Dead Ringers is back on air this week on BBC Radio 4 and yet again we can enjoy the searingly accurate and topical impressions from Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens, Lewis MacLeod, Debra Stephenson and Duncan Wisbey.
The art of mimicry for satirical purposes really dates from the satire boom of the 1960s. But impressionists were heard on the radio prior to World War II, though they were sometimes referred to a 'character impressionists' offering comic voices of character types rather than specific people. Names such as Elizabeth Pollock, Lawrence Anderson, Herbert Douglas, Doreen Pullen crop up as well as Billy Carlyle, wife of comedian Claude Dampier aka 'The Professional Idiot'. But perhaps the best known of the pre-war impressionists were Florence Desmond and Beryl Orde who both took off Hollywood stars, with Mae West being a particular favourite.
From the mid-40s and throughout the 1950s the radio audiences were wooed by the vocal dexterity of impressionist Peter Cavanagh, billed as 'The Voice of Them All'.
Born in 1914 Cavanagh left school to take up an apprenticeship in the motor trade, later joining the sales team of an accessory firm and then an electrical manufacturers. At the same time he pursued his musical ambitions as a singer, winning a gold medal at the Guildhall School of Music and becoming a concert artist.
During the Second World War he was attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps Staff Band where he would compere some of their performances. Asked to tell the odd joke between numbers he also offered a to do a couple of impressions, one of which was Harry Hemsley's family of four children, at the time famous on Radio Luxembourg's Ovaltiney's Concert Party.
Radio fame beckoned after his debut on an Army series Private Smith Entertains. One of his most famous impressions was of Monty, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, who Cavanagh already bore an uncanny resemblance to. As his repertoire of impressions developed he would end his act by doing a rapid run through of his 'guest stars' saying cheerio and then end with himself as the voice of them all (not unlike Mike Yarwood's "and this is me"). His most famous routine was to do a potted ITMA show as all the regular characters; his voice for Tommy Handley being uncannily accurate. (He would play him in The Tommy Handley Story which was broadcast ten years after his death and impersonate him in a special edition of LWT's Frost on Saturday in 1969 ).
Other voices he became well known for included Winston Churchill, Gilbert Harding, Robb Wilton, Jimmy Edwards, Norman Wisdom, Malcolm Muggeridge, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Henry Hall, Duke of Edinburgh, Bernard Miles, Harry Worth and Eamonn Andrews.
In the post-war period as well as theatre and summer season work Cavanagh was regularly heard on BBC radio doing the usual round of variety shows such as Variety Bandbox, Music-Hall, Workers' Playtime and Blackpool Night. In 1948 he co-starred with Peter Brough and the perennially naughty schoolboy Archie Andrews in Two's a Crowd. Recorded with no audience, no orchestra and no supporting cast it was set onboard the cruise ship S.S. Celebrity. All the crew and passengers were film radio and theatre stars all played by the two Peters.
Peter starred in a number of occasional radio shows titled The Voice of Them All but his television work never went beyond guest appearances apart from a short BBC series in 1955 in which he "introduces an entirely new approach to the study of impersonation". During the 15-minute show he would "demonstrate by applying his own well-known talent of mimicry, not only by voice but in some cases by appearance, and one of his victims may even be present in person to be mimicked side by side and to join him in a vocal duet."
His love of cars and motor sport came in useful in 1957 when he presented a series of features on motor racing as part of the children's BBC tv show Studio E, named after the Lime Grove studio from which it was broadcast. He seemed to be a hit with the kiddies as he also appeared on another children's show Focus.
Radio appearances in the 1960s were infrequent and by which time the likes of Peter Goodwright and Mike Yarwood had picked up the mantle. But he was briefly back on air in the early 70s as one of the panellists on Radio 2's impersonation-fest The Impressionists alongside Goodwright and the nostalgia series Sounds Familiar and Funny You Should Ask.
In 1977 Cavanagh spoke to Mike Craig for his Radio 2 series It's a Funny Business. When the programme was repeated in 1986 Mike recorded a new introduction to recognise the fact that Peter had died some five years before. This recording comes from its 1990 repeat, the last time this programme was heard.