In this blog a couple of days ago, comedian Al Murray was talking about the Second World War. And yesterday he was talking about a book he is writing on medieval fools. This is the third and last part of the conversation we had last week.
“You’re actually writing two books simultaneously?” I asked.
“I’m trying to write everything all at once, yes.” he replied, “I’ve got another chunk of World War Two to deal with – Why has it stuck to us culturally? Although it’s beginning to fade: there’s now a whole generation of people who don’t know what Two World Wars and One World Cup means, which is brilliant – and healthy.”
“And,” I said, “you’re also preparing your new live stand-up comedy show as The Pub Landlord.”
“Yes, I’m trying to lay down the stuff that will be in the new show at the end of the year,” explained Al. “I always try to work well in advance so I can bed it in properly. I’m touring from September to Christmas, which means final previews at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, which means knowing in July what’s going to be in the show, which means writing it in June, which means thinking about it in April and May.
“The last few years,” I said, “you have performed in £5 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe…”
“That’s me trying out new material,” said Al.
“But why £5?” I asked. “You’re an established star.”
“I’ve always thought,” replied Al, “that, if you get to the… erm… the level I’m at, you should not to go to the Fringe and play massive venues for £25. You should go and play a small venue for £5.”
“Because the point of the Fringe is for people starting out and trying to figure themselves out and creating what they’re doing rather than audiences and money being sucked-off to bigger shows. At £5, it’s not taking a lot of money out of the system and normally I play somewhere small in the afternoon so I’m not in anyone’s way. Twenty years ago, when I was doing the Fringe, if someone had turned up and played a big venue for a long period at high prices, I’d have thought You fucking cunt!”
“The Pub Landlord started at the Fringe, didn’t he?” I asked.
“Harry Hill and I met writing on Week Ending for BBC Radio 4,” said Al, “back when they had a non-commissioned writing thing, and we hit it off and shared a flat in Edinburgh. He was getting me to do voices and bits and pieces in his Fringe show and I was also performing with Guns ’n’ Moses that year, so I had my drum kit up in Edinburgh and Harry’s mate Matt had brought his keyboards and we started playing together in the flat with Harry singing. I said Well, let’s do a gig at the Fringe Club. We did. It went really well. So we said: Alright, next year we’ll come back and do a show with this band in it at the end of the show.
“That’s what we planned to do. And I wanted to do a character act – like a sort of entertainer who’s shit – but I couldn’t make it work. So, on the opening night in Edinburgh, we were in the Pleasance Cabaret Bar and Harry said: We still haven’t figured out how we’re going to link this show together. What do you want to do?
“I said How about we say the compere hasn’t shown up and the bar manager has offered to fill in and cover the gaps? and Harry went Yeah, OK, whatever and I went on and did that and it worked. By the end of a fortnight, I knew how The Pub Landlord spoke and, when we went on tour at the end of it, I had an hour’s material.”
“Ridiculous, isn’t it,” I said. “Just one throwaway idea and a career gets built out of it.”
“Tell me about it,” said Al. “In a way, that’s one reason I’m so fond of The Pub Landlord, because it came out of nowhere. I never planned it. The first year in Edinburgh when it was getting reviewed, they said It’s a dissection of this, that and the other and he’s put in this-and-that and I thought Really? OK. If you say so. I’ll run with that, then.”
“You changed the act to fit the reviews?”
“No, no. I just thought: Oh, I suppose that IS what I’m doing.”
“And now you are consciously putting in all the intelligent, intellectual things.”
“Before, you mentioned the frustrations of television – commissioning editors changing and all that. What do you want to do that the TV people haven’t let you do?”
“Basically everything!” laughed Al. “Well, the talk show I did as The Pub Landlord (Al Murray’s Happy Hour)… that came to an end at the very moment I thought I was getting really good at it – That was very frustrating. It was a thing I really loved doing. We were not doing a normal chat show. We didn’t tell the guests what we were going to talk about. So they were having to react, rather than go through their glib stories.”
“You could do an Edinburgh Fringe chat show,” I suggested.
“Well,” said Al, “what Tim Vine’s done with his chat show in Edinburgh means there’s no point doing it. What he’s done is so brilliant. He’s a brilliant interviewer and he is so sharp.”
“So you’ve shown all your talents, haven’t you?” I said. “You’re a historian, you’re a comedian, a chat show host. What have you not shown? What don’t I know you can do?”
“The thing I would like to try to do is some acting,” said Al. “I haven’t really done any, so it would be nice to find out if I could do it. That was why I did stand-up in the first place: to see if I could do it and it looked like a lot of fun and it might be really interesting. Though there was a big bit of me which also thought It would mean I don’t have to get up in the morning. The dilettante in me was coming out. The other attraction of acting is you don’t have to write it; you don’t have to originate it.”