“You were also a drummer in the group Guns ’n’ Moses with Dave Cohen and Jim Tavaré,” I said when I met him last week. “But you’re not a frustrated drummer and a frustrated historian. You must be rolling in dosh. So you’re not thinking I should have taken a different career path?”
“No,” said Al. “I remember on a school report a very long time ago they called me a dilettante and I had to ask my dad what it meant. He said It means someone who dabbles in different things and doesn’t really specialise and I remember thinking That sounds brilliant! That sounds like a good job option.”
“Polymath might sound better,” I suggested. “You’re in an ideal position now. I imagine you don’t desperately need to work.”
“Yes and no,” replied Al. “I really love doing the stand-up side. This is the 20th year I’ve been doing the Pub Landlord character. Each time I sit down to write a new show, which is what I’m doing right now, I always realise there’s a whole load of things I could do with it which I haven’t explored yet. The character is the same but, if you watch the shows, they’re all very different from each other, with different textures.”
“The problem is,” said Al, “if you go too far along that road, you start to argue against irony. The opposite of irony is everything being taken literally. If you’re going to be literal about everything, you’re gonna have to have figurative paintings; you can’t have Impressionism… The thing that’s happening in stand-up comedy at the moment is you’re supposed to be sincere. Why?”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because it’s prescriptive,” said Al, “and art suffers when you get prescriptive. On stage, I don’t talk about me – ever – because I’m not interested and I’m not interested in anyone else being interested. I’d rather talk about the world or ideas. If people really do agree with what the Pub Landlord says then they’re mental, so there’s nothing I can do about them. And isn’t it like a cosmic prank? If people think he’s real, that’s fucking hilarious. I think our job as comics is to be pranksters. We’re not supposed to agree. We’re supposed to cause confusion.”
“In 2009,” I said, “you did do an ITV show Multiple Personality Disorder in which you played lots of different characters and I genuinely thought the range of characters was wonderful and…”
“ITV didn’t think that!” laughed Al. “Dealing with TV people! The guy who had been championing me went elsewhere, so we ended up with someone new as commissioner. I loved making that programme. The fun was doing different things and seeing if they’d work. But, for stand-up, the Pub Landlord is… I’ve got him… When people say Why don’t you do something else? I say Alright, I’ll do that when Jack Dee does his ‘I’m Not Grumpy Any More’ show or Harry Hill does observational comedy or Michael McIntyre talks about American foreign policy.”
“So,” I said, “your two big interests are, let’s say, history and comedy. And they come together in this book you’re writing about fools.”
“Well, I’m trying to write it,” said Al. “I’m trying to draw the stuff together and see if I can make it cohere. I found out about Henry VIII’s fool Will Sommers. He survived as a fool through Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and through to Elizabeth I. He survived all four reigns in court.
“The traditional reading of that period is it’s a roller coaster politically and religiously. So how did he survive? The answer is either he wasn’t saying anything dangerous at all OR that having him there saying awkward things at the right moment was SO important you could not get rid of him. The Tudor fools were the last of the classic old-fashioned fools.”
“You mean men with funny hats?” I asked.
“No,” said Al. “There’s fools and there’s jesters. Jesters are people pretending to be fools. Fools were – although it’s unpalatable for us – essentially people with behavioural and learning difficulties. In the medieval theology of the time, if that was your intellectual capacity, you were regarded as ‘innocent before God’ because you couldn’t understand theology. So you had a Get Out of Jail card. Literally.”
“You’re an idiot, so we won’t burn you at the stake,” I said.
“Exactly,” agreed Al. “So you could say what you liked. Most of the fools were called ‘naturals’ and they fitted this mental category. Then, separately, you had jesters – ‘artificials’ – who were pretending to be like that and they’re the people who get in the shit because everyone knows they’re pretending – so, when they say the terrible thing that shouldn’t be said, the assumption is You knew what you were saying so you’re for the chop.
“A lot of what we think fools were comes at us through art and stage plays. So we think fools were like the fool in King Lear, but that’s Shakespeare’s dramatisation of what their function was. In fact, you had these people essentially gigging up and down the country and there was a circuit. If you were a man of status, you would have your own fool saying stupid things or juggling or farting. Farting was very big in the 12th century.”
“And there was a circuit?” I asked.
“And a career structure,” added Al. “This was an era when mentally ill people were not locked away. That didn’t happen until the 18th century. Before that, you had ‘village idiots’ and everyone knew who they were and what their problems were and they had a role. And they were innocent before God.
“In the Domesday Book, there’s a fool who was probably one of Edward The Confessor’s fools who has retired out to the Welsh Marches who has a big estate – so he’s really rich. But he’s been removed or exiled because he’s a previous king’s jester and we need a new one for the Normans.”
“Do you think fools were mentally sub-normal,” I asked, “or might they have been autistic, where there’s a mixture of high intelligence and social awkwardness?”
“That whole spectrum,” said Al. “Different people with different problems. I think we would now be incredibly uncomfortable about laughing at them. You only have to look at the response to Ricky Gervais’ TV show Derek where he’s pretending to be someone who would have had a role as a fool… The response to that is super-uncomfortable for a lot of people.
“Fools were very important, because they spoke the truth. There are examples of them giving the king bad news because no-one else dared. The fool had a licence to speak truth to the powerful.”
“Nowadays,” I said, “I suppose we have satirists.”
“Well,” said Al, “there’s this preposterous idea that people in the 1960s invented satire. They did it on TV and what was unusual about them was they were people who could have been in the Establishment taking the piss out of the Establishment. The Goon Show was a satire of Britain in the 1950s, but Spike Milligan was blue collar, so he doesn’t get that elevation as a great satirist because he’s not from the Establishment. He had not rejected something in becoming a satirist.”
“Is he a satirist or a surrealist?” I asked.
“Well,” said Al. “The Goon Show had the absurdities of National Service, was about rationing, was about Class. It’s all in there, but Spike Milligan dressed it up as something else. The 1960s satire boom, though, was… It’s a bit like me… My grandfather (Sir Ralph Murray) was a diplomat, my dad worked in management at British Rail, so he was a sort of civil servant and that’s where I was heading – or a lawyer or something. To do comedy was a bit of a departure.”
“You’ve got no showbiz background?”
“My great uncle Stephen Murray was an actor. I never knew him. He was in The Navy Lark on radio when his serious actor career mis-fired a little. But that was always like Your great uncle Stephen’s an actor… Phoah! That’s really weird!”
“I remember Stephen Murray always played authority figures,” I said.
“Which is what his brother was,” said Al. “His brother was an ambassador.”
“Most satire,” I suggested, “is sort of elitist, whereas what you’re doing with the Pub Landlord is populist. Are you sneaking in under the radar?”
“Maybe,” said Al. “Whenever there’s a round-up of what’s going on in satire, I always think: Why am I not on this list?”
“Maybe,” I suggested, “because you are appealing to Joe Public in general and not exclusively to Guardian readers?”
“Maybe,” said Al. “It always makes me laugh. I think Oh, come on! At least give me a mention! Or at least print ‘some people say it is but it isn’t’ .”
… CONTINUED HERE …