Some television viewers may now know Al Murray best for his grace under fire in Hell’s Kitchen, the recent ITV reality show in which ten celebrities submitted to the tutelage, and wrath, of explosive chef Gordon Ramsay. But comedy connoisseurs will have already been familiar with the long-standing stand-up and his Pub Landlord.
Murray first introduced his bald, boozy barman as a compere for fellow comedian Harry Hill’s 1994 Edinburgh festival show, Pub Internationale. Ten years on – with myriad TV airings, tours, West End seasons and festival shots of his own, not to mention two Olivier nominations – no one could fault Murray for not having got enough mileage out of his character creation.
At points in his new show, Giving It Both Barrels - in the West End for a handful of “Sunday Sessions” as part of Murray’s longest and most successful tour to date – you can’t help but harbour occasional suspicions that, in fact, Murray has clocked up a few too many miles with this one. Certainly, the show relies heavily on audience gags (and Murray’s rag bag of career-related jokes) and other easy targets (eg late trains, refugees, Americans in general and George Bush in particular).
And the Pub Landlord’s been dishing out his unconventional wisdom too long not to have exhausted the expected realms of drinking-hole etiquette. Wisely, rather than rehashing too much earlier material, what Murray’s amiably foul-mouthed, beer-swilling publican aims to do in Giving It Both Barrels is to put the “Great” back in Great Britain. He does this by relishing the audience’s many “beautiful British names” (Fritz and Bridget notwithstanding), reminding us of the great British inventions throughout history (not least, football, so while we may not have a chance of winning Euro 2004, really “every goal is a goal for England”) and by tossing a planetary beach ball into the stalls to give us a sense of what it felt like when this tiny island nation ruled the world.
While the publican’s globe-pointing commentary feels overlong, it contains some apt insights that pop up like gems in amongst the humorous barrage of expletives, prejudices and general ignorance. Hey, as the man himself says, just because he knows nothing doesn’t mean he’s not qualified to talk – at length – about it.
On the West End press night, the performance benefited from the added bonus of seeing Murray’s two worlds collide. Several of his Hell’s Kitchen co-horts - actor James Dreyfus, former popstar Matt Goss and former MP Edwina Currie - were in attendance, and in receipt of a few very gentle sideswipes, while an uncharacteristically submissive Gordon Ramsay took to the stage at the curtain call in a cameo that ended with fish pie all over Murray’s face. A nice surprise (though no doubt most people would have rather seen the pie landed on Ramsay).
With or without the chef, Murray proves here that he’s got ample talent outside the kitchen. Amongst the things we have to be happy about in Great Britain today, I’d say the Pub Landlord ranks highly.
- Terri Paddock