Interview: Al Murray

My first Fringe show was described as ‘the worst show on the Fringe.’ ELENA PALA has a white wine with legendary pub landlord AL MURRAY.

Al Murray beer british Cambridge Union Comedy Edinburgh Festival Fringe Edinburgh Fringe Footlights French oxford revue oxford university posh The Other Place william thackeray Wine

When I first landed in Britain three years ago, I was given two books that allegedly summed up everything I needed to know about this country: Murray’s The Pub Landlord and Jeremy Paxman’s The English.

I soon gathered that the British national spirit can be essentially summed up in a visceral dislike for the French.

In person, Al very quickly distances himself from his nationalistic stage persona: “He’s basically an idiot,” Al tells me. “Look, the jokes about the French really are jokes about the people who make jokes about the French. I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning and brushes their teeth in a British way, or a French way. Ideas of nationality are extremely seductive, they appeal to most people, and it’s interesting to play with how they see themselves.”

Everyone’s favourite pub landlord

And for all his love of lager, Al the pub landlord is actually a posh boy. Not only did he board at Bedford School, he also studied modern history at The Other Place. But he still tries to defend himself: “It depends on your definition of posh. I went to boarding school, but only because my dad worked really hard. And my mother’s family were brewers! No connection whatsoever with my character!”

But hang on, Wikipedia says you are William Thackeray’s great-great-great-grandson? “I had no choice about growing up with that,” he says. “But I can assure you that has no bearing on the profession I’ve chosen. I became a stand-up comedian because I couldn’t cope with the idea of a desk job.

“Isn’t this about the time of the year when all the guys in suits descend upon Oxbridge to convince you to work for them, steal your souls and turn you into robots? I couldn’t do that. I also like showing off, it’s a way of life for me.”

At Oxford, Al performed with The Oxford Revue, but he didn’t think he was funny back then. “My first Fringe show with the Revue in 1989 was described as ‘the worst show on The Fringe’ by The Observer.

“We were extremely suspicious of the Footlights. They seemed to be so much more organised, more ruthless, and much better known than us. People would say things like ‘Oh, you’re a comedian, where do you go to uni? Oxbridge? So you’re in the Footlights!’ No one had heard of us!” I’m glad to hear some things never change.


The Pub Landlord on the subtle nuances of different Scottish accents…

But despite a shaky start, it was The Fringe where Al Murray really made it, in his 1994 show. “The character really was born out of sheer expediency. We had to find something to keep the audience entertained day in day out. Someone had to compere the show, so the starting point was always that the compere either didn’t want to be on stage, or had been held up somewhere, so the bar manager or the pub landlord from the nearest pub were stepping in, and that’s how it began, literally overnight before our first show.”

But there’s more to the pub landlord than just a mere distrust of all non-British things: “He’s obsessed with Britain, but actually he’s not from anywhere. He’s none of the traditional regional stereotypes. His pub doesn’t have a name, he doesn’t have a name. And it’s kept vague on purpose.

“He just wants to talk and talk and talk and revels in that illusion of authority in his position. What he represents is authority without any actual power. If I had created this character 30 years ago, it could have been a sergeant major…”

What a lovely chap. Unfortunately, the manager was ruthless about the 10 minutes allocated to me, or I would have suggested a round of drinks at the bar. Pint for him, glass of white wine for me, obviously.