Alistair McGowan is best known for his impressions, but the comic and actor has nursed a life-long passion for an eccentric French composer. This Fringe he shares his love of the music of Erik Satie, he tells Janet Christie, and he hopes it’s Satie’s-Faction guaranteed.
Alistair McGowan, he does impressions doesn’t he? Yes, he does, and he’s back in Edinburgh with his Twelfth Impressions stand-up show, so expect to see him nailing celebrities, politicians and sports stars down to every last facial tic and verbal idiosyncrasy. But McGowan is also in town to perform Erik Satie’s-Faction, a one-man show he’s written celebrating the life and music of early 20th century French composer, pianist and all round fascinating eccentric, Erik Satie.
That’s Erik Satie. For those who already know him, no introduction is required – you’ve probably already booked your tickets. For those of us possibly thinking, Erik who? Trust me, you’re better acquainted with his music than you think. His beautifully chilled and hypnotic early piano compositions, Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, are constantly used in adverts, from O2’s Be More Dog and Fry’s Chocolate Cream, and in screen soundtracks from The X-Files and The Simpsons to The Royal Tenenbaums. Satie went on to rip up the classical rule book and create new structures for sound, immersed in Paris of the 1920s and the birth of surrealism, the avant garde and the absurd. Car horns, typewriters and gunshot punctuated his soundtrack for Diaghilev’s groundbreaking ballet Parade, on which he collaborated with Picasso and Cocteau, and his environmental sound and “furniture music”, heralded the likes of John Cage and the 20th century electronic and synthesiser revolution.
Notorious, celebrated, difficult, eccentric, witty and so controversial he carried a small silver hammer for his own protection, his life was every bit as extraordinary as his music and it is no wonder McGowan was inspired to write a Fringe show about him. In Erik Satie’s-Faction McGowan uses the Frenchman’s own words and plays some of his best-known compositions, as well reading some of his articles and poems.
“It’s a whole new world for me,” says 51-year-old McGowan. “I have never done anything with music. To be playing piano music, which is my favourite sort, and to use it professionally is hugely satisfying emotionally and spiritually.
“It’s a show I’ve had in my head for almost ten years,” he says. “I knew it would be a huge amount of work. I did re-translations of his writing and wanted to play a number of his piano pieces so I’ve spent six months working on his music, because it’s so simple that you can’t hide things. He really made you hear the piano.
I hope I’ve encapsulated some of his humour, sadness, romance, solitude and playfulnessAlistair McGowan
“And because he was an innovator you think, if he were alive today, what would he do? So there are sound effects and projections because he was a man on the cusp of cinema. I wanted to reference all of those things.”
The comedian and actor will be hoping to repeat the rave reviews he won for his appearance at last year’s Fringe when he played the title role in Jonathan Maitland’s play, An Audience with Jimmy Savile. Since then he has been flexing his impressionist muscles on a stand-up tour with Jasper Carrott, with more dates to come in 2017.
McGowan first came across Satie when he was about nine and asked his mother what the music was on the TV. His curiosity sparked, as his love of classical music blossomed, so did his interest in Satie, to the extent that the composer was his specialist subject when he appeared on Celebrity Mastermind in 2006.
McGowan has always been a big classical music fan and played piano briefly in his youth, abandoning it for another love, football. He took it up again in his twenties, then his TV success took off and it was sidelined once more.
“I occasionally played the same old pieces badly then about two years ago, started to play again,” he says.
McGowan has been practising hard for the Satie show and when we speak has just dispatched his keyboard to Edinburgh so he can practise between shows. The play has already been a success on the radio and the response to McGowan’s playing gratifyingly complimentary. But still he sounds apprehensive at the prospect of his Edinburgh run.
“It’s daunting, never easy. As much as I’m used to performing in front of people it’s a new challenge. At the moment, I think I have got it. I think I have started making music,” he says.
“Satie is better regarded now than he’s ever been. His work has been used so much in soundtracks that people think oh, that’s from that film, but no, it was written in 1892. He set out to change music and, it’s an overused phrase, but he really was ahead of his time.”
As well as Satie’s music, McGowan was attracted by his unusual life story. He brings us the pianist in 1916 when he’s in despair after the collapse of his one and only love affair with artist, artist’s model and former acrobat, Suzanne Valadon. Broken-hearted, he is unable to leave his flat and writes a three-minute piece of music, to be repeated 840 times, the appropriately titled, Vexations. McGowan was delighted to be one of a team of 35 to play it at The Cheltenham Music Festival last month.
But don’t expect doom and gloom in the show, for Satie was witty and humorous too.
“He did write some unusual pieces of comedy,” says McGowan. “He’s a bit like Spike Milligan, with an odd, surreal, rambling style. He wrote these little speeches in which he imagined there was an audience and I have used a few of them in the show too.”
Satie’s eccentricities include wearing the same outfit for 11 years, eating only white food (shredded bones and animal fat), inventing his own one-man religious sect, writing a play in which someone counts to 260,000 and not allowing anyone into his flat for 27 years. Take all of these and throw in his wonderful music and you can see why he’d make a great subject for a one-man show. And why Edinburgh is just the place to stage it.
“Where else could you put it on?” says McGowan. “Where else could you put on the Savile show and it would be accepted? That’s why I want to do it here. It’s not a stepping stone to somewhere else. It’s wonderful to be in Edinburgh, even though it’s full of people like me. I’ve been coming for 26 years. It’s unique. I have to be held back from seeing too many shows.”
Born in Evesham, Worcestershire, to Marion and George McGowan, Alistair graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1989, and began working as a stand-up comic with regular appearances at London’s Comedy Store and at the Edinburgh Festival. He voiced puppets on ITV’s satirical show, Spitting Image, and then made his name with his own show The Big Impression, BBC1’s top rating comedy for four years, winning a BAFTA in 2003. His TV credits include Live at The Apollo and numerous stand-up outings, ITV’s topical sports show You Cannot Be Serious!, and he has appeared as a stand-up comic on countless television shows, most recently travelling back in time to the 19th century on BBC1’s 24 Hours in the Past alongside Ann Widdecombe and Colin Jackson.
He’s also written a book about his football obsession, A Matter of Life and Death: or How to Wean a Man Off Football, with former partner Ronni Ancona, Posh to his Becks, Nancy to his Sven, in The Big Impression, and penned a play about advertising. On stage, he’s played the Emcee in Cabaret, Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and the dentist in the Little Shop of Horrors, for which he was nominated for an Olivier award. On the big screen, he stole the show in the film Driving Aphrodite with Nia Vardalos and Richard Dreyfuss.
With this performance, McGowan is taking a departure, of which the very singular Satie would approve.
“This is different for me because I have always written things to please people in the past,” says McGowan. “With stand-up, obviously you’re trying to second guess what they find funny. But here, my aim was to serve Satie and convey him. I’m sure some people will come and think ‘what was that about?’ But I don’t care.
“Satie doesn’t accept the norms, and I suppose I’ve never been someone who does things just because everyone else does,” he says. “I don’t go to parties, don’t drink beer, I’m not interested in clothes, cars or status symbols, have never been one to go to clubs, and music? I couldn’t tell you Beyoncé from Rihanna. But I know Satie and Debussy,” he says.
McGowan has been working on the Edinburgh show with his wife, the mezzo-soprano Charlotte Page, as co-director. Page also performed with him on Cocktails With Coward in its sell-out run at the 2009 Festival. The pair met in a production of The Mikado in 2009 and married quietly in 2013 – McGowan isn’t one for a fuss.
“It’s good because she’s an entertainer and understands the amount of artistic struggle you have to go through, even though we’re in different fields.”
So with the rehearsals for the Satie show in full swing, are all of the other characters that McGowan inhabits feeling neglected, gagging to burst out in Twelfth Impressions, his other Festival show?
“I hope so,” he says. “This is my part of the show I have been touring with Jasper Carrott. I will be doing Andy Murray, John Bishop, Kevin Bridges, Andy Parsons, various chefs, Andrew Neil, Ken Bruce, Eddie Mair, and Trump may feature.”
McGowan has always been fascinated by speech and voices, how people say things and why, something he attributes to his father’s habit of pointing out pronunciation.
“He was brought up in England but was Anglo-Indian and noticed how people spoke. He was fascinated by all of the accents and when I was growing up would say things like, “Why can’t Trevor Brooking pronounce his ‘ings’?” My mother was very good at accents too so I grew up with an interest in it. Then I became interested in the psychology of it. It’s about emotion. If you’re on the phone to someone and they’re unhappy, even if they don’t tell you, it takes you two seconds before you ask if they’re all right.
“Why do people talk quietly, or loudly, are voices held because they are shy, or why are they so shouty? It’s about emotions and as an impressionist you’re pointing these things out. And I like making people laugh.”
McGowan explains the difference between the words that come out of people’s mouths and the emotions they are feeling, using the example of Andy Murray, who McGowan considers “admirable in every way”.
“You can hear the emotions in his voice, not in what he says, but in his voice.”
McGowan adopts Murray’s laconic, gravelly drawl and says, “He’s thinking ‘are you really asking me that question again, how do I think I played?’ He’s thinking, ‘I won, how do you think I think I played?’ while he says, ‘yes, I think I played well and I’m looking forward to the next round.’”
Why does McGowan think we can’t get enough of impressionists and never tire of seeing someone take off familiar faces?
“An impressionist is pointing out what others have noticed but haven’t put into words. And the magic of hearing someone’s voice coming out of the wrong body is endlessly pleasing. People love it when you capture someone. They are delighted.
“The hardest thing these days is finding people that everyone recognises but sometimes it doesn’t matter. If the voice is funny people will laugh anyway. Sport is good though: Harry Kane’s great to do, he’s got something unusual going on with his voice.”
At this point, at my prompting, because we’ve been talking football and I say I like his voice, McGowan does Rio Ferdinand.
“Yeah, it’s Peckham, Saaf Landun, He talks in quiet... short bursts... It’s about his character… he’s a confident man… but sensitive…”. It’s spot on, and McGowan is right, my reaction is one of laughter and pleasure at the magic of it.
“I love all of that, and putting comedy in it too,” says McGowan.
With the voices all limbered up and ready for the stage, McGowan is off to do more piano practice for the Satie show.
“For me this show is a synthesis of lots of things I love: writing and acting, music, sound performance, visuals, poetry, wit, and the physicality of the man. I hope I’ve encapsulated some of his humour, sadness, romance, solitude and playfulness. I have never been happier than I am right now doing this show.”
For Alistair McGowan, Saties-faction is already guaranteed.