Making a big impression: Tring Park School alumni Jessica Robinson

Jess Robinson with her Spitting Image Greta Thurnberg puppet

'I have a girl crush on her' - Jess with the Spitting Image Greta Thunberg puppet - Credit: BritBox/Spitting Image

Impressionist, comic, actress, singer - Jess Robinson is a powerhouse performer with a gold-winning podcast to boot. The Tring Park School alumni discusses Aldbury, Britain's Got Talent and falling in love with Greta Thurnburg, writes Julie Lucas...

The first time I hear Jess Robinson, she is teaching Romesh Ranganathan how to talk like Sonia from EastEnders and getting him to sing Old MacDonald had a farm in a rap style alongside Britney, Shakira and Gwyneth Paltrow.

If it sounds bonkers, and it is, her award-winning podcast - a mix of chat and fantasy duets - is fabulous fun.

‘He’s a good sport, that’s for sure,’ says Jess when we laugh about it. ‘That’s the joy of it, making people do things that are the opposite of them.’ This includes Gareth Malone impersonating Kim Kardashian and Alex Horne being Adele.

 Begun in lockdown as 'something fun to focus on', Stars is Your Ears recently won gold at The British Podcast Awards in The Best Entertainment category.   

The actress, comic, singer and impersonator grew up in Aldbury near Tring, which the 36-year-old describes as ‘a beautiful place with lovely people.' Her mother still plays the organ in the village church and her late father Brian was a successful artist. 

‘There’s a song in my show about Albury and all the people who live there which is slightly irreverent but fondly delivered.

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'My first job was playing Snow White in London. All the kids from the village came on at the end and gave me flowers, but I got told off. The stage manager said: "Please tell your villagers not to come on stage!"' 

As a child in her parents' living room, the raised hearth became her stage. 'Mum and dad would have to sit through endless shows, poor things! I quickly learnt not to have an interval or my audience wouldn't come back.’

She progressed to performances each Christmas for the Albury Lunch Club. ‘I would have to put on shows with my two friends and we would always get the giggles, mum would get cross and send us off the stage.’ 

But it was during her time at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, where she was given a scholarship, that she began to imitate people, especially teachers, especially some of the dance teachers. 'I was rubbish at dancing,' she admits. ‘Basically, it was really to entertain my pals.' 

Dancing may not have been her forte but singing, impressions and comedy definitely are. Appearing as the lead in Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice when she was 17 (she later reprised the role in 2012, directed by Cartwright), she realised she could do impressions of singers while bringing her own personality to it.

Jess Robinson performing at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Assembly Festival

Jess performing at the Assembly Festival in Edinburgh - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

She took her first solo show, Mighty Voice, to the Edinburgh Festival. ‘It's in my nature to entertain people and I love making people laugh and making people happy, so that’s where the comedy came into it, plus some of the celebrities are ripe for taking the mickey out of, aren’t they?

‘I didn’t really mean to be an impressionist or to be a performer. I was going to study music and I thought I wanted to be a composer for films but then the Snow White job came up and I fell into it. I never meant to be such a show off.’ 

Inspirations include Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Alistair McGowan. ‘I love some of the female comics at the moment,' she adds. 'I love people who can stand on stage and really be themselves and be unapologetic about that.’    

If Jess looks familiar, in 2017 she was invited to audition for Britain's Got Talent which she describes wryly as ‘a real experience’. ‘I had been asked to go on it for years and always said no thank you. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was.’

She conquered her nerves and started out with a belter, singing a brilliant medley of Goldfinger, The Sound of Music, Cabaret and more, all interspersed with comic skits.

The judges loved it. It got a standing ovation. And she went all the way to the live semi-finals with her irrepressible performances. ‘It gave me enough of a profile to go on tour and that was the thing I wanted to do, to take my show to bigger audiences, so it worked in that way.’  

Impressionist Jess Robinson

Jess Robinson - Credit: Karla Gowlett

When I speak to Jess, she's between takes for the newly revitalised satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, which she describes a dream job for an impressionist. Today she is doing Kim Kardashian, Greta Thunberg and Nicola Sturgeon.

‘She’s like a wee Glaswegian Jeanette Cranky’, she says in the voice of the Scottish First Minister, before seamlessly shifting to the high nasal tones of Kim Kardashian, and ‘salt of the earth’ Adele - who she says her absolute favourite.

'They really let me go to town with her crazy laugh and singing. I also really love being Greta Thunberg because she is always the hero in the sketches; everyone else is being bonkers and she is the only one that can see sense. I really like how they have treated her. I just think she is so incredible for her age - I’ve got a bit of a girl crush on her.’ 

Away from Spitting Image, she also loves to recreate the voice of Billy Holiday, ‘so distinctive’ and Amy Winehouse. ‘It is really special to be able to bring people back to life in a tribute sort of way. On the flip side, Sonia from EastEnders always makes everyone laugh.'

The singing came before the impressions. 'I come from a musical background and singing gives me the most joy. There is no greater feeling than singing with my band and the audience all having a brilliant time and we are all having a party together.'

Jess embarked on a new live musical comedy tour for Christmas, The 12 Days of Jessmas. It’s a show of mashups and original songs and off Adele, Meghan Markle, the Kardashians, Britney, and even Her Majesty. 

As with her podcast, she will be joined with her band, Jessington World of Adventures. And there's plenty of audience participation too.
‘They can expect the unexpected, that is the fun of it,’ Jess says. ‘The audience can choose anyone from Lady Gaga to Shirley Bassey from the celebrity selection box and we pick a song off the tree.’

The combinations are endless – Judy Garland singing Santas Claus is Coming to Town, Kate Bush performing Frosty the Snowman. ‘It's a different show each night, it really keeps us on our toes and is great fun. It’ll be anything but a silent night.’   

The third series of her podcast has also just been released and includes Gaby Roslin, Adam Buxton and Judge Rinder. ‘He will be imitating Judy Garland,’ she says excitedly. ‘He is absolutely brilliant.’ 

What about her home life, with musician Jonty Fisher, can she switch off the impressions? She admits she does find herself talking to Jonty in different voices. ‘He only gets annoyed when I am doing an impression of his mum,’ she says with her infectious giggle. 

The third series of Stars in Your Ears is available now from your podcast provider.