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Interview: Alexander Armstrong, president of the Lit & Phil

HE’S the man who appears as an awkward customer in those insurance ads on TV.

Alexander Armstrong at The Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle
Alexander Armstrong at The Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle

HE’S the man who appears as an awkward customer in those insurance ads on TV. He’s the host of Pointless, the BBC quiz show whose rocketing viewing figure suggests it’s anything but. He will also play a Second World War fighter pilot in the Dr Who Christmas Day special (no waxed moustache, he promises).

I could carry on in this vein for a couple more columns at least, for Alexander Armstrong is, truly, a man of many parts and many talents.

I could tell you how he enjoys singing the choral works of JS Bach when he’s all alone and how his wife, Hannah, suspected they might be in line for an audience with The Queen and Prince Philip.

In fact, the diary entry she had read as “Liz & Phil” actually said “Lit & Phil”, which is where we met yesterday and where he entertained a crowd of young Tyneside bookworms by reading A Killer Cat’s Christmas by North East best-selling author Anne Fine.

Alexander Armstrong is the high-profile president of the Lit & Phil on Westgate Road, Newcastle, and just the chap to champion the £1m appeal fund aimed at safeguarding its future. Much of his family’s past has been tied up with the august institution and he makes no secret of his affection for it.

“I’m quite fanatical about this place because this is one of the reasons why the North East has taken off as a huge centre, philosophically and scientifically,” he says.

“It really did burn brightly. The country wouldn’t have achieved what it has if it weren’t for places like this and people like Stephenson, Swan and Armstrong.”

You can imagine the latter rumbling appreciatively in his grave for Alexander occupies a twig on the same family tree as Lord Armstrong, even if he stresses that he is not a direct descendant of the great inventor, industrialist and master of Cragside.

“There are so many fabulous things about this place,” he goes on.

“It was a very important centre for scientific research. That’s the philosophical side of it because they didn’t really call it science in those days, it was natural philosophy.”

Do I imagine a wink creasing the face of the bearded gent whose portrait has pride of place on the wall opposite?

“He was my father’s great uncle, Robert Spence Watson,” says Alexander who is very, very well connected (the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? established that he is even descended from William the Conqueror).

“He was the grandfather of the modern Liberal Party and a privy councillor. Because he was a Quaker he had special dispensation not to carry his sword of office.

“What I like about him is that he thrived on political discussion but never let it get in the way of friendship. He had friends across the political spectrum.”

Alexander likens the approach to “proper” cricket fans who don’t much care about the results but just want to see good cricket and sportsmanship on the field of play.

I was intrigued to see that Alexander’s maternal grandfather was Lucius Thompson-McCausland, a notable British economist who helped to set up the International Monetary Fund after the Second World War and was advisor to the governor of the Bank of England and also to the Treasury.

“He was a fabulously intelligent man with quite a scary brain but an utterly lovely man and a lovely grandfather.

“He’d have been an amazing person to seek the opinion of now but you never get to know about people like that until you read their obits.”

Thompson-McCausland died in 1984 when his grandson had just entered his teens.

Alexander grew up in Rothbury and went to Durham School en route to Cambridge University and the famous Footlights theatre club, bastion of razor-sharp satire.

He studied English at university but says he always wanted to perform even though he hadn’t been especially outgoing as a child. “I was oddly shy. I am shy. I was always quite awkward company until things were in full sail. It’s like my windsurfing. I’m quite shaky at first but once I’m upright I’m away.”

It must have been in his genes. Esther McCracken, the playwright who also helped to establish what is now Northern Stage, was his great aunt, and although she died when he was a baby, he still felt her influence. “She was a real Geordie heroine.”

Having been a chorister and a choral scholar, there was always the possibility of a musical career. But now Alexander says: “I’m all right. Singing is still a big part of my life but I don’t do it publicly, just friends’ weddings.

“I don’t sing in the bath but I do sing in the car when I’m driving. Choral stuff mainly. Bach.”

His initial success came with fellow Footlights member Ben Miller and their Armstrong and Miller comedy duo. Since then, it seems, success has followed success.

He reveals that he has recently been accepted into a “rather wonderful” lunching club whose members include Michael Parkinson, Jimmy Tarbuck, Tim Rice, Ronnie Corbett and Terry Wogan.

It sounds like an entertainment hall of fame but there’s no audience this time and they have a high old time.

“They play a bit of golf, which I don’t happen to play, and they raise some money for charity.” And also, apparently, they sing silly songs.

But if it also sounds like a retirement club for one-time prime-timers, this is certainly not where Alexander Armstrong is at.

He is busy. So busy, in fact, that he has just turned down the chance to do a show for BBC2 that he had really wanted to do.

He had looked in next year’s diary and seen the danger of overload.

“Having not been somebody who gets particularly stressed, I am getting to learn what the line is and how far you can go.”

He says he had been flicking through one of the Sunday supplements recently and found a questionnaire to test your stress levels.

“’Do you regularly wake up at 4am and not go back to sleep?’ Yes. On three things out of the five I had to answer yes.”

Stress, he muses, can be very good for getting things done. On the other hand: “I don’t want to get to my 50s and find I’ve been away for all the important chapters of my children’s lives.”

He has three young sons, Rex, Patrick and Edward, and he and Hannah are striving to bring them up properly.

This will be exemplified this Christmas when he will be striving to do the right thing, ensuring a modicum of tradition is observed.

“I loved Christmas more than anything in the world,” he says, before explaining that he has always vowed not to impose the rituals of his childhood Christmases on his own children.

“But I’ll make sure we get lots of carols and we’ll go to church. We live in an old vicarage (in Oxfordshire) so we have one in our garden.”

He laughs heartily. “We don’t have much excuse for not going. But I love it. I think it’s a good discipline and I don’t see any harm in children learning to be bored for a while.”

For the Lit & Phil president, the 2012 diary is already filling up, challenging his pledge to ring-fence time for the family.

There will be “157 new episodes” of Pointless to record, reflecting the fact that its 4.3m viewers make it a worthy successor to The Weakest Link.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever had an on-going job in my life,” says Alexander.

Then there’s the column he writes for The Daily Telegraph and his film reviewing for posh people’s glossy The Tatler.

Ask him about his top films of the year and it’s clear the cinema is no passing fancy.

“Drive,” he says immediately. “What a cracking film that was! Then there was Wuthering Heights by... by... Anyway, that was really brilliant.”

It was Andrea Arnold’s take on the novel by Emily Brontë that impressed him.

And with that, Mr President has to go downstairs to meet Anne Fine and entertain children from two Tyneside primary schools, St George’s and Ravenswood.

Anne Fine says Jack Dee reads her story in the audiobook version but she is happy that Alexander is to do it here. Resounding applause later on suggests the children were happy too.

In the tradition of his exalted ancestors, Alexander Armstrong is determined to do his best for the Lit and Phil, this brightly shining Tyneside gem.

You can find out more about its appeal and future events on www.litandphil.org.uk. And if you’re quick, they are offering discounted library membership for Christmas.

There are so many fabulous things about this place


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