HE IS best known as an impressionist but Alistair McGowan is a man of many talents.
He has also written and directed, starred in West End musicals, and has had a thriving career as a straight actor in works by everyone from Alan Bennett to William Shakespeare.
“I never get bored,” says Alistair. “Possibly because I never give myself the chance to get bored.”
So it’s not too much of a surprise to find him having a second go at the role of Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s comedy about class and society, which famously made it to the big screen as My Fair Lady.
Alistair’s first encounter with the character came when took over from Rupert Everett for the final three weeks of a West End run three years ago.
He says he took that on at short notice and is very happy to re-visit the part of Higgins in the story which sees the aristocratic and egocentric professor of phonetics make a bet with his friend, the amiable Colonel Pickering, that he can transform the manners and speech of Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and pass her off as a lady in society.
Alistair says: “I like him, I know him and we both share an interest in the specifics of the smallest sounds, and we are both fascinated by what accent can say about who we are. We still make judgements about people, based on how they sound: you hear someone speak and within a couple of sentences, it says something about their background.”
Alistair says he’s fascinated by the weighty issues of class and your place in society that Pygmalion takes on.
“I believe that what is important for Shaw and for Higgins is the place which each one of us occupies on the ladder,” he says. “Shaw asks if you can take a person like Eliza from one section of society and introduce her into another world. Will they be happy in this new milieu?
“We’ve been talking in rehearsal about Frankenstein, about The X Factor and what happens when people win the Lottery. Look at Eliza’s father, for example. Doolittle was much happier as a dustman. Now he’s come into money, he doesn’t want it.”
Shaw’s ideas about the organisation of society and the way in which accent can reveal our place within the social structure are no less relevant today, when social mobility has all but ground to a halt.
“I think the key to Higgins and to an extent the key to Shaw is something my father instilled in me,” argues Alistair. “The important thing in life is not having good manners or bad manners but having the same manners. You should treat everybody with the same consideration.”
As for Alistair he gave up his place in society as an impressionist to try all kinds of other things and he’s very happy with the decision – even if it means he’s less well known and earning less money than when he was a TV regular.
“I love taking on a challenge in life and I like learning new things,” he declares. “I also enjoy the challenge of not doing the obvious.”
But, having walked away from the BBC after four series of The Big Impression, he adds: “You don’t realise until it’s too late that there are certain rules which you have to follow in this business. Nobody tells you that when you walk away, the door will be firmly closed when you next come calling.”
But next he’s planning a show based on the life and work of Noel Coward, and says: “I’m content to continue as I am, dipping my toes into the sullied waters of showbiz.”
Alistair McGowan appears in Pygmalion at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, from April 7 until April 12.