Alexander Armstrong: How to succeed in television

"I've heard horror stories in which people I’ve known and loved have gone over to the dark side and turned into monsters"


It’s always nice to be asked for advice. It’s the subtlest way possible of giving my ego a little scratch behind the ear just where it likes it. It doesn’t really matter what the advice is: “But if the King remains deaf to my entreaties, Xander, what then do I say to him?” and “Where’s the best place to buy glitter on the Uxbridge Road?” will both have pretty much the same effect on my endorphins. It’s just the tiny act of someone saying, implicitly, “Come help me with your surfeit of brilliance and together we shall move mountains, or at least, know the quickest route onto the M40 avoiding the High Street.” See? Don’t tell me that doesn’t feel good. 


Advice I am often asked to give is along the lines of, “What is the best way to carve out a career in television?” A simple, straightforward question that one might hope would have a simple, straightforward answer, such as, “Oh, you just need to ring Kevin in Prosperity any time after 9.30 Mondays to Fridays and he’ll see you right,” but sadly that’s not how it works. Not any more. Kevin passed away some years ago. But I’ve never been shy of giving pithy advice, even when – especially when – my knowledge of a subject has been, at best, nebulous. And on the subject of getting on in telly, I have three edicts of the most devastating, coruscating pithiness. They are: Be Nice, Be Nice and, most importantly, Be Nice. There you are, run along now and remember me in your Bafta speech.

You may think I’m being glib but I’m truly not. Do whatever’s necessary to get onto the first rung of the television ladder, but thereafter be kind and considerate (alongside working hard and being fair-to-middling at your job) and you’ll be a man, my son (or woman, my daughter). Dining buses on film sets up and down the country buzz with rowdy tales of those who have forgotten this advice. I’ve eavesdropped open-mouthed on horror stories in which people – in some cases people I’ve known and loved – have gone over to the dark side and turned into monsters. 

We get very well treated, by and large, we actors. Cars are sent to pick us up from home, people look after us all day bringing us food and drink, holding coats over us if it gets chilly or umbrellas if it looks like rain (while we, oblivious, carry on with our hilarious anecdotes). Perhaps we’re apt to forget that this isn’t done because we are astonishingly marvellous and nothing is too good for us, but in fact because we’re so useless we can’t be relied upon to arrive on time under our own steam, keep dry in the rain or even remember to eat.

The very fact that a production is happening at all is evidence that lots of people have done an heroic amount of hard work. Your job as an actor or presenter, if you want to do it well and – crucially – again, is to make things work a little bit better, a little bit more easily and enjoyably than anyone might have expected. Do that with every job you do and you should be in work for as long as you’re willing and able.

If, for whatever reason, you find this “being nice” thing difficult to keep up, here’s an added impetus (a fourth nugget, if you will – I’m just giving it away today). Remember that the runner who brings your coffee, coat or umbrella is probably the future controller of BBC1. Not so hard to be nice now, is it? 


Alexander Armstrong presents Pointless Celebrities this afternoon at 5:40pm on BBC1