Interview: Alistair McGowan, impressionist and comedian

After a self-imposed exile from our screens, master of the mimic Alistair McGowan is back with a new series. Here he talks to Kate Whiting about his love of sport, winning a Bafta, and how his long-held impression that he had Scottish roots proved wildly off the mark

After a self-imposed exile from our screens, master of the mimic Alistair McGowan is back with a new series. Here he talks to Kate Whiting about his love of sport, winning a Bafta, and how his long-held impression that he had Scottish roots proved wildly off the mark

Just moments into a chat with Alistair McGowan, my sides are already threatening to split as he tells me that, because he’s calling late, I have only two minutes to talk to him. Thirty minutes later, I’ve managed to talk to new England manager Roy Hodgson, Hugh Grant, John McEnroe, Jedward, Peter Andre and Robbie Savage. It’s hard to believe it’s eight years since McGowan was almost ubiquitous, making audiences laugh with his Bafta-winning show The Big Impression.

But after trying his hand at drama in 2005’s Bleak House, starring in and directing musicals and even writing a play, he’s returning to prime-time TV to do what he does best. In You Cannot Be Serious! he will front a topical sports comedy show featuring a mixture of clips, sketches and impressions.

“The short answer is that out of all the things I do, it’s the thing I’m best at,” he says in his own, rather refined voice. “It’s really nice to have stretched those other muscles and to really prove I can act and sing and direct, but impressions is something I do very well, so it just felt nice to go back to doing something I could excel at, I suppose.

“There are a lot of people who do impressions on television, it’s a growing number, but I still feel like a bit of the George Foreman of the impressions world, coming back in at the age of 47 saying, ‘I’m the heavyweight, I’m the guy, I can still prove myself against these guys, I can still do this,”’ he says, effortlessly drifting into the boxer’s drawl.

A love of sport and comedy impressions first merged when, for two years, between 1995 and 1997, McGowan was a regular on the Scottish football comedy sketch show Only An Excuse? when he got the chance to mimic the giants of Scots football. It was a role he greatly enjoyed, in part, because it allowed him to work in what he believed was his native land. Since he was a teenager, when he made his first visit to Edinburgh, McGowan had felt a connection to Scotland, from where he believed his ancestors had hailed.

So when the opportunity to finally track down his elusive Scottish ancestors presented itself with an invitation to appear on the BBC genealogy documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? he leapt at the chance. Unfortunately his path into the past was crooked and filled with surprises, for instead of going north he went east, to India, where he discovered that his dark complexion came as a result of he and his family being Anglo-Indian. He fought through the thicket of old records and a number of generations in pursuit of the elusive Scots McGowan who first shipped off to India to serve in the East India Company. When he did find this particular Mr McGowan he was bitterly disappointed to discover that he hailed not from Scotland but from Ireland. In the programme he admitted to feeling gutted at being robbed of his imaginary Scots past and joked: “I’m now a Seamus Singh.”

With a huge summer of sport on the horizon, including Euro 2012, Wimbledon and the Olympics, McGowan is the first to acknowledge he’ll have his work cut out keeping on top of everything and making sure each show is fresh.

“It will be tricky, and I’ve never done a topical show before. The Big Impression was up-to-date, but always filmed in advance of transmission so we knew who to work on and who to prepare in every sense, with voices, sketches and wigs and noses. With this, we have to be prepared to fight fires all over the place.

“And we have the added problem of recording and editing on a Thursday and Friday and going out on the Saturday. In sport things can change in a minute, so in a day there might be all sorts that might make us seem a little bit out of date. It’s a big ask.”

Plus, he’s no longer such a spring chicken. “I feel like I’m 47 when I have to get up and work out so I can look like Jessica Ennis in case we have to do her and then I do a day’s writing and at the end of the day I think, God, this was a lot easier when I was 26!”

Besides acting, sport is Worcestershire-born McGowan’s other great love and it’s a natural fit to combine the two. A lifelong fan of Leeds United, in 2009 he penned the book A Matter Of Life And Death about his obsession with football, and last year made his debut as a tennis commentator for BBC Radio 5 Live. “I was never doing the ball-by-ball commentary, but I got to make a few corny jokes about tennis,” he says.

His love of sport came from his father, George: “He was mad fit, just absolutely loved it, so as soon as I was walking he had me kicking a football and hitting a tennis ball.”

McGowan adds: “Sadly I disappointed him as I didn’t learn how to swim until I was 11 and he used to find that very frustrating. And then suddenly I could swim. Now I just adore it. And I still play tennis and snooker but had to give up some other sports because I played so much as a child my joints are bit dodgy now. I was doing three or four sports a day in my teens, nothing to any great level, but I’m really paying for it now and can’t play squash or badminton or football any more.”

When he realised he’d never become a professional sportsman, he turned his attention to journalism, before finally chancing on acting while at university in Leeds.

“My main ambition when I was 15 was to become the editor of Coventry City Match Day magazine. So I went to university hoping that would be my job when I came out, and then I just got into the performing side and so now it’s the perfect synthesis of both loves, really. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve been doing sporting comedy on and off for over 20 years now so I’ve got to meet a lot of my sporting heroes from my childhood.”

His obsession with football, he has said, cost him his relationship with former girlfriend and comedy partner Ronni Ancona. In the heyday of The Big Impression, they were well known for their impressions of Sven and Nancy and Posh and Becks.

He’s only once met David Beckham, before either of them were famous. “I haven’t met him since we’ve both done our thing. But somebody said to me recently, ‘Do you think your impression of him made him the star that he is?’ and I kind of laughed and said, ‘I don’t think I’ve had any influence whatsoever on Beckham’s rise to global domination.’” But McGowan is proud that he started ‘doing’ new England manager Roy Hodgson while he was still at West Bromwich Albion.

“Nobody was that bothered about the impression at all and now suddenly he’s become a lot more high profile,” he says, slipping into Hodgson’s nasal tones, before regaling me with a story about former tennis champs Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

“Years ago, when they were No 1 and 2 in tennis, they were quite fierce rivals, really, and if ever I did an event like the Davis Cup, which I did a couple of times, and see Tim, he’d grab me across to his coterie and go, ‘Do your impression of Greg,’ so I’d do the impression and they’d all laugh.

“Then I’d walk down the corridor 10 metres and there’d be Greg with his coterie outside his dressing room and he’d say, ‘Hey Alistair, come here. Do Tim, do Tim.’ They loved each other being done.”

Winning a Bafta for his work in 2003 didn’t really change anything, he says. “It changed the make-up of my mantelpiece. I had to move the clock from the centre to make room for the Bafta.

“The only thing it changes is that whenever I watch the Baftas now and they go, ‘Oh that’s heavy,’ I go, ‘Yeah it is.’ Because they are really heavy. But I don’t think it makes any difference at all really. I suppose it’s great in terms of satisfaction but it didn’t mean I rested on my laurels or thought, ‘Tick, that’s that done,’ but I’d rather have it than not.”

And, with that, he’s off, presumably to brush up on his Jessica Ennis routine.