Frank Sinatra once said of Groucho Marx: “The only thing the man can’t do is sing, and that gave me an opening.”
He couldn’t have said the same about Alexander Armstrong, who has three best-selling albums to his name and sang baritone in his college choir. Armstrong is also a TV presenter, he’s a regular host of Have I Got News For You and presents the BBC’s hugely popular quiz show, Pointless; a comedian – he’s one half of Armstrong and Miller – and an actor and much sought after voice-over artist – he’s provided voices for a string of children’s animations including Danger Mouse, Peppa Pig and Hey Duggee.
For all his many talents, though, he’s never done a stand-up tour before, something he’s about to change next week when he embarks on a new one-man show, All Mouth And Some Trousers, which comes to Harrogate, Hull and York in November.
It’s a mixture of candid stories drawn from his career, plus comedy and music, including six new comedy songs.
For Armstrong, or ‘‘Zander’’ to his friends, it’s something he’s wanted to do for quite some time. “Live comedy is where my roots lie. It is where I come from and I’m so excited to be coming back to it,” he says. “The live show is just a lovely chance for me to have a free hand. It’s all very light-hearted. It’s just about me returning to my first love: writing stuff and creating characters that make me laugh,” he says.
“Each show is a totally different experience, which depends entirely on the audience. As long as you’re not glued to a script, on any night you will go along with what that particular audience is enjoying. I love that about stand-up.”
Armstrong feels he’s been out of comedy for too long. “The truth is I love doing Pointless, it’s fantastic, but if you’re not careful you can become institutionalised when you’re doing the same thing day in day out.”
So, to challenge himself, he set about writing new material and creating a one man show, and rather than finding the whole process daunting, he says it’s been liberating. “Sitting down and writing again, which I really love, has kind of rejuvenated me. It will only be me on stage. I’ll be without the lovely Mr Miller and without my band but it’s really nice to be doing something that’s genuinely me,” he says.
Armstrong is the youngest of three children and grew up in the family home near Rothbury in Northumberland, where his father worked as a GP and his mother as a magistrate.
Music was something he was interested in from an early age, though it stemmed initially from defying his parents. “As young children we were told to never use the record player. So, like most children, when you’re told not to do something you want to do it more. Some mornings I would get up early and go downstairs and listen to records, and a by-product of this was a love of classical music.”
Coming from the North East it wasn’t the only type of music he enjoyed. “Northumberland had a wonderful folk music scene when I was growing up. People genuinely played the fiddle and the penny whistle and every night was a folk night, people would listen and dance to the music in the pubs. Music was very much alive there and I think it still is.”
It rubbed off on the Armstrongs, too. “There wasn’t a big family gathering without a rendition of songs like Keep Your Feet Still Geordie Hinny,” he says.
When it comes to comedy, it was Monty Python that lit the touchpaper. “My brother is five years older than me and he bought a Monty Python record when I was about 11, and I’d never heard anything like it before. I got three or four of their albums and sat and listened to them over and over again. I adored them and the seed was sown.”
Armstrong went to Trinity College Cambridge on a music scholarship, and dabbled in amateur theatrics. Both he and Ben Miller, his future comedy writing partner, were at Cambridge at the same time. “He was in a local band called The Dear Johns and he was also this acclaimed physicist and was generally thought of to be a bit of a dude, so I knew who he was.”
However, it wasn’t until after they had left Cambridge that they were introduced to one another. “We started writing stuff and it turned out we had exactly the same sense of humour,” says Armstrong.
Rather than working on more traditional, carefully constructed, sketches they revelled in a more surreal style of humour. “We were more about pastiche than punchlines,” he says.
And music was at the heart of what they did in the early days. “People perhaps don’t realise but when we started out we wrote funny songs. About half of the stuff Armstrong and Miller did before we got on the telly was music.”
In 1996, the pair were nominated for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which led to the BBC commissioning their own show, Armstrong And Miller. They went from being seen as part of the alternative comedy brigade to mainstream TV. “With prime time telly you need to make sure you’ve got something for everyone. It’s like a bowl of muesli you’re serving. We also tried to make it a little bit cerebral, we didn’t just go for mainstream gags.”
It ran for four series and then Armstrong was asked to host a new quiz show, called Pointless with his old friend Richard Osman (the pair had known each other since they were 18).
Armstrong admits he had a few reservations about stepping into the world of daytime TV.
“At the time we were still doing Armstrong and Miller and we’d just won a Bafta, so for me to do a daytime TV show was a big consideration. But I loved everything about the show and I love Richard, so I needed a very good reason not to say ‘yes.’”
He says he had previously been offered the job of hosting Countdown, which he turned down, but said yes to Pointless – and is pleased he did. “When we started we had no right to expect it to be so popular. Normally, these kind of shows are very slick and then we arrived and it was a bit slapdash, but I think people quite liked that. The BBC kindly let us build the show around our own presenting styles and the eggy pauses seemed to pick up a bit of a following.”
Now he’s hoping to add yet another string to his bow with his debut stand-up tour. “I like the idea of doing something on my own. I think it’s going to work and I’m very pleased with the show. I love performing, and I’ve done plenty of it, and I really hope to be able to do more of it.”
Alexander Armstrong’s tour All Mouth And Some Trousers is on at the New Theatre, Hull, Nov 6; Royal Hall, Harrogate, Nov 7; Barbican, York, Nov 10.