How We Met: Ronni Ancona & Alistair McGowan

'We went out for seven years and became increasingly aware of how different we were'

Simon Usborne
Sunday 20 July 2008 00:00

Alistair McGowan, 43, is an impressionist, actor and comedian who has starred in his own television show and recently played the MC in Cabaret, at the Lyric Theatre. He lives in south-west London

When I used to picture in my head the kind of girl I would fall for, she looked a lot like Ronni. I first saw her at a comedy club where she was the compere. She was wearing a baggy red jumper and a scarf wrapped around her hair, which was all wild curls. She was a vision – and funny.

We talked briefly about the night, and I told her I liked her [impression of] Marilyn Monroe, but I was very shy because she was so attractive. About a month later, I watched her perform at a comedy night. She was so unlike any of the other female stand-ups, who were often aggressive. Ronni would charm the audience as much as she would amuse them, with her crazy combination of puns, surreal gags and impressions. Women in particular would warm to her because she was feminine but didn't need to talk about women's issues – she was just funny.

About 18 months after we met, she rang me about a gig. I'd almost forgotten about her because I thought she was out of my league. But then she rang me again and suggested we meet up. We went to see Husbands and Wives at the cinema and afterwards, we sat eating a bag of chips and that was that – we were together.

The first TV we did together was a show called The Staggering Stories of Ferdinand De Bargos, for which we used to re-voice old footage. That led to more work and everything started to take shape. Ronni was becoming more versatile and we wanted to do something bigger. In 1998, I was performing at Edinburgh on my own when a BBC executive approached me to do a show. Almost the first thing I said was that if I did a show I wanted Ronni involved.

And so Alistair McGowan's Big Impression was born. Ronni had an ever-growing repertoire of voices but even I had no idea how good she was going to become. The only problem was that, just before we started filming, we split up – our relationship had run its course. It was difficult; the challenge was not taking it out on each other and remaining friends.

Ronni is unique. She says she's like a strange woodland creature – she's all cosy and cuddly and likes to hibernate – but I see her as a wild horse. You want to tame her and when you think you have, off she bolts again. It's what makes her so attractive. She's also an absolute charmer. She plays with words so beautifully when she speaks and really engages people. You won't meet another person like her.

Ronni Ancona, 40, is an actress and comedian, who became a household name in Alistair McGowan's Big Impression. She lives in west London with her husband and their two daughters

I was the world's worst compere when I met Alistair. He, however, was genuinely brilliant. I think I saw him at a comedy club in Islington before I even met him. He was on before me. He did very well; I died. I remember being equally impressed by his look. He used to wear these big crisp white shirts and a brown suede jacket.

We got on so well on our first date. I remember going down the escalator at the end of the evening and Alistair asking if he could see me again. I said that would be nice. "How about tomorrow?" he asked. I found him attractive and a sensitive soul – poetic and artistic – which was especially appealing for a girl in her early 20s, so I said yes. We went out for seven years and, while we have always been close, we became increasingly aware how different we were as time went on.

Alistair's a very interesting character. He's very artistic and quite theatrical, yet he lives a very ordered, mannered and routine life. I wear my heart on my sleeve and am much more emotional.

It wasn't until we split up that things got off the ground with Alistair McGowan's Big Impression. It was so exciting but it was tricky and there were some very low points. In one sketch, we were playing Jo Wiley and John Peel at Glastonbury. We'd had the most almighty row behind the tent before we went on. But, if anything, the tension added a little frisson to some of the sketches and it made the show better.

Of course, there were times when our differences did affect our work. Our diverse senses of humour caused huge problems. He likes puns and jokes and I preferred the surreal, esoteric stuff – my favourite sketch was Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in the burger van, which Alistair never liked. There were times, though, when it was magical between us. In terms of chemistry, our most successful pairing was Helen and Paul from Big Brother. We could draw on the strength of our relationship and just improvise.

I've become addicted to what Alistair thinks about the work I do on my own. I respect him hugely as a performer and writer and get very upset any time I see anything nasty written about him. He's such a brilliant actor and can turn his hand to anything. He really is my best friend in the whole world – I know it sounds a bit eight-year-old to say, but it's true.

Alistair McGowan is in 'They're Playing Our Song' at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1 (020 7907 7060, www.menier from Friday until 28 September

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