IT WAS 20 years ago this year that Al Murray introduced the world to the Pub Landlord, his pompously loveable, slightly jingoistic, opinionated font of ‘common sense’, who espouses a ‘Thank God I’m an Englishman’ view of the world, and is hopelessly in love with being British!
It has been Murray’s most enduring comic creation, one that has, both on comedy stages and television screens with Time Gentleman Please, taken up such a residence in the comedy conscience that Murray has been described as “a national treasure” by The Daily Telegraph and “a British institution” by The Times.
Al roars with laughter when I read him the quotes during our Tuesday morning interview. “God help us!” he declares. “The moment they call you that you should be in a museum or in an exhibition of some kind. The Pub Landlord would love it though, but he’d be doing all this false modesty around it and behaving appallingly humbly!”
Yet for such an iconic British comedy character, the Pub Landlord was the result of both accident and expediency.
“I was working in Edinburgh with Harry Hill and we had a gig that was in a small pub,” Al explains of the character’s genesis. “The compere didn’t turn up and if you’re playing gigs in very small pubs it is not an unlikely scenario for the barman to fill in, but that’s also a nightmare scenario. So I decided to play that role myself, as a pub landlord, and it worked. We ended up have a very successful tour and by the end of it, I had an act. So the Pub Landlord came out of an emergency. There was no grand plan. I was just trying to make him stupid, pompous, and as funny as possible.”
Al is currently touring his new show The Pub Landlord: One Man, One Guvnor around Britain and Ireland, which comes to the Róisín Dubh in March. Might he be tempted to stand behind the bar of the Dominick Street venue, pulling pints while regaling audiences, instead of on the stage?
“When I first started doing it, I used to stand and serve pints and have a few drinks,” recalls Al with a laugh, “but I ended up fried by the time I had to get myself together and do a turn onstage. It seemed like such a good idea at the time!”
So what is the enduring appeal of the Pub Landlord for both Murray as a performer and for his audience? “The biggest fear for any comedian is ‘What am I going to write about?’” says Al. “For me, the central appeal of the Pub Landlord is that it works, that every time I sit down to write a new show, every two years or 18 months, stuff comes to me and I don’t have a problem about ‘What am I going to talk about this time?’ It keeps re-filling itself. The eternal mystery for me is that people like it and still keep coming to see him - now I’m the one doing the false modesty!”
Standing for election
Murray is intensely proud to be British - he was one of 200 celebrities that signed an open letter appealing to Scots to stay within the United Kingdom ahead of last year’s referendum - but his patriotism is genuine, unsullied by jingoism or any kind of phobia. He demonstrated this only last weekend by announcing he would stand in May’s British general election, contesting the same seat as controversial UKIP leader, Nigel Farage.
In a video announcing his intention to run for the Free United Kingdom Party, or FUKP - founded by Murray - the comedian said: “It seems to me that the UK is ready for a bloke with a pint in his hand offering common sense solutions. Cheers!”
It is a view that chimes with the themes of One Man, One Guvnor: “The show is about how it is time for us to take back politics, and for the common man to stand up, blah, blah, blah, but we don’t want to have to do it ourselves or take any decisions,” Murray tells me. “The shows I do in Ireland will be different from those I do in the UK, although a lot of the torrid time you’ve had with the recession is starting to affect us now. We had staved it off for a while as we’re not in the euro, so the Pub Landlord may be doing some gloating about that.”
Given the Pub Landlord’s old fashioned British imperialism and unionism, there is bound to be some lively sparring with audiences, with ‘the guvnor’ indulging in some rose tinted revisionism about pre-Independence British-Irish relations, a period certain politicians and historians refer to as ‘our shared history’.
“Very much so!” says Al. “You don’t shy away from it, you have to come up and deliver on things like that. People will be expecting it. The shows in Dublin have delivered some hearty joshing! The Pub Landlord thinks it was a great tragedy Ireland ever left the United Kingdom and he’ll say so and say ‘Now you’re in bed with the French and the Germans, and, is it any better?’”
Al has a genuine love for Ireland though, most especially for County Galway, an area he is well familiar with. Surprisingly though, his upcoming Róisín’s show will be the first time he has set foot in the city itself.
“I’m really looking forward to Galway as I’ve never actually been in the city,” he says. “Every summer when I was a kid and in my teenage years, my family used to holiday in Roundstone. We’d have drives around Connemara or around Kinvara. We used to fly into Galway by the racecourse and go from there into Roundstone, but we’d always end up bypassing Galway city.”
I warn Al that, like many an out-of-towner before him who comes for a brief visit to Galway, he could find himself still living here 20 years later. “It could happen!” he laughs.
‘We’ve still got it’
A number of years ago, Al made a great documentary series on WWII, Al Murray’s Road To Berlin (regularly repeated on the Discovery channel ), and he admits that, despite being born 23 years after the conflict ended, it was a substantial presence during his formative years.
“My Mum’s father was killed outside of Dunkirk,” he says. “He died before she was born and so she grew up without her father. It was a big thing hanging over us. Dad was a serviceman in the 1950s and grew-up in that post-war culture and Dad used to take us on tours of battlefields. I think for the younger generation it is changing, it is less of a thing for them, but it was a big thing for my generation. War films were always on the telly, there were the Airfix model plans, our grandfathers had fought in it.”
This leads Al to reflect on the place of WWII in the British national psyche and the hold it still has for many: “Britain’s done plenty of equivocally bad things in its history but, you go to war with the Nazis, that was an unequivocally good thing. There was also that moment when Britain stood alone, as we like to see it, but you examine the history and that’s not exactly how it was. There is also the thing of, we won! - but the empire vanished afterwards. The war was a last gasp effort that bankrupted us.
“We did suffer the Blitz, but apart from that, the fighting didn’t happen here. That’s why the French and German attitude is different. For the Germans, the Red Army tore across their country and destroyed it, for the French it was the Allies, having to destroy to liberate, and that will lead to a different attitude to war.”
As well as WWII, Al’s other abiding interest is in the British spy thriller. He cites, quite rightly, 1965’s The Ipcress File, starring Michael Cane as his favourite of the genre, and the films were the subject of a recent documentary he made for the BBC, Al Murray’s Great British Spy Movies.
“It’s a post-war thing these film,” he says. “They represent Britain still being relevant. James Bond and his virility justify Britain and say ‘We’ve still got it’. You can still see that in Daniel Craig. Daniel Craig is buff, and Bond has never been buff before. It’s saying the same thing.”
So what of the future? Apart from politics and stand-up shows, Al reveals, in as far as he can, other TV plans. “Bits and pieces,” he says. “I’ve something quite big but I cannot talk about it right now, but there will be more documentaries and TV programmes.”
Al Murray’s performs The Pub Landlord: One Man, One Guvnor at the Róisín Dubh on Sunday March 15 at 7pm. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.