When I last reviewed Al Murray as The Pub Landlord in 2001, I was rather sniffy about the audience not twigging Murray's clever subversions of the little-Englander xenophobia of his character. Now, though, watching the opening night of his Giving It Both Barrels tour in St Albans, I realise that it was me who didn't get it last time.
If you squint at it in a certain way, there are odd parallels between Murray's comedy and the Blair era's politics. In each case, there's an identifiable persona upfront, but the actual content moves in and out of phase with this, the only constant principle being "whatever works". And in each case, contrary to what patronising pundits like me may sometimes say, the audience is sophisticated enough to admire a well-crafted line without necessarily believing a word of it.
Murray is as sharp as Chaplin when he remakes a Great Dictator routine by bouncing a large inflatable globe around the hall to remind us "how it used to feel to be British". He can handle whatever fate throws at him in the form of audience victims, insulting an American, a Spaniard and a German from differing angles without ever seeming actually offensive, and even managing to field a real pub landlord in the front row who drank Murray's stock of complimentary beer dry. He can create warmth and a feeling of connection even in one of the unfriendliest spaces I could have imagined, the unwelcoming, boxily cavernous Alban Arena (disquietingly identical to my old school hall).
He can generate ten minutes' worth of material out of Gulf War II without seeming political, ending with the typical Pub Landlord sentiment that the war was essential because "We've got to stay max fit in case the fucking Germans come again." Similarly, the second half of the show is dominated by a twenty-minute trot across that blow-up globe, mouthing off not just at the major nations but paying wry attention even to the likes of Lithuania and the Central African Republic.
What I failed to realise before is that The Pub Landlord is not, like Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney in the 1980s, the product of a particular historical or social moment. Rather, in at once embracing prejudice, doubling back on it and above all recognising the absurdity of the whole business, Murray has identified a quintessentially English hodge-podge and distilled it into a character that is not of an age, but for all time.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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