COMEDY is still part of the picture - but Alistair McGowan has found new joy and purpose by 'coming out' as a pianist. He talks to Gabrielle Fagan.

ALISTAIR McGowan's famous for his brilliant impressions - remember his and Ronni Ancona's 'Posh & Becks', in their hugely successful BBC One show Big Impression in the early-Noughties? Countless famous faces, from Boris Johnson to Gary Lineker, got the McGowan treatment over the years - but his recent transformation into a successful classical pianist is perhaps his most surprising and dramatic yet.

Despite his late entry into the musical world, the 54-year-old performed at The Proms in 2016, his album - Alistair McGowan: The Piano Album - went to No 1 in the classical charts the following year, and he's currently touring the UK, and coming to the region, with Introductions to Classical Piano, his new show.

He hasn't given up comedy or 'the voices' entirely (in fact, a string of 'stars' still regularly 'appear' throughout his musical performances), but says he's found his "real identity" through music.

"I loved the piano as a child but gave it up when I was nine, because my passion for football was greater," he explains. "I started playing again in my 30s but really got back into it again seriously five years ago after a music teacher encouraged me. I'd thought I was too old to have any hope of a career in it. I practise for around five hours a day. It's really satisfying hearing these pieces of music coming through me and my fingers. I find it very moving and can't quite believe it sometimes.

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"I'm realistic about where I am in the pecking order of musicians - I'm way below concert pianist level - but the great thing is, you're always learning and improving, which is what I love about it. "Last year, I even took my Grade Five theory exam alongside a load of 10-year-old children - the average age you sit it - and I thought, 'I bet I'm the only person in the room with a classical album released by Sony!'"

The new career means a lot to McGowan, who says he's found his real identity through it. "I've never been a comic/impressionist who's shown a lot of myself," he says. "If you do impressions, you generally are hiding behind someone else, certainly on television. One of the worst heckles I experienced at a stand-up was someone shouting, 'Tell us about you!' I thought, 'Err, I don't know about me, I only exist through these other people and if I'm doing funny voices. I only make people laugh if I'm doing someone else'.

"Nowadays, without being flippant, I feel I've 'come out' as someone who likes the piano, and I only play pieces that mean a lot to me and resonate with me. Certainly doing this show, I feel the happiest I've ever felt both on stage and off, really. It's nerve-racking but immensely rewarding."

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Music gives him the same thrill as making people laugh, says McGowan. "Hearing even just one person in the audience at the end of a piece go, 'Ahhh', means you've reached them and they've been moved, and that's thrilling and fulfilling. It's a different artistic experience to comedy, but as satisfying as any laugh from 3,000 people at a comedy gig at the Hammersmith Apollo."

Through the show he hopes to give people something new. It's a classical piano recital, where he plays around 14 short pieces by composers from Bach to 21st century composers, and in between talks about things he's gleaned about composers and their work, and also does some impressions.

"There are plenty of voices, including Roger Federer, Professor Brian Cox, Andy Murray, characters from TV's Dad's Army, footballer Harry Kane, while Jo Brand, David Mitchell and Frank Skinner may get in there as well," he says. "I'm not playing the piano for laughs. I play the music in an emotional and romantic way, and in between interject comedy."

McGowan has been with wife Charlie for ten years. "From the first time we met really, she was very happy for me to be 'me'," he says. "Of course, compromise is important, but she's been a huge influence on me, very supportive, and wonderfully understanding about living with someone who plays the piano constantly. It's noisy, repetitive, and there can be ugly noise along with the lovely noise - but she never gives me a hard time about it.

The multi-talented McGowan gets mystified by a lot of the new comedy now, and says he was brought up with a different morality. "I've done things where I swore a bit on stage, or talked about sex a bit, but it seems like all the barriers are down now," he says. "I watch a lot of comedy on television and I go, 'Are you seriously allowed to say that? Are we allowed to laugh at that?' Suddenly I've got too old to listen to a lot of it.

"Years ago when I was starting out with Ronni Ancona, I once said to her mother: 'Isn't One Foot In The Grave the most brilliant sitcom you've ever seen?' She was then in her mid-50s and said: 'The trouble is, when you get to my age, you've heard all the jokes'. At the time, I thought, 'That's a ridiculous thing to say', but as I approach her age, I feel I have heard all the jokes.

"Having said that, there are people I really admire. Frank Skinner's a genius, I loved Ronnie Barker when I was young, and someone who's one of the best comedians I've ever seen is Seann Walsh. He's quality."