CELEBRITIES may well have been feeling nervous as the man of many voices Alistair McGowan returned to our TV screens last night.
The talented comic has lined up a whole new set of stars to mimic and it seems he is breaking the habit of a lifetime by including a politician among his impressions – well, sort of – former MP Neil Hamilton.
“We’ve got a fair bit of Neil and Christine Hamilton,” reveals McGowan. “I know I said I would never do anybody involved in politics but I saw them on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? at Christmas and the Louis Theroux documentary. I thought we had just got to do them.
“Neil isn’t known as a politician any more. He is famous as that man who is with that pleasingly mad woman,” laughs McGowan.
“But they were great fun to do. He struck me as a big kid with teddy bears, very public school – just not grown up.
“I ended up having quite a bit of sympathy for them. I think our sketches are quite sympathetic. We did this sketch based around the Channel 4 show Can You Live Without? and we did it as in, could they survive without each other?
“Neil goes to a hotel and Christine stays home alone. She can’t turn the lights on at night – because Neil has dealt with everything electrical.
“He is in the hotel and can’t tie his shoelaces because Christine does that. But in the end Neil quite likes staying in the hotel as he discovers a certain channel on the video. It’s all quite stupid. I don’t think they will be upset about anything we do.”
And the Hamiltons’ famous fey inquisitor Louis Theroux doesn’t escape the 37-year-old entertainer’s gaze in the new series of Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression on Fridays.
“We do a parody of Harry Potter called Louis Potter. The Hamiltons have adopted Louis and they keep him in a cupboard under the stairs,” he chuckles.
The actor and comedian is quick-witted, intelligent and seems to have an almost child-like wonderment about the impersonations he creates on screens.
It seems that he slips into the different characters without thinking about it. One second he is EastEnders’ Dot Cotton, the next newsreader Huw Edwards before he swiftly changes into Watchdog’s Nicky Campbell.
He shows an enthusiastic delight in explaining the differences in the vocal patterns of various stars. “I had to be very careful when I did Louis Theroux not to stray into my old John Major voice from Spitting Image,” he admits. “They are very similar.”
But this verbal dexterity masks the fact that McGowan spends hours watching tapes of his potential victims and analysing their speech and mannerisms to ensure his impersonations are spot on.
This time around McGowan is leaving out ‘Smiley, Smiley’ Carol Smillie and the Changing Rooms team, The Royle Family and some of his EastEnders favourites. But one of his new Albert Square impressions has led to an unusual first.
“I do Lynne Slater. She was great fun and it’s the first time I’ve worn a bra,” he admits looking rather sheepish. “She has a bit of a cleavage and what was really odd was the wardrobe girls knew what bra size she was.
“They produced this bra and I told them it had to be bigger because I’m taller than Lynn. I told them I needed bigger breasts. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve been a girl for two minutes and already I’m saying I want bigger breasts’.”
Although McGowan admits he has side-stepped a few celebrities at showbiz parties, most of the people who have been impersonated by him and his co-star and former girlfriend Ronni Ancona confess to loving them.
“I thought the EastEnders crew might have been a bit sniffy about us and complained about making it more difficult for them. But they were really positive. They told me they always tease each other about things we do – because they had noticed the mannerisms already.”
McGowan and Ancona have been comedy partners for years, but before they ever hit our screens their partnership used to have a very different dynamic. “We lived together for several years and when we split up we were determined to remain friends.”
McGowan says that his girlfriend Jess is “wonderfully understanding” of the duo’s working relationship – and of McGowan’s unusual method of earning a crust. “Jess said recently: ‘It’s you I like, yet you spend six months of the year being someone else.’ When I’m told: ‘Be yourself’ I wonder who I am,” he muses.
McGowan, who grew up in Evesham, Worcestershire says his love for mimicry stems from his childhood, and he admits he has his parents – a headmaster and a teacher – to thank for him ending up an impressionist.
He recalls: “Mum was involved in amateur dramatics and I started doing plays, so I suppose there’s a bit of a show-off in me.
“She also used to do impressions of people. Whenever she had been out, she would come back home and say she’d seen so and so and she would just characterise their voice.
“I thought that was what you did, so I started to do it myself. I just started telling stories using voices. So I’ve always been interested in accents, which is down to mum and dad.”
However, McGowan remembers watching a Summertime Special with his father who saw male dancers all kitted out in tights and grumbled: “Whatever you do son, don’t do that”.
“It haunted me,” admits McGowan. “When I performed the Eastenders pantomime, I wondered what he’d say about me singing, dancing and dressed as Dot Cotton but he enjoyed it.
“I loved doing the EastEnders musical for the Christmas show. It was really hard work but I had a ball doing it. I’ve always loved musicals but nobody has ever offered me a part. So I thought I would do one of my own. I was going to say it was a dream come true,” adds McGowan, “but that sounds really pathetic.”
It would appear that McGowan is perfectly at ease with speaking in almost any voice – except, of course, his own.
Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression is on BBC1 on Fridays, 8.30pm