AS Al Murray knows, one-man shows do not get scarier than this. Michael Jackson flew all the way from the States for 20 minutes this month just to talk up his appearance at London’s O2 arena in the summer and then went away again – probably for a long lie-down.
The bar-room philosopher will arrive there in May exhausted from a punishing schedule that takes in Newcastle twice and countless other venues on his Beautiful British tour.
"I only got into stand-up not to get up in the morning and now I’m doing this," he sighs. "I’ve done long tours before but not in terms of the sheer scale of this one.
"It’s the biggest by a long way and it’s turned into something quite spectacular. It’s pretty strange really, playing in these big arenas, mind-boggling but exciting."
With a new television series under that famous belt, the Pub Landlord has embarked on his biggest-ever tour of UK theatres and halls.
He has already been to Sunderland Empire and Newcastle City Hall but these are broom cupboards compared with what follows. He will be at Newcastle’s Metro Radio Arena on Thursday, April 16, returning on Friday, May 1, before completing his journey at the 02 a week later.
These are seriously big venues – Newcastle is capable of holding 11,500 people and the 02 all of 14,500 – and Al admits he is scared. They’ve called comedy the new rock ’n’ roll for years, but it’s never had the same scale of live exposure.
"They can hide behind the noise but I can’t. I’ve had this fabulous set made, but ... Anyway, I’m not rock ‘n’ roll, I’m a cup of tea and sandwich man. I’ve been doing this for an extremely long time and you’re always on your own, just me, a stage and then a hotel room."
Al, a public school-educated Oxford history graduate, is the creative aggression behind the Landlord. He fills the role so superbly that many people think he is a pub landlord.
He is not. He’s quietly-spoken, friendly and has a lot more hair. But try telling that to his legions of fans.
The great-great-great-grandson of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, Al was born in 1968 and started performing comedy at Oxford with the likes of Stewart Lee and Richard Herring before writing for BBC Radio’s Week Ending and ITV’s wickedly satirical Spitting Image.
Then he struck out as a solo act, supporting Frank Skinner on his 1992 world tour, before meeting Harry Hill at a Radio 4 commissioning meeting. As a result, he appeared in four seasons of Harry’s Fruit Corner on Radio 4.
Al’s break came in 1994 when Harry invited him to join his touring show called Pub Internationale. The Pub Landlord was born and the rest is bar-room history.
With his national stage tours, own TV series and DVDs, he has struck such a powerful chord with audiences and critics alike that the Press has labelled his creator a genius.
"He’s a universal figure. Everyone can relate to him if only because he spills beer and spouts garbage and everyone knows someone like that," says Al. The scary part is, some people believe it – people even told him he spoke a lot of sense after explaining why God was British.
Separated since last year from his wife Amber with whom he has two daughters, Al guards his privacy and admits he enjoys the warped anonymity that the Landlord gives him.
"It’s funny how people expect me to be," he says. "They expect me to be fatter and more leery – more leery in particular."
And is it any wonder?
Page 2: Chains count the cost of greed
Chains count the cost of greed
WITH one pub closing every 10 days across the North East, the Pub Landlord might soon find himself out of a job.
For all sorts of personal, not to mention professional, reasons, Al Murray hopes the bar room doesn’t disappear for good. "I don’t want to sit at home with a six pack and watch a DVD," he says. But the malaise in the trade isn’t showing any signs of abating.
"It doesn’t come up in my shows yet but I know people who work in that trade are having a really rough time," says Al. His personal opinion? "People got greedy."
He might be right. The national pub chains which concentrated on shareholder dividends now appear to be paying the price.
"The model the pub groups cooked up has relied heavily on squeezing tenants and cutting costs to ratchet up profits and pay off debt," says economics correspondent Sam Fleming. "This looked fine when consumer spending was robust and money was cheap. The trouble is that while debt-laden deals are great fun when business is brisk, they can quickly come unstuck."
Alex Brodie, a former BBC foreign correspondent and now a Cumbrian brewer, believes real ale is holding the pub trade together at the moment. "If any publican wants to put on sales they can just put on a good-quality real ale. It’s not rocket science," he says.
Page 3: Comedy is serious business in North
Comedy is serious business in North
COMEDY has become seriously big business in the North East. In Middlesbrough it has single-handedly rejuvenated the town centre’s night-time economy, adding around £200,000 to the collective bottom line since September, according to the local council.
Where pubs were once the only source of night life, comedy and cultural activities are the new engines of regeneration.
"The opening of the Big Mouth Comedy Club in the Town Hall Crypt has had a great effect, not only in providing a whole new strand of affordable, accessible quality entertainment but also in diversifying the night-time economy," says Juliet Farrar of Middlesbrough Council.
While the Crypt, like Liverpool’s famous Cavern, has that intimate atmosphere so loved by anarchic fringe entertainers, the main stage at the town hall attracts top billing stars like Rob Brydon, Peter Kay, Jimmy Carr and Jack Dee.