Why it’s not quite curtains for comedy impressionists

Comedian and impressionist Alistair McGowan
Comedian and impressionist Alistair McGowan - Clara Molden for The Telegraph

Is the art of doing impressions a dying one? That has been the grim inference drawn this week from comments made by the venerated impressionist Alistair McGowan, 58, who has said his days doing new voices are “drawing to a close as I am not feeling motivated enough”.

That slump in motivation isn’t, it seems, the result of advancing years, but a broader cultural shift. Apparently, it’s getting harder to alight on satire-worthy subjects whom sufficient numbers of the general public can readily identify. The laughter of recognition is clearly a critical component of why we enjoy impressions – tallying the figure we know (and may not love) with their uncanny reincarnation. So, if the pool of instantly familiar targets is diminishing, it’s becoming the toughest gig.

“I have noticed that younger audiences just don’t watch television in the way we used to,” he told The Scots Magazine. “[They have] no idea who these people are. For an audience my age or above… I am very happy to dust off my old impressions and throw in a few new ones, but it is harder and I am less interested…” So it’s not just a case of there being new personalities, new trends, but a problematic new model of consumption?

“Yes, that’s right,” he says, when I call him to check we haven’t got the wrong end of the stick. He elaborates on his concerns: “I joke that it’s all very well, this multi-platform media consumption, but no one thought about the poor impressionists! There were five channels when my show [The Big Impression] was on, and people watched a small number of films. You knew what people were watching. Now, we have no idea. You don’t get 18m watching EastEnders, or 4m watching Richard and Judy.”

He has given up on playing “corporate gigs” (to companies), he reveals: “You’ve got that younger audience, aged from 20 to 30, who don’t know who the BBC weather people are, and they won’t know who Monty Don is. And it’s more than that. If I say “He’s a presenter on Gardeners’ World”, they’d say “What’s that?”. If I say “It’s a programme on BBC 2”, they’d say “What’s that?”” Perhaps he’s partly exaggerating for comic effect, but plainly the world has been digitally transformed. As well as declining viewing figures for the big soaps, news is often now obtained via social media. “That blanket thing of everyone knowing the big names isn’t there anymore. Is there even such a thing as popular culture? The way people have devoured Barbie this summer is unusual.”

He stresses that although he won’t be avidly adding to his repertoire, he will still be plying his trade on the live circuit to fans. But the latest voice he has added to his stock is that of the long-departed lawyer and author John Mortimer; this autumn, he’s appearing (alongside fellow impressionist Jon Culshaw) in a Radio 4 drama about the obscenity trial over the Sex Pistols’ album Never Mind the Bollocks. “That’s what interests me, not the latest contestants on Love Island.”

McGowan’s pronouncements have identified a major turning-point. Is it a transition period or the end of an era? The chameleonic art of doing impressions is as old as the hills – the word mimicry deriving from the Greek mimetikos (“imitative”). But when Peter Cook impersonated Harold Macmillan at his Soho Establishment club in the early 1960s – legendarily incarnating the PM to his face one night – post-war British comedy banished deference and became a force to be reckoned with.

Peter Cook (right) with comedy double-act partner Dudley Moore, c1973
Peter Cook (right) with comedy double-act partner Dudley Moore, c1973 - Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Before Cook, politicians weren’t subject to such ridicule. After him, it was open season – and the nation’s love affair with impersonation was sealed by the long prime-time rule of Mike Yarwood, whose roster of political targets included Macmillan, Ted Heath and Denis Healey, alongside a welter of well-known TV names and personalities.

Though no one has matched the millions Yarwood pulled in at his peak, other figures such as Bobby Davro and Rory Bremner (along with Johns Bird and Fortune) have kept the flame burning brightly, lampooning the well-known and cutting the high and mighty down to size. McGowan was following in Davro’s footsteps – his Bafta-winning The Big Impression (2000-2004) was a high-rating, big tent affair, with Terry Wogan, Jonathan Ross and Posh and Becks part of the carnival of caricatures. Bremner was more in the biting political tradition of Spitting Image which defined the Thatcher decade. Those strands weave together well in Dead Ringers, the long-lived Radio 4 series (also BBC2 for a while).

The clearest endorsement of McGowan’s position comes from comedian Kieran Hodgson, who, aside from peppering a 2018 stage show about Brexit with impressions of Ted Heath, Roy Jenkins and other 70s politicos, went viral in 2020 with a royally entertaining Twitter send-up of The Crown season 4, which garnered more than 3m views (he recently also took on Happy Valley). “I think [McGowan’s] correct in identifying the collapse of a common cultural consciousness,” Hodgson tells me. “The profusion of channels and content has led to a diffusion of audiences, and a lack of collective recognition. It’s harder to draw an audience that knows the same thing. What may not come back is the titan impressionist on Saturday night who’s able to do a half hour of impressions that most people will know. Impressions are still valued but these days you have to mine your cultural niche.”

As McGowan himself concedes, this doesn’t mean curtains for mimicry tout court – rather that the form is adapting to the market. “Being a mainstream impressionist has become very difficult, so impressionists have to work in a different way, and specialise. You’ll get someone who does football managers, or – as in the case of Josh Berry – tennis stars.”

As a millennial, Hodgson disputes the idea that the issue is age-related. “I don’t think it’s any generation’s fault, it’s a cultural phenomenon – our shorter attention spans are encouraged by the media we are given.” And a defence of the young also comes from Matt Forde, 40, who – like the younger Hodgson – is packing them in at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. As part of the rebooted Spitting Image’s creative team, Forde has an eye on its West End musical spin-off, Idiots Assemble. “It has been noticeable how many young people are coming. The fact that it’s outrageous appeals to them. They love that it’s a bit mean.”

He doesn’t detect any need to dumb down in terms of the firmly political side to his own impressions. “I think it relates to the news of the day. In the 1980s, the miners’ strike and poll tax riot grabbed people’s attention. But the young people who came through Covid could probably name half a dozen members of the cabinet. They’re not less political than before.” He cites the surprisingly incorporable nature of Lindsay Hoyle, the House of Commons speaker, as evidence that it’s not cut and dried. “He might seem niche but the audience love it when I do him, because he has so many distinctive, funny mannerisms – just as Boris Johnson does.”

Comedian Matt Forde
Comedian Matt Forde: 'Audiences love it when I do Lindsay Hoyle' - Paul Grover

Luke Kempner, who broke through with a virtuosic one-man theatrical encapsulation of Downton Abbey a decade ago, concurs. “In my show, I do Christopher Biggins. Even if you don’t know who he is, he has a huge, funny voice. I took my Downton Abbey show to Russia, and even though they didn’t have a clue who John Bishop was they laughed because they found the idea of Lady Mary falling for this Scouse guy hilarious. The impression should be the icing on the cake of a really funny joke.”

He’s sounds an upbeat note about the future. “I have had moments where I’ve sat there going ‘I’m 15 years too late, I could have been a household name!’ But there are so many people coming through – including Al Fornan, Scheiffer Bates, and Katia Kvinge. It’s not a dying art – it’s just that you have to work that bit harder to include everyone.”

Like Kempner, Forde seems ready to reinvent the form on television, if only commissioning editors were bold enough. There aren’t enough seats to cater to the audience demand at his Edinburgh Fringe venue this month – and that’s partly, he says, because of the enduring fascination of the form. “Saying that doing impressions is a dying art is like saying magic will go out of fashion. As with watching great card tricks, people will always want them. It’s hardwired into us. It’s like a kind of witchcraft.”

Matt Forde: Inside No 10, until Aug 27; Kieran Hodgson Big in Scotland until Aug 27; Luke Kempner in Gritty Police Drama: A One-Man Musical, until Aug 28; all at the Pleasance Courtyard: edfringe.com; Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image the Musical runs at the Phoenix Theatre, London until Aug 26; spittingimagethemusical.com