There aren’t many concerts where you find yourself being entertained by impressions of sporting stars such as Harry Kane one minute, then basking in the exquisite sounds of Bach or Debussy the next.
I say “many”, though I suspect Alistair McGowan is the leader of the pack when it comes to this particular blend of music and comedy, which he’s bringing to Leeds on Sunday when he performs at Besbrode Pianos, an impressive piano emporium tucked away in Holbeck’s industrial hinterland.
McGowan has only been playing the piano properly for the past five years, igniting a passion for music that lay dormant for years.
Initially though, he wasn’t sure about mixing the two. “People kept telling me that I should combine the two things, but I didn’t think it would work because they’re two different audiences. But I finally I said ‘OK’ just to prove that it doesn’t work, but it did work.”
In fact, it worked so well that he’s performing his new show around the country. “This tour is a whole new way of presenting classical piano music. It is, possibly, the first classical event in the world which has tried to intersperse romantic music with comedy,” he says.
“As well as having the chance to share a little of the stories of the lives of the great composers and the extraordinary music they write, I simply can’t perform in a room and not have some fun with my favourite impressions.
“It could well be the first show in which you hear Harry Kane alongside the music of George Gershwin, Jacob Rees-Mogg between pieces by Edvard Grieg. I hope this show demonstrates to anyone who harbours a secret ambition to take up music, that it really is never too late.”
McGowan started playing the piano again at the age of 49. “I played a bit when I was younger. I reached grade two but I didn’t like it and I stopped playing when I was about nine. But then when I was a teenager I realised it was a way of impressing girls and I wished I’d stuck at it.”
It wasn’t until decades later that he met a piano student who offered to teach him that he took it up again. Since then it’s become something of a passion. “I’ve become a bit addicted and it’s proof that you’re never finished learning and that learning how to learn is important, especially as you get older,” he says.
“I get to play music I want to play which is a big incentive. When you’re eight or nine unless you’re very gifted it can be harder to learn, whereas I can play Chopin or Debussy, the music I love. So in some ways it’s easier now than when I was younger.”
McGowan is best known as an impressionist and his talent for mimicry runs in the family, both his mother and sister did impressions, although it wasn’t until he was an English student at Leeds University that he started taking it seriously.
“I remember there was one girl in particular who told me I had an unusual talent and that I should do something with it. So I did a revue at the students’ union in Leeds and that’s where I started doing impressions.”
If his time at Leeds played a crucial part in helping hone his skills as a comedian and impressionist, it also gave him an opportunity to watch his sporting heroes – Leeds United – in action. The reason he became a fan of the Elland Road club is down to a chance encounter one summer holiday.
“In 1970, I went on holiday with my family to North Wales where we met a lovely woman called Mrs Drury. My grandmother had just died and she took me under her wing while we were there. When we were back home my dad asked me which football team I wanted to support and because she was from Leeds I said ‘Leeds’. It just so happened they were the best team in the world. This was the Don Revie era but my dad said it was too far to go from the Midlands where we lived so I had to wait until I was at university to go there.”
McGowan is, of course, one of our best known impressionists with around 300 different voices in his repertoire. Today, he’s a household name but despite making the occasional guest appearance on sports programmes and TV panel shows, it was only when he was talent-spotted by a BBC producer while performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that his career really took off.
He was offered his own TV show, The Big Impression, which made stars out of both him and fellow impressionist Ronni Ancona.
In recent years he’s branched out into acting, and as well as appearing in a BBC TV adaptation of Bleak House, he starred in Pygmalion and worked for the RSC in the Merry Wives: The Musical and received an Olivier nomination for his role in the Little Shop of Horrors.
He remains best known as an impressionist but says the way people watch TV these days makes it harder to get recognised. “Back in my heyday 20 years ago you had four channels and everybody was watching pretty much the same things. So if I did an impression of Robert Kilroy-Silk or Richard Madeley they knew who you were talking about. But now people aren’t watching the same things which makes it more difficult.”
Also, because he spends more time tinkling the ivories he has less time to master new voices. “I’m not interested in sitting watching the TV for hours, I’d much rather be playing the piano.”
McGowan is adept at carrying all manner of impressions – from Gary Lineker to Dame Edna Everage – though he tends to steer clear of politicians. “I’ve never been that interested in politics and I don’t want to sit watching it endlessly on TV.” So no mention of Brexit then? “I think people have had enough of it and if I hear the word ‘backstop’ one more time... I still don’t know what it means.”
So audiences will get to see something a bit different from what they’re used to. “It’s a recital with extras,” he says. “It’s not comedy with a bit of music thrown in.”
At the same time he’s not pretending to possess the musical talents of those whose work he plays. “I’m a beginner as a pianist, really, and I know it will go wrong at some point. I’m nowhere near their level [Chopin and Bach] but people seem to like the sound I make.”
And for McGowan, to play the piano in front of an audience is a thrilling experience. “When you’re doing an impression it’s about being somebody else and getting a laugh, but when you’re playing the piano you’re giving a bit of your soul and that’s incredibly fulfilling. And with this show I’m able to make people laugh and move them at the same time.”
Alistair McGowan is touring Introductions to Classical Piano across the UK, with a performance at Besbrode Pianos in Leeds on April 7. For tickets and more information please visit alistairmcgowan.co.uk