“I pride myself on being uncertain,” says Al Murray, somewhat unexpectedly. “We live in an age where everyone is certain they have the answer – politicians, business leaders – and it’s clearly preposterous. The only sensible position on anything like the euro is – ‘It’s much more complicated than you think.’”
Coming from the mouth of the Pub Landlord, this sounds like a complete personality reboot. Murray, after all, is the man who said, “If you had to sum up Great Britain in one word, what would it be? Great. The clue’s in the name.” Or, “If we had no rules, where would we be? France. If we had too many rules, where would we be? Germany.” How did he find uncertainty?
The boisterous quips of the Pub Landlord have been with us for so long – he first appeared as a support act for Harry Hill back in 1994 – that it’s easy to forget the real-life Murray is an impeccably educated Oxford graduate and great-great-great-grandson of William Makepeace Thackeray, with a keen interest in military history. 5 Live listeners caught snippets of the real Al Murray last year in 7 Day Sunday, his hour-long news round-up. It returns this week, in a new Saturday-morning slot.
“It’s hard to avoid saying we take a sideways look at the week’s news, because that’s what we do,” Murray explains. “I co-host with Andy Zaltzman, we have two other guest comics in and we deliberately avoid taking any angles. Indeed, you’re heavily penalised for expressing too strong an opinion. I’m fed up with the idea that satire is a natural expression of left-wing views.”
7 Day Saturday is nothing like Have I Got News for You or Ten O’Clock Live, he explains. “We’re never going to get clubby with MPs, for one thing,” he says. “Getting them into the studio completely draws the sting.” Which sounds for a second like the Landlord in full flight. As the blazer-wearing ranter, Murray’s skill is in pulling apart a topic from an apparently sensible position until the whole premise becomes obviously ludicrous.
On his current live tour, for instance, he begins with the propositions that kids today don’t know the meaning of hard work and reality TV stars are poor role models, then arrives – by convincing steps – at building 50 giant pyramids and slaying 50 reality-TV contestants. How does his radio satire compare?
“I suppose the Landlord is reductio ad absurdum and the radio show is avoidance ad absurdum,” he laughs. “We’re not equipped to deal with major disasters, so we tend to concentrate on offbeat stories. Listeners send in reports from the Brighton Argus about seagulls stealing a pie and it puts the Westminster circle’s navel-gazing into sharp context.”
He does this in part out of despair at the weakness of the current satire scene. For example, his co-presenter Zaltzman writes with John Oliver – a British comedian who will take over presenting the American satirical TV series The Daily Show while regular host Jon Stewart takes a break. There’s no British equivalent of The Daily Show, Murray argues. “I don’t know why we struggle to produce decent satire,” he muses. “We’re not in short supply when it comes to clever, snarky people. We’re told the satire boom in the 1960s was this enormous cultural event – usually by people who were involved in it – and maybe that’s the problem. We keep trying to do new versions of That Was the Week That Was. Maybe it’s time to stop venerating the 1960s.”
Radio feels a natural fit for Murray’s rolling conversational riffs. “On radio, you can talk about one thing for 15 minutes and the audience love it,” he explains. “On TV, they’re so worried about short attention spans that everything gets 20 seconds. I’d suggest that’s what creates short attention spans.”
He’s got sound radio form with the BBC – hosting a confessions show on Radio 2 and guest-editing Today on New Year’s Day: “5 Live is like driving a dune buggy – you skip around. Today is like driving a ponderous but well-built old Bentley, where everyone looks at you as you pass by,” he says. “I was amazed that they asked and amazed that – at the editorial meeting – they took every suggestion. That’s how people ended up listening to a piece about the rise in hauntings during a recession.”
Perhaps his greatest debt to radio, however, relates to the Pub Landlord. “When Jon Gaunt hosted a phone-in on BBC London, he was effectively writing material for me,” Murray explains. “I remember one phone-in where someone said, “This is a tolerant, welcoming country – it just so happens we’re full up.” That’s pure Pub Landlord, sounding both reasonable and ridiculous at the same time.”
Alongside the programme and the tour, he’s currently working on a book that will fuse all the aspects of Al Murray into one hefty whole. It’s about how the British obsession with the Second World War shapes and hinders us.
“It seems to be the last good thing that we did – fight that war – and it’s something we struggle to move on from,” he considers. “It was so long ago, but we make it part of our world-view today. It makes me think that maybe our problems are cultural rather than political – but I’m not even certain of that.”