Alexander Armstrong: "Everyone assumes I'd be good on a quiz team... but I’m not"
The Big Ask and Pointless presenter talks Dad's Army, Doctor Who and getting back together with Ben Miller
What's Alexander Armstrong's Big Ask all about?
"It’s somewhere between a panel show and an after-dinner party game. We pick three interesting, witty people, we give them a subject matter and they each have to come up with a question on that subject for the other two to answer. Everyone has to then guess which of those answers is the correct one.
"A lot of comics, particularly stand-ups, have these wonderful hinterlands that you don’t really get to hear about. Big Ask really opens a window onto the obsessions of comedians. Given a subject, any comic will suddenly say 'Ah yes, I’ve got a good question...'"
Do you have a favourite guest?
"When Jack Whitehall came on we connected up to his father, Michael, via Skype. He was a sort of guest, but he was brilliant, absolutely hilarious. He gave us a little bit of background on Jack and it was great fun."
So are you a bit of a pop quiz master now?
"No, I’m not really. I host a quiz show, so everyone assumes I would be really good on a quiz team. The trouble is I only give the answers when it’s a subject I’m good at. Sometimes on Pointless I’ll reel off the answers and fill in the missing blanks. But when I don’t know, I don’t say anything."
Do you watch a lot of quiz shows?
"Now that I think about it, yes I do. Our supper break on Pointless coincides exactly with when Pointless goes out, so I’m afraid to say I switch over and watch the Chase. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think Pointless is absolutely the bee’s knees. But I do quite enjoy the Chase. That Bradley Walsh, he’s got something..."
Why do people keep tuning in to Pointless?
"There’s something very beguiling about having to find low-scoring answers. For quizzers – and there are a lot of people who take their quizzing very seriously – it’s the ultimate kind of quiz. It’s not enough just to know the right answer, you have to know a really obscure right answer. It appeals to the anorak in all of us. But on the other side it’s irreverent. Rich and I have a lot of fun making it and we do muck about quite a lot."
Is it true that the pair of you met at university?
"Yes, I’ve known Richard for more than half my life. I see him a lot away from Pointless too, mainly because we're working on other things. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing him - it's always a pleasure to spend time with Richard. We're currently developing a sort of panel-type show together for ITV."
You and Ben Miller are close too. Do you think being friends off-screen is the key to good on-screen chemistry?
"Yeah. Ben and I spent an awful lot of time in each other’s company in the 90s. We'd work together every day and then go out and party together every night. We really were joined at the hip from 1993 until about 1998... And I think it did us a lot of good to move into our own lives then! We got on, knuckled down, got married and had our own families. We now pursue our own careers independently, but then work together. It’s much nicer, slightly less pressured relationship."
Can fans expect an Armstrong and Miller reunion any time soon?
"We are submitting a comedy drama script for the pair of us to BBC1 at the beginning of March. I’ve never done proper acting with Ben and I really long to - there are few people I enjoy acting with more. He’s got such a lovely understatement and tremendous subtlety too… he’s brilliant."
Could a Death in Paradise cameo role be on the cards?
"Well... maybe. There’s that matter of going out to Guadeloupe. I’m such a home bod these days. I hate being away from home."
You've done serious drama, comedy and quiz shows... Can you name a favourite?
"The job that I relish doing and the job that I look back on with the most pride is Have I Got News for You. The level of research and amazing comedy writing that goes into that show so that I can then sit in the seat and get all the glory is amazing. It’s the most spoiling thing. You’ve got fabulous teams, some of the best writers in the country, coming up with gags for you. What bit of that couldn’t you enjoy?
I love the fact that you’re doing something really relevant too. A lot of people actually watch Have I Got News For You to get their news as well as their comedy. And you have interesting people on all the time - you’ll have diarists, MPs, media tycoons... anyone, not just comics."
What TV do you never miss?
"The Thick of It, Homeland, Breaking Bad, Modern Family, Girls... Since having children [Alexander has three young sons], we watch bite-size telly, we graze. And if there are things we've really got to watch I’ll get the box set and watch that."
Do your children watch Doctor Who or The Sarah Jane Adventures? [Armstrong appeared in last year's Who Christmas special and narrated extra-terrestrial computer Mr Smith in the children's TV series between 2007 and 2011]
"No, they’re too young but I bet they'll love it when they're older. I can’t wait for our children to be old enough to start watching proper things. Don’t get me wrong I love Pepper Pig as much as the next man, but it’ll be good fun when they’re old enough to watch proper narrative dramas!"
If you could bring back one TV series, which would you choose?
"If one could magic one back to life, Dad’s Army."
Who controls the remote in your house?
"Interestingly, I control it, but my wife tells me what to press! We end up watching some terrible program where people reveal horrible growths on their abdomens or have things sucked out. Do we watch the good things when they’re on? No, no. We’re watching people with hideous growths..."