Alistair McGowan: ‘A lot of actors are really impressionists’

Daniel Weyman, Alistair McGowan and Maggie Ollerenshaw in rehearsals for 4000 Days. Picture: Rory Li

Daniel Weyman, Alistair McGowan and Maggie Ollerenshaw in rehearsals for 4000 Days. Picture: Rory Lindsay - Credit: Archant

Before the UK premiere of 4000 Days, the actor and comedian tells Alex Bellotti why he’s returning to the Park Theatre soon after his controversial turn playing Jimmy Savile.

It’s hardly taken long for Alistair McGowan to return to the Park Theatre, though this time he arrives with significantly less fanfare. In An Audience With Jimmy Savile, Jonathan Maitland’s controversial production last summer, the actor appeared as the notorious child abuser and describes the atmosphere each night as akin to “being in a boxing ring”.

Comparatively, his involvement in the UK premiere of 4000 Days should be, to excuse the pun, like a walk in the Park. Written by Peter Quilter and directed by Matt Aston, the play centres upon McGowan’s character, Michael, who wakes from a three week coma to find he can’t remember the last 11 years of his life. Struggling to make sense of the situation, Michael is flanked by his boyfriend, Paul (Daniel Weyman), who is battling to save his partner’s memory, while mother Carol (Maggie Ollerenshaw) wants Paul forgotten from their lives forever.

“I think there’s a lot of things here that I’d never really read before in a drama,” says McGowan. “Above all it’s very witty and moving, which are two things that I always like to see. When I read it, I thought that this is a play I’d certainly like to watch, and I think that’s very good criteria for choosing to be in it.”

Describing the character of Michael as “sarcastic and reasonably charming”, McGowan adds that he was first offered the role back in 2014, before the furore surrounding An Audience With Jimmy Savile took over. Despite eventually winning over sceptics with his portrayal of the late paedophile, the 51-year-old was aware of the many concerns the public had over the production’s content and intent, and consequently kept a low profile, staying away from media duties and online discussions.

“Things are so easily misreported these days and before you know it there’s a Twitter storm. I don’t follow Twitter or anything; I’m anti-social media in my way of living. So I was blissfully unaware of anything that was happening, but you are aware that if people pick up the wrong idea about anything it can be blown up out of proportion.

“We had to be very careful and clear that we were doing a play that was tackling a controversial subject, but doing so responsibly without making it salacious or disrespectful and that we had the backing of various child abuse charities including NAPAC, who are one of the biggest.”

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Perhaps best known for his work as an impressionist, particularly with his BAFTA-winning series The Big Impression, McGowan highlights a clear distinction in the way he has prepared for both plays.

“When I’m doing something like an impression – whether it’s in sketches, in stand up or in that play as Jimmy, which was the first time I’d done a play as a real character – I’m trying to sound like a real famous person. When I do dramas, my biggest thing is to not sound like someone famous.

“I remember I did a Scottish play some years ago and everyone said in the reviews, ‘He sounds like Billy Connolly’. It was nothing like Billy Connolly, but because he’s a famous Scot they had to pick someone that I sounded like!”

But does he still draw on impersonation for characters who aren’t famous? “A lot of actors are encouraged – Mike Leigh definitely suggests it among his actors – to basically impersonate and take someone from life, but they just happen to be not famous.

“Obviously you’re delving a little bit deeper into their souls than most impressionists do, but playing this role, I’ve got several people in mind – friends, acquaintances, people I work with – who remind me of Michael. It’s also an extension of how you think you would be yourself as a gay man who’d been in a coma for three weeks with a slightly eccentric mother. That’s what acting is really.”

Having studied as an actor at drama school before getting “sidelined into comedy”, McGowan admits that theatre remains his first love. Beyond 4000 Days, he is channelling another passion, classical music, into a radio play and a documentary about the 19th century pianist John Field, before taking another show about French composer Erik Satie to Edinburgh.

With both feet seemingly stuck in drama for the foreseeable future, he stresses he is still keen to maintain the variety of his 25 year career.

“When I was a kid they’d always have circuses on television and there’d be a plate spinner who’d have six or seven plates on sticks and would have to keep them going. That’s always how I’ve really seen my career: there’s a plate which is impressions and stand up, a plate that’s TV, another which is bits on radio, then there’s theatre, musicals, personal happiness, writing and another plate which is voiceover work.

“There’s no calculated plan, but I just try to keep them all spinning because I enjoy them all.”

4000 Days runs at the Park Theatre from January 14 until February 14. Visit