Alexander Armstrong is a lucky man, and he knows it. Barely a sentence goes by without the genial actor, comedian and presenter giving thanks for his good fortune, acknowledging what a privileged position he’s in and generally totting up his blessings.
Take his latest career left-turn as a singer. Armstrong’s debut album, A Year of Songs, finds him showcasing an impressive baritone on a collection mixing Broadway favourites (Stranger in Paradise, Summertime), pastoral English classics (The Water is Wide, In The Bleak Midwinter) and Irish folk standards (Londonderry Air). But it wouldn’t have happened without a series of lucky breaks.
‘I was very fortunate to go to a school where it was every bit as cool to be in the choir as it was to be in the rugby team,’ says Armstrong – as affable off-screen as on – of his early education in his native Northumberland, which led to successive choral scholarships at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, Durham Cathedral School and Trinity College, Cambridge.
‘Trinity is the best of the Cambridge mixed choirs,’ he explains, with some pride. ‘I was part of a world-beating choral ensemble. It’s an amazing position to be in – to spend three years training until you’re at the peak of your singing ability. At which point you have to ask: do I continue to climb up the foothills of a musical career, or do I abandon it? It’s a tough decision.’
In the end, Armstrong declined a place at the Royal College of Music and chose the foothills of comedy instead, after being introduced to fellow Cambridge graduate Ben Miller. ‘I let myself down gently by singing in various London choirs,’ he says. ‘But I was doing comedy clubs on a Saturday night, and you can’t be at church to sing on a Sunday morning if you’ve been carousing until three in the morning. Carousing in the name of a career, of course.’ Well of course.
After several years on the comedy circuit, including a Perrier Award nomination at the Edinburgh Festival, Armstrong and Miller debuted in their own Channel 4 series in 2007. Since then, the pair have enjoyed huge success – together and apart, playing it both funny and straight – with Armstrong appearing in dramatic roles as diverse as David Cameron, Sir Clive Sinclair and a talking computer in Doctor Who, and finding a whole new audience as host of the wildly popular BBC quiz show Pointless. The latter, like his new recording career, he once again attributes to the P word.
‘I’m in the deeply privileged position of having done comedy. I find that comedy is an almighty and deeply unjust queue-barging system,’ he muses. ‘If you do comedy, you can do anything, seemingly. It’s immensely unjust. But sod it, I’m not going to complain!’
The one thing that wasn’t necessarily a career advantage, ironically, was having been a member of the Cambridge Footlights: Armstrong and Miller’s early days coincided with a period when Oxbridge had fallen out of favour in the wake of the alternative comedy revolution – nowhere more so than at the BBC.
‘It wasn’t BBC policy with a capital P,’ says Armstrong. ‘But there was most definitely far too much Oxbridge within the BBC, so something had to be done. What has happened since is there are now loads of universities with fantastic comedy and drama departments that have produced some very big names. So however much it personally dismayed me not to be welcomed with open arms to the BBC the minute I was spat out by Cambridge, it was a great thing they were doing. Perhaps slightly heavy-handed, but the results have been proven.’
Alexander Henry Fenwick Armstrong – Xander to his friends – was born in Rothbury, Northumberland, in 1970. The youngest of three, his father was a GP and his mother, who served as a magistrate, was a descendant of the 15th Baron St John of Bletso. (On Who Do You Think You Are? Armstrong traced his lineage all the way back to William The Conquerer, but he reckons that’s probably true of most of us.)
In the past, he has spoken of life in the rural North East moving at a glacial pace, and having a sense of being ‘a long way from stuff’. Now that he is, at 45, very much at the centre of stuff, is it everything he hoped it would be?
‘It is,’ he confirms. ‘I have to remind myself every single day to enjoy it. Because, actually, it is everything I dreamed of, growing up in the North East. The highlight of the day back then would be taking the dog for a walk to the post office. Standing by the junction to the Rothbury Road was as showbiz as life got.
‘I used to dream of life in the metropolis. That was an important part of forging some sort of ambition and aspiration. And it does fulfill all my dreams, actually. I’m extremely happy. It’s hard work, as you’d expect, but it’s lovely. There are moments when I look at my diary and sigh, and then I remind myself there’s nothing in that diary I don’t love doing.’
Current entries in said diary include a 10-date UK concert tour, scheduled for January and February, and, before that, another stint as host of Have I Got News For You. Armstrong holds the record for the most presenting shifts on the satirical panel show, and was once in the frame as Angus Deayton’s full-time replacement. ‘It’s true I was groomed for it, if that’s the right term,’ he laughs. ‘But I think they did exactly the right thing in going for guests hosts.’
He also has ongoing commitments as the voice of the re-booted Danger Mouse on CBBC (he admits to being ‘very, very cautious’ of stepping into the shoes of the great David Jason, but is a natural in the role), hosting his own Classic FM show and, of course, presenting Pointless. Since 2009, Armstrong and co-star Richard Osman have fronted 14 series of the hit general knowledge quiz, plus a further eight series of Pointless Celebrities.
Armstrong makes no bones about targeting A Year of Songs at his existing fanbase. ‘I’m in the very lucky position,’ he says, for the hundredth time, ‘of having the audience of Pointless and the audience of Classic FM, who will have a possible interest in hearing the album. Being a first album – and listen to the hubris in that, first album! – we thought it should be accessible to all of those people. What I badly want to do next is something that is more committedly classical. But that’s supposing I get the chance to another album.’
Knowing his luck, I wouldn’t bet against it.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 5, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend