TV

Al Murray on boarding school, Pub Landlord and his mysterious grandfather's wartime movements

...sport. We used to use the word as an insult, a term of abuse – if someone was interested in sport, we called them a sport. Because we were not...

Al Murray in a purple shirt

Image: PR supplied

Al Murray was born in May 1968 in Stewkley, Buckinghamshire. He read Modern History at Oxford University, where he performed in the comedy group the Oxford Revue, in a show directed by Stewart Lee. This led to a regular slot on the BBC Radio 4 show Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner, as well as TV appearances on Hill’s early series and Lee & Herring’s Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy.

Meanwhile, Murray’s stand-up career was taking off. In 1994, at an appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival he introduced his Pub Landlord character. Al Murray was nominated for the Perrier Award at the festival in 1997, ’97, and ’98, before winning it in 1999. The following year saw the character develop into the lead role in the sitcom Time Gentlemen Please, which ran for two series on Sky One.

The character remained a live draw and in 2007 Murray landed an in-character ITV chat show, Al Murray’s Happy Hour. He has since branched out into serious acting roles, hosting history documentaries, appeared on the third series of Taskmaster, and has written multiple books in character as the Pub Landord.

Al Murray (as the Pub Landlord) formed the independent Free United Kingdom Party (FUKP) and ran as a parliamentary candidate for South Thanet in the 2015 General Election in a bid to derail UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s bid for the seat. In the end, Farage came second to the Conservative candidate, Craig Mackinlay, while Murray won 318 votes.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Al Murray looks back on his formative experience of boarding school, his love of music, and ponders his mysterious grandfather’s wartime movements.

At school there was a group of us and our main preoccupation was hiding from having to do sport. We used to use the word as an insult, a term of abuse – if someone was interested in sport, we called them a sport. Because we were not interested in playing rugby or running around or playing cricket. We were all quite clever and nerdy. We used to hide in the green room of the school theatre. We were into playing music and theatre. We played bad jazz music together. We had a really good couple of summers, I seem to remember, hanging out. But we weren’t cool. We weren’t in a rock’n’roll band or anything because we were not cool. I had this floppy blond hair and I did not know what to do with it. I’ve never known what to do with my hair. Which is why, when I came to be The Pub Landlord, I chopped it off. That was such a revelation because… there you go, that’s the problem solved. 

We had a drum set at school and I got very into drumming. I am one of those people who, if I find a thing easy initially, I think right, I can do that now. So I never really studied any deeper or got any better at it. And that’s very much been the kind of story of my life, of my approach to things. I get the fun and easy stuff down, then I don’t need to look any further. When I got older, I realised how bad my drumming was. There were huge, huge holes in it. Half a dozen things can make you sound convincing in school, but out in the real world, out in the wild, I was quite hopeless. Since then I have worked quite hard at getting better at it.  

Al Murray Pub Landlord.
Al Murray as Pub Landlord. Image: PR supplied

At school you carve out a little space for yourself. You don’t like things other people like so that you can clearly define yourself. I went to a boarding school so it was all very tribal. The pecking order was in permanent motion. So you’d form your little tribe. I found myself shutting down all kinds of stuff, not liking things in order to hang on to the things I did like. I’d say to that teenager, listen to some punk records. Open your mind. I think I was the only boy in my year who didn’t smoke. They all went behind the bike sheds to smoke, to be individuals. So the only way to be really individual was to not smoke. Basically, teenage boys are arseholes. 

I’d rather not have gone to a boys’ boarding school. Although a lot of the things we’re talking about, my determination to be single minded, has served me incredibly well as a comic. Not caring which way the wind is blowing, hanging on to the thing you think is going to work, and being true to it… that bloody mindedness actually worked quite well for me as a stand up. But I don’t know if it’s helped me as a person. It certainly would have been really fantastic to get to know more girls. I’m sure my attitude to women might be quite different now if I had. I heard Adrian Edmondson talking about this, what boarding did to him. You’re one person at home and another person at school. And they’re very different people. I don’t know, maybe that’s the training that prepares you for work and home. Or maybe it turns you into a two-faced shit. 

2023: Al Murray visiting Jamaica for his new show, Why Does Everyone Hate the British Empire? Image: Sky

Having two personas probably influenced my comedy, creating a character. Doing a character embraces the fact that, when you’re on stage, none of it’s real. Some comics just do a version of themselves. But if you do a character, that means you can set the agenda in every single way; it’s not you saying these things, so you can say anything. It gives you total free licence.  

People are very serious about what they want from comedy. What I want from comedy is mischief and chaos and anarchy. People thinking the Pub Landlord was real, and then being disappointed when he wasn’t – that’s like another joke. It’s hilarious. I’m not worried about that. One thing I did with him about 10 years ago was, I made him aware that he was famous. So he’d say, OK, you’ve come to the show because you want answers. He sort of moved into that man of the people space which was beginning to happen in politics too. He was saying, finally someone is telling truth to power, using common sense. The Brexit thing falls squarely into be careful what you wish for. The Pub Landlord got what he wanted: does he like it? He will never again have that feeling he had the morning he woke up to see that Leave had won. Nothing will ever feel that good again. 

He had views on Scottish independence too. He said if you love someone you set them free, and I love Scotland so fuck off. And there would have to be a proper border – if you’re going to do it, you have to do it properly. Which means a border. And in his mind a border is a thing like the old internal border in Germany – checkpoints, a 50ft-high wall with minefields. And the only condition was that Liverpool would go as well. 

I think it would completely blow my younger self’s mind that I’ve done this with my life. When I was 16 my dad worked in senior management at British Rail. And he had all these weird jobs – we lived in Venezuela for a bit when he was trying to set up a railway because he spoke Spanish. I was quite good at languages and I sort of thought, I’ll end up doing something like that. The careers officer was always like, you’re bright and you like performing, so have you thought about being a barrister? So doing what I do now would be beyond my teenage self’s imagination, but I think he’d be wildly excited at the prospect of doing something as unconventional as this. My old school asked me back once to give a sort of careers chat. I started off by saying, here’s the good news. Don’t worry about your A levels, they’re really not that important. The headmaster got up afterwards and said, well actually they do really matter. The school never asked me back. I wanted to say, you might be stressing out about exams now, but one day, they’ll be five years ago, then 10 years ago. The thing to remember at school is, it’s somewhere you leave.  

Al Murray drumming
In 2019, Al Murray behind the kit with The Fat Cops at Party at the Palace. Image: Stuart Westwood / Alamy Stock Photo

If I could re-live any time from my life, I would love to play the gig my band Fat Cops did at Kendall Calling festival four or five years ago in the Lake District. I hired a tour bus for the weekend at vast expense. And we had the most lovely time. We played a great gig that night. Playing in a band you’re spinning an awful lot of plates. You have to really, really concentrate on what you’re doing but also be aware of what everyone else is doing. But something happened at that gig – everyone was spinning their plates, all literally in harmony with each other and it was a lovely, lovely thing. We had a real gas on that trip, it was really fun on the bus and everyone was getting along. And that’s sort of why you do music in the end.  

If I could have one last conversation with anyone I would like to sit down with my grandfather, my dad’s dad, and ask him what on earth he was doing during the Second World War. Because we don’t know. He was involved in stuff that was adjacent to Special Operations Executive. And he was involved in the political warfare establishment and went to Yugoslavia, and was with Harold McMillan’s political mission in 1944 in Greece. My dad tried to find out what he could but it’s quite limited because it’s all secret. And my grandfather wasn’t the sort of person who would have directly told you. So I’d probably get nowhere with him, but it’s a conversation I’d really like to have tried. 

Al Murray: Why Does Everyone Hate the British Empire? starts 23 October on Sky History.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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