Al Murray: ‘Will I stop touring at 60? Ask me in a couple of years’
The Oxford-educated comedian and writer, 54, on his fascination with military history, being related to William Thackeray and his alter-ego, The Pub Landlord.
You studied modern history at university. Did that spark your interest in military history?
Much to my chagrin, military history was not seen as ‘proper history’. But I was able to do a module on the three years running up to the war. It included access to Foreign Office telegrams and Cabinet memos.
A note from Chamberlain saying, ‘It looks like I’ll have to declare war, doesn’t it?’ and the Foreign Secretary saying, ‘That’s probably the right thing to do.’
So where does your love of it come from?
I grew up in the Seventies… Airfix models, Action Man, watching The Great Escape. My dad was in the Territorial Army and he’d often introduce subjects such as Dunkirk or desert warfare around the breakfast table.
We were the only family I knew who went to the Normandy Beaches for their summer holidays.
Did your father fight in the war?
He was too young – he’s 85 – but my mum’s dad was killed in the fighting just south of Dunkirk in May 1940. He was part of a regiment made up of civvies: butcher, baker, what have you. He was a banker. Mum was born after he died, so she never met him.
That’s the thing with the Second World War: it’s history that’s within touching distance. It directly affected my family.
Your family’s lineage includes MPs, diplomats, Scottish aristocracy and William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair. What’s that like?
I had no interest in this stuff when I was growing up. So-and-so was my great-great-uncle, twice removed; Thackeray was my great-great-great-grandfather. When you’re ten, it’s meaningless. It’s not like they turned up every Sunday and slipped me 50p.
Your latest book, Command, has been described as a ‘serious study of the Second World War’. Is this a new career?
Not at all! This is something that gets squeezed in around the comedy. I made a TV series about the fall of Berlin [Al Murray’s Road to Berlin] and I host the podcast We Have Ways of Making You Talk, but stand-up is still my day job.
What were you like as a child?
I was a bit of a loner, which was useful when I was sent to boarding school aged nine. Dad knew I hated it, but he thought I’d benefit from a kick up the backside. In a way, he was right.
The only way I was going to survive was by falling back on my own resources. That helped with stand-up. On stage, the responsibility is on your shoulders.
Is The Pub Landlord based on your dad?
Bits of him. Dad has an opinion on everything and doesn’t mind sharing it. My understanding of humour came from him introducing me to stuff like The Goons and Tony Hancock.
Has The Pub Landlord changed as you’ve aged?
He’s become a better fit as I’ve got older. In my twenties I was too young for him, really. Now, in my mid-fifties, I make a very good Pub Landlord.
So what’s next for him?
I’m working on a new series for Sky called Why Does Everyone Hate The British Empire? and he will make an appearance in that. I’ll also maybe do a tour towards the end of the year.
How did you celebrate the big 5-0?
I’ve got two grown-up daughters [Scarlett, 23, and Willow, 20], but I also became a dad again at 50 [to daughter Daisy].
Yes, there are times when a four-year-old is a bit of a handful and I wish I was a bit younger, but it’s wonderful to be back on this particular roundabout.
Does life feel better now than it did at 18?
I used to worry that getting older would mean the end of my stand-up career, but there seems to be plenty of room for silverbacks like me. Will I stop touring at 60? Ask me in a couple of years.
If you were in charge of the UK, what’s the first thing you would do?
Build a load of houses. I just about managed to get on the property ladder when I was a young man, but for this generation it’s impossible.
And if The Pub Landlord was in charge?
He’d brick up the Channel Tunnel!
Is there anything you’d change if you were Minister for the over-50s?
Not so much for us fiftysomethings, but God knows what it’s like for people of my dad’s generation – the ones who don’t have any family.
The modern era has engendered this idea of atomisation: get on with your own life and don’t worry about anyone else. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
You’ll be playing Charles II in West End show The Crown Jewels this summer. How do you feel about the Royal Family?
It’s something I find hard to get worked up about in either direction. It amazes me how people can get so emotional about them. But kings called Charles are back on everyone’s mind, so who better to play than the last one?
The Merry Monarch, as he was known, was a character – he didn’t let the day job get in the way of having a laugh. He’s going to be tons of fun to play.
How would you like to be remembered?
I learned while writing my book that army generals always get judged by their worst day. You can have a glittering career, then make one error and that’s it, reputation ruined. I suppose it’s the same in life.
A couple of days before I die, I’ll tell someone who wants a selfie to ‘get lost’ and that’ll be my epitaph: ‘Al Murray, the man who told his fans to get lost!’
This article first appeared in the June 2023 issue of Saga Magazine. Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Saga Magazine for just £5 today.
Written by Danny Scott