Daytime TV, Saturday night talent shows, ads for shopping centres in Durham: is there nothing the more puppyish half of Armstrong & Miller won’t do?
In one crucial respect, Alexander Armstrong, Xander to his friends, is not your typical comedian. I’ve met a few and they can be quite hard work. Introverted. A little awkward socially. Generally pretty miserable. But Armstrong is, by his own admission, “dementedly optimistic” and “a slightly irritating enthusiast” who is happiest first thing in the morning, opening curtains, and waking his three young children up so that he can play with them. He is also an extrovert, according to his comedy partner Ben Miller (who, let the record show, conforms to type by describing himself as “an introvert”).
Perhaps it is because Armstrong is also an actor and television presenter. At the moment he is on our screens co-presenting a series for the BBC called The Great British Weather, and in the autumn he will be back on the BBC hosting Epic Win, a prime-time Saturday night game show that is intended to rival The X Factor. You see the enthusiasm, warmth and social confidence as soon as Armstrong bounds into the subterranean bar in London where we meet, all crinkly smiles and handshakes, like a big friendly labrador. This is in contrast to the slightly arch and deadpan persona he has when he presents Have I Got News For You.
Though at 6ft 3in he is “the tall one” out of Armstrong & Miller, in person he is somehow not as tall as you expect. And though it is not visible from the front, at 41, his hair is heading the way of a monkish tonsure at the back. He has a mobile face and, generally, with his linen suit and pink gingham shirt, he looks like he has stepped out of a Boden catalogue.
His manner is slightly distracted (he is pretty hopeless at remembering names) and as a colleague he says he can be impatient and a dilettante. He is the one who paces back and forth while Miller sits at the keyboard and does the writing. “I’m a great believer in standing up and pacing,” he says. “It gives you a psychological advantage over the person sitting down. The trade off is the writer does most of the editing.” Although he is recognisable, he accepts he is not as recognisable as Miller. “I have these massive ears,” he says, “which I suppose make me stand out. But for a long time Ben was always the one who was recognised, partly because of his bleached hair, which, thank God, he doesn’t have anymore. People would shout out ‘Ben! Ben!’ and I would stand there drumming my fingers.”
When he was the subject of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? last year, Armstrong got to see portraits of his illustrious forebears; his big ears are genetic. Though his father, now retired, was a GP in rural Northumberland, his ancestors were somewhat grand.
There were a few barons on his father’s side that he already knew about, but what came as a surprise to him during filming was the scattering of dukes on his mother’s. “Perhaps it did pander to some desperate source of pride in me. ‘Of course, of course,’ I thought. ‘It all makes sense now, that’s why I am like I am.’” The expert from Burke’s Peerage toyed with him a bit. “There was something about his tone when he pushed a book across the table showing my immediate Irish side of the family and he said, ‘Quite grand but small fry in aristocratic terms.’ It was just enough to peak me and I must have looked slightly hurt. He knew what was to come.”
Though he admits to a palpable feeling of relief that the programme revealed that his illusions of grandeur weren’t delusions, he says the thing he would have most liked to have inherited is his father’s patience.
After public school (Durham), Alexander Henry Fenwick Armstrong went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read English (on a choral scholarship, incongruously enough). Though he, like Miller, joined the Footlights, they didn’t meet properly until they moved to London after graduation. He has hardly had any fallow periods in his career since then.
He taps the table. “Yes, touch wood. Johnny Depp says there is no formula for success, it is all dumb luck and he is right. But what he should have added is that there is most definitely a formula for luck and that is simply to make sure you are ready when opportunity calls.” So for him, then, the opportunity came 18 years ago when he found the right comedy partner in Miller? And that meant being ruthless because he was already in a comedy partnership?
“Yes, my double act partner at the time was David Wolstencroft, who had been at Cambridge with me. But, as a performing double act, I didn’t think we were the best pairing and so I started working with Ben. Though when I started with Ben I hadn’t told David, and Ben and I bumped into him in the King’s Road and we had our arms full of comedy props we had just bought. David said: ‘What are you doing?’ It was an awful moment.” Have they talked about it since? “We have, but I’m not sure he’ll ever forgive me. David went on to write Spooks, so he’s done incredibly well and it’s all down to me!”
It hasn’t always been smooth going with Miller either. Armstrong and Miller had a bit of a falling out in 2002, both longing for some creative freedom to build separate careers.
One of their strengths as a comedy partnership, he thinks, is that they are equal – there isn’t a Morecambe to the other’s Wise – but it does mean that “we squabble over parts. And some parts are obviously better than others.” Tellingly, they share the lead role in their most popular recurring sketch, that of the two Second World War RAF pilots who trade cut-glass chit-chat in “street” language. “That’s so unfair,” one says to the other. “That is so massively disrespecting of your trousers.” “I know, blood. Isn’t it, and everything?”
The “isn’t it” instead of “innit” is the closest they have to a catchphrase. “Yes, and when we first started doing it I didn’t realise it had caught on. I was filling up with petrol in Northumberland and the guy behind the till looked at me and said, ‘Isn’t it? Isn’t it?’ I couldn’t work out what he meant, then I finally got it.”
Though they are “on a break” from the sketch show, they are working on other Armstrong and Miller projects. “We’ve just piloted a sitcom for Channel 4 that is written by Simon Nye and we’ve been developing a comedy drama for the BBC written by Tom Butterworth and Chris Hurford.
“The script is being written as we speak, 18 months down the line. But I’m not really allowed to say what it’s about yet.” Oh go on. “Oh, OK. The idea is that Ben and I are two Cambridge graduates who had been in the Footlights together but are now working at the Foreign Office. In their downtime they are still doing the comedy circuit and when their big break comes at the Foreign Office, an undercover assignment for MI6, that is the day they are also told they have a Saturday night show on television, so they lead this ridiculous double life.” I ask about his own time with the Footlights. Did it mean he had a ready made network when he came down to London?
“It wasn’t really like that. I came down in ’92 and had four years of living in a garret. It was one of those times when the BBC was agonising over its colonial past, having a purge against Oxbridge. They actually had an active non-Oxbridge policy in BBC light entertainment because it was thought too heavily biased towards Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Revue. We were told, ‘Sorry, we can’t have any more toffs at the BBC.’” Couldn’t he have put on his famous Durham accent? “Aye man, what y’ talking aboot?”
Did he feel an outsider at boarding school in Durham because of his plummy accent?
“When we were at Rothbury [primary] school we did slip in to an accent as soon as we said goodbye to our parents. At birthday parties I didn’t know what voice to speak in. It was about fitting in, because you didn’t want to get beaten up. But when I got to Durham School I held my nerve and talked as we did at home. That said, there were lots of ‘poshos’ there, like Hugo Massingberg Mundy, who ended up adopting a Durham accent. It’s like the Geordie accent. So much emotion. So earnest. Like Cheryl Cole. She’s the best. Such a warm voice.”
Well, he might be working with her if the rumours are true that she is moving over to the BBC for Saturday nights. “Well I would like that. I love her on The X Factor.”
So his new show, Epic Win, is being billed as “the first Saturday night format to marry the worlds of panel-show comedy with talent-show entertainment”. It will include a Smurf collector who can recognise any figurine by its silhouette and a man who can read hundreds of bar codes. “Yes it’s quite quirky. Doing Pointless [another game show he presents] on daytime television has been a revelation for me, because, obviously, it being daytime and a game show, I had misgivings about it. But it was such a winning formula. You just get drawn into it. There is room to make it into something else and I think Epic Win will be like that. Eccentrics showing their skills.”
And The Great British Weather? “Yes, very timely, because it’s been such a weird year for weather so far. We talk to experts like Michael Fish and Bill Giles and we get Freddie Flintoff to explain how moisture in the air affects the swing of the ball. Things like that. And we talk about how the weather affected history. The Spanish Armada seen off because of the weather and so on.”
He is certainly eclectic in his television work, and positively promiscuous when it comes to his advertising. He is best known for the Pimm’s adverts but once found himself doing a voice-over for a shopping centre and did stop and think: “Why am I doing this?” Actually, he was probably doing it because comedy is such a fickle profession. “It can be insecure,” he says. “I used to regularly wake up and start doing sums in my head. Oh lord, I’ve got to pay this and this and I think I’ve got that coming in and then I have to deduct agent’s fees and tax.”
Well, he seems comfortable enough now. With that, off he goes, glad-handing the photographer and his assistant, all smiles and bustling enthusiasm, the Labrador once more.