THE Guvnor of Little England comedy, Al Murray, will hotfoot it from his Edinburgh Fringe run at the distinctly French-sounding Palais du Variete to the Grand Opera House, York, on September 1.
“As the dust settles and we emerge blinking into the dawn of a new year, the men and women of this great country will need answers,” proclaims Murray’s publicity machine. “Answers that they know they need, answers to questions they never knew existed. And when that moment comes, who better to show the way, to provide those answers, than the people’s man of the people, the Pub Landlord?”
In that case, let’s crack on with the questions that do need answering pronto for The Press. We dig the pun, but why call the show “Gig For Victory”, Al? “Well, it’s because, at the height of the pandemic, there were those inane comparisons with the Second World War, our biggest one” says Murray, the graduate in Modern History from St Edmund Hall, Oxford.
“People clearly think there was a victory at the end of the lockdowns, and if there is one, it’s being back on the road again. By May last year, I wondered if that was it for performers. ‘It’s fine,’ I thought. ‘I’ve been doing this for a long time; I don’t have to go up and down the country, eat bad food, or have things get right up my nose’!
“I thought, ‘maybe it will be fun’…and lockdown was a laugh. I could be at home with my family, instead of nights away on tour. But come last summer, someone was putting gigs on in a pub and asked if I wanted to do one. I did one hour 40 minutes and I felt sky high with the laughs.”
What does Murray mean by the Pub Landlord providing the “answers that they know they need, answers to questions they never knew existed”. “That does sound quite Donald Rumsfeld,” he says, referring to the United States Secretary of Defence’s infamous response to a question at a US Department of Defence briefing in February 2002.
The one where Rumsfeld obfuscated: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
You were saying, Al? “What I’m trying to capture with the Pub Landlord is that thing of someone chewing your ear off. Showing you how you are all linked without realising it.”
Murray’s Pub Landlord dispenser of bar-room wisdom plays on people’s prejudices, such as in his “People come over here, taking our jobs” routine on his last tour. “Human history is about migration – and I’m fascinated by history, as you know – so you’ve got to accommodate that in the way you look at the world,” says Murray.
“One of the great ironies of this country is people saying what a great country it is, and then not expecting anyone to want to come and live here – though the complexion has changed with the war in Ukraine.
“Why the Pub Landlord is useful is he can say things without saying them on the nose, whereas if you say things on the nose, it gets tricky for humour, but if you go around the houses, you can say things with ironic distance.”
Looking at the state of Britain today, amid the cost-of-living crisis, the Government’s policy on immigration and Boris Johnson’s endless headlines, Murray says: “Things are very tricky at the moment. That’s how I’d put it. I have friends who write editorials for newspapers, but as a comic I’d rather have that bloody-minded attitude.
“Coming up with subjects when you’ve been writing for a character for a long time, you think, ‘what will they [the Government/political leaders] come up with this time?’. Since Trump, you think, ‘how does satire keep up with the reality?’, and you just have to rise to that challenge.
“Looking from an historian’s point of view, people are worried about Putin, but what if he’s just an appetiser, like John the Baptist. With Putin, he was there all along, but we just misread him. When someone says they want to restore the Russian Empire, maybe we should take him at his word.”
Maybe we should not take Al Murray, Pub Landlord and bar-room braggard at his word, although his xenophobic Little Englander schtick turned out to be a forerunner for UKIP leader Nigel Farage – who he memorably stood against in Pub Landlord mode, representing the Free United Kingdom Party, or FUKP, in South Thanet at the 2015 General Election. Brexit would be just around the corner.
The Pub Landlord is an alter-ego, a comic device, but how did that act develop into the audience-bothering motormouth of today, pouring pints and scorn alike? “It came about from doing the crowd work, because when I started being this character in the London cabaret clubs, the problem was, why would a pub landlord be on stage, and wouldn’t he tell you why? So, he’d start up a conversation, saying ‘who are you?’,” says Murray.
“I found that working with the audience was the most effective way to show his character, talking to them, asking them what jobs they do, when all he does is pour pints, which is not like being a university professor, is it?! His attitude to what people do for a living tells you who he is, what he thinks, and the other really brilliant thing about the audience interaction is it means the show is different every night out of necessity.”
Al Murray: The Pub Landlord, Gig For Victory, Grand Opera House, York, September 1, 7.30pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.
Copyright of The Press, York