I’VE always been a fan of skilful ventriloquism combined with witty comedy. Now add to that a combination of magic and what you have is brilliant entertainment.

Pulling this off is no easy feat, but Britain’s Paul Zerdin does so effortlessly.

The adult ventriloquist/comedian/magician will perform at the 20th Witness Hilton Arts Festival later this month on the grounds of Hilton College.

After you see him in action, you will understand why he is this year’s special featured guest.

While I took to YouTube to get a taste of what he has to offer, it turns out I – and probably you, too – have often seen Zerdin on local TV.

He’s the famous talking hand that’s part of Dial Direct’s “less yada yada, more ching ching” ad campaigns. In one ad, Zerdin performs the character “Jackie Hand” aimed at selling motor insurance.

Armed with a host of witty and naughty characters – some of the most popular being the pre-adolescent Sam, the belligerent pensioner Albert and the unusually bright, but naughty, infant Baby – Zerdin’s is no kids’ show. Like when Baby gawks at the breasts of women in the audience and hints that he’s hungry, or when Albert accidentally takes some of Zerdin’s Viagra and… well, let’s just say if you’re a woman, you wouldn’t want to be in the front row.

In a casual chat with Tonight, Zerdin said he is a people watcher and draws a lot of the humour for his characters and the show’s content from observation.

“I think the best comedy comes from real life. Sam is your modern Bart Simpson, Baby is highly influenced by Sam and Albert is like the older version of the two. They’re all cheeky little s***s, but everyone can relate to them.”

Zerdin is a thrill to watch as he does not come across as a man performing with puppets. This is largely due to the real rapport he seems to share with his characters.

And it’s no surprise that he is good. Zerdin has been entertaining since the age of 11, when he put on puppet shows at children’s parties to earn money.

“My biggest influence was The Muppets and Sesame Street. As kids, my sister and I would watch religiously every Saturday morning. I was captured and fascinated with anything to do with Jim Henson. Around the time that I was 15 there was a TV show with Wayne Dobson, and he did illusion and ventriloquism.

“And a lot of the time Ronn Lucas was also on that channel, and he used muppet-type dolls for his act, not the usual scary-looking ones… by the age of 15 these were the people who heavily influenced me and I decided I wanted to do a combination of all.”.

Starting his career as “that kid” who would walk up to you while you were dining in a restaurant and get you to participate in card tricks and the like, Zerdin was soon snatched up for private and corporate functions. Today he is one of the most celebrated ventriloquist acts, having performed on platforms such as The Royal Variety Show and The Jerry Springer Show.

His performance at The Hilton Festival marks his local debut.

Offering cutting-edge drama, music, comedy, children’s theatre and craft markets, among others, the fest looks set to present another year of some of the best in international and SA productions.

Some of the highlights on the main festival programme include stellar drama performances by hit SA comedians Marc Lottering and Rob van Vuuren and acclaimed pianist Christopher Duigan’s Music Revival Concert Series. Some of the finest children’s theatre offerings are on the cards, too, including Clinton Marius’ i-Puppeti and The Fantastical Flea Circus; and The Snowman (Creative Madness).

Off-stage, the festival offers visual art and crafts, workshops, debates and lectures, movies, book exhibitions and more.

• For more, call 033 383 0126/7 or visit www.hiltonfestival.co.za