How monkey puppet find led Halifax comedian into a career in ventriloquism
As Gareth Oliver sheltered from the rain at a gift shop in Alton Towers theme park, a monkey puppet hanging in the window caught his eye. “He was really cute so I just put my hand inside him and I started swearing at my friend. He fell about laughing and said you’d never get away with that without that puppet on your hand.”
At the time, Halifax-born Gareth was working as a redcoat at a Butlin’s resort in Somerset. In addition to his duties, the aspiring comedian had been offered the opportunity to do a weekly unpaid show to build up experience of performing on-stage.“I just thought this monkey would be really good in my show,” he recalls. “I asked my mate to lend me £15 and so I bought this monkey puppet.”
He was 18 when he purchased ‘Charlie’ and “fell into ventriloquism”. Now approaching his 40th birthday, he has been a professional comedian and ventriloquist for more than two decades and is due to appear in Harrogate later this year. He is also one half of one of the world’s only ventriloquist double acts, often working alongside his wife Alice.
The monkey never quite made it into one of those early Butlin’s shows but its purchase has shaped Gareth’s career to date. “I used to talk to him when I’d finished my day at work. I’d pull him out from under my bed and I would start chatting away to him.
"There was no pressure. I’d get him to ask me how I was feeling and I’d say I missed my family and he’d say don’t worry. It was almost like self counselling. Genuinely, that’s how it all started.”
From a young age, Gareth, an older brother to five sisters, had a reputation for telling jokes. One of his earliest memories of doing so publicly was after being prompted by a teacher as his classmates cleared away at the end of a day at primary school.
“I don’t know what led to that moment but I must have been telling them around the playground. Anyway, I told a joke, everyone had a giggle, we put the chairs on the table and then we went home.”
His sense of humour, he says, stems from his grandfather, with whom he would stay for much of his childhood. Gareth always wanted to become an actor or comedian and comments made by careers advisers in his school record of achievement highlight his dogged determination to succeed
“This note says we have advised you that the nature of this work is very insecure and much of the profession is out of work at any one time and you need to have a back up plan. However, you tell us you don’t have a back up plan because you’re not prepared to fail.
“And that’s how I was. I didn’t care which of the two I was going to be but nothing was going to stop me. If I had a back up plan that meant I was putting my energy and effort into something else just in case...I wasn’t prepared to do that. I said I’ll do this or I’ll do nothing and thankfully it worked out.”
His first foot on the ladder came as an 18-year-old. Bunking off from his A-Level studies one day, he spotted a This Morning talent competition being advertised on TV. The prize? A stint as a Butlin’s redcoat.
Gareth sent in a tape of him doing a series of impressions, was invited on the show for a live performance - and you can guess the rest. He started work at the Minehead resort in April of 1999.
When his contract came to an end later that year, he sent his details to an agent and secured an audition for a comic at a pantomime in Grantham. Those casting the role had been told he had a puppet.
“I couldn’t do ventriloquism and to this point, I’d never really thought about it. I just had a puppet that I used to talk to. I got Charlie the monkey out my bag and the only thing I made him say was ‘give him the job’.” Cliché, maybe, but it certainly worked. “On the billing it said ventriloquist Gareth Oliver and I thought oh, I’m a ventriloquist.”
By his own admission, he wasn’t a very good one. He was given a slot in the second half of the show and scrabbled together an act. “I think part of the charm of it was that I was absolutely useless...Being a 19-year-old at the time, who looked like a 12-year-old with this monkey, just being cheeky. No one cared that my lips were moving. It was just funny...I was out earning a living with that monkey for two or three years before I could actually do ventriloquism.”
After a few years of Christmas pantomimes and summer shows at holiday parks, Gareth featured in a pilot run of what was planned to be a new hidden camera show, based around ventriloquism. It never made it to a TV series but it was the spark he needed to refine his craft. In the run up to filming, he’d spend ten hours a day in front of a mirror, experimenting with different voices. ”That was a real milestone for me,” he says.
Eventually, Gareth got more bookings, performing in pubs, clubs, theatres and holiday parks. 2009 was a big year; he went on tour as the support act for actor and comedian Brian Conley and also took part in Britain’s Got Talent, making it through to the live semi-finals. His first audition was featured in a montage when the show hit TV screens.
“That was disheartening,” he recalls. “ I was glad I was on there but I was disappointed because I didn’t have any hype, and I thought I’m going to be walking out on stage (for the semi-finals) with absolutely no publicity. Most people won’t know who I am. And that’s what happened, which was a shame.”
Still, his career continued to progress and the following year, he worked on board a cruise ship for the very first time. The past decade since has seen him take to the stage at hotel resorts and on cruise ships all over the globe.
In 2011, Gareth met Alice whilst working on a pantomime in Ipswich, in which she was a dancer, and they immediately hit it off. She was interested in comedy and the pair soon began exploring ways that they could become an act together.
Gareth initially incorporated Alice, now 29, into his comedy and ventriloquist routine. As she got to grips with ventriloquism, they revised the performance to become a double act, creating new voice-swapping routines.
“No one did that,” Gareth says. “There’s two of us so we thought why don’t we utilise that and do something that no single ventriloquist can do...After tweaking and tweaking, we knew we had something special.”
Following their marriage in 2013, they became one of the busiest acts in the entertainment industry, performing on over 70 cruises a year, as well as at hotel resorts. Now living in Devon with young son Sorrento and another child on the way any day, joint performances are fewer than they were. But after many show cancellations due to the coronavirus, Gareth has a busy diary ahead for the rest of the year, including a performance at Nidd Hall in Harrogate.
He’s looking forward to returning to his home county. “It’s always great to be back. My family are still in Yorkshire so whenever I come up it’s always a big event and we normally ensure everyone gets together. I hold Yorkshire dear in my heart."
Gareth Oliver is scheduled to perform at Nidd Hall on October 23.
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