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Alexander Armstong: "My family is my priority"

Presenting the ever-popular Pointless suits this multi-talented Cambridge graduate just fine. By Simon Evans

Almost by accident Alexander Armstrong and his ‘Pointless friend’ Richard Osman have become kings of teatime TV. Their quiz show, Pointless, has become a ratings success almost despite itself, and has been running since 2009, with more than 1200 editions screened to date. Even the Queen is a fan.

The prize money is peanuts compared to what is on offer elsewhere and the “coveted Pointless trophy”, what appears to be a small lump of moulded plastic, is about as exciting a prize as the old Blankety-Blank chequebook. And yet pleasant, likeable, rounded human beings appear day after day, week after week, year after year apparently, it seems, simply for the fun of taking part. Everyone appears to get on and hosts Alexander and Richard are relaxed, self-effacing, kind and encouraging – it’s how all quiz shows should be but somehow aren’t, and that is perhaps its secret.

It all really started when Alexander became one of the leading contenders to take over the hosting job on Channel 4’s perennial Countdown after Des O’Connor left the popular quiz show in 2008.

Alexander eventually declined the job, saying that he didn’t want to be “pigeonholed“ as a presenter, preferring to focus on acting and comedy, but word of his audition had reached TV producer Richard Osman.

Alexander’s future co-host had studied at Cambridge at the same time and approached Xander (as he’s known to close friends) to co-host a new quiz show, at that stage called Obviously. Richard had helped to devise the show for the Endemol TV production company and thought Alexander’s easy-going style would be perfectly suited to it, especially, as “he didn’t seem a typical daytime host”.

During a 2017 Guardian webchat Alexander explained his decision to take on the Pointless role, despite having turned down Countdown.

“As an actor you can’t really afford to make career choices. You pretty much take what you’re given. In the main you can persuade yourself that any job you do is justified by the fact you’ll get a wage from it.

"Having someone you know and love to work with is brilliant"

“Pointless has been incredible for me because it’s a job I get to do as myself.

“It works very neatly around family life and I’m very proud of it,” although he did add the important codicil that “if anyone will ever take me seriously as an actor again I’d love to keep my hand in.

“I get tired but never bored doing Pointless and we do four shows a day. That says a lot about the peculiar chemistry of eight random people being brought together, the imaginative questions that our brilliant team comes up with and the depth of my friendship with Richard. Having someone you know and love to work with is brilliant.”

The banter between the two hosts is a key reason for the show’s success. They had only been dimly aware of each other at Cambridge and after university their careers took different trajectories, Alexander into comedy and Richard behind the scenes for a producer’s role on shows such as Deal or No Deal, Total Wipeout and Whose Line Is It Anyway?

When Pointless was pitched to the BBC Richard took the role as co-presenter, and was such a success he was persuaded to take on the role permanently.

He and Alexander now appear to be inseparable, and Richard says their friendship is stronger than ever having worked together for ten years.

If anything, however, Alexander’s early life pointed towards a career in music rather than comedy, acting – or presenting quiz shows.

He was born in Rothbury, Northumberland, in March 1970, the youngest of three children (his older brother is now a risk analyst; his sister runs a language school in Paris). Alexander’s father, Henry Armstrong, was an NHS doctor and his mother, Emma Virginia Peronnet Thompson-McCausland, was a magistrate with an aristocratic lineage. Her father was the economist Lucius Thompson-McCausland and her great-grandfather was St Andrew St John, 15th Baron St John of Bletso. Hence the ‘posh’ tag that has sometimes dogged him.

“It depends what you mean by posh,” he says. “I grew up in second-hand clothes but, culturally, we were exposed to a lot of lovely things – great music, good books. We were extremely rich in that regard. And I have seized every advantage I was given to make the most of it.

“In a healthy society, social mobility should be entirely frictionless. And a person’s talents and abilities should be their only claim to success. Undoubtedly I have had huge privileges and a blessed life, but I’m the son of an NHS doctor and we were pretty penniless. I don’t come from any wealth at all.”

Alexander loved growing up in rural Northumberland.

“It made me fiercely ambitious; much as I adore it, you’re a long way from stuff and life moves so slowly.” It is also provided useful comic material. “You come across the weird and wonderful as a country GP, as my dad did.”

At school Alexander showed an early flair for music and, indeed, he is an accomplished singer and has released a series of well-received CDs.

He was a boarder at Durham School and Trinity College, Cambridge, both on music scholarships, playing piano and cello (later switching from the latter to the oboe) and singing bass baritone as a choral scholar with the college choir.

He read English at Cambridge, earning a third class degree, and in his final year joined the famed Footlights, teaming up with future Spooks creator David Wolstencroft to write comedy sketches. Apart from Richard Osman, Cambridge contemporaries included fellow comedians Sacha Baron Cohen, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc.

"I've seen more comedians make good actors than actors make comedians"

Alexander’s future comedy partner Ben Miller was also at Cambridge at the same time but they did not meet until after both had graduated and were living in London.

They were introduced in 1992 at the TBA Sketch Comedy Group, based at the Gate Theatre Studio in Notting Hill. They hit it off straight away and performed their first full-length show together at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1994, returning in 1996, when they were nominated for the Perrier Comedy Award.

The pair’s Oxbridge background and gently satirical sketches appeared to be out of step with the more savage brand of comedy popular at the time but the sheer quality of their material shone through and the Paramount Comedy Channel commissioned them to make the television series Armstrong and Miller, which ran for four series from 1997 to 2001, mostly on Channel 4. In 1998, the duo also had their own radio show The Sunday Format on Radio 4, featuring sketches and characters from their TV series.

Alexander has always, however, been wary of comedians who spout views on issues of the day just because they might be fashionable.

“I’m tired of the fact that it’s rampant among comedians and very good friends of mine to hide behind the opinion that’s going to be most popular,” he told the Telegraph in 2012.

Despite this initial run of success the duo broke up in 2001. “I can’t remember why exactly,” Alexander says, “it was a culmination of things that all exploded one day when we were meant to be writing and I was late – something as minor as that”

After a six-year break they reconvened for The Armstrong & Miller Show, this time for the BBC and also had a second radio show, Children’s Hour with Armstrong and Miller.

The Armstrong & Miller Show was a big hit, memorable for characters such as the ‘chav’ Second World War airmen and Brabbins and Fyffe, a wonderfully rude send-up of Flanders and Swan. It ran from 2007 to 2010 and won a Bafta for Best Comedy Series in 2009. The duo took the show out on the road for a successful 62 date tour in the autumn of 2010 and Alexander also starred as the voice of the computer Mr Smith in Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures.

By this time Pointless had started its run, although Alexander has managed to fit in some acting work in between his presenting duties, including a deliciously filthy turn in the TV black comedy Hunderby. He has also been a regular guest presenter on Have I Got News For You, and at one time was considered as a permanent replacement for Angus Deayton.

“I was terrified,” he recalls of his first time on the show. “When you first step into the studio, it’s a bit like going on the Buckingham Palace balcony. Yet it taught me everything. Before that I hated speaking in public, but Have I Got News For You taught me to be myself, instead of acting a version of myself.”

On the rare occasions Alexander has been able to take on an acting role in the past decade or so he has offered glimpses of just how good he can be, following in a long tradition of comedians turned ‘serious’ actors, including Eddie Izzard, Les Dawson and even Ken Dodd. And his musical training comes in handy, too, as he explained:

“I’m often booked to read at carol services, and I’m also booked to sing at carol services. And when I’m singing I always wish I was reading and vice versa.

“Reading and thereby narration is definitely something improved by a sense of musical intonation and phrasing and I would say the same of comedy. Acting in general is always improved by a comic sensibility.

“I’ve seen more comedians make good actors than actors make comedians and it all comes down to a sense of phrasing.

“Good oratory should always have a musical flair. I’ve got a recording of Michael Foot doing a speech that is a pure aria – he hurls himself into it, it’s a feat of musical performance.”

Despite being an accomplished actor and musician Alexander does not regret never having fully pursued a career in either sphere, mainly because they would have involved being away from home for long periods of time.

“My family is absolutely my priority,” he says and Alexander admits to have being “soppy” over the birth of this three sons.

He met his wife, Hannah, an events organiser whom he once described as “out of his league”, in 2003. They married a year later. Two Fat Ladies star (and his cousin) Clarissa Dickson Wright helped to ice the wedding cake.

With Pointless fitting in so well with his family life Alexander is happy to carry on making the show for as long as the BBC are willing to screen it, and there doesn’t seem to be much danger of the hosts ever taking themselves too seriously; the title of the show sees to that.

“From the very beginning we’ve made as much hay as we’re allowed out of the fact the programme is called Pointless,” Alexander says.

“Even at the pitching stage we were aware of – not so much the rod we were making for our own back, but the comic possibilities for us if we got to seize it first.

“That doesn’t stop people pointing out to us the great irony of the show being called Pointless. It’s hilarious. There’s a moment when I say “let’s meet this evening’s pointless celebrities” where I can sense eight egos to my right coming off the top of the rollercoaster.”

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