Alistair McGowan enjoys what he describes as a “slash career”. “I’m a singer/actor/director/writer/stand-up,” he says. However, it was his spot-on impressions that made him a household name.
His Bafta-winning BBC show The Big Impression, created with his ex-girlfriend Ronni Ancona, saw him impersonate David Beckham, Prince Charles, Tony Blair and Dot Cotton among others.
Today, impressions are still part of his stand-up routines but he has a problem in finding celebrities to mimic that everyone recognises.
Sportsmen still go down well – “Mo Farah, Djokovic, Murray” – but television personalities everyone knows are “more and more difficult. When I started, everybody watched the same thing. Now audiences are so fractured.”
He refuses, he says, sitting in a café near his home in salubrious Barnes, south-west London, to do Donald Trump: “I could do the voice fine, but you’d hear real vitriol behind it, so it wouldn’t be funny. They had to stop me doing Jeremy Clarkson for the same reason. I despise people like that, they’re anti everything I believe in.”
In jeans, waistcoat and a pristine white shirt, McGowan’s a thoughtful, charismatic man who fixes you with huge eyes, talking non-stop about what he does believe in – mainly the importance of the natural world and of the arts to inform and console us.
In 2004, after three series, he pulled the plug on The Big Impression, partly because he was “aggrieved” by copycat versions, such as Dead Ringers and Bo Selecta, vying for the audience share, but also because of his despair after his producer requested he watched reality show The Osbournes and prepare a spoof of the programme in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience.
“I hated every second – the characters, the bad language… I thought: ‘What am I doing with my life?’ ” Now, he says, theoretically he’d love to revive The Big Impression. “I’m 51. I don’t want to immerse myself in popular culture.
Other impressionists watch everything, but you’d have to tie me in heavy-duty chains to make me watch Geordie Shore. I managed about a minute of The Kardashians and thought, for heaven’s sake.”
Over the past decade, he’s enjoyed an extraordinarily eclectic career that has included roles at the RSC and in West End musicals (he met his wife, soprano Charlotte Page, when they were both in The Mikado).
He also briefly worked for Radio 5 Live as a tennis commentator (“more challenging than it looks”) and, last year, took the eponymous role in An Audience with Jimmy Savile, a play about the late broadcaster and sexual predator.
Critics described McGowan’s performance as “riveting” and “astounding”. It sounds like a daunting role, but McGowan says that because the play relied heavily on real extracts from TV shows and interviews, he only had to play Savile the showman, rather than Savile the monster.
“Fortunately for me, he never admitted to any of his crimes, so as an actor I didn’t have to admit to them either, to go into the dark side of his psyche. It was harder for the actors who played his victims.”
While some considered the play in poor taste, many of the audience members who had been his victims “found the play cathartic, it brought them closure,” says McGowan. “They were grateful to us for bringing to life, through theatre, things that couldn’t be said through journalism alone, and revealing Savile’s manipulation.”
His latest project, a Prom and a one-man show about the French composer Erik Satie, epitomises McGowan’s recent leftfield career choices. The actor has been obsessed with Satie ever since he was a schoolboy in Evesham, Worcestershire (where his Anglo-Indian father was a headmaster), and heard Satie’s best-known work Gymnopédies No 1, on a Diana Dors TV drama.
“It was so beautiful and so sad, I never forgot it,” he says. In his thirties, McGowan took piano lessons, not only learning to play Satie’s music, but investigating the life of the French eccentric, who was born 150 years ago.
A friend of early surrealists like Cocteau and Man Ray, Satie had quirks that included a period of only eating white food, hoping its purity would inform his music, and buying seven identical yellow corduroy suits (one for each day of the week), which he wore every day for 11 years to avoid sartorial distractions.
“You can’t say he’s a major composer, but his influence on music and his character appeals to people,” says McGowan. It prompted him to write a show, Erik Satie’s Faction, which he’s taking to the Edinburgh Festival in August. First, however, he will present a BBC Satie Prom and also take part in a 21-hour musical marathon at the Cheltenham Music Festival, where pianists in relay will perform Satie’s Vexations – only one page of sheet music, played 840 times.
“It’s such a playful thing to do, but people are more playful than they used to be.”
The title Vexations is thought, partly, to refer to Satie’s misery when his one and only girlfriend left him for a banker. “The chords are so painful and you’re listening to them again and again, just like those feelings when a relationship dies: ‘Will I ever have that love again?’ ”
The title also refers to the piece’s technical challenges. “Just reading it is confusing. There are things like six C flat-flats, and because it keeps going round, you forget what bit you have just done. It’s only a page but it’s impossible to memorise. The concentration required [to play it] is extraordinary.”
McGowan intends to perform for half an hour. “That’s vexing enough. It’s supposed to induce a trance-like state in listeners, so it will be fascinating to see if anyone in the audience manages four or five hours.”
His enthusiasm for Satie is infectious. “This is the happier me, rather than the moaning, bad-tempered me,” he smiles. In the past, McGowan, who has never owned a car, has been a vocal Green and cited overpopulation as one of the reasons he’s never wanted children. Yet, recently, he’s campaigned less.
“I got disillusioned that our message was not reaching people. I have to look after my own happiness. Even so, when I see someone sitting texting in their car with the engine running, often outside a school, I have to quell my instincts to tap on the window and tell them to turn it off.”
With Emma Thompson and his MP Zac Goldsmith, who recently lost the race to be London mayor, he bought a field outside Heathrow in an attempt to block expansion plans. “Zac is an incredibly clued-up, honest person of great integrity, who was badly served by the mayoral process.”
McGowan won’t say how he voted in the EU referendum, but he does say this: “Even before, in my stand-up, I was saying: ‘Why are we being asked this? We elect politicians to do this for us.’ I predicted it would be a single‑issue vote about immigration. But I’m now far more upset about all the vitriol on Twitter than the result.”
Rather than worrying about the wider world, he’s focusing on his work. “Satie is the least commercial thing I’ve ever been involved in, but I’ve never been happier.”
Alistair McGowan takes part in Vexations at the Cheltenham Festival on Friday: 0844 880 8094. A Satie Cabaret is at the Proms on Aug 1: 0845 401 5040; Erik Satie’s Faction will be at the Edinburgh Fringe on Aug 3-28: 0131 556 6550