Alistair McGowan

Alistair McGowan

Date of birth: 24-11-1964
Alistair McGowan caught the bug while a pupil at Evesham High School, impersonating teachers, and after graduating from the University of Leeds with a BA in English, he went on to study at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

After graduating in 1989, McGowan started work on the stand-up circuit, and was quickly signed up by Spitting Image to provide many of the voices. He also appeared in minor roles several Nineties comedy shows, including Harry Enfield and Chums, The Imaginatively Titled Punt & Dennis Show, Fist of Fun and Murder Most Horrid.

His big break came in 1999 when BBC One commissioned Alistair McGowan's Big Impression, later to become simply The Big Impression, to represent the input of the rest of the cast, especially Ronni Ancona – with whom he had a romantic relationship, which ended just as filming began. However, they enjoyed a long professional relationship, with Big Impression running until Christmas 2003.

McGowan has also been a straight actor, taking over from Stephen Tompkinson in the comedy drama, All Quiet On The Preston Front; playing Mr Kenge in the 2005 adaptation of Bleak House, and the title role in the short-lived detective programme Mayo in 2006.

On stage, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006 for a musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor opposite Judi Dench and Simon Callow; and in 2008 starred in a revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado for Carl Rosa Operas

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Alistair McGowan: Introductions to Classical Piano

Gig review by Steve Bennett at the Royal Albert Hall, London

He has perfectly mimicked just about everybody in the public eye, but could this be Alistair McGowan’s greatest impersonation yet? A concert pianist.

For the comedian has only been playing for just over four years, yet here is in the Royal Albert Hall – in the intimate Elgar Room rather than the main room, admittedly –  playing a scarlet-red grand donated by Sir Elton John. This is an opportunity few players with decades more experience will ever get.

The draw, of course, is McGowan’s fame, and he uses his comedy for little skits between the numbers, which are – with one exception – played entirely straight. He is no Victor Borge, Gerard Hoffnung or Rainer Hersch, using humour to drill into classical music and prick its pompous image. Nor a Les Dawson deliberately misusing his talent.

Instead McGowan – fully looking the part in flowing coattails – treats the works with full reverence, billing the night as ‘two hours of pretty good music and pretty bad jokes’.

He makes no bones about his technical limitations, though, joking about his reluctance to play more ambitious pieces. That does mean the music is limited in scope to more sedentary, wistful and atmospheric tunes, rather than dramatic key-bangers. But for some variety he moves through the eras, from Bach to jazz, and up to the Amelie soundtrack.

The good-humoured impressionist suggests his lack of experience brings an air of jeopardy, but luckily for all – including his piano teacher, sat in the audience – he hits all the right notes, and in the right order, too. To judge whether he’s a great pianist needs probably requires ears more experienced than mine, but the playing seems pleasant and melodic, if a little dispassionate.

The only time he breaks the veneration of the composers’ work is during playing a piece by the eccentric Erik Satie, when he reads out the playing instructions, far more esoteric than ‘allegro’. ‘Behave yourself there’s a monkey watching you!’ is one. This is by far the best piece of the night as it’s the one time the music and the comedy are working in, erm, concert.

Otherwise his gags are unsubtly shoehorned In Between the pieces, hung on to an occasional snippet of biographical information.For example, the fact George Gershwin liked playing tennis is a way in to his Roger Federer impression – and a rather impressive piece of multilingual showboating.

Of course there are lots of newsreaders-turned-Classic FM presenters for him to get his teeth into, too, while off-piste, a Dara O Briain impression zings and he amusingly wonders how a modern-day Dad’s Army might play out – although the obligatory Brexit routine is tired, as are some of his puns.

But Introduction For Classical Piano is more squarely aimed at music fans who might want a bit o humour injected into their nights (‘why don’t stand-ups introduce the Proms,’ he laments) than it is a way to introduce comedy fans to a bit of high culture. 

What he played…

Philip Glass: Metamorphosis Five

Grieg: Ariatta

Debussy: La Cathedral Engloutie

Bill Evans: Peace Piece

Bach: Prelude in C Major

Arvo Pärt: Für Alina

Satie: Gnossienne No 2 (with instructions)

Interval

Satie: Gnossienne No4

Chopin: Prelude In C-Sharp Minor

Grieg’s Nocturne

Gershwin: Prelude No 2

Yann Tiersen: Le Moulin

John Field: 1st Nocturne

Satie: Gymnopédies No1

Encore

Liszt’s Consolation No 3

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Published: 9 May 2019

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