Ready for take off
This article is from 2009.
He may have branched out in recent times, but Alistair McGowan is returning to his first love. Mark Fisher meets a man looking to make another big impression
There can’t be many people for whom the Wimbledon panto is a life-changing event. Not even the gaggle of Gareth Gates fans waiting outside the stage door for an autograph from their very own Prince Charming would go that far. But for Alistair McGowan – playing Baron Hardup to Joanna Page’s Cinderella in last season’s Christmas cash-in – it was just the spur he needed to switch direction. ‘Doing the TV show was always about my energy and my ideas, but that’s been on the back foot since doing theatre over the past few years,’ says the 44-year-old when we meet in a local restaurant after a January matinee. ‘Doing panto, it suddenly clicked and I thought, “Oh, I’m ready now to be in control again, to be responsible for everything and to relish it”.’
Although best remembered for his work with Ronni Ancona on The Big Impression, McGowan has spent the last five years pursuing the acting career he always imagined he’d have. Finally putting his drama-school training into practice, he took on stage and TV roles ranging from Mr Kenge in the Beeb’s Bleak House to the Duke of Vienna in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Proving he was more than just a one trick pony – even if it was an exceptionally good trick – he broke out of the box marked ‘funny impressionist’ and established himself as an artist free to move in any direction. ‘When the TV show finished it was a relief to turn my back on television and not take any interest in popular culture at all,’ he says. ‘But while doing those other jobs, I’d always end up impersonating other people in the cast or people I met at parties.’
It took his stint at panto to make him realise he was ready to go public with his comedy again. Allowing himself to dust down the old impersonations (David Beckham, Billy Connolly and Gary Barlow on my particular matinee), he found he had regained his taste for solo comedy. ‘Pantomime proved people still had an appetite for me doing it and that I had an appetite too. There are a lot of new people who have come out and it’s really exciting doing new voices and making new comments on them.’
For those who’ve grown up with the small-screen McGowan, The One and Many might not be exactly what they expect. As well as the take-offs of film stars and footballers, he’s promising everything from poetry to green politics. ‘It’s really what I used to do, which was stand-up with me going into voices to illustrate the gags.’ He’s happy to leave the party politics to Rory Bremner, but he is a passionate environmentalist (along with Emma Thompson, he has bought a plot of land on the site of the proposed Heathrow expansion) and those values will seep into his act. ‘It depresses me beyond measure that the MPs’ expenses scandal has got so much publicity when the deforestation of the rainforest and the impending doom that might throw upon us doesn’t seem to engage people. From space you can see the deforestation and the glaciers melting, but from the White House for eight years they were unable to see any of it,’ he says, trying out a quick Barack Obama impression on me as he talks about the recent change of heart in US politics. ‘The Obama accent is certainly one I’m working on, but whether I can get my voice as deep as that I don’t know. We’ll find out, sir.’
Lest we forget there are many strings to his bow, McGowan is performing a second Fringe show based on the songs of Noel Coward, whose sexually daring play Semi-Monde he directed with students in 2007. Cocktails with Coward – co-starring West End singer Charlotte Page – is a celebration of the master’s lesser-known songs and poems. ‘People think of ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ and a couple of well-known funny ones, but he wrote some beautiful, lyrical songs and those are the ones we wanted to put over. You can’t define him as just a playwright because he was interested in every aspect of the arts. That’s one of the reasons I admire him so much.’
Cocktails with Coward, Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, 6–31 Aug (not 17), 4.40pm, £12–£13 (£11–£12); Alistair McGowan: The One and Many, Assembly Hall, 623 3030, 8–31 Aug (not 17), 7.20pm, £14–£16 (£13–£15). Previews 6&7 Aug, £11.