Alistair McGowan: Piano Man

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Written byClaire Hunte

It was delightful meeting Alistair McGowan recently. He met Lucy and me at the Assembly Rooms to chat about his upcoming Ludlow Piano Festival on 24-28 May.

Time flew as our conversation flowed easily, discussing his discovery of Ludlow (serendipity), how he rediscovered his love of the piano (mainly down to some noisy neighbours), a favourite composer (Erik Satie), the line-up of famous friends who are briefly joining him (alongside a clutch of leading classical pianists) for his first piano festival. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

C: What drew you to Ludlow from London? Did you know anything about our town before choosing it as your home?
A: I grew up in Evesham. So, I was vaguely aware of Ludlow when I was at school but it wasn’t until I did a gig here in 2008 that I finally came to the town. I wandered around, pre-show, as touring comics do, and thought, ‘What a lovely place, this is !’ It wasn’t just one nice bit ; it was street after street. I then played Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury in 2019 (with my Piano Show) and my wife said ‘Why don’t I come with you, and we can both go on to Ludlow?’

About a month later, while on a train up to Evesham to visit my mum, we saw a property section of a newspaper that happened to have been left open on picture of a beautiful house. And it was in Ludlow! My wife suggested we viewed it. We weren’t really expecting to move but we fell in love at first sight – knowing we already loved the town. Looking into Ludlow further, we saw that it ticked all our boxes: having places to play snooker, swim, play tennis and see ‘art house’ films. And we saw that the church and other places in the town and its environs hosted classical music events. It was ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship’! Shrewsbury is also a fantastic and quietly busy place, and you can get there in just half an hour on the train – when they’re running!

We’ve been here for three years now and I have even done a few gigs and included some ‘local’ material. For instance, I never thought, after 30 years of living in London, I would ever get to a stage in life where I’d go to Shrewsbury and think, ‘Isn’t it big?! The Boots has got two floors!’

C: Ok, talk to us about why the piano.
A: I’ve had a long relationship with the piano because my mother played when I was a boy. I used to love hearing her practising show tunes for when she accompanied the Evesham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (EAODS) and occasionally she’d play something classical. She encouraged my sister, Kay, and me to have lessons. I stood it for two years and, stupidly, packed it in as I just wanted to play football and tennis. So I gave it up at the age of nine, having done my grade II – in Cheltenham.

Then, just before I went to university, I suddenly started becoming aware of all this fabulous piano music. I heard a snippet of what I learnt was Rachmaninov’s Second piano Concerto in the Marilyn Monroe film, ‘The Seven Year Itch’ and a whole world was opened up to me. Everyone else at Leeds University was into The Cure and Iggy Pop and whatever else while all I wanted to listen to was Grieg, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff.

I finally got into playing properly, aged 49! We also had some very noisy neighbours – a Dutch family with four teenage children in a semi-detached house. I thought how can I show them how thin the walls are?

I met a fellow student who had spent a year touring around France, playing the piano in bars to earn his keep. I thought it sounded like heaven but assumed it was too late for me to learn. But I tinkered a little throughout my life, and finally, when TV and theatre work dried up, to be honest, I finally got into playing properly, aged 49! We also had some very noisy neighbours – a Dutch family with four teenage children in a semi-detached house. I thought how can I show them how thin the walls are? How much we hear their arguments and rows? And the indoor hockey?

So, I’m not proud to say that part of my return to playing was ‘revenge piano’! I started playing this loud Chopin prelude hoping it would shut them up. It didn’t at all! But from then (2015) onwards, I was hooked, finally, and just started playing one piece after another.

Erik Satie was a composer I had always adored. I remember hearing his famous ‘Gymnopedie no 1’ on a TV drama when I was about 7 (my mum identified it for me) and that piece had been on my mental list ever since. I looked into his very unusual life and wanted to do a show about him, which I finally did at the Edinburgh Fringe, in 2016, where I played some of his simpler pieces and performed some of his comedy writings.

Before I went to Edinburgh, I did an early preview, playing just the two pieces I’d mastered (a pianist friend played the others) to see if the show worked. A producer from Sony Classical was there and heard me playing these two pieces and asked my agent if I would like to do an album. I said I couldn’t do an album with two pieces. And my agent said, ‘These deals don’t come along very often; learn some more.’ So, I went back to pieces I’d fiddled around with over the years, and within six months, with the dedicated help of the renowned concert pianist, Anthony Hewitt, I recorded 34 short pieces over six months.

Happily, Anthony was the first person who agreed to do a concert for me when I had the idea of doing a Ludlow Piano Festival. In fact, all the recitalists who are coming to the festival have played some part in my piano journey.

L: That’s my next question, how on earth, amongst all your celebrity friends, did you cherry-pick the ones with a talent for piano?
A: Well, Lucy Parham, with whom I’m doing the opening concert (Rachmaninov- Élégie: A Heart in Exile)  got in touch with me when I started to play asking if I’d take part in a ‘celebrity concert’ in London. So, I learned a piece for her. It was the first time I’d played in public and it was a terrifying experience! I did about five celebrity events for Lucy in London with other celebrities, so I got to know quite a few of the famous faces who also played. Due to ever-changing commitments, the list of celebrities playing in our Ludlow curtain-raiser is constantly changing but it will be a good show and is already sold out and could have sold three times over.

L:  Have you all been aware of each other since then?
A: You realise there is an underworld of amateur pianists. Some famous in other fields, yes. But there are plenty of amateur piano nuts nationwide, really. Some of whom we saw on the recent hit Channel 4 programme, ‘The Piano’. But, look, the celebrity event is just one show among many we are putting on. There will be some good ‘celebrity’ pianists on show but it’s four days then of professionals who are in a class of their own!

L: We are excited about the celebrity lineup. Who are the people coming?
A: Rachel Parris has featured on ‘The Mash Report’ and appears regularly on radio programmes like ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’ and ‘Just a Minute’ and has performed on ‘Live at the Apollo’. Rachel is an excellent pianist. She did a music degree at Oxford and plays beautifully. Katie Derham: people will know Katie from her turn on ‘Strictly’ and as a presenter at The BBC Proms and as a regular presenter of Radio 3’s ‘In Tune’. She also plays beautifully. Sarah Walker, has been a Radio 3 presenter for years, has a lovely Sheffield accent and again plays very elegantly. Duncan Wisbey I used to know years ago. He works on ‘Dead Ringers’ on Radio 4 and is a very accomplished musician; he’s playing his own arrangement of a piece by William Walton. And the list goes on … But, as I say, that is one concert among 17!

L: What do you hope people will take away from the festival?
A: Playing the piano changed my life at 49. When you hear improvement and think, ‘I am much better at this now than I was last year, last month, or even last week,’ it’s a wonderfully rewarding feeling. If anyone asks my advice for taking up the piano later in life, I would say play pieces that you like. Doing exams is fine for some but you do have to spend a lot of time on music that may not really resonate with you, inspire you, move you.

So, I hope above all that the Ludlow Piano festival will introduce some people to the instrument for the first time, will introduce others to new music and new pianists who I hope they will want to follow or emulate! Above all, I hope people enjoy as many of the concerts as they can see. There’s a wide variety of musical styles on offer – music from the early 1700s to the present day.

I’m just so pleased that so many excellent leading pianists who have played at top venues all around the world were happy to come to Ludlow to create what should be a stunning and emotional four days of classical piano in our three fabulous venues – and also on the streets!

We hope to get two pianos – one in the Buttercross and one in the Market Square, which anyone can come along and play – and hear being played. There are some outstanding amateur pianists who I know are coming to watch who will bring music, and they will play the street pianos. And we hope anyone in Ludlow or from Ludlow will also be moved to have a go and give us some of their favourite piano music – of any sort. It’s such a versatile instrument!

Hopefully, there will be something for everyone! Young and old. It should be a fabulous few days!

It’s a hot programme for music lovers across four venues around Ludlow from 24-28 May. And includes: Lucy Parham, Charles Owen, Anne Lovett, Viv McLean, Paul Roberts, Anthony Hewitt, Benjamin Frith, Christina McMaster, Joanna McGregor and James Lisney, playing a mixture of pieces by Chopin, Gershwin, Grieg, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Mompou, Liszt, Scriabin, Satie, and Ravel (as well as original work). Comedian, musician and conductor Rainer Hersch will perform his hilarious and heart-warming tribute to his idol, Victor Borge. 

Tickets and passes are on sale or take advantage of the Trio Early Bird Offer.