creative, and you’re in a room and everybody’s having fun and you’ve got access to a kettle, it’s great. You’ve got to remember I started out on the road – my dad was a lorry driver, and I drove lorries. I jet-washed trucks. I worked in the freezing cold on a building site. So to stand in a room and pretend to be someone and be nice and warm is bliss." 

The Mimic returns tonight at 10pm on C4