Alistair McGowan, photograph by Chris Dunlop, courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment UK Limited

Alistair McGowan at the Barnes Music Festival

The impressionist and comedian tells us about his switch to classical musician

Alistair McGowan may be best known for his hugely popular impressions of the likes of David Beckham and Prince Charles, but the stand-up comic is also now an accomplished classical musician. At age 49 he took up the piano and after only four years playing earnestly he released Alistair McGowan; The Piano Album. A Barnes resident for almost 20 years, Alistair says he owes his musical success to Barnes Music Festival; where he first performed to the public and where he returns on 12 March alongside revered pianist Lucy Parham.

Tell us about this year’s show

In Reverie – The Life and Loves of Claude Debussy, Lucy has taken the composer’s letters and their own words and interwoven them with the music. This year is a little more straightforward for me as I am performing the words. They are such enjoyable shows to do not least because I get to listen to Lucy Parham playing fabulous music for free right in my ear. But learning more about the composer and trying to feel a bit of their spirit enter me as I perform their words is a real honour.

What does Barnes Music Festival mean to you?

It’s nerve-racking performing on your doorstep but it’s such a great event. I owe my whole CD and so much of my musical development to Barnes Music Festival really. Daniel Turner, who used to run the festival, heard about my ambition to do a show about Erik Satie and told me to come and perform it at the festival. There is so much talk about inspiring youngsters, which of course is very important, but the festival is what really gave me a goal. When I performed Erik Satie at the festival somebody from Sony Classical was in the audience and said why don’t we do an album.

Have you always played?

I played piano when I was seven or eight but I really didn’t like it. I didn’t respond to it and think I got to Grade Two and gave up. I was a sportsman at heart so went off and played endless sports throughout my youth.

I’ve always loved listening to classical music though. Then I remember being at university and seeing people who could play and thinking I wish I could do that. I played a bit in my 30s but my TV career took off and I had no time to practice. Four years ago, age 49, I met a pianist who said it was never too late to learn. I had always assumed that if you haven’t learned as a child and played all your life you just couldn’t do it. I was really amazed at how much progress was possible with dedication and good teaching. On average I now play two hours a day, sometimes more, occasionally less, but I feel deprived and itchy if I don’t – it’s become an absolute obsession.

Are you touring this year?

This spring I’m performing Introductions to Classical Piano and my Erik Satie show at different venues around the country. Both shows premiered at the Barnes Music Festival in previous years so I do owe them so much.

In Introductions to Classical Piano I play around 14 pieces of music including Debussy, Gershwin, Satie, and I talk a little bit about each composer– an interesting fact or a funny story and I frequently go into a joke from my stand-up act or an impression. So I’ll be talking about how Debussy was labelled an impressionist as a musician – but could he do Jacob Rees-Mogg, I ask [cue the classic uncanny impression].

I think that a lot of musicians today want to try and make classical music more attainable and more interesting. I still go to concerts today that are very dry and full of long pieces and even if a pianist does introduce something they’re often quite nervy. I suppose I think, well, I can’t play as well as they can but I do think this is a way of introducing people to the music and making a concert more of an event.

Some people may say that this is no way to present classical music but if they do then I’m quite pleased because this is a different way of presenting it and I think that’s really important.

I owe the whole CD and so much of my musical development to Barnes Music Festival

Do you get more nervous playing piano?

Yes, definitely. In fact Barnes Music Festival was the first time I’d really played in front of a lot of people and asked them to pay for the ‘privilege’ of doing so. I was so nervous I remember lying on my bedroom floor at 7 o’clock the night of the performance and I just couldn’t calm down. Fortunately my wife has lots of those lavender bags around the house and got me to inhale and it made my whole body relax. Ever since then whenever I do one of my shows I take a little bag of lavender with me.

Why are local cultural events important?

I think anything local is immensely important. I mean even just for environmental reasons so people don’t have to get in a car and drive somewhere. It gets young people involved but there are also a lot of older people who just want to be able to walk to a local venue and see something of quality and to walk back and feel relatively safe and not far from home. Barnes is very good for that throughout the year.

Alistair McGowan – The Piano Album – available now on Sony Classical