Al Murray: Through the looking glass

Think the Pub Landlord is a close relative of his creator? Think again. Ian Burrell meets a multilingual, renaissance pint-puller
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The Independent Culture

With the Christmas market in mind, Al Murray has released a DVD that features the Pub Landlord's take on the Holy Father himself. "In Nomine Patris et Filii," says the Guv, theatrically making the sign of the cross. "Patris-Filii-Fidlee-Paedo-Fidlee ..." he continues, standing in front of a giant screen image of Pope Benedict XVI with reddened demon eyes and a black toothbrush moustache in recognition of the Bishop of Rome's German ancestry.

The DVD was shot in Hammersmith, west London, last month but days earlier Murray performed the same routine in Ireland. "You should have been in Dublin when I did that material," he says with a smirk. "You had people on their feet cheering and clapping, and others with their arms folded, shaking their heads. Whether that's because you don't diss the Pope because it's too terrible, I don't know. But that was very, very exciting – the mischief and the energy of it. Mischief is what I'm interested in."

That particular routine, in which the Pub Landlord complains that religion has "gone bonkers mental" suggests rounding up all the paedophile priests and putting them on an island (while pondering "Is the world ready for another Australia?"), is about more than simple mischief making. In real life, Murray – an atheist but one who "is not anti-religion" – was spotted on a protest march during the Pope's visit to Britain in September. "I went on the protest because of the Pope's position on condoms in the Third World and HIV and Aids. I can't see why anyone wouldn't be marching against the Church's attitude on that, I see it as a no-brainer. If the Dalai Lama opposed condoms I would march against him. I wasn't there because I'm worried about the Papist Plot or I want the Catholic Emancipation Act repealed," says the history graduate, his voice shorn of the landlord's sonic boom.

Murray, 42, is the son of a lieutenant colonel and attended boarding school and Oxford University. A brilliant instinctive comic, he is also an urbane, highly cultured man. Next year he will make a documentary to mark the bicentenary of the birth of WM Thackeray, who happens to have been a distant relative. Last year he hosted an insightful BBC4 documentary in which he explored the origins of German nationalism, a favourite topic of his war-obsessed, pint- pulling Little Englander alter ego.

Murray invented the Pub Landlord 15 years ago and has been touring the act for a decade. The character is so well-honed that his creator finds it easy to create new material, knowing how the Guv would react to any circumstances. "The point of view is so well formed that you can feed anything into it," says Murray. "He thinks the Coalition is a lager top, a good cocktail for the summer, but are they a winter warmer?"

Sipping spring water (the horror!), Murray, who recently overheard cinema patrons describing him as a "tall, thin Al Murray", has no concern that his appearances on demos and as a documentary presenter may undermine the impact of a character that made him a star with a series of best-selling books and DVDs. "Now people know there's a real one maybe there's more chance of them understanding that the Pub Landlord is a gag, that I'm trying to send up as many things as possible in one go," he says.

His trademark is quickfire interaction with the front rows, much ridiculing audience members' job descriptions. One of the Hammersmith crowd who said he worked "in the internet world" was told "The internet world? You work in PC World dontchya?" Modern job titles are "hilariously vague or overblown", he says. "Someone said they were a 'merchandiser' when they worked in JD Sports selling shoes."

Does he think there are audience members who still see the Pub Landlord as a hero? "There probably are, but there are people who look at a painting with an apple in front of a bloke's face and think it's an apple in front of a bloke's face," he says, referring to The Son of Man by Magritte. Murray says he can't make the message more obvious. "I'm not going to shout at the end of the show "Not!" or issue disclaimers."

In any case, "everyone's got their own sense of humour haven't they?" and if he was to try to tell people what they should laugh at he'd be no better than the Pub Landlord, declaring that the British are the funniest nation in the world, a view adopted by some of his peers on the circuit. Murray went to the Alpine resort of Meribel recently and delivered his Pub Landlord act in French. "My O-level French is ancient but weirdly hard-wired and I can churn it out. I got the Collins app on the iPhone so that I could pick the verbs I needed and as long as I knew how to decline them I was alright," he says nonchalantly. He also enjoyed performing his routine in Brussels for the bureaucrats the Pub Landlord abhors.

Murray's show at the Edinburgh Festival was a relaxed affair based on the pub quiz. He has turned the act into a book, "a proper playable quiz", and is developing it as a television format. In the meantime, he continues his Barrel of Fun tour. Material for this character, says Murray, is "like a bottomless pit". He is not about to call time on the Pub Landlord.

The Pub Landlord's Great British Pub Quiz Book. A DVD, Barrel of Fun, is released on 22 November.