Alexander Armstrong

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Joined: 25 Apr 2006

PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2012 7:38 pm    Post subject: Alexander Armstrong Reply with quote

Tough and tender side of the down-to-earth comedian Alexander Armstrong
The record-breaking guest host of 'Have I Got News For You’ isn’t afraid to turn his back on Left-wing alternative comedy or to give in to emotion.
Glenda Cooper
2 Jan 2012

Ask most comedians if they’d mind being described as someone you could take home to meet your mother and they’d react in horror at the middle-of-the-road cosiness it implies. Not Alexander Armstrong: “I’m more than willing to meet anyone’s mother in anyone’s home,” he says with a very naughty laugh. Oh, behave…

But then Armstrong – known as Xander to his friends – is an unusual comedian. While many comics still remain in thrall to the legacy of Eighties “alternative” comedy and its Left-wing political agenda, Armstrong thinks David Cameron is a “good man”. Forget the laddishness that infects many others – he admits to being “soppy” over the birth of his three sons, and Hark the Herald Angels makes him want to cry. And when we meet in Gilgamesh, an achingly trendy London restaurant, Armstrong strides in, hair ruffled, dressed in practical grey fleece and jeans that wouldn’t look out of place in the rural Northumberland he was brought up in.

In the past, he’s described himself as “dementedly optimistic”. But today he seems much more thoughtful. He’s decided that his generation needs to finally grow up. “Far too many people play to the gallery – in comedy that’s an easy line to toe,” he says. “I’m tired of the fact that it’s rampant among comedians and very good friends of mine to hide behind the [political] opinion that’s going to be most popular. I think we are at a time where horribly unpopular things have to be done.”

But then Alexander Henry Fenwick Armstrong has always been out of kilter; when he started out doing sketches in 1992 with his comedy partner Ben Miller, the BBC wouldn’t have anything to do with them: sketch shows were seen as dead in the water and the corporation was clear it didn’t want any more Oxbridge-educated comedians. Now, however, he’s scarcely off our screens. He had a starring role in the Christmas Day episode of Doctor Who and his new drama, Love Life, will be shown on ITV1 later in the spring. Which is not to mention his frequent appearances on Have I Got News For You.

No wonder, then, that one of his New Year’s resolutions is to get a better work/life balance. “You can get bullied by work,” he muses. “It’s fear of not having enough money or not being asked again. But I’m precisely at the time of my life where I do want to be home for bathtime, weekends and half-term.” He attributes this attitude to his close-knit family upbringing. His father was a Northumberland GP and his mother a magistrate. Armstrong was the youngest of three children (his older brother is now a risk analyst; his sister runs a language school in Paris). Such an upbringing means he has been dogged by the “posh” tag. “It depends what you mean by posh,” he says. “I grew up in second-hand clothes but, culturally, we were exposed to a lot of lovely things – great music, good books. We were extremely rich in that regard.”

Growing up in the countryside also influenced him: “It made me fiercely ambitious; much as I adore it, you’re a long way from stuff and life moves so slowly.” But also, he thinks, it was good for comedy. “You come across the weird and wonderful as a country GP, as my dad did. There’s something about the innocence of the village life that does come through in our early shows. One got to know pretty much everyone in the village. After my voice broke, I sounded exactly like my dad and so when I answered the phone I would get people telling me disgusting details of their ailments, before I could shout, 'I’m not him! I’m his son!’ ”

He went to public school (Durham) and then to Trinity College, Cambridge on a choral scholarship – he even considered a career as a professional singer. Contemporaries included fellow comedians Sacha Baron Cohen, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc. Miller and he got together after university, but it took four years before they convinced Channel 4 to give them a series. Their much-loved characters include the Second World War fighter pilots who speak in modern teenage street slang, but other Armstrong and Miller sketches were (and are) often pretty rude. “I think if you talk properly, you can get away with murder,” confides Armstrong.

Yet despite their initial success – four series between 1997 and 2001 – the duo eventually fell out: “I can’t remember why exactly, it was a culmination of things that all exploded one day when we were meant to be writing and I was late – something as minor as that” – and both developed separate careers before re-forming in 2007. Most significant to Armstrong’s solo career has been his role as a guest host in Have I Got News For You; he has appeared on the show a record 19 times as host (although he has yet to appear as a panellist).

“I was terrified,” he recalls of his first time on the show. “When you first step into the studio, it’s a bit like going on the Buckingham Palace balcony. Yet it taught me everything.” What does that mean? “Well, before I hated speaking in public, but Have I Got News For You taught me to be myself, instead of acting a version of myself. It’s such a brilliantly written show and, as the presenter, you’re guaranteed the funniest gags. It gives you the confidence to actually peep out and be yourself during a round.”

Confidence may also come from the contentment he’s found in his family life. He met his wife, Hannah, an events organiser whom he once described as “out of his league”, in 2003. They married a year later. Two Fat Ladies star (and his cousin) Clarissa Dickson Wright allegedly went on his stag do to help the stags ice the wedding cake. Is this true? He laughs: “We thought it might be fun – and it was. But we did do other things, too.” Pause. “We arranged flowers and everything.”

The couple now have three young sons. “My family is absolutely my priority,” says Armstrong. “One of the reasons I’m glad I don’t work in film, or that I didn’t go into professional singing, is that I don’t have to spend huge amounts of time away from home.” Perhaps becoming a father and moving into his forties has also made him more outspoken. He appears in adverts for the Countryside Alliance because he wants people to be properly informed about countryside pursuits (he shoots and fishes). “I’m not saying you have to agree but I want people to understand about country sports, and that ways of life in the country should be respected.” He previously voted Lib

Dem – although he won’t say how he voted in the last election – and says of David Cameron: “He’s the first prime minister since I’ve been an adult that I’m glad is in power. Cameron is the person who does have the guts to do things that are horribly unpopular. [Gordon] Brown wasn’t up to that and [Tony] Blair was never prepared to do anything that was unpopular. It’s a funny thing; as [my generation] comes of age, are we going to remain the people who say things that make us popular or are we going to sit up and say, 'We’d better make some pragmatic decisions here’?”

It’s the time of year that is making him so thoughtful, he thinks – he always finds New Year a “portentous” occasion. “I love this time and always have – even late into my thirties I would regularly have a lump in my throat when I had to say goodbye to my parents after a fortnight with them,” he says. He smiles. There are few comics you can imagine saying any of this: perhaps (whisper it) Armstrong is the real alternative comedian these days?
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Joined: 25 Apr 2006

PostPosted: Thu Jan 19, 2012 5:09 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Alexander Armstrong - 2012-01-14 - Liz Kershaw
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