Modern TV habits means it's difficult to make an impression these days, says impressionist Alistair McGowan
TV impressionist Alistair McGowan brings his new show, mixing his two loves of comedy and classical piano music, to Holt this August. He talks about it, his career and ex-England manager Graham Taylor?
Impressionist, comic, actor, singer, writer and director Alistair, back on TV with the new critically acclaimed Sky One series The Week That Wasn’t, is back on tour with new show Introductions to Classical Piano - what must surely be the first classical piano recital to intersperse romantic music with comedy.
Q: Are these good or bad times for comedians and impressionists?
A lot of people, like satirists which I’m not; love these turbulent times because everybody’s talking about politics and people engage much more but I can only speak from the point of view of an impressionist. Just doing impressions now has become very difficult because of the way people are watching television and consuming news. Years ago if I did somebody who was on Channel 4 even, who had been on for 10 series like George Clarke of Amazing Spaces, people would go “oh, I know who that is”. Now I do my George Clarke and people go “who’s that” or what’s “Amazing Spaces.” Other people “say what’s Channel 4” so you’re really really hoping your audience watchs the same thing you do. I know I couldn’t do the comedy circuit as such any more, which is for 24-25 year olds because their viewing experiences of people they know are so different from mine. Some of them just watch YouTube or whatever else... people from that who I’ve never ever heard.
Q: The show you’re bringing to The Auden Theatre, Holt, on August 18, sounds interesting?
Stand-up comedy with impressions alongside classical piano musical is a rare blend [laughs]. I don’t like spritzers, things that are one thing and a bit of the other; I like things in their pure form and this is definitely me contradicting myself. It’s not really been done, before.
When I first mentioned the idea a lot of people said “oh, it’s a bit like Bill Bailey” and I said “no, no, no, Bill Bailey does comedy music” and they said “oh, like Rainer Hersch” and I said “no, he does classical music comedy”.
It’s a classical recital in a way but 40% of it is speech and the speech is really illustrating the pieces in a comedic way, frequently throwing in impressions along the way of people who have nothing to do with classical music like Jacob Rees Mogg, Harry Kane, Andy Murray, Dara O’Briain, Brian Cox...
Q: Where’d the idea come from?
When I released my piano album several interviewers said I should do a show that combines the two thing I do so well and I said “well that’s not going to work”. It ate away at me so much... when I did countdown, when you’re in dictionary corner you have to talk about something for two minutes every day and I’d run out of all my jokes over the years Ive done it. I thought “why don’t I talk about composers and try to say something funny about them” and then I can promote the album at the same time.
People just came up to me afterwards and went “that was absolutely interesting what you were saying about Liszt” or “I’d heard about that piece by Erik Satie but I didn’t know he was that crazy” and “I didn’t know about Edvard Grieg being Norwegian and being only 4ft 11in tall”. I thought that’s the way to do this show.
I’ve chosen short pieces, on average they’re about three minutes so if something isn’t someone’s taste the next thing is along in a minute. When I go to classical events I’m yearning sometimes for something to break up the music, so you can put yourself back into neutral and appreciate the next piece; but also learn a bit about it. In a way that’s what I’m setting out to do.
I love musicals by Gershwin, Bernstein, Rodgers and Hammerstein... modern musicals leave me cold, those kind of jukebox musicals like Mamma Mias and We Will Rock You are not for me... but Clemency Burton-Hill talks about how music is basically all linked. I play a piece of Chopin which some people think is the basis of a Barry Manilow song, others think of it as a Take That song - they both made Could it Be Magic work from a piece by Chopin [it’s based on Prelude in C Minor, Opus 28, Number 20].
Q: Playing the piano, doing impressions, sounds tiring?
It’s a triathlon in a way. It’s a question of focusing on each one at a given time. Anything can come into your head playing the piano, I’m sure the top pianist would say the same - it’s the same with acting - if you start thinking about what you’re going to have for your tea or something you’ve got to do tomorrow you’ve had it and with music it really shows.
The best musicians can improvise their way out of it, but I’ve not been playing very long so can’t. I’m starting to enjoy playing music in front of people... it’s certainly not easy but if there are people in the audience who haven’t heard that piece of music I’m thrilled they’re hearing something I think is beautiful for the first time through me,
Q: You’re probably best known for your BAFTA-winning comedy show The Big Impression but your debut album CD Alistair McGowan - The Piano album recently topped the Classical Chart. Why a career in comedy, not music?
Comedy was always something that interested me and I never thought I’d be anywhere good enough to play music in front of anybody so it was never a question of one or the other.
[The album’s success] was quite extraordinary and a huge thrill... it’s very flattering and crazy to think I was at the top of it even for a week, but it’s a lot of work. If you want to do anything passingly well you’ve got to put the hours in and I’m forever practicing, annoying my wife and probably the neighbours. It never seems like penury because all three-four hours a day, it’s such a pleasant thing to do. I hope some people of any age will be inspired and think “I’ve got a piano” or “I’ve never used a piano that I inherited” or “I could buy a keyboard for not much more than £200 and start playing in my bedroom”.
Q: You learnt piano as a boy, stopped and picked it up again in your late 40s?
It’s a familiar story. I was taken to piano lessons by my mother when I was seven and didn’t really have much say in the matter. I didn’t enjoy it so I stopped because I wanted to play sport did that for a long time. When I went to university and heard people play I thought “why did I stop because that sounds really good”.
For 20 years I thought I’d love to go back to that. In my mid-30s I had a good go for about two years but the television series happened and there was constant work afterwards. I felt “well, it’s just too late for me” until I happened to meet a young pianist who said “it’s never too late, don’t be stupid you’re 49; you know the pieces of music you like, it should be easier for you to learn because you’ve got the passion that maybe when you’re seven or eight you don’t”.
Q: It’s never too late to learn?
That’s one of the things I’m hoping will come from the concerts... by playing simpler, accessible pieces I hope people will go away thinking “well, if he can play that I can play that” or “I didn’t know there were those shorter pieces that were so beautiful I thought piano music was always concertos”.
Q: You’ve been fortunate during your career to add so many different strings to your bow. Any regrets or things still on the wish list?
I’ve done musicals as a singer, directed, acted in plays in the West End, toured, done bits of television, in film... there’s no burning thing that sticks out. Certainly over the last year this show has been in my head thinking “can I do that, can I pull that off” so this is a very nice thing to be doing.
In terms of regrets, I wasn’t very good at pantomime. I did one and thought “this is not for me”. I did not enjoy that. I’ve never had children and I think I just didn’t understand the children’s mentality - I didn’t get them, they didn’t get me.
The only thing I ever regret, which I’ve never told anybody, came just after [ex-England manager] Graham Taylor had done that do I not like that documentary [Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job]. Somebody had sampled do I not like that and wanted me to go in and voice it because they couldn’t get the footage.
It was a sort of very basic white man’s rap if you like about Graham Taylor and I said no. I often wonder what would have happened with that because it’s very of the moment but I just hadn’t got the time then to do it. I always think “oh, I wish I’d had a go at that”. I think Rory Bremner years ago did something with a cricket song and it got into the charts when the charts still meant something. I always think that was my one chance.
• Join one man, a piano and some of the most famous voices in the world for a night of inspiring, short classical piano works and some big laughs at The Auden Theatre, Holt, August 18. Tickets www.alistairmcgowan.co.uk