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Alexander Armstong and Jonathan Yeo talk about their enduring friendship

A celebrity portrait painter and the host of Pointless came to Newcastle with the Duchess of Cornwall. What happened next?

Alexander Armstrong and artist Jonathan Yeo at the Lit & Phil for a Q&A
Alexander Armstrong and artist Jonathan Yeo at the Lit & Phil for a Q&A

Alexander Armstrong, Rothbury-born host of Pointless, had no idea exactly where or when he met his friend Jonathan Yeo, the portrait painter.

“I seem to remember meeting him out and about in the mid-90s and he was a really good friend of other friends of mine,” he said.

“But exactly when and where... obviously if you’re at school together and are members of some underground cult, then you could probably date it precisely.

“We were joint best men at a wedding once and had to give a speech.”

All is shrouded in vagueness. But Alexander – Xander to friends like Jonathan – was taken with the cult idea. “Yes, we met in a strange cult... in Arkansas.

“Alas, we didn’t. If it was a strange cult, it was probably a club in London.”

The men, both aged 44, didn’t go to school together. They grew up at opposite ends of the country. But this week they both had a good reason to be in Newcastle.

They were escorting Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall round the exhibition of Jonathan’s portraits which is on at the Laing Art Gallery. Afterwards they made their way – without the Duchess – to the Literary & Philosophical Society (Lit & Phil), of which Alexander is president, and participated in a fund-raising event for the famous old library.

Alexander arrived first so I was able to ask him about Jonathan.

Suitably, we were seated in the Lit & Phil’s music room – Alexander, as well as being actor, comedian and TV presenter, is also musically gifted and went to Cambridge University on a music scholarship from Durham School – and beneath an oil portrait of past president Robert Spence Watson, one of Alexander’s ancestors.

He cast his mind back to when he and Jonathan were both trying to establish themselves in London.

“Jonathan started out painting his friends,” he recalled.

“He had this deal with Marco Pierre White who had a fabulous restaurant on Dean Street in Soho. Above it were these rooms. I think Karl Marx once had a garret there.

“Every now and then, I think, Jonathan would do something for Marco, some sketches, and that would be his rent.

“I remember him turning up in this very smart Ozwald Boateng suit, which was how Ozwald paid him for a painting. They ended up like Jack Sprat and his wife – Ozwald (the now celebrated fashion designer) couldn’t pay for a painting and Johnny couldn’t pay for a suit.

“Even then Johnny was remarkable. We all knew his was a very special talent but what he has done is remarkable. The art scene is as much about the personality of the creator. You know, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Banksy... it’s quite scary.

“Johnny arrived in it as a figurative painter. It’s not a wildly fashionable thing to be doing, just displaying a really fantastic knack for putting likeness down on a canvas.

“You wouldn’t have thought he’d have a chance in that kind of arena but he’s done it. He has put himself right at the centre of things in London and there aren’t many people he hasn’t painted now.

“He is in the same stable as the big boys. He is one of the big boys and it’s sort of wonderful for someone who is so deserving and so ridiculously nice, principled and decent.”

At this point Jonathan – Johnny – arrived in a small whirlwind of greetings and pleasantries.

How had it gone with the Duchess?

“Oh, she’s great. I think everyone has gradually worked that out, bit by bit. She’s put up with so much s*** but she gets on with it and somehow manages to be relaxed and good humoured.”

Alexander chipped in: “And she’s a massively good influence on him (husband Prince Charles), I think. He carries an enormous burden on his shoulders.

“It’s a funny old job, they do. It makes our jobs seem quite normal.”

Both know a bit about the royals. Jonathan has painted several of them and, said Alexander: “I’ve been in royal line-ups a few times and you get very sweaty palmed.

“But they’re very good. I suppose it is their job, putting sweaty palmed people at their ease – but they do it very well.”

Jonathan, it turned out, had a clearer memory of how he and his friend met.

“We had a mutual friend, a comedian called Steve Furst who had a comedy character called Lenny Beige. He was great at bringing people together and actually introduced Robbie Williams to Guy Chambers who was about a week away from jacking it all in to become a teacher. They went on to collaborate successfully for years.”

Jonathan recalled “a mad cabaret” of “good, creative but mostly drunken people” and the first stirring of a friendship which has survived for 20 years and endures even when the pair are not seeing each other that often.

“At this stage of life it’s that much harder to keep friendships going because you’re busy with work and family, and don’t have time,” said the artist.

“I get a bit of it when I paint people because you meet them several times in the daytime with no particular agenda. Otherwise, it’s hard.”

Alexander laughed. “I think you ossify a bit in terms of your personality as you get older.

“I remember a skiing trip about 10 years ago with some friends who used to be very easy going. You could see a couple of the guys were beginning to bristle a bit. You become less flexible.”

This wouldn’t appear to apply to this pair, although they may be on a bit of a high, Alexander admitting it was nice to have an “excuse” to meet up in a place like Newcastle.

Having spoken about the bizarre duties of the royals and general ossification, Alexander said: “Actually, you know, our jobs are quite fun.

“There are a lot of things I could probably call work that are sort of not that... worky.”

“That’s right,” said Jonathan. “There was a great moment when my younger daughter came home from school in a terrible state.

“I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ She said, ‘It was really embarrassing, Daddy, because there was a discussion about what our mummies and daddies do for their jobs and I had to say, ‘My Daddy does colouring in’.”

Jonathan Yeo, son of one-time Tory Cabinet minister Tim Yeo, is a self-taught painter who has immortalised a ‘Who’s Who’ of famous faces.

He did a painting of Alexander’s wife, which hangs over the stairs in the Armstrong family home, and, about 10 years ago, did a sketch of Alexander. Not a portrait, though. “I probably couldn’t afford him now,” quipped the Lit & Phil president.

Jonathan said he might work it up into a full portrait one day.

Scrutinising his friend, he said: “He has changed less than almost anyone I know. Xander always did look quite sort of...”

“Old,” chipped in Alexander with a smile.

“Middle-aged,” countered Jonathan. “But he looks the same and there’s that same sense of humour.”

What now then for this affable pair? An escape from a daytime quiz show for Mr Armstong?

He looked aghast.

“It is phenomenal, Pointless. You know, at the beginning of this week, Monday, 4.2m people watched Pointless. On a Monday! It’s just nuts. It continues to be popular and I think it’s because Richard (Osman) and I continue to love doing it. I dread the day our ratings start to tail off and our commissioning editor starts to give us meaningful looks.”

Did Johnny watch Pointless?“It’s somewhere between afternoon nap time and colouring in time,” he said.

And to Alexander: “It’s taken me a while to watch it because you were so dismissive about it when it started.”

Alexander: “I was never...”

Jonathan: “You said it was a great idea but you weren’t going to do it for very long. But every time I see you, you are more enthusiastic about it.”

Alexander: “Well, it got me.”

Alexander said he found it “rather sweet” when people came up to him in supermarkets and murmured drolly: “That’s rather pointless, isn’t it?”

So, Pointless seems a safe haven for now. But Alexander, who has also voiced Peppa pig characters, revealed: “I’m setting off on Sunday to do some extraordinary adventure for ITV but I’m not allowed to say anything more about it.”

“Is it ‘I’m a celebrity...?’”

“Dammit! Er, no it’s not. It’ll probably be out in the autumn.”

Jonathan, meanwhile, is planning to do another portrait of Kevin Spacey in character to go with the one of the actor as Richard III currently on show at the Laing.

And with that the pair were off downstairs to entertain an expectant audience in the Brewin Dolphin-sponsored event at the Lit & Phil.

Jonathan Yeo Portraits is at the Laing Art Gallery until February 15.


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