Alistair McGowan is mixing rib-tickling comedy with tickling the ivories after rediscovering his love of playing the piano. He tells David Johns why making music has become an important part of his life and what to expect when he brings The Piano Show home to the Midlands
Noisy neighbours. Alistair McGowan has a lot to thank them for. After piano lessons at the age of seven, Alistair became bored with the constant practice and by the time he was nine had given them up to do more ‘interesting’ stuff – like making people laugh. Years later, after making his name on TV and in theatre as one of the nation’s favourite comedians and impersonators, along came the noisy neighbours. Cue Alistair’s rediscovery of the keyboard.
“The neighbours were so loud, I had to think of some way to drown out the racket,” he explained. “I had a piano sitting there looking at me and I was inspired to play again and to make more noise so I couldn’t hear the neighbours anymore!” The upshot was a ‘new career’ for Alistair resulting in a number one classical album and one-man shows offering a mix of piano playing and comedy with suitably hilarious anecdotes.
With the pandemic now beginning to fade in the rear-view mirror, Evesham-born Alistair is bringing his unique mix of classic comedy and classical music to his home region in person with The Piano Show at the Lichfield Festival on Friday 16 July. “In a strange way, the pandemic has meant I have had some welcome time off after years of non-stop working,” he said. “It’s given me a chance to recharge and practice more on the piano and plan my show. Coming back after such a long break to appear in front of a live audience will be nerve-wrecking though for sure.”
Alistair is best remembered for the BAFTA-winning TV show The Big Impression, in which he impersonated everyone who was anyone in the early Noughties. He has worked in theatre and appeared in the West End and at the Royal Shakespeare Company and has twice played Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. He received huge critical acclaim for his performance in the title role in An Audience with Jimmy Savile.
His piano ambitions reached new heights in 2018. Having gone back to the instrument at the age of 49 (after reaching Grade 2 as a nine-year-old), he released The Piano Album – playing 17 short pieces by the likes of Satie, Liszt, Field, Chopin and Mompou – through Sony Classical. The album reached number one in the classical charts. The Piano Show, sees him play13 short pieces, mingled with stories about the composers and his trademark stand-up comedy and impressions.
“I like playing short, romantic and light classical pieces. I like jazz too, but I don’t really have the ability to play jazz,” said Alistair. “And I don’t compose music or anything like that because I don’t have the knowledge to do so. I guess I would say that my enthusiasm for playing the piano is my greatest gift. Lots of people have said that my show inspires them to go back to playing again because I make mistakes when I play. It’s not perfect but they see that if I can play to a reasonable standard, so again could they. I do signings after the show and I love to hear what people like about the show and the music and how I can improve it.”
Alistair says there were two main motivations for creating The Piano Show. The first was going to classical concerts and not being inspired by what he was hearing. “I wanted to hear shorter, lighter and more romantic pieces.” The second, he admits, is “being a terrible show-off”.
Near-neighbour of 20 years – though not one of the noisy ones! – broadcaster and writer Gyles Brandreth, dropped by to hear Alistair’s piano playing. “He said I should combine the playing with some stories and comedy, and the show went from there.”
Returning to the piano in earnest has had some unexpected challenges, though. “Because I have come to the piano late in life, I have had quite a few injuries” said Alistair. “I’ve had to have injections in my arms and dress my fingers because they have become so painful. Now though, I have a very strict teacher and she has ordered me to practice less. The big thing in your mind after coming back after the pandemic is would people want to come to the show. There is a certain amount of trepidation as I prepare for the Lichfield Festival but I just have to stop the demons coming into my head. As a stand-up comic you get used to tripping over your own words, and it is the same with playing. You can get trapped in a piece. But making mistakes is all part of the show and I know how to get around them.”
Alistair says he “couldn’t believe it” when his album hit number one. He believes the kind of music he plays would be perfect for a classical music talent show. “A bit like The Voice,” he says. “It is a great sadness that no one has created such a show.”
Maybe The Piano Show could be ideal for TV instead? “I would love to do something similar on TV with the piano,” said Alistair. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to introduce people to the likes of Bach and Chopin while also mixing in some comedy as well?”
We certainly think it would be a winner!