The Big Interview: Alistair McGowan

Television viewers could have been forgiven for thinking Alistair McGowan had been left forgotten in some dusty old green room.

Before anyone had heard of Michael McIntyre and John Bishop, McGowan was pretty much a shoo-in for the position of everyone’s favourite comedy personality.

While Rory Bremner took his inspiration from politics, McGowan, along with Ronnie Ancona and Jan Francis, took theirs from sport and showbiz. Throughout the 1990s, The Big Impression pulled in impressive ratings, but then in 2005 the final episode was broadcast and McGowan disappeared from view.

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Since then, he’s popped up occasionally tracing his family tree via Scotland, Ireland and India on Who Do You Think You Are? and last year he made a brief appearance in an episode of the teen soap Skins.

However, if his television career showed anything, it was that McGowan was a chameleon – slipping between David Beckham one minute and Tony Blair the next and far from having been unceremoniously put out to pasture, over the last six years he has been busy reinventing himself, this time as a stage actor.

It was an appearance in a BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House which started it all and since then he’s appeared in a West End production of Art, won a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Little Shop of Horrors and written his own play, Timing, which was shortlisted for a www.whatsonstage.com award.

Next up, it’s a tribute to the work of Noël Coward, a show devised by McGowan and which has clearly been a labour of love.

“Until a few years ago, I really didn’t know anything about Noël Coward, but then I was asked to direct one of his plays at my old drama school. Semi-Monde is not often performed largely because it features more than 30 characters, but it’s a mini-masterpiece, a real revelation.

“After that I went back and read all his plays and listened to his songs, but it was his verse that, for me at least, showed Coward in a different light. Everyone knows Mad Dogs and Englishmen, but there’s a lot more to him than that.

“Many of the poems are really short stories, little vignettes on life and with the blessing of the Coward estate, which always sounds to me like a block of flats in Wapping, we’ve divided up the dialogue and play them as mini-dramas.”

Sincerely Noël, which also stars singer Charlotte Page, who McGowan met while performing in The Mikado, was born out of a show he took to the Edinburgh Festival. It was his friend, Gyles Brandreth, who told him to add an hour to the running time and take it on tour, so now it includes Honeymoon 1905, the story of two petrified newlyweds heading to Ilfracombe, both dreading their wedding night; Reunion where a husband and wife reflect on the impact the war has had on their relationship, and 1901, an eyewitness account of the death and funeral of Queen Victoria – one of McGowan’s favourite pieces.

“Everyone associates Coward with witty one-liners, but there is much more to him than a smirking camp man in turtleneck sweaters. He actually came from quite humble beginnings, born in Teddington, the son of a piano salesman. He rose through the class system and on his way up he was an acute observer of relationships and the impossibility and necessity of love.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given McGowan’s obvious talent for mimicry, he decided not to do a full-blown impersonation of Coward. For once, he says, it didn’t feel right to revert to caricature.

“There are a couple of moments when I am Coward, but we tried to steer away from that as much as possible so we could serve the words. It’s much more about theatrical cabaret and our composer Warren Wills has come up with some wonderful new piano arrangements, so I hope even people who know the songs will get something new out of it. For people who don’t know Coward, it’s a great introduction.”

McGowan has recently finished playing phonetics teacher Henry Higgins, who sets himself a challenge to teach a flower girl to talk like a duchess, in a West End production of Pygmalion. He took over from Rupert Everett, who had to leave the run early due to television commitments and while McGowan spent only three weeks in the part, it was enough for him now to have his eye on the musical version, My Fair Lady.

“I used to think there weren’t any parts that I particularly coveted as an actor, but then I ended up playing Henry Higgins. On paper he’s a middle-aged bloke who is angry at life, and of course I thought that’s not me, but halfway through the run I realised that’s exactly what I am.

“I guess a man who is obsessed with voice, the minutiae of pronunciation and accents was probably always going to be up my street.

“I’m under no illusion that I’m no longer able to play the romantic lead, so I guess I should be on the look out for more mature roles.”

McGowan is only 46 and while his foray into stage acting may seem like a departure for him, it is in fact more a return to his roots. Born in Evesham in Worcestershire, he took the lead in various school productions before studying for a degree in English at Leeds University and winning a place at the Guildhall School of Music where his peers included Ewan McGregror and Daniel Craig. He always assumed that when he graduated he would end up on the stage, but his talent for impressions took him instead to Spitting Image and ultimately his own show. After 15 years making a living pretending to be other people, he was, he says, in need of a break and a change.

“Now I’ve been on stage for pretty much most of the the last six years, it’s the theatre not television which seems like the norm. However, I won’t lie: I find there is something wildly romantic about the stage and I do think comedy has become a little bit cynical.

“Looking from the outside there just seems to be a lot of anger and cynicism, particularly on panel shows. That’s not what makes me tick.”

Aside from acting, it’s football that has always been McGowan’s other passion. He’s always said that his decision to head north for university was because it gave him much easier access to Elland Road and his beloved Leeds United – a team he decided to support after meeting a nice old lady called Mrs Drury, from Leeds, while holidaying with his family in North Wales as a youngster.

Football he has since admitted became an obsession and one which he blames for ruining his off-screen relationship with Ancona. The pair split some years ago, but collaborated on a book A Matter of Life and Death – How to Wean a Man off Football, part self-help guide, part confessional memoir and McGowan admits he still feels an overwhelming sense of nostalgia when he thinks about Leeds United’s glory days.

“I had no idea when I decided to support them that they were the best team in the world, but I am grateful that Mrs Drury wasn’t born 12 miles down the road in Bradford,” he says. “Peter Lorimer was always my favourite, but there is something quite poetic about how the team played back in the 1970s.”

A keen environmentalist, McGowan doesn’t drive, is an advocate of solar energy and he was also among those who bought a field outside Heathrow in a bid to block the airport’s expansion plans. Yet for all his other interests, his talent for impressions hasn’t been forgotten.

When he appeared in pantomime as Baron Hardup a couple of years ago, audiences also got to see David Beckham, Billy Connolly and Gary Barlow and McGowan will be back on television screens next summer in a show that has been described as a sporting version of Harry Hill’s TV Burp and ITV’s answer to the BBC’s A Question of Sport and Sky’s A League of Their Own.

Guest appearances on Match of the Day have showcased McGowan’s ability to slip between David O’Leary, Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen in the blink of an eye and after six years away from the small screen he’s clearly looking forward to returning to a familiar format.

“When I started doing theatre work, I never said that I would never go back to television, I just needed a change. The prospect of having my own show again is great; it feels a bit like going home.”

Sincerely Noël plays Pocklington Arts Centre on November 26. For tickets call 01759 301 547 or online at www.pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.