Alistair McGowan: My love for Suffolk

Impressionist Alistair McGowan is heading for East Anglia - a place he regards fondly as “my second home”. He tells Steven Russell how he found refuge here after (briefly) quitting stand-up comedy, how genealogy can shape our destiny, and the celebs he won't be doing in his new stage show

Steven Russell

Impressionist Alistair McGowan is heading for East Anglia - a place he regards fondly as “my second home”. He tells Steven Russell how he found refuge here after (briefly) quitting stand-up comedy, how genealogy can shape our destiny, and the celebs he won't be doing in his new stage show

IT'S 1990, the year after he graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and all seems hunky-dory for up-and-coming comedian Alistair McGowan. What he doesn't realise is that turbulence lies ahead. “It was a really formative time, because I'd started doing stand-up comedy and it was going really well. Must have been 12, 15, 20 gigs - I don't know - and never had a bad one,” he remembers. “All my friends said 'It must be scary! What happens when it goes badly?' And I'd go 'Well, strangely, it doesn't.' And then I had the most appalling, appalling gig one May or June night. It was just the worst ever - to this day, the worst ever gig I've had.

“I remember going home and for some reason taking all my clothes off and lying on the bed and thinking 'I never want to do that again.' And the next day I had an audition for Eastern Angles (the East Anglian touring theatre company formed in 1982) and didn't even think about it when they offered me the job. Well, I suppose you don't at that age. I took the job and as far as I was concerned I was running away from stand-up and that was that.”

The production was Goodbye America, with music and lyrics by Hereward Kaye, of Flying Pickets fame.

“I remember it was a lovely tour; a lovely summer. I went back to see some comedy when I'd finished that job, just to watch, and the promoter said 'Why aren't you doing this anymore?' I said 'Ah, no, I was rubbish. I'm not doing it.' He said 'You've got to do it! I'm going to book you next week; I'm going to force you into it!' So that job was the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end . . .”

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And so he was up, up and away. Alistair became a regular at London's Comedy Store, appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe, and had audiences and viewers chuckling on programmes like Saturday Live, The Clive James Show and the 1996 Royal Variety Show.

Between 1992 and 1996 he voiced many of the characters on Spitting Image, including Tony Blair, Hugh Grant and Prince Charles. But it's The Big Impression - for four years and 30 shows from 1999 onwards one of the BBC's most treasured comedy jewels - that really secured his place in the public consciousness.

Alistair co-wrote and starred in the show with Ronni Ancona - their portrayal of the Beckhams became their trademark - and it won many awards, including a Bafta. Yet despite all the success, the actor/comedian retains a soft spot for little old East Anglia.

“I had a very nice time up there in Ipswich. I've always had an affection for the area, with my old Eastern Angles link.” Indeed, 18 months ago, he was one of the well-known personalities to lend moral support to Eastern Angles at a time of crisis. The theatre group faced a devastating cut in its funding from the Arts Council, from �218,000 to �115,000. Happily, disaster was averted.

He thinks that Goodbye America stint stretched across four months. “I'm still in touch with at least one of the people from that tour and we both look back on it as just such a fantastic experience and a great summer. I don't think East Anglia's changed that much, but certainly in 1990 it was just the most beautiful place to be, with the sunshine.

“Everywhere I go now, because of the far-reaching nature of the great work that Eastern Angles do, when I meet anybody who's from East Anglia, they say 'Oh, you won't have heard of it . . .' and I say 'Try me!' I've performed there: Beccles, Bungay, Wells-Next-The-Sea, Needham Market, Downham Market, Wickham Market, Stowmarket . . . So I know it well and always look forward to coming back.”

Bury St Edmunds, where he touches down next week, is another favourite place. “In fact, Bury Theatre Royal was where we did our first night of that show. I can tell you the date: it was July 4, 1990.”

How do you know that? Anorak, or have you had to look it up for some reason?

“It was the day England got to the semi-final of the World Cup and played Germany . . . and we missed it, because we were on stage at Bury Theatre Royal. I've never quite recovered from missing that. I think I always held it slightly against the job. If I'd been watching, they'd have won! Well, possibly . . .”

Bobby Robson's England drew 1-1 but lost on penalties. Was there a poor turnout at the theatre because of the televised showdown?

“It was a very tiny house, and nobody wanted to be there - us or them. It was women and the odd disgruntled man. It will be nice to go back to Bury St Edmunds with an audience who do, hopefully, want to be there! It's a lovely town. I've been back there several times just for tourism purposes: it's beautiful with the park and the Angel Hotel, and the smallest pub in Britain. What's it called? The Nutshell, is it?”

He tells a good story from his Eastern Angles stay in Ipswich, when he lodged in Tuddenham Road. The family had a young boy who supported Ipswich Town. His bedroom was full of all things blue, including ITFC wallpaper - very attractive, but it just wouldn't stay up . . .

Alistair chuckles. “It's now been transmuted into West Bromwich Albion, because it's more current. (The Albion got relegated last season.) It's now 'a West Brom friend' who had the wallpaper. All the jokes get kind of reused.” It's not at the expense of TV presenter and rabid Albion fan Adrian Chiles, is it? “No, I've got a different one for Adrian,” replies the impressionist, slipping into a Brummie drone.

Chiles looked a bit askance when you sprung that impression on him on The One Show recently. “He likes it but he's not quite sure what to make of it all. He's a nice fella, is Adrian - I saw him last night. Very ordinary. Some bits of it [national fame] he thinks are very exciting; other bits he thinks 'Oh god, is that part of it as well? I didn't realise that.'”

Alistair this week embarked on a run of 10 shows (which includes Bury) to hone his new solo show, The One And Many, before nearly a month at the Edinburgh Fringe. Then there's a month or so off before it tours the UK, coming to Ipswich a week before Christmas.

Experienced pro that he is, does he still get nervous?

“Oh yes. It's strange, though . . . Dare I say this to a journalist? I suppose I do . . . Somebody said to me recently that I went from stage one to stage three and missed out stage two - stage one being doing regular stand-up gigs around the country, and stage three doing a TV series. Stage two being the tour. Normally, she said, you go one, two, three. So it's like I'm going back to do stage two. I missed it out and felt it was always something I wanted to do, and never did.

“I'm doing all right - I'm very happy with the way things are - but, yeah, it's certainly hard work. But - this is the bit I was daring not to say to you - I think if I'd done it the right way round (when he was an up-and-coming comic wannabe), I'd be looking at stage two with desperation, thinking 'And I desperately want stage three . . .' But because I've done stage three, all this is really a pleasure for me.

“I'm not looking to get anything out of it other than a really good experience and making people laugh. Which is terrific, because that's what people want to see; they don't want to see someone there who's thinking 'If this goes well, I might get that.'”

Those young guns can get ahead of themselves, then, thinking “Peterborough tonight, but tomorrow the world”?

“Exactly. Actually, I'm thinking 'I've done the world, Peterborough will do fine.'”

Actually, come to mention it, you're there on your birthday.

“How do you know all this?” he laughs. Well, we do our research, when we're not sticking our foot in doors and intercepting phone calls. “Actually, it might not be my birthday, because it's been misreported somewhere.” November 24? “Well, yes, it is my birthday! It's been misreported as October 31 and I get a card from some charity or other on October 31 every year!”

Wide of the mark, too, is the publicity blurb that The One And Many is his “first, solo, stand-up tour in ten years”.

“It's my first tour of any sort! I've done corporate entertainment, but that's slightly different, because they come to see you and it's only 10 minutes and you can do the same stuff, but this is the first time I've written stand-up and done an hour around the country for people who aren't wearing dinner suits.

“It's a pretty busy time. It sort of feels like work when you wake up exhausted, but it's such an enjoyable thing to do that I could never curse it.

“I don't know how much you and your readers want to know about the nitty-gritty, but you can think up funny lines, funny routines - whatever you want to call them - and you think 'I can do that person's voice'; but then putting it together in a good shape, and also making it look like you've said it for the first time, and working off the audience as well . . . But's that's almost why I wanted to go back to it from doing theatre - because I was really enjoying doing theatre; did it for four years - but was missing the opportunity to change things if they weren't working, and also missing the chance to do something different each night if I wanted to.”

The show promises to be a smorgasbord, billed as more than simply impersonation. We're lured by sharp observations, poetry and romance, animals and surrealism, love and anger, wordplay and greenery - as well as the integral one man, a microphone and a multitude of voices - “including, most importantly, his own”.

His “victims” could include fashion consultant Gok Wan, Andy Murray, Paul O'Grady, Alan Rickman; old faithful Beckham, Michael Parkinson, footballer-turned actor Eric Cantona, Adrian Chiles, Boris Johnson; “probably Barack Obama, Alan Carr”.

Are there any celebs he's tried to impersonate but couldn't quite conquer?

“Yeah. I do struggle with certain higher-voiced men, like (TV presenter) Matthew Wright and (broadcaster) Jeremy Vine and people like that. I thought I should do them, but their voices are just too high and I thought 'I can't get that . . .'; but I can probably live without Matthew Wright and Jeremy Vine.”

Why does he get a buzz from it?

“It's partly fascination, really. I'm very interested in the way people speak; their accents. I also think it's a never-ending source of pleasure.

“Somebody said, once, 'I'm glad you're doing acting and not any more of those mimes.' What?! Mimicry, I suppose she meant. But, generally, most people I think are astonished - and I am when I see anybody else doing it - to see the wrong voice coming out of the wrong face. It's that sort of magic that people love.”

Psychologically, he says, a joke can work better in someone else's voice than his own.

“I'm intending to do Dara � Briain and a few other comics in my act as well.” He lapses into the Wicklow lilt. “Dara has an ability as a comic - and a lot of them do, the Irishmen - to be able to say things that aren't brilliantly funny . . . I shouldn't say that . . . Let's just say their accent makes it sound funnier than it is.

“Similarly, for some reason I can get away with doing puns as Frank Skinner. I have one I thought of recently.” Cue creaky Black Country whine. “'I've always been concerned about animal welfare. When I was a kid I used to go to the circus and there was this horse. They used to make him pick out the ace of spades from a pack of playing cards with his hoof. It was pretty impressive, really, but he was basically a one-trick pony.'

“If I did that as me, people would probably groan a bit, but if I did that as Frank Skinner, for some reason they like the impression and the gag. It shows the importance, I think, of persona for any comic. They work with their persona to make the gag work. Me, I've got the choice of personae, so I can say 'I'll make that joke work for so and so,' or 'I'll make that one work for me.' It's a never-ending interest for me.”

Here's a psychobabbly question, inspired in part by that publicity tease that among the multitude of voices in the show is, most importantly, his own. Is part of the appeal of impressionism the chance to make funny but acute observations about the human condition, people's quirky behaviour, the state of the world and its odd values, and so on, from behind a mask, rather than as himself?

“Sometimes . . . Sometimes I'm able to say 'Well, he's saying that, not me.' But I think that was more true in the past. Something I'm really hoping will come through more, now, is that there's much more of me in it, and my attitude and my opinions, than before, when I used to rely more on 'here's a funny voice, and here's another funny voice.' There's a much greater sense now of who I am, in this.”

Alistair McGowan is at Bury Theatre Royal on Thursday, July 16 (01284 769505) and Ipswich Corn Exchange on Thursday, December 17 (01473 433100).

IT was intriguing in the autumn of 2007 to see Alistair McGowan - someone who spends a lot of time in other people's skins - look deep inside himself. He was one of the celebs on the BBC family history show Who Do You Think You Are? and got to the bottom of some of the mysteries surrounding his dad's side of the family.

Little was known about his father's Anglo-Indian background. It turned out that side of the family was part of the mixed-race caste that kept the empire's wheels turning, taking care of essential tasks in India for many years, but which then felt ostracised when the establishment considered them a threat to the status quo.

It also seemed a key ancestor might not have hailed from Scotland, as the comic had always believed, but Ireland.

Have the findings made a difference to him?

“There is a lasting legacy. I learned afterwards that therapists, especially marriage guidance therapists - and that wasn't because I was married and seeking therapy; I just heard - use genealogy as a technique. They ask spouses to go and look at their family history, and come back with four or five generations' worth of material, because, frequently, something within you that you can't explain, and you can't change, is to do with your genes.

“I've certainly, from doing that programme, found that with certain things in me I couldn't quite explain, and that I used to worry about. I no longer worry, because I think 'It's the way I am.'”

Such as?

“A feeling of not belonging. Of being indecisive. And also a general calmness about things. I used to think 'Maybe there's an emotional problem - that I don't get worked up. 'Cos everyone else seems to . . .' Now, I think 'Oh, that doesn't matter.' I found there's a very Indian karmic thing of 'Oh well, don't worry about that . . . That doesn't matter . . ..' That's certainly come down my father's side - very much an Anglo-Indian thing.

“I also think we tend to strive for some kind of perfection, and when partners say 'Why do you do that? Why can't you be more like that?' you do end up thinking 'Yeah, why can't I be more like that?' When I found out about the marriage guidance thing, and that genealogy is so much a part of us, I thought 'Well, I just feel a lot calmer about being calm!”

There's a pause while he muses. “I feel calmer about being calmer, and it's good for my karma.”

You should put that in the act.

“I might do. It's a bit long-winded, though; it took us three-and-a-half minutes!”

ALISTAIR McGowan might be a calm soul, generally, but there's one irritant guaranteed to shatter his serenity: mankind's abuse of Earth.

In January it was announced he was among a group of environmental activists - actress Emma Thompson was another - who had bought land near a village threatened by the Heathrow Airport expansion scheme. The plan was to split it into small squares and sell those on to greens around the world - hoping to prove enough of an obstacle to the campaign for a third runway.

The comedian/actor tells the EADT: “The flag is still in the ground and we still hope to be - to extend the metaphor - a spanner in the works. They can't do anything until 2010, I think it is, at which time the general feeling is that the Government probably won't be around. Not sure how I feel about the 'other Government', but . . .

“We don't need to keep expanding our airports. The business is shrinking anyway, we're told, with the recession and electronic communications, and more people realising that flying is one of the worst things we can do for the environment. So to expand them is crazy and sends out completely the wrong message.

“At some point you have to stand up, no matter how calm you might be, and say 'I am worried about the state of the world.' At some point you have to put the state of the economy behind a sustainable environment. There's no point in having lots of money in the bank if you can't get to the bank because it's flooded.”

A brief impression

Alistair McGowan was born in 1964, near Evesham in Worcestershire

His father was a teacher

His mother's side was “Worcestershire and market gardening”

Started doing impressions while at school, including mimicking teachers

Read English at the University of Leeds

Went to Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London

His CV features acting roles as well as comedy

In 2007 he was in the Little Shop Of Horrors in the West End

Spring 2008: Joined the musical Cabaret at the Lyric Theatre

Summer 2008: In They're Playing Our Song, alongside How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? contest winner Connie Fisher