Pointless’ Alexander Armstrong: From strength to strength
PUBLISHED: 12:16 12 November 2019 | UPDATED: 12:16 12 November 2019
Sketch shows, singing, TV presenting, the radio... is there anything Alexander Armstrong can’t do?
After 25 years in the entertainment business, Alexander Armstrong is still trying to make sense of his career. It's been a varied one. Since being a chorister in his childhood, he has been a sketch performer, actor, gameshow host, recording artist and voiceover artist.
Now, true to form as he enters his 50th year, he is adding another string to his bow, setting off on the road with a one-man show and all his usual breathless enthusiasm for a new venture.
His first ever stand-up tour, All Mouth and Some Trousers, takes in 18 venues across the country - including King's Lynn Corn Exchange - and reflects on the strange things he has said yes to over the years.
"As I approach my 50th year, it's me trying to discover what the trousers are! Where are the trousers in this deal?
"Because it has been a lot of mouth from me. But where's the grit, where's the actual story; where am I, what do I do? That's really where I find myself in my 50th year. I find myself looking around trying to find my purpose, trying to find what the meaning is to all the things I've done so far!"
Indeed, his career has taken a number of unexpected twists and turns from the surrealism of Armstrong & Miller to his role as the genial host of the hugely popular Pointless, from Classic FM to Peppa Pig. It's no surprise that his fan base ranges from pre-schoolers to pensioners.
"It's the bit in the middle, I'm not sure of!" he laughs.
A trained classical baritone, music was his first passion and he attended Trinity College, Cambridge on a music scholarship, before moving to London to pursue a career in acting and comedy. A fortuitous meeting with Ben Miller saw the pair forge a lasting and fondly remembered comedy partnership.
"We came from a very similar place in terms of our comic sensibility. We sort of clung to each other and thought, this is very special. We've got a thing that we can do. It was really lovely."
They honed their act at a comedy club, before being quickly snapped up by television. Armstrong and Miller ran for four series on Paramount and Channel 4 from 1997 before they returned on BBC One for a further three award-winning series in 2007.
Among the memorable characters that the pair created were two World War II RAF pilots who speak in upper-class accents but use modern-day street talk. They knew from the outset that they had struck gold.
"That was enormous fun to do. You can always tell when you're trying out new characters and sketches, if there's one or two that just fly and they just flew. We knew from the beginning that was going to be our star sketch," he says.
The early 2000s saw Alexander star in sitcom Beast set in a vet's surgery before appearing alongside Caroline Quentin in Life Begins. He also made the first in a run of appearances on Have I Got News For You, later becoming its most frequent guest presenter.
The show that has perhaps made his name more than any other though came in 2009 when he was offered Pointless.
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"I saw its potential from when I first read it but I'm a hopeless optimist, so I find all kinds of programs that have turned out to be terrible that I thought were going to be brilliant! But Pointless did have something particularly special about it." Describing the question setters as genius, Alexander believes part of the show's success is the way it rewards a "level of geekery", creating an irresistible play-along factor for viewers at home.
Perhaps more importantly was the other most significant pairing of his professional career, that with old university friend Richard Osman. Coming from primetime comedy, neither had much experience as presenters. The BBC saw the special rapport between the two though and allowed them to learn on the job.
"It was nice to bring an element of a primetime comedy to a daytime slot. They were very good at fitting Pointless around us because truth be told, neither of us was particularly good at presenting. We were a bit ropey, we weren't very polished but rather than apologise for that, that kind of became the thing; that it was a bit rough around the edges and that we would go off piste and have fun with it. That's now kind of the Pointless format.
"We both genuinely enjoy doing it. It can be exhausting but it's never boring. Each round and each show the chemistry changes, there's a new mix of personalities and there's always some exciting round or a round that's just fun, or that brings in some new element that just keeps it fresh."
His life took another turn in 2013 when he returned to his musical roots. The genesis for this came when Sir Tim Rice asked him to sing comic song No Rhyme for Richard from the musical Blondel as part of a BBC celebration of Rice's work at the Royal Festival Hall.
"No-one really knew that I sang before then. Not for want of me telling them! I've been trying to get my toe in the music door ever since I moved to London. It's been incredibly successful, music. It's been a lovely thing to do."
As well as two top 10 albums, music brought two unforgettable, "proper hair on the back of neck" moments in 2015. He participated in the commemorative concert VE Day 70: A Party to Remember from Horse Guards Parade and later in a special edition of Songs of Praise from the Royal Albert Hall to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II becoming the world's longest-serving monarch.
Earlier this year he appeared in front of the Queen again when he gave a talk to mark Sandringham Women's Institute's centenary, an event which revealed the monarch's hidden skills at Pointless.
"It was just an unbelievable privilege to speak to a tiny room full of people and just one of those people happens to be the Queen. A moment of pure surrealism.
"We played a little round of Pointless. I brought a trophy along for everyone to play for. She was superb, really game and got into it. She was great fun. They were all brilliant. It was a really lovely afternoon. Something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
Alexander now looks forward to returning to his great love of comedy. Built around stories from his professional life, his tour embraces standup as well as character driven material and original songs.
Reflecting on his career, he says: "Your job in entertainment in its broadest sense is never really in your hands. You throw up a couple of feelers and you basically see where the wind takes you and that's kind of how it runs.
"You end up doing whatever you get and you post rationalize it. You think well alright, I seem to be working quite a lot in this area, so I guess that's what I do. Because when you start out, you could end up doing anything, and basically it all comes about because you just try out all the things you're offered!"
You sense that, as he enters the next phase of his career, there will be more unexpected twists and turns ahead, providing new success stories to add to his ever-burgeoning CV.
Alexander Armstrong is at the King's Lynn Corn Exchange on November 23.