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It’s all about speaking proper, innit Pygmalion star Alistair McGowan on becoming Professor Henry Higgins Miles Jupp • We love Wes • Cambridge Band Competition 2014 • Gob Squad

20 | February 27, 2014 | | Cambridge News


Alistair McGowan:

‘What we say and how we say it still says an awful lot about who we are’ As George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion celebrates its 100th anniversary with a run at Cambridge Arts Theatre, ELLA WALKER quizzes the star impressionist on Boris Johnson, baking for Paul Hollywood and talking proper, innit.


LISTAIR McGowan likes clocks. He bought his second, a very nice one apparently, in Cambridge when he was 24. “I’ve just always found them very beautiful things,” he explains simply. It’s not quite what you expect from the bushy-browed 49-year-old, and BAFTA award-winning star of The Big Impression, but then, if you think about it, he’s rather like a clock himself. Except, instead of time he tells stories, and instead of tick-tocks, his inner mechanical cogs whir along knocking out ridiculously brilliant impressions; just remember his David Beckham. But impressions and clocks are not why he’s returning to Cambridge this month. McGowan is reprising his role as the great Professor Henry Higgins in the Theatre Royal Bath’s 100th anniversary tour of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. A witty exploration of class and gender, it’s the basis of My Fair Lady (don’t say you don’t know it), and follows the phonetics-obsessed professor as he tries to get cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Rachel Barry with the unenviable task of trying to step out of the shadow of Audrey Hepburn), to pass for a duchess at a very fancy party. The question is, will she assert her own independence or simper along with the challenge? McGowan first played Higgins in the West End two-and-a-half years ago, stepping in last minute for a too-busy Rupert Everett, and the producers rather liked him. He didn’t need much persuading to get into coat tails either: “I’d always been fascinated by accents and how people spoke, even at that age,” McGowan buzzes, describing the impact seeing My Fair Lady had on him as a child. “I actually didn’t think about playing the part, I just thought

I would like to be Henry Higgins in real life. I’d like to be able to study people’s accents and I would love to be able to, as he says himself, place any man within six miles.” Graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he only went and did it, breaking out thanks to ITV’s satirical puppet show Spitting Image and then teaming up with fellow impressionist Ronni Ancona. It all rather kicked off. . . He’s dedicated his career to decoding and reproducing other people’s voices, he really is a modern day Higgins, on and off stage. And, on the topic of speech and speaking correctly – if there is such a thing – the fascination hasn’t waned; he’s still utterly absorbed. “It’s an issue that never really goes away,” McGowan says thoughtfully. “People have been doing surveys recently saying can you expect people to get a job, a good job, if they still end their sentences with ‘innit’? And should they learn a different way of speaking if they want to have a job, even in a call centre or wherever it may be; do they need to lose that way of talking? “What we say and how we say it, still says an awful lot about who we are and still influences where we end up in society.” It explains why Pygmalion – which also stars TV royalty Rula Lenska and Jamie Foreman (EastEnders’ Derek Branning) – is still so relevant, but all this talk on the art of elocution does make McGowan sound far more

Editor: Paul Kirkley Writer: Ella Walker Email:

SHAW THING: Alistair McGowan as Professor Henry Higgins with Rula Lenska, Jamie Foreman and Rachel Barry

serious than he is. Despite being a comedian and, as a rule, comedians tend to be disappointingly flat and unfunny in reality, he answers the phone with a wry “hello, hello”, switching into ‘street talk’ and peppering his sentences with said ‘innits’. He constantly plays with language and tone, but with a silliness that makes you feel like you aren’t going to be tripped up by his verbal acrobatics. Alistair McGowan is basically a lovely, incredibly generous, likeable chap. Take the fact he happily plunges straight into his latest Pygm impersonation (“My favourite is Cam alion, always my newest one,”) without Theatre bridge Ar ts , being pushed; suddenly I find Wedne Febru s myself interviewing Raymond March ary 26 – Satuday, 8 rday at 7 £15-£3 Blanc: “Oh la la!” He actually 5 from .45pm. Tick , tried it out on Blanc himself cambri (01223) 5 ets 03333 dgeart sth / at Christmas: “I couldn’t work purcha se-tick eatre. out for the rest of the evening online.c whether he’d liked it or not!” Slithering out of character,

McGowan explains: “When you get a new person it’s like a toy really. You can’t stop playing with it for a little while, and then a new one comes along. . .” The one person he really can’t get the knack of though is David Cameron. Rory Bremner will be relieved. “It is nice to at least be able to do your country’s leader for whatever purposes and I just can’t get anywhere near him so I don’t bother,” he says ruefully. “But I do [as Boris] do a very good Boris Johnson instead, so if I need to say something about government or right-wing policies, I use Boris as that mouthpiece, he’s much more fun! Much more interesting! In every sense.” Born in Evesham, Worcestershire, McGowan’s career has spun off into radio, writing, stand-up, acting, environmental campaigning, commentating at Wimbledon and even, um, baking. Really, he was a serious hit on this year’s Great Sport Relief Bake Off, producing some very

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Cambridge News | | February 27, 2014 | 21

ONE MORE THING... Can we hope for a new series of The Big Impression? “Well I’d never say no,” says Alistair

dodgy pastry but a brilliant blue cheese pizza. “Haha that was huge fun,” he says merrily. “I was quite buzzing after that for a few days, I don’t know whether it was because I won my round or not, but I think I would have been buzzing anyway.” Talking of winning, has he taken his Star Baker pinny off yet? “I sleep in it every night,” he laughs, before diplomatically navigating being made to pick a favourite between Paul and Mary. “Paul’s got that cheeky smile and you know he’s going to be honest, but at the same time it’s about cakes, it’s not anything personal. I think if you were on it and it was your livelihood, you’d be terrified of them, but because we were on there and it was just a bit of fun, you still feel the fear but it’s not going to change your life!” In terms of moments that have changed his life – well, high moments at least – McGowan finds it a tad trickier than wielding a wooden spoon. After some umming and ahhing and “boy oh boys” he finally says: “Weirdly, in terms of Royal Variety Shows or 8million rated TV shows, performing in front of 200 people at Chipping Norton and doing so well was probably it.” Yep, a stand-up gig in Chipping Norton; not that Olivier award nomination for Little Shop of Horrors, just a tiny, intimate comedy gig in the Midlands. . . I told you he was wa delightful. Then again, there was that time he T starred in Merry Wives: the Musical sta opposite Judi Dench and Simon o Callow at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. “I’d always watched things there as a child,” he remembers. “I used to go quite a lot and dream of being on that stage so it’d taken some time, it was about 25 years later, but to finally be there on that opening night, with a full house, singing n and an doing Shakespeare, that was probably the biggest, biggest thrill.” pr But, B he adds: “Because it was such a thrill I got very nervous and didn’t enjoy a minute of it! The thing is, when you min start to t enjoy it, you lose where you are which is what happened, I got completely lost, dry mouthed!” Let’s hope he enjoys Pygmalion just the right amount.

Alistair McGowan  

Alistair McGowan

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