Interview: Alexander Armstrong on bringing variety back to Saturday night TV
ALL I did was mention where I live.
"Edinburgh! I get goose bumps even talking about Edinburgh." Alexander Armstrong's dark, boot-button eyes twinkle as his face crinkles up with pleasure. "I was a chorister at St Mary's Music School, from the ages of 11 to 13, after prep school and before I went to the Durham School. Edinburgh's my favourite city in the whole world. I don't think there's anywhere that comes close to it. I looooove it. Obviously I adore the area around St Mary's Cathedral, and the New Town, or going down to the Grassmarket and walking up Victoria Street - any of those areas where you peer around the back of the castle and come up to the Royal Mile. They were two of the happiest years of my life."
Armstrong discovered a talent for singing when he was around seven years old. The 41-year-old, who's the youngest of three, grew up in Northumberland, where his father was a county GP. And at his first school music wasn't relegated to the fringes but gave meaning to many of the students' lives.
"We had an amazing choir run by the headmaster's wife, who everybody in the school adored. She made it so music was an accepted fact of life, not something you opted into, but something everybody strove to be part of. It wasn't until I was 13 that I came across people thinking of music as being a bit gay. It is the most corrosive thing in schools, that this Neanderthal view persists.
"Then I turned up one term and the headmaster's wife had split up from him and gone, so the entire music thing, which was a massive part of my school life, was hopeless. My parents were quick to recognise this and enrolled me as a chorister at St Mary's. I didn't mind being away from home, not at all. It wasn't remotely like being in Fame, but we liked to think it was."
While making an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? a few years ago, Armstrong discovered that he can trace his lineage back to William the Conqueror, on his mum's side. But he has roots here in Scotland too, and not only in the form of an aunt and uncle living in Inveresk.
"I suppose I am Scottish - Armstrong. They were thugs, basically, reivers - and I bet they were ravers, too. They lived in what was known as the Debatable Lands, so it didn't have any allegiance to either the English or the Scottish crown. They would decide on a daily basis who they wanted to give their support to. There were ongoing vendettas, amazing generations-long feuds raged on, like some gangland New York scene."
Armstrong's laughing telling me this, between hurried bites of eggs benedict at Notting Hill's Electric House club on Portobello Road. After the interview he'll catch a train to the Lake District to present the second live episode of The Great British Weather show, the BBC four-parter exploring our national obsession, which concluded this past week. Armstrong is so relaxed he's practically liquid. Following pleasantries, he launches into an explanation of gavelkind inheritance, in order to explain the motivation behind Border reivers' rampaging behaviour. But we really bond over our mutual passion for Edinburgh and Durham.
"Durham is the most beautiful place," he says. "Whenever I'm on a train going north I have to stand, nose pressed to the window, as we pass Durham. I don't think there's a better view in the world."
After the Durham School he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a choral scholar, reading English. He joined the famous Footlights, and forged key friendships that underpin his career to this day. It was here that he met Ben Miller, the other half of Armstrong and Miller, and it's where he met Richard Osman, his current co-host on BBC1's popular afternoon game show, Pointless. When Osman isn't dispensing facts and figures from behind a laptop, he is the Creative Director of Endemol UK. In fact, while we're talking, Armstrong's phone lights up with Osman's daily text reporting their viewing figures and audience share.
"I've never been part of a show that's been that phenomenally successful before," Armstrong says. "Richard is part of the team who developed Pointless, and he and Tim Hincks run Endemol. He is a very important man. This is his first time in front of the camera, but I've known him more than half my life. We were at college together. He has such a colossal brain and he is the funniest man I know - and I know lots of comics. When you come across people who are truly brilliant, and accomplished, they're always happy people, and the vibe you get from them is one of contentedness. Richard is a very genial person and his humour has such warmth to it, even when he is taking the piss - and he can say the most outrageous things."
BBC1 has a lot riding on Armstrong. A few years ago they nearly gave him Angus Deayton's old job on Have I Got News For You, before deciding that audiences preferred seeing a selection of guest hosts - though Armstrong remains the most frequent occupier of the host's chair. Now they're banking on his popularity to win them the lion's share of Saturday night's viewing population with a new variety challenge show called Epic Win.
I tell him the concept, as I understand it, sounds like a cross between X Factor and Dragons' Den, but I seem to have the wrong end of the stick. "The idea is that people come to us with peculiar abilities and we set them a challenge. In spirit, it's more like Total Wipeout, more knockabout than X Factor. If it shares anything with X Factor, I suppose it's that we have a panel of judges, but that is more for comedic purposes.
"For example, one person said, 'I can identify any type of fish merely by being slapped in the face by it.' We lay out the fish and he steps forward - slap - and he has to guess three out of five. If he passes, the panel can award him a completely arbitrary sum of money based on how well he performed or how useful - or useless - his skill is. Sometimes we celebrate utter futility. The more esoteric, the stranger, the weirder, the better. It's about finding people who have diverting, amusing, very specific abilities, a party trick that makes you think, 'That's extraordinary.'"
Does he think entertainment's gone retrograde? Looking through the telly guide, it feels to me as though programmers perceive a yearning for old-fashioned variety entertainment, jazzed up with 21st-century production values.
"There's been too much of the impersonal television programming. Let me think what I mean by that. The same thing happens, for example, if you look at a place like this." He waves his hand around, drawing my attention to the homely decor of Electric House's dining room. "What this place used to be was very slick, white, impersonal, and wipe-clean. It was clinical and cool. Now look at what we like: pictures on walls and dark wood colours and rich upholstery, really nice comfy stuff that feels very clubby. In television terms, just as this has more warmth and personality to it, and feels more comfortable, we are deciding that actually we do quite like the variety element, because it has personality, and it is very easy to get involved."
If Armstrong's recent career choices feel more light entertainment than edgy, it could be attributable to becoming the father of three little boys, the youngest of whom was born last year. He is a devoted family man, and makes being a dad sound like the highest possible calling - but not in that cloying way some celebrities have, when they describe what it's like having kids.
For instance, given his stellar baritone, I ask why he hasn't done a West End musical, and whether the idea appeals. His face crumples momentarily and I take that for distaste, until he says, "No, I really would. The problem is committing. It's not that the parts aren't tempting, it's that you have to commit to six or 12 months of the same thing. But it's not even that, so much as being away from home. Now that we have a family, I just couldn't. It's all changed."
Surely the West End isn't that far from his London home? "Yeah, but we're in the country at weekends. Our main house is in the country, all our stuff is in the country, and that's home, though the boys, who are four, two and one, are in school in London during the week.
"That's a lot of bath times to miss. A year of bath times. I don't think I can do it. We were on tour last year doing Armstrong and Miller - and obviously that's compounded by travel, which is not something I would have on the West End - I mean, listen, I am already talking myself into it, aren't I? Hmm." Ah, he's smiling again. "Maybe sometime, but not until the children are a bit older. They're getting to an age now where I'm already beginning to appreciate that what seemed like a massive task of parenting - now that the oldest, and to a degree, the two-year-old, are being a little bit more independent, your role isn't one of constant superintending, as it was to start with. I'm a very engaged dad, and already the reward is so much greater, because my children know me really well. And they don't think, 'Oh God, it's Dad, he doesn't know one end of me from another.'"
What was he like as a young man? When he went to university to read English, what was his ultimate goal? "I had no idea what I wanted to be. I think I knew I wasn't going to be a professional singer, though I thought about it. I was a choral scholar and did some soloist work towards the end of my time at Trinity. I loved the idea, and I was so glad and flattered that anyone thought it was something I should do. Then quite early on I recognised that you have to love that life. It's peripatetic ad infinitum. The more successful you are, the more far-flung your life is, and you do live out of a suitcase. Friends of mine who have gone on into professional singing, their diaries are completely at the mercy of travelling all over Europe to the festivals."
When did the penny drop that comedy and acting were the way forward? "Golly, I don't know. I genuinely thought university was three years when vast maturity would sink around my shoulders along with a clear sense of purpose, and I'm afraid it didn't. But what did settle around my shoulders was a sense of self reliance. There's a very important part of what the Footlights achieves, this splendid sense of self-sufficiency.
"The student body, every year, put on a huge national tour that's written, performed, produced, managed, and mounted by the undergraduate body. And it's amazing. They play 1,200-seat theatres across the country. So we leave Cambridge with a tremendous sense of - it's not entitlement. I think people, with some justification, might think that, but it's a sense of, 'Well, I'm not going to let the grass grow under my feet. I can get this thing going now.'
"So a gang of us set up a comedy club in Notting Hill immediately after leaving Cambridge, and it went for two or three years, very successfully. It meant we were instantly doing something. Within months we had TV producers there and comedy developers constantly coming in, and little bit parts would come our way."
That train of his won't wait, but before we part, with an eye to our publication date, I wonder if Armstrong, who, with Miller, was nominated for a Perrier Comedy Award in 1996, has a top tip for first-time Fringe performers? "Yes. If you're just starting out, take massive risks with the material you're taking to Edinburgh, but be very honest with yourself once you're there. Be quick to get rid of anything that is not working. Edinburgh is the place for opening a new chapter. The Fringe is an amazing thing. I am always amazed I'm alive by the end of it."
• Epic Win is scheduled to begin on 20 August, on BBC1. Pointless is on BBC1 at 5:15, daily.
This article was originally published in The Scotsman Magazine on August 6.