When I first saw Al Murray’s comedy act, many years ago last century, during the reign of the middle-aged Queen, it was an audio act. He came on, a slim young chap, and made the sounds of assembling and dismantling Army automatic rifles and suchlike.
For the last twenty years, he has been performing comedy as the bigoted Pub Landlord.
When I arrived at Bar Italia in Soho to talk to him this week, he was writing down some comedy ideas. Or maybe not. They might have been some Pub Landlord ideas. Or maybe not. I forgot to ask. I have a bad memory. What can I say?
“So,” I said to Al, “you’re an intelligent, sophisticated man.”
“Yes,” he said.
“But,” I continued, “everyone thinks you’re a thick East End or Essex barman. You’re a young Alf Garnett.”
“Yes, isn’t that fantastic?” he replied. (He must have been asked the question hundreds of times.) “I get to be who I really am off-stage, no-one knows who I really am and I get to talk about the things I want to talk about elliptically. I think that gives me great freedom.”
“Though, as yourself,” I said, “you get to do TV documentaries on the Second World War like Road To Berlin. Was that a difficult sell to the TV company?”
“I was on Frank Skinner’s TV show,” explained Al, “and he said Oh, you’re really interested in World War Two and the woman commissioning programmes at the Discovery Channel saw it. It was a long time ago and I haven’t done one since. In TV, there’s this thing that the person who commissioned your programme moves on and you’re left high and dry and that happened then. We went back to Discovery saying We wanna do Road To Rome next, the desert campaign and then up through Italy – and the new commissioning editor said Oh, I think the whole World War Two party’s over.”
“We’re British,” I said. “It’s never going to be over.”
“Exactly,” laughed Al. “For you the War is over! – It couldn’t be any the less true. We like to think we won it.”
“Did I miss something?” I asked. “I thought we did win it?”
“With a little help from our friends,” said Al. “Obviously The Pub Landlord thinks we won it on our own with no-one else.”
“Well, we almost lost the Battle of Waterloo,” I said. “It was the Prussians who won that.”
“No, no, no,” said Al. “Wellington only fought it when and where he did because he knew the Prussians were turning up at teatime. That was the bigger thinking that was going on which, essentially, Napoleon fell for.
“Historically, that’s a real bone of contention. If you read German history, that IS what happened: the Prussians won the battle. But, if you read our history… although our army at Waterloo was probably 60% made up of German soldiers anyway…”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Al. “It was a multi-national army. Soldiers from Nassau, Hanovarians, people from all over Germany, Dutch soldiers, everything. It was a coalition army against Napoleon.”
“Culloden,” I said, “fascinates me, being Scottish, because it wasn’t a battle between Scotland and England, it was a battle between Catholics and Protestants; and Highlanders versus Lowlanders and the English and their Hanovarian royal family.”
“And it was a Franco-German dust-up,” said Al. “The French Germans versus the Scots Germans.”
“And the best fighters on Bonnie Prince Charlie’s side,” I said, “were the Wild Geese, who were Irish.”
“Yeah,” said Al. “These are the kind of conversations I can have all day, to be honest.”
“And you wrote a book about…”
“It was a book,” said Al, “about growing up in a family where this sort of stuff got talked about a lot, where it was regarded as interesting and important. And, at the same time, about growing up in the 1970s when it’s Action Man toys, Airfix models and Where Eagles Dare type films. That very post-War part of our entertainment culture. And realising that the thing which you think is a big adventure when you’re a boy is actually a vile, disgusting thing, but nevertheless fascinating.”
“It could be argued,” I said, “that the Second World War is the only totally justifiable war – concentration camps and all that.”
“But that’s not why we went to war in 1939,” said Al. “It’s interesting now there’s this current debate about whether the First World War was justified or not. In fact, the Germans invading Belgium (in 1914) is a better traditional British casus belli than the Germans invading Poland (in 1939)… Poland is a lot further away from here and the Belgian coastline is close. Though the 1939 Germans were bigger bad guys than the 1914 ones. Arguably. It’s all very complicated. There’s a way we need to see it and there’s what probably really happened.”
“So what’s the way we feel we need to see it?” I asked.
“That we were fighting the evil nasty Nazis. What really happened in the politics of the late 1930s was the collapse of diplomacy – again – and Britain being run ragged too many times and, on a raw level, a loss of face and prestige and Britain having to do something about that. I reckon. But what do I know? I am but a humble comic.”
“But…” I prompted.
“Well, I was talking about this the other night,” said Al. “I’d managed to inveigle my way into dinner with a couple of real historians and they were saying, in Europe, World War II is regarded as the most gigantic calamity, a hideous thing… whereas we seem to regard it as character forming and it gave us all sorts of good things.”
“Well,” I said, “we’ve always been at war. There’s that statistic that, in the last 100 – or is it 150 now? – years, there’s only been one year…”
“…only one year,” said Al, “supposedly 1968, when no British soldier has been killed on active service.”
“You studied History at Oxford University,” I said. “So really you wanted to be a historian…”
“No, no, no no,” said Al. “When I got to Uni I was thinking What the hell am I gonna do? History was the subject I found easiest. But, once I got there, my academic career became very dismal very quickly, because I got involved in doing comedy.
“I thought I was going to end up playing in bands and I remember unpacking my drum kit on my first day at Uni in a music room in my college and Stewart Lee and Richard Herring were in there planning their sketch show that they were going to do the following week.
“They had been at the Edinburgh Fringe that summer and they didn’t tell anyone their sketch group had sometimes outnumbered the audience, so they came back to Oxford University in great glory and did a big sell-out run and I remember thinking This is the thing I’m looking for – doing comedy. It had never occurred to me before…”
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