The brash, boorish Pub Landlord, Al Murray’s most enduring comic creation, would probably have a thing or two to say about the Al Murray we see blinking back tears in Secrets from the Asylum. Those words might include “man up”, “wuss”, and “not what made Britain great”, because the ITV documentary shows Murray’s moving reaction to a discovery he makes about his family.
Secrets from the Asylum is a two-parter in the Who Do You Think You Are? vein in which Murray, along with three other celebrities, ventures back into his genealogy. It’s fair to say that Murray’s antecedents are the most distinguished – his great-great-great-grandfather was William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair. Thackeray’s wife Isabella had a breakdown at 23 and he sought numerous treatments to try and save the mother of his two daughters from a lifetime in the asylums.
Yet it’s not this story that brought Murray to tears – he read modern history at Oxford and is a published historian himself; he already knew a fair bit about his illustrious ancestors. Instead it was a new revelation that he found most distressing: Thackeray’s granddaughter Laura had a learning disability, and was consigned by her family to an asylum “for imbeciles and idiots” for her whole life.
This came at the same time as sinister ideas about eugenics were gaining support in the 20th century – ideas that would mean people who were labelled “mentally deficient” would be consigned to spend a lifetime in an asylum, and that reached their grim climax with the Nazis. “That was the thing that really moved me – how nasty that whole movement was. And that someone in my family got caught up in it. When you get the call you go, ‘They’re not going to get me. They’re not going to make me cry.’ But Laura’s story and that whole movement that developed to do with the ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘not contributing’ – it’s hardcore.”
Laura’s story felt particularly close because it came with a photograph that showed him a woman who looked all too familiar. “She looks like the women in my family – like on of my aunties and a little like one of my daughters. That made it seem real, rather than fusty Victorians. And it wasn’t long ago – she died during the Second World War.”
Murray himself is a testing amalgam – he is currently writing a new Pub Landlord tour while at the same time researching a new history of the Second World War. He is articulate and intellectual, yet he has become famous for playing a character that is neither. The idea that he is related to one of the great men of Victorian letters only makes him all the more intriguing. “When I was younger the Thackeray thing used to be a ‘So what?’ question. In general that’s still my attitude. It’s so long ago. And when people come to me and go, ‘Er, look who your great-great-great-grandfather is – that means you’re a toff,’ you think ‘Sod off!’ I don’t really feel any connection with him at all. Tell me about your great-great-great-grandparents and then I’ll judge you arbitrarily over nothing.”
That’s not to say he isn’t proud of the link. He has Thackeray first editions and is the owner of the Mr Punch inkwell that Thackeray was given when he left Punch magazine.
“It’s a strange and interesting thing to have in your life. But I don’t get up in the morning thinking ‘I’m the great man’s three times great-grandson,’ because I think that would make me a bit of a dick.”
Yet the knowledge that two of his relatives were, at least by the standards of the time, considered to have mental health issues must have made him wonder about the Murray gene pool.
“It does make you think. Am I carrying a gene? You have to entertain that idea. But then you also have to say: so what? There’s depression in everybody’s family. It’s part of who we are. You’ve got to treat it humanely.”
It is this, he says, that made his blood boil in regard to Laura’s testament. “What the late Victorians fell on was this idea of genealogy and how we’ve got to remove these people from society by not letting them breed. It was a classic moral panic. You could put the word ‘Jews’ instead of ‘feeble-minded’ or the word ‘Romanians’ today – it’s the same rhetoric.
Murray, as that suggests, sees everything in a historical perspective. History is his passion. In 2004 he made a ten-part documentary series for the Discovery Channel about the last phase of the Second World War, yet though the DVD cover shows a pensive Murray, the marketing copy still talked about the “Pub Landlord” star.
“The Road to Berlin series is a thing I wish I’d done a bit more of. It’s weird, I do take the stand-up very seriously, but I have run into this thing of, ‘You play the Pub Landlord, he’s a bloody idiot. How could you possibly be clever?’ It always amuses me that people get stuck there.”