Al Murray: “The glory of Brexit is its incredible lack of self-awareness”

The man behind the Pub Landlord on history, nationalism and class.

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At the stylish hotel and members’ club Chiswick High Road House, not far from his west London home, Al Murray is playing down the idea that he is posh. Blending a blazer with a t-shirt and jeans, a look that makes him stand out from the rest of the white collar crowd, he instead settles for “solidly middle-class".

Born in Stewkley, Buckinghamshire, Murray was the only son of a “British Rail technocrat” father who previously served in the army and a mother who “volunteered for the Citizens Advice Bureau". He attended the independent Bedford School before reading history at the University of Oxford, where he performed in the Oxford Revue comedy troupe. He is also a descendant of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray “for what it’s worth, which is absolutely nothing, because I don’t get any royalties.”

But on the comedy circuit, Murray says, “these ideas about class and being posh only get you so far… ultimately being a successful standup is about you being funny or not.” The Oxford Revue, he notes, offered little comparable experience to performing in the real world. “We were all obsessed with sketch comedy – and that’s very different to when you’re standing on your own in a pub in Deptford.”

As a comedian, Murray has made his name by using a different one: The Pub Landlord, a “know-it-all, know-nothing blow-hard” that is a “parody of an attitude, rather than any one person or class of people.” The character, Murray clarifies, was intended to lampoon “tabloid culture… and all the people who call themselves ‘men of the people’, guys who think they’ve got the answer to everything, even the stuff they’ve not been asked about.”

The Pub Landlord, he explains, originated as an improvised “bit” while he was working on a show with fellow standup Harry Hill at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1994. “We were performing in a bar and what we’d come up with before hadn’t quite worked. So I suggested that I pretend to be the venue’s manager and that the compere hadn’t turned up. And it went down well and by the end of the Fringe, I had an act, and after that a tour… it just went from there.” 

But Murray, whose work outside of comedy includes presenting documentaries about the Second World War, could not be more different to the multi-prejudiced publican he designed. He’s not even bald, for a start. “Yeah, I shave my hair before shows,” he admits with a chuckle.

What are the risks attached to peddling prejudices as The Pub Landlord? Murray doesn’t think his humour “enables” racists, sexists or homophobes – “The point is to show how stupid those ideas are” – but he accepts that “maybe there is some collateral risk of something being interpreted in the wrong way.”

The onus, he suggests, should be placed on the audience to separate “what is and isn’t OK [to say] outside of the show…It’s not something I’ve ever lost sleep over, because the character is so blatantly over the top. He’s not real and constantly contradicts himself.”

For Murray, the entire concept of nationalism is “fascinating in how flawed it is. That someone can reach the point where they take credit for the incidence of their birth – something they have no control over – is incredible.” So is he proud to be British? “I don’t know. Yes, no, maybe... There are definitely things I like about living in Britain, but can I take credit for that?”

“What I find fascinating,” he goes on, “are the people who wake up in the morning and think, I don’t know, that they clean their teeth in a particularly British way. So much of nationalism, what country is best at what, is untestable.”

Murray pushes back against the idea that Britain has the best sense of humour in the world. “How have they reached that conclusion? What experience do you have with Korean jokes? Have you watched comedy in Iran or Cambodia? Nationalism is this supposedly benign assertion… there is no way of proving it, but many people are taken in by it. It’s bizarre.”

Murray’s current tour, Landlord of Hope and Glory, chiefly concerns the future of Britain outside of the European Union. “Binary choices” like the one offered by the referendum, he says, have made modern politics weaker, by undermining the chance for compromise. “It’s dizzying that we’ve got ourselves into this situation with Brexit, but from the start, the referendum was a strange way to go about it.”

Murray’s latest show is less about trade deals or tariffs, and more about the impact that Brexit has had on British culture. He’s aware of the irony in the British public’s concerns about immigration, when considered within the context of the country’s history and its Empire. “The glory of Brexit is its incredible lack of self-awareness. It’s the hall of mirrors of contradictions and ironies, which is part of what makes it so delicious for comedy.”

Murray says that whereas other issues targeted by satire “might have a shelf life”, such as “what Boris Johnson said this week”, Brexit is more fluid, “timeless, even, because it is conceptual.” The result of the referendum on EU membership, Murray says, is “a perpetual motion machine… I’m not entirely convinced it’ll ever be resolved.”

But for all that Murray is willing to joke about Brexit, there’s plenty about it which has left him feeling uneasy. Using the Second World War as a political football, Murray contends, is “revolting” and the people “who use it to score points against their opponents only do it if they don’t understand the fucking thing.” For good measure, he adds: “Mark Francois needs to grow up.”

Murray is bemused by the camp of people who take credit for the war effort, “despite, plausibly, having not even been born when it was happening.” He recalls attending a lecture delivered by King’s College, London’s Professor David Edgerton last year, The birth of the British Nation?, which explored the “myth that Britain had stood alone in the Second World War.”

Both of Britain’s major political parties, according to Murray, used the war to inform a “foundation myth”. Channelling Edgerton, he explains: “Labour packaged it as the ‘people’s war’ which delivered the welfare state. The Tories viewed it as a national war, which we won because we were better than everyone else. Both had to ignore the imperial element; the Tories knew the Empire was ending and Labour had always been anti-imperialist. Basically what the lecture was saying is that people have started to, wrongly, view the war as the foundation of modern British history.”

Does Al Murray, the historian, think that Britain struggles to understand its past? “I think all countries will struggle with aspects of their past. There are many great things Britain has done; and there are many things that it has done which are shameful. I expect if I was French, I’d give a similar answer.”

Unlike his alter-ego, Murray doesn’t “deal in absolutes”. He takes a sip off his coffee and smiles. “I wouldn’t be inclined to put any one country on a pedestal.”    

Al Murray is on a national tour with his alter-ego The Pub Landlord. For more information, click here.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman