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.


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.