Meet Al the Pub Landlord
Comedian Al Murray accidentally created a career for himself with the crude, rude pub landlord, writes Dave Bannister
Improvisation is an art every good comedian masters. In the case of Al Murray, one stroke of impromptu genius spawned a career that has lasted two decades and counting. And it was born out of a crisis.
The English funnyman was struggling for inspiration after a character he'd developed as part of an ensemble show at the Edinburgh Festival wasn't working out. Performing in a pub, Murray had an epiphany and conjured an alter ego who has served him well ever since: Al the Pub Landlord.
"The character was an accident," says Murray. "To be honest, it was a moment of expediency and panic. The night we were opening, we had a gap in the show and I had to fill it. Because we were playing in a bar, I said, how about I say, 'The compère's not turned up but the manager of the bar has offered to fill in'?"
The landlord he improvised was a stereotypical xenophobic Brit; someone who has an issue with all foreigners and thinks every woman who works has to be a secretary. The audience loved him.
"I went on and did 10 minutes and that was that," he says. "I came off stage and said, 'Well, that worked,' and started writing more bits and pieces."
The character catapulted him to stardom, transforming his stage shows and leading to television series and stints as a radio show host. He leaped from being one of several acts in a comedy line-up to a sold-out solo star, including shows at London's Hammersmith Apollo theatre and the Palladium.
Murray's one and only previous visit to Hong Kong was in 1996, just 18 months after he created the pub landlord and just before the handover.
While overseas audiences tend to be dominated by British expatriates, there's always a mix of nationalities. That doesn't crimp the landlord's blunt and sometimes abusive style.
"As a type, I've found, he's completely universal. That mindset is from anywhere. It's that bull**** patriotic 'we're better than the rest' idea taken to an absurd level. It isn't unique to one culture."
The simplistic views of the landlord are far from Murray's own, but his intellect shines through in his live shows. He is one among a rich line of top British comedians who started out while studying at Britain's elite universities, Oxford and Cambridge, including John Cleese, Stephen Fry and Sacha Baron Cohen. "I thought, 'Wow. This is something I can do. It's something legit, even.' I never imagined I'd be a comic," Murray says. Murray says he may have been destined to end up a history teacher "at a minor English public school, where you don't need a proper qualification but have long holidays".
In his early days, Murray worked a lot with Harry Hill and Frank Skinner, who both transitioned from the stage to British television. But Murray mainly works alone. Murray has dabbled occasionally with other characters, showing a vast range, but he's more than happy to be synonymous with Al. "As the pub landlord, I get to talk about pretty much anything I like from different angles - and in a way I'd never be able to do myself," he says. If I came on as myself, I'd qualify everything I say. I'd be apologetic.
One of the greatest perils of any comedy show is having a seat in the front row, where quick-witted acts have fun picking on people for their looks, accents or answers to questions the performers pose. Murray is funnier and more unforgiving than most, with the first half hour devoted to relentless ribbing of the audience.
"It's all open at the start and shapes the night. Stuff that happens then gets woven into the show after that. It is scripted and planned but gets mutated by what has happened before."
And that, for Murray, is the beauty of stand-up. "It can be different every night. Something happens that completely skews the evening," he says. "Even improvised jazz, they have to stick to the chords, but we can go off at a tangent if we want."
Al Murray the Pub Landlord Live in Hong Kong, Grappa's Cellar, 1 Connaught Place, Central, September 20, 8.30pm, HK$590, tel: 2521 2322