It’s nearly three decades since the character first appeared and in that time, the beer-swilling publican has toured venues across the country, written books, hosted several television shows and, in 2015, famously stood for election in the hotly-contested seat of South Thanet in Kent.
Now, he’s back on the road, with his new Gig For Victory tour, and is in the region for one of his Yorkshire dates later this week. Those watching can expect “two years of pent up pub landlord pandemic panic basically,” Murray says. “And if nothing else, they’ll come to see someone who is amazed and delighted his job didn’t die during the pandemic.
“This time last year I was absolutely convinced that the theatres would never reopen and basically we were done, that was it, we had a good run and a lot of fun but it was over. I was pretty blue about it to be honest.”
The pandemic brought with it the longest period of time the comedian had ever been at home, and whilst there were positives, he struggled to shake-off the feeling “that it might be it, that my job might become one of the casualties”.
His alter-ego, Murray teases, quite liked the drama. “It was a big national crisis and we had to pull together. It’s not the Second World War but as far as he’s concerned it’s the next best thing. He finally got himself a national crisis to reminisce to his grandkids about.”
Soon after The Pub Landlord got back on the road though, Covid struck for Murray, who had to postpone dates in Doncaster and Nottingham in March after contracting the virus.
“Before the pandemic, that would have led to lots of very angry social media exchanges and people trying to sue me…this time around people were like yeah whatever, that’s what you need to do,” Murray says.
“I think people now understand that in a way maybe they didn’t before. Before, if you pulled a gig because you were ill, it was an absolute last resort…There’s something called doctor theatre in showbusiness - the idea that you go on stage and it makes you feel better and often in the past people have relied on doctor theatre.”
His Doncaster date is coming up in June now and Murray is also taking to the stage in his The Pub Landlord guise in Halifax, Hull, York, Harrogate, Leeds and Sheffield.
To use his own words, he’s settled back in to being “back out on the motorway and eating terrible sandwiches”, and he’s enjoying the thrill of a live audience once again.
“I can’t speak for anyone else but maybe we took a lot of things for granted before the pandemic and sometimes it’s good to be reminded and have a jolt about what we took for granted,” he says.
As for that live audience, Murray thrives on interaction. “One of the things I really love about stand up is you have the possibility to ask a question that will change the course of the evening in a way that say you’re in a rock band or a play that rarely happens.
“The fact stand up doesn’t have the fourth wall is something I like to use. Also, I can’t do the same thing every night. My attention span doesn’t work that way basically.”
He’s not organised and he’s not particularly ambitious either, Murray admits. He’s the kind of person who follows an idea, not knowing where it will end up. Much of his work, he says, is a happy accident.
The Pub Landlord is a prime example, dreamt up at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1994 to fill a gap in a show.
Co-founding British Drum Co., a manufacturer of handcrafted drum kits is another. “I met a drum maker and he was deciding what he was going to do next and said let’s go into business together, never really ever believing he’d call me back. And he did, so here we are. There were two of us seven years ago and there’s 24 people working in the factory now.”
Then, of course, there was the decision to stand as a candidate in the General Election of 2015 in his role as The Pub Landlord. Murray stood in the constituency of South Thanet in Kent, a seat hotly contested between now Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay and then UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.
With a manifesto of jokes, it was an opportunity to be funny, Murray says. But his reason for standing went further than that. It came, in part, he explains, on the back of comments by comedian Russell Brand who had spoken about why he didn’t vote and had suggested in a 2013 interview with broadcaster Jeremy Paxman that people should not bother.
Murray explains: “I don’t have the kind of platform to be able to counter someone saying that because I’m not as famous as him. So I thought why not get involved in the democratic process where in the end what I want people to do is vote...
“Also there were quite a lot of comedians saying stuff about Nigel Farage but they weren’t doing stuff about it so I thought let’s do something, let’s run against him.
“Obviously I didn’t win, but neither did he. Although the margin of votes I got didn’t affect his outcome I don’t think, but it felt like a worthwhile, funny thing to do.”
“Something weird” came out of it for Murray on a personal level too. “I ended up quite sympathetic towards politicians,” he says. “I’d gone into it in the mindset of they’re all rubbish, they’re all duds...
“On balance, I think I was wrong. Who’d want to be a politician? It’s a terrible job, everybody wants you to fail, even your colleagues are desperate for you to fail so that they can climb over the wreck of your career.
“There are those who go in it for money or power but there are also a load of them who are in it to change the world because they believe they need to go into public service. We don’t knock people in other lines of public service.”
Back to comedy, and Murray says he’s not surprised audiences “are completely mad for it” after the pandemic.
“People like to talk about how comedy is speaking to truth to power, holding people to account, saying the unsayable but it’s also about being silly, letting off steam and finding a way to deal with the complicated and troubling world that doesn’t involve punching somebody in the face and that’s what you have to remember about comedy...
“Sometimes the way to deal with tough things is to laugh at them. Comedians are here to help basically.”
Al Murray, The Pub Landlord is in Yorkshire with his Gig For Victory tour over the coming weeks, with a date at Halifax’s Victoria Theatre on May 20.
For all dates and tickets, visit www.thepublandlord.com