Alistair McGowan: from Gary Lineker to Gershwin

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Alistair McGowan, best known for his BAFTA-winning TV show, The Big Impression, thrives on having a varied career. But appearing in front of a local audience at the Barnes Music Festival is possibly his biggest challenge yet.

Alistair McGowan is not what I expected. Having seen him impersonating everyone from David Beckham to Jeremy Clarkson, I imagined he would be extrovert and over-confident. But meeting him at the private bar at The Olympic in Barnes, he is both charming and unassuming – and ever so slightly nervous at playing his biggest piano concert yet at The Barnes Music Festival.

He has just done four hours of practise when we sit down and says he has been rehearsing way beyond what he does for other shows. ‘I feel very fortunate to play here. It goes without saying that I do a lot of preparation, but I will have to walk past all these people for the rest of the year – and I am sure some will come just to see how many mistakes I make!’

He is doubtless putting himself down – he released an album last year (The Piano Album), which was well received – and has a tour booked for August, combining piano with impressions.

The album came about after he first appeared at the music festival in 2016. A representative from Sony happened to be in the audience and asked if was interested in doing an album. ‘I thought, hold on, that’s the only piece I can play!’ But he spent the next year honing his skills and ended up with 18 pieces for the album.

While he had a couple of earlier stints of playing the piano – as a child and again in his 30s – he only really started playing properly just over three years ago, happily limiting himself to pieces that mean something to him: ‘That’s the beauty of coming back to music as a mature adult. I know what I want to play, why I want to play it and how I want to play it. As child you can be told to play a certain piece that doesn’t really interest you, but desire is such a huge part of playing and I really feel I’m making up for lost time.’

While performing music has come later in life – he’s 53 – his career took off from his student days at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. A friend, seeing him doing impressions, told him he should take it further and he got his big break on the award-winning The Big Impression, acting alongside his then girlfriend, Ronnie Ancona. ‘I always wanted to be an actor. The one thing I never wanted to do was impressions! It just happened by default as I was good at it. I made a name for myself, but it was never what I set out to do.’

As a comedian he has appeared in countless shows, both on TV and radio, including The Clive James Comedy Show, Spitting Image and First Impressions, as well as playing straight roles in Bleak House and Leonardo. His first stage play, Timing, was nominated for Best New Comedy. Last year he took on the role of his favourite composer, Erick Satie, playing an ‘all- nighter’ in Birmingham. As well as writing books, presenting and directing, he is also a keen environmentalist and won’t drive.

He has just started working on a new set of characters for the first time in nearly five years for upcoming TV and radio shows, including Judge Rinder, Eddie Redmayne, Will Self and Piers Morgan.  To get into character, rather than watching hours of footage, he concentrates on a snapshot of that person: ‘You can get a person’s mannerisms and the way they speak in just one minute of speech. There’s almost a musical element to it – you’re trying to learn the music of their voice.’.

At the Festival, he will be performing with his teacher, the internationally renowned pianist and fellow Barnes resident, Anthony Hewitt, as well as his wife, the singer Charlotte Page, whom he met when they performed in The Mikado together. There will be a real cross section of music, including Marcello, Liszt, Grieg, Ravel, with a little bit of Gershwin and, of course, Satie. He’s not pretending to be the most accomplished musician in the world but wants to share his love for classical music and part of his mission is to bring it to a wider audience: ‘You don’t hear classical pieces as much as you used to. I’m under no illusions about my ability, but I suppose I’m trying to inspire people.’

He loves living in Barnes and has been here for 17 years – ‘I moved to Brighton for a year, but I missed it, so I moved back’ – and uses all the independent shops – ‘Two Peas in a Pod is our lifeblood! – so performing amongst his neighbours is a big deal. ‘I really want to do well. It’s much easier to fail in Grimsby!’

Pippa Duncan

Alistair McGowan is playing at St Mary’s Church, Barnes, on 14 March. Tickets £15. barnesmusicfestival.com

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