Alistair McGowan – your questions answered on piano, football and why he'll never impersonate Trump

Last modified: 01: 12 PM GMT+0

The TV comic revealed how much he had to practise for his new album of piano classics, who he’s most asked to impersonate, and why he’s not as big a Leeds supporter as people think

That's all we have time for

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

Thank you for your questions. Time for some toast.

My funniest moment

SundridgePete asks:
What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever done, and is it worth watching?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

I did two football videos called Football Backchat in the late 90s. I think there is a clip on YouTube of me re-voicing Les Ferdinand as if he is auditioning for a Bond film. I think that may be my funniest moment. Having said that, I'm hoping The Piano Album is more Katherine Jenkins than Florence Foster Jenkins.

saidzebedee asks:
Are you comfortable impersonating a black person, or an Asian (i.e. Jamaican, Indian accents)?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

Yes, of course. Certainly in my stand-up act. It would be strange to ignore voices of people on television and in film simply because of their colour.

Tarantella says:
The episode of Who Do You Think You Are? where you discovered your part-Indian heritage was, for me, one of the best of all the explorations in genealogy. How has it affected your sense of identity?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

I had never felt a need to belong to any particular group, changing the football club I supported is evidence of that. I've also jumped around in my career from actor to impressionist to writer and now to pianist. I often wondered why I did not feel the need to belong and wondered if it was a weakness in me. Doing Who Do You Think You Are? made me realise that I came from generations of people (on my father's side) who had not really belonged. It was a comfort to me that this genetic trait may explain my fleet-footed attitude to life.

'I'm not drawn to impersonate Trump'

mugsey asks:
Do you not find yourself desperate to do Trump?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

A lot of people do him very well. Especially Rory Bremner and the not-well-known-enough Lewis MacLeod. I have not been drawn to do Trump simply because to get an impression right you have to listen endlessly to that person and I cannot bring myself to listen to that awful man for a second longer than I have to. Call me a coward, if you will.

TheSentinel asks:
Can you do Jacob Rees-Mogg, because you look a bit like him?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

Funny you should say that. He is on my list of people to do. All new voices have been put largely on the back burner for the last year while I've been absorbed in the piano project.

jimble675 asks:
Do you think people who have studied in Leeds should have a natural affinity for Leeds United?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

As a student in Leeds in the 1980s, I was surprised how many of the people I met there had chosen to go to Leeds because they had supported Don Revie's legendary Leeds United team. I was one of them. Controversially, once the the players associated with that great team left the club, it didn't feel like my Leeds anymore. I switched my allegiance to Coventry City, who were my nearest team when I was in my late teens. I now follow neither with anything more than a passing interest. I have been misrepresented online as being an ardent Leeds United supporter. It was the Revie era when I was totally absorbed by the club. Sorry to disappoint! It would be great to see them both back in the Premier League - I think Leeds will get there ahead of The Sky Blues.

Revie’s Leeds … the 1972 FA Cup winners.
Revie’s Leeds … the 1972 FA Cup winners. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images


The challenge of the album: feeling progress was thrilling

Chris Lloyd asks:
Who plays Chopin better between you and Alan Rusbridger?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

I read Alan Rusbridger's book about trying to conquer the Ballade and found it very inspiring. There is no doubt that he is at a much more advanced level than I am. There are lots of amateur pianist I've been on courses with - the majority of them were better than me. I'm well aware of just how fortunate I am to have had the chance to make an album. I was careful to choose pieces that I felt were potentially within my grasp. Having the challenge of the album, was the biggest incentive to improve during the nine months that I had to rehearse and record it - and feeling and hearing that progress was absolutely thrilling. I would urge any amateur pianist to set themselves time-related goals. There is nothing like pressure for making you practise.

How Alan Rusbridger learned to play Chopin’s first Ballade


davidabsalom asks:
Why didn’t you do series two of Leonardo?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

It clashed with a show that I was working on for ITV called You Cannot Be Serious for which I had great hopes. YCBS was great fun to do, was moved around the schedules and largely flopped after one six-part series. There was some good stuff in it but maybe I should have done the second series of Leonardo after all.

Cammy100 writes:
I saw your Erik Satie show last year in Edinburgh and it was truly wonderful. How technically difficult are Satie piano pieces to play, or is it more about getting the mood right? (Either way I have to say you absolutely nailed it.)

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

I'm thrilled you liked the show. Certainly Satie's three Gymnopedies and his Gnossiennes 1-4 are fairly straight forward (Gnossienne 2 is probably the easiest). I made the mistake of thinking his Cold Piece (Danse de travers iii) was straight forward and never got through it without a mistake somewhere in the 28 Edinburgh shows. But, yes, the mood is everything with Satie.

Geoffbill asks:
I find it hard to keep up interest in my piano playing as I don’t know where to find the music or what to choose. Do you have a playlist related to your album or a reference/ biography? I can play up to grade 4/5. I don’t have a teacher at the moment.

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

This is the main reason why I was happy to do The Piano Album. I really hope the pieces I have chosen will appeal to somebody of your level. Do find a teacher. They will, at the very least, teach you how to get the best out of your practice time. There is a playlist related to the album which will guide you to other similar pieces. My chosen pieces are probably easier. I always look for something with the words lent or adagio at the top. That helps!

LedBoots asks:
Who won the FA Cup in 1942?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

Trick question there was no FA Cup between 1939 and 1946. Portsmouth, I believe, won it in 1939 and held the trophy for six years. A record. Acquiring facts like that is why I didn't study the piano when I was younger.

… and a 1939 Portsmouth fan.
A 1939 Portsmouth fan. Photograph: Stephenson/Getty Images


elephantwoman says:
I’m currently trying to learn to play the piano by ear, but am finding it really hard going. Do you think I should start using my fingers…

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

It does help but do cut your nails first. If you persist in playing by ear, it's also best to de-hair them.

ThreeGirlRumba asks:
If you were stuck on a desert island forever, would you have the television and film comedy output of Europe or the USA? You obviously have an ever working TV!

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

If I had to make a choice I would rather have a radio. And I would listen to classical music all day long, although I would switch to the sports coverage for the football on a Saturday afternoon.

JayRayner, restaurant critic and pretty good pianist too, asks:
How regularly do you curse NOT having got a full grounding in the piano when you were a kid, by practising for hours then, when your brain was like a sponge and your fingers’ ability to develop muscle memory was intense?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

I do wish I'd learnt more then. But I was convinced by a wonderful young musician called Lucy Colquhoun that it is never too late and the best thing about taking up/going back to the piano in later life is that you know more music and know what you want to play. And you possibly play it with more feeling after all that life has thrown at you by the age of 52.

MarkelG asks:
Can you recommend a funny programme?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

I was a huge fan of Morgana Robinson's last series The Agency. I thought her impersonations were brilliant, the material was original, very funny, well written and unusually moving. When I met her recently, I was very sorry to hear the series had not been recommissioned. It was a work of genius on the part of all involved.

The Guardian liked it too: read our review.

25aubrey asks:
Have you ever conned yourself by persisting with an impersonation your not overly comfortable with doing? but do it all the same.

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

Frequently. As impressionists, we all know that certain impressions we do are better than others. I for several years did an impression in my act of Michael Portillo which was not very accurate. I used it to illustrate a point about how surprised he was that the industry in the towns he went to on his train programme had vanished, when perhaps governments he was involved with might have been responsible for that. I couldn't miss the opportunity. The gag worked better in places like Chorley than it did in Tunbridge Wells.

Behind you … Portillo and train.
Behind you … Portillo and train. Photograph: John Hall/BBC/Boundless Productions/John Hall

Alan Ween asks:
Which impression are you pestered to do most?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

Definitely Richard Madeley, with David Beckham a close second. Requests happen less and less now!

DWFan1 asks:
What’s your favourite Pixar film?

User avatar for AlistairMcGowan Guardian contributor

WALL-E. It's witty, profound, poignant and images of it have stayed with me ever since. I still see overweight people flying around in cars in my ever-approaching nightmares.

We're off

Alistair McGowan in The Guardian offices.
Alistair McGowan in The Guardian offices. Photograph: Tim Jonze/The Guardian

Post your questions for Alistair McGowan

Who’s the hardest person to impersonate? David Beckham? Boris Johnson? Or could it be Johann Sebastian Bach? This seems to be the challenge Alistair McGowan set himself with The Piano Album, his new collection of solo piano works that represent something of a curveball for the TV mimic.

McGowan was not a renowned concert pianist when he took on the task of recording The Piano Album, but much like mastering a new voice or a new set of mannerisms, he devoted himself to the practice. And after rehearsing for up to six hours each day for nine months, he finally got a grip on the instrument that had eluded him since he was a boy. The point of putting an album out, he says, is to “encourage people of any age to play the piano, but perhaps particularly those at an age where it’s easy to think that it’s all too late”.

It’s not McGowan’s first foray into the musical world. His 2016 show, Erik Satie’s-faction, was based upon the French composer’s humorous writings, and prompted him to learn some of Satie’s delicate pieces. But it’s safe to say that The Piano Album sees McGowan stepping out of his natural habitat of impressionist work – he’s best-known as the writer and voice artist behind The Big Impression and has a well-stocked awards cabinet to show for it.

You can grill McGowan on all things piano and impressions – indeed, all things anything, from his obsessive love of Leeds United to his environmental work and quest to discover his true heritage – on Wednesday 4 October at 1pm, when he joins us in the Guardian office for a webchat. Simply post your questions for him below!


The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ralf Little webchat – your questions answered on football, The Royle Family and Caroline Aherne
The actor and producer joined us live from the National Theatre to weigh in everything from his most-coveted role to which packet of crisps goes best with two pints of lager

28, Feb, 2017 @1:14 PM

Article image
Miles Jupp webchat – your questions answered on comedy, class and Balamory
The comedian, actor and News Quiz host discussed bias at the BBC, his well-loved children’s television show, and the geography of Mozambique

21, Sep, 2016 @1:19 PM

Article image
Harry Shearer webchat – your questions answered on the Simpsons, Spinal Tap and getting political
The actor and podcaster discussed everything from satirising Trump, cucumbers v courgettes, and the day Michael Jackson didn’t sing

23, Nov, 2016 @2:21 PM

Article image
Josh Widdicombe webchat – your questions answered on politics, fans, and the best of Blur
The standup comedian and Last Leg host fielded your questions on niche 90s football references, ribbing Devon for a living and how much of a posh boy he is exactly

06, Dec, 2016 @2:09 PM

Article image
Adrian Edmondson webchat – your questions answered on Rik Mayall, hate mail and what's in a Peperami
The former Young One revealed who he’d like to thwack with a frying pan, his guitar battles with heavy metal legends and what he makes of today’s sitcoms

11, Oct, 2017 @10:13 AM

Article image
Alice Lowe webchat – your questions answered on folk horror, Sightseers and sexy golf
The Prevenge and Chubby Funny star answered your questions on working with Ben Wheatley, being weird in moon boots and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

05, May, 2017 @1:14 PM

Article image
John Shuttleworth webchat – your questions answered on Eurovision, pease pudding and Robbie Williams
The comedic Sheffield organist joined us to answer your questions in a live webchat, covering everything from his favourite organs to the best way to wear a cardigan

09, Jan, 2017 @2:49 PM

Article image
'I'm still in the game': Sandra Bernhard on stage fright, The King of Comedy and not running for president
The comic, singer and actor, performing in the UK for the first time in seven years, answered your questions

19, Feb, 2018 @2:14 PM

Article image
Ben Bailey Smith on groovy dancing, UK rap stars and quiz show hell
The rapper, standup and actor – AKA Doc Brown – answered your questions on writing children’s books, the best of British hip-hop, Brexit confusion and rapping with Ricky Gervais

Guardian TV

22, Jan, 2019 @2:09 PM

Article image
Woody Harrelson webchat – your questions answered on Cheers, Trump and quitting dope
The Hollywood star answered questions on English football, Clarence Darrow, living in Hawaii and directing his film, Lost in London, in one take

01, May, 2017 @1:10 PM