How do you make an impression on an impressionist?
For Alistair McGowan (English 1986) – comedian, actor, now a talented pianist – one of his clearest Leeds memories is of an “amazing” lecturer called Sandy Viner, a waspish character with a goatee beard who wore a white rollneck sweater. “He looked like The Master from Doctor Who,” Alistair recalls, “and his catchphrase was ‘If you don’t know, LOOK. IT. UP.’” Alistair once arrived late to a lecture on Richard II, whereupon Viner pointed to a blackboard which read “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”.
“He went on and on about it, perhaps for my benefit,” Alistair says, “and I realised there and then, yes, I must never squander my time. That hour was a sermon, really, and I owe him. It might be my happiest memory of Leeds.”
After two decades as Britain’s best-loved impressionist, Alistair is gaining acclaim in another creative area, as an accomplished pianist. He’d neglected the instrument since childhood but returned to it in earnest in 2014. His album ‘The Piano Album’ reached number one in the Official Classical Artist Album Charts.
Alistair recently returned to the University to appear at the Leeds International Piano Competition, along with fellow celebrity players Ed Balls and Sophie Raworth. “I got to perform at the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, a beautiful building I never really entered when I was a student,” he says. “The piano thing is still new to me and to be on-stage talking about it was wonderful.”
Fittingly, “the piano thing” realises an ambition that also goes back to Alistair’s time at Leeds.
A friend, Piers Nichols (English and Philosophy 1986), had spent his year off wandering around France playing the piano for a living.
“I didn’t even know what a year off was, but this was my idea of heaven.” The romance of the keyboard lodged in his head but only in 2014 did he find time to get serious about it. “I’ve played so much over the past four years that it’s become part of my life,” he says. “I just love it.”
His life in Leeds, he says, was consumed by theatre. Alistair grew up in Evesham, Worcestershire, and had dreamed of becoming a footballer until a perceptive drama teacher suggested he try for the school production of A Christmas Carol. “Play after play” followed in high school and beyond. “At university, I can’t remember any of the coursework, just the plays I did. It was all I was interested in.”
Alistair appeared in The Philanthropist, directed by future Coronation Street writer Mark Wadlow (English and Religious Studies 1984) and featuring Peter Morgan (History of Art 1985, DLitt 2016), later to write The Queen and Frost/Nixon and create The Crown for Netflix. “Their brains, their talent really excited me,” says Alistair. “I kept the posters from those plays for years. Sometimes you get a golden clutch of people who push each other to new heights. That certainly happened to me at Leeds. I loved being around those boys.”
Yet he chose the University of Leeds because of Leeds United, the football team he’d loved from afar as a child. A dispiriting first visit to Elland Road as a student for a fractious encounter with Chelsea in 1983 “broke my heart and broke the spell”, but the love affair would be rekindled. Many years after he left Leeds, Alistair brought his father to Elland Road, as a guest of Peter Ridsdale. “And Alf-Inge Haaland asked me for my autograph,” he says, incredulous. “My father died soon afterwards so it was a very emotional day.”
Alistair’s mystical ability to reproduce accents is also largely a Leeds skill, drawn from the Dialect Studies module in his English course. “It was called ‘Variety in Contemporary English’ so of course everyone said, ‘Oooh, you’re studying VICE…’, but it was life-changing for me. I became fascinated by how you use language for power, in journalism, in advertising and the etymology of language.” Listening to a Rugby League crowd when Leeds played Wigan at Headingley became “linguistic heaven”. Later, whenever Alistair wanted to nail an accent, he’d go to a football match and listen to the people around him.
Is there a single memory that crystallises Leeds in his mind? “The snow,” he says simply. “I loved that special cold.” He vividly remembers a friend tossing a snowball through his open bedroom window, a surprise moment of total freedom. “For me, Leeds was about being young with no constraints, and deciding who you want to be. If that 19 year old self could see what I did become, I think he’d just say ‘blimey’!”
Top left: With the BAFTA for Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression
Born Evesham, Worcestershire
Begins BA English degree at Leeds
Appears in numerous productions at Riley Smith and Raven Theatres. Directs Swings and Roundabouts
Starts at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London
First TV series with future comedy partner Ronnie Ancona, The Staggering Stories of Ferdinand de Bargos for BBC
Begins providing voices for ITV’s Spitting Image
Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression with Ancona begins on BBC1
Big Impression wins Best Comedy BAFTA
Returns to dramatic acting in BBC’s Bleak House
Title role in The Mikado
Hosts ITV comedy show You Cannot Be Serious!
Marries Mikado co-performer Charlotte Page
Releases debut album The Piano Album for Sony Classical
Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1
The first piece I seriously tried to master when I came back to the piano. It has very few notes, which is why it’s so appealing to play and to listen to, but it’s incredibly hard to play well.
John Field’s Nocturne No. 2 in C Minor
The precursor to Chopin – Field invented that romantic sound, really. This took me about three and a half years to learn. I’ve sped up a little now.
Claude Debussy’s Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir
The one I’m trying to master now. Debussy is a genius, so precise in his directions. If you don’t hold a note for the correct number of beats, you really notice.
Madeleine Dring’s Blue Air
This is the nearest thing to a Michael Caine 60s movie theme. I’m trying to learn it now, it’s really hard – but I love it.