If classical music came up as a final-round topic in BBC television’s popular quiz programme Pointless, co-presenter Alexander Armstrong reckons he’d have no problem finding a pointless answer.
“It’s one of the areas I know I’d do really well in,” says the 45-year-old Northumbrian, currently on a whistle-stop UK tour promoting his debut album as a singer, A Year of Songs, that reaches the Edinburgh Playhouse on 1 February.
It’s one of Armstrong’s talents that has only recently emerged – through YouTube clips of him singing Christmas carols with Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen, or the slick medley of wartime songs he contributed to last year’s televised homage to VE Day, and now in this CD compendium of what he terms “traditional English and Irish pastoral songs”.
They include A Stranger in Paradise and Gershwin’s Summertime, the more folksy Londonderry Air and Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s an eclectic collection, held together by Armstrong’s solid and silvery bass baritone.
His most remarkable asset is his intonation. Armstrong sings perfectly in tune, an ear for the precise centre of each note that sends a sensory shiver up the spine in songs that seem to suit him best – the likes of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and Down by The Salley Gardens. If this musical facet of the Armstrong armoury comes as a surprise, it shouldn’t, least of all in Edinburgh, where the former half of comedy double act Armstrong and Miller first opened his voice in public. “I showed an early talent at home in Northumberland when I was around seven, but it wasn’t until my mother sent me to St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, as a cathedral chorister, that things really began to happen”, he explains.
“During my first term there, the Traverse Theatre and the Scottish National Orchestra [now the RSNO] put on this production of André Previn’s and Tom Stoppard’s play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. There’s a part for a boy; I auditioned and landed the part - well, I was second choice actually, but fellow chorister Dougie Butters pulled out.”
The performances took place at the Usher Hall, the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, and in Stirling’s MacRobert Centre. “It was my first time on a professional stage, surrounded by 90 members of the SNO. I fell in love with the whole idea,” he recalls.
But it was life as a chorister that honed his musicality. “You’re put on an intellectual fast track. You’re performing every day, there’s a huge repertoire, and they rely on you to do a good job every time. That performance instinct is drilled into you in the nicest possible way.”
After his voice broke and his chorister years came to an end, Armstrong completed his secondary education at Durham Cathedral School, before winning a choral scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he sang in the chapel choir. But the Cambridge Footlights, and the comedy partnership he was to nurture there with Ben Miller, led to a career driven by the spoken, not the sung word.
More and more, though, Armstrong is coming back to music, in particular classical music. He presents his own weekend programmes on Classic FM. “It’s such a reliable place to go, particularly at night, where you can listen to something that won’t offend your ears,” he says, a comment intended as a sideswipe at BBC Radio 3’s more esoteric programming.
If Warners are happy with his debut album, could there be another recording project on the way? “I originally wanted this one to be out and out classical”, he reveals. Things turned out differently, he had a lot of fun with the softer music and the big arrangements that emerged, but next time round it will be a classical disc, he promises.
“My first love is Bach: ‘Mache dich’ from his St Matthew Passion is my all-time favourite. I would love to do an album where you bring people in and say ‘you don’t have to be scared of any of this.’”
• Alexander Armstrong presents A Year of Songs Live at the Edinburgh Playhouse, 1 February, 0844 847 1660, and on tour