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Man of many voices Alistair McGowan tells Jo Roberts about his similarities to his latest character and why he has high hopes for England at the World Cup.
While Alistair McGowan is still best-known for his Big Impression TV show, it was straight acting that first drove him into showbiz.
The 49-year-old drama graduate became a household name for his hilarious sketches based on Posh and Becks and then England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson among others. In the 10 years since the hit show was at the top of the TV ratings, Alistair has enjoyed returning to his first love. There has been no shortage of roles on stage and TV, as well as continued demand on the stand-up comedy circuit.
It’s a play that brings Alistair, who recently became married to opera singer Charlotte Page, to Kent this week. He takes the part of Professor Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which inspired the musical My Fair Lady at the Marlowe Theatre.
And as he told What’s On, it’s a role he couldn’t be better suited to.
Do you see much of yourself in your latest character?
“Professor Higgins is obsessed with language and studies sound, and so we have an awful lot in common. He takes Londoner Eliza Doolittle from the gutter and decides to make a lady of her in every sense and pass her off as a duchess in six months. He tries to teach her how to speak English properly without her Cockney accent. I’m fascinated with language and accents. He’s also quite irritable, and I do have my moments!”
Haven’t past TV shows, like Ladette to Lady and My Fair Kerry with Kerry Katona, recycled this idea?
“Pygmalion was written just over 100 years ago and there have been several programmes on TV over the last few years following exactly the same idea – can you make somebody into somebody else? But I don’t know what happens after those programmes. This is the issue of the play. What effect does it have on that person and, if they’re not really from that background, can they ever really fit in?”
In the same way that presumably you don’t linger in the mindset of David Beckham after impersonating him?
“That’s right, it’s very fleeting – it’s very hard to leave behind who you really are. I did some programmes for the One Show recently about accents, and I became aware that I have about 10 or 15 sounds which really give me away as being from the West Midlands. There are certain sounds that I know I try to change but it’s a constant effort to eradicate those. There are always a few sounds which give people away.”
How did you end up famous for impersonations if you set out to be a straight actor?
“I went to drama school but got sidetracked into comedy and found that I really enjoyed it. Initially it was to get known so that I could have my pick of the acting parts. When I realised that I was quite good at it, I started to have ambitions of my own in the comedy world, so when the TV series came along I was delighted and the acting took a back seat. Once I’d established myself and done as much as I thought I could do with the impressions, then I was really keen to go back to musicals, Shakespeare, light opera, directing and everything else which I’ve done over the last 10 years. It’s been a lovely array of things.”
How did the impersonations start?
“My mother was always ‘taking people off’ as she said, so my sister and I used to do it from childhood. When I went to university I was surrounded by people from all over the country and, in that Henry Higgins way, was fascinated by the difference between somebody from, say, Oldham and somebody from Sunderland. You’ve got to start anything young – there’s a certain amount of innate ability, but you can always improve. I was exposed to it from the age of five or six.”
Which impersonation are you best known for?
“The three that come up again and again are Dot Cotton, Richard Madeley and David Beckham. I haven’t met David Beckham but we heard rumours coming through from his ‘people’ that initially they didn’t like it at all, and then after a while they loved it. I still get people of a certain age shouting out as I pass by.
You can see fathers getting quite excited and sometimes they send their sons or daughters up to get an autograph or photo and you can see these kids have no idea who I am at all. It’s 10 years since I did the TV series, so when I do impressions now it tends to be in a stand-up context. I have a host of new voices – chefs Raymond Blanc and Nigel Slater, and Roy Hodgson the England manager is one of my favourite ones to do.”
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