This year, a century after it was first published, George Bernard Shaw’s iconic play, Pygmalion, returns to the stage with a magnificent cast, beautiful costumes and an enchanting, timeless story to tell. The delightful romantic comedy about a pompous professor of phonetics and his stubborn Cockney student, Eliza, has delighted generations, famously spawning the musical My Fair Lady.
Back in the role of Henry Higgins is impressionist, actor and comedian Alistair McGowan, who took over the role from Rupert Everett during Pygmalion’s London run in 2011. Admittedly, playing the language-obsessed professor hasn’t required a great stretch of the imagination, as McGowan explains:
“It feels very familiar; it’s a man who’s fascinated by language and accents, and that’s what I’ve made my career out of over the last 25 years.”
On meeting the coarse Eliza Doolittle, and shrinking from her screechy east-end tones, Higgins declares that, with a little vocal training, he can pass her off as a society lady. It’s an appealing prospect for Eliza, who dreams of becoming a shop girl – something her accent would never allow. Being held back by the way you speak seems a terribly Victorian idea, but McGowan believes it’s just as relevant today as ever.
“Maybe once a year someone does a feature about what our accents say about us and how they stop us getting certain jobs and from getting on in life. Recently there was something in the paper about the fact that younger people do this up-speak thing?” he demonstrates. “Where they go up and the end of sentences? Some employers have said they’re reluctant to employ people who do that because it makes them sound insecure. So even now, the way someone speaks can affect whether they get employed.”
McGowan, who speaks with a fairly neutral accent, grew up in Worcestershire, which he admits still comes out in certain words and sounds. With people moving around so much these days, for university or for work, is there a chance that regional accents could die out?
“I think accents are getting a lot weaker,” he agrees. “I’m going to sound like Henry Higgins now, but there is accent and there is dialect. Accent is the way we make sounds and dialect is words we use. Certainly in terms of dialect I think the diversity of words from one area to another is really dwindling, because people all want to be understood. Communication is the biggest industry of the current century, or decade. And yet, I think there’s still a huge desire to sound like where they come from, and they’re very proud of where they come from. So I don’t think accents will ever die out.”
In the first scene, we’re introduced to Henry Higgins as he pounces on various Londoners passing by, guessing where each of them was born, often getting it right down to the very street. “It’s something I often do when I meet somebody,” McGowan admits, easily detecting the northern twang still lurking round the edges of my ‘telephone voice’.
“We definitely share that fascination. And I think people are endlessly interested in the variety of speech.”
After discovering acting at university, McGowan did some of the voices for Spitting Image before hitting the big time with The Big Impression, his takes on the likes of David Beckham, Tony Blair and Terry Wogan soon making him as famous as many of his subjects. The art of mimicry was something he developed from a young age, growing up in a family where mealtimes were all about making each other laugh with impressions and voices.
“My mother was a school teacher and always used to report conversations in the voice of the person she’d spoken to. So I was always listening out to how people spoke so I could copy them and do it round the dinner table like she did. I was more surprised that other people didn’t do that!”
Do people ever mind being impersonated?
“Famous people generally really like it, and think of it as another rung on the ladder of fame; that they’re famous enough to be ‘done’ now,” he says. “But it can be very unsettling. There was one person at drama school who used to ‘do’ me, and I found it really unnerving. You think, ‘do I really do that? Should I do that?’
“I know Gary Lineker, when I first started doing him on The Big Impression, whenever I saw him he’d say, ‘I saw you doing the impression – I don’t really sound like that, do I? Then later he told me he’d stopped watching the programme because it was putting him off. He said he’d be about to start Match of the Day and be thinking ‘I’m doing that thing that he does that I do!’.”
Recently, McGowan has turned his attention back to theatre, earning an Olivier Award nomination for Little Shop of Horrors and playing the title role in The Mikado. He toured his stand-up show throughout the country last year, and recently delighted the nation with a botched attempt at making rough-puff pastry in the Sport Relief Bake Off.
“It was surprisingly nerve-wracking,” says McGowan. “There are a few programmes that you do where you feel like you’ve stepped into the television because the set is so familiar. But it was great fun, and Paul and Mary were just as terrifying as you’d expect. Mary just has to lift an eyebrow…”
Still, to everyone’s surprise, McGowan went on to scoop the much-revered prize of Star Baker, proving that, with a little patience and refinement, you can make an eccles cake out of some very sloppy rough-puff. Turning a flower girl into a duchess after that should be a doddle.