Lager than life

Edinburgh Festival: Al Murray once waited at the table of Harry Hill. Now he's serving up his own special brew of comedy. Adrian Turpin goes on an Edinburgh bender with the Pub Landlord
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Edinburgh has always been as much about drinking as it is about culture. So it's no surprise that a man who goes by the title of the King of Beers should be one of the hits of this year's festival, an example of character comedy to rank alongside Caroline Aherne's Mrs Merton and Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge.

The Pub Landlord is not a pleasant man. He is mean, misogynistic, xenophobic ("If it does not grow in this country, we do not serve it in pubs. There's a loophole for peanuts") and self-pitying. But like most people beset by self-pity, he has a sentimental streak the size of a bar door. This manifests itself in the teary lyricism with which he celebrates beer ("a shaft of summer sun caught in a crystal prison"), but it's most evident when he talks about his four-year-old son Carl ("short for Carlsberg. If we'd had a girl, we'd have called her Stella").

The boy now lives in France, after the Landlord's wife eloped with a French publican. Despite his troubled personal history, the Landlord is philosophical. In fact, he's the consummate pub philosopher, continually writing cheques that his intellect cannot cash. Where better to meet the Landlord, and his 29-year-old alter ego, the comedian Al Murray, than on a pub crawl.

Bannermans: A Landlord Is Born

Al Murray is sitting in the flag-stoned homeliness of Bannermans bar, explaining why the Pub Landlord doesn't like Scotland's late licensing laws.

"He's got this cause and effect theory. If pubs don't close at 11, there's no one fighting on the way to the club between 11 and 12. And if there's no one fighting, there's no one in casualty. And if there's no one in casualty, nurses will lose their jobs. And before you know it we'll have nurses begging on the streets. And all because people wanted a late-night drink."

It's the kind of explanation that you might get from Harry Hill, the master of the surreal shaggy dog story that loops back on itself. Which is no surprise, because without Hill - who has known Murray since they wrote jokes together on Radio 4's Weekending - there would probably never have been a Landlord in the first place. It was, says Murray, "a divine accident".

Someone was required to cover the scene changes during one of Hill's tours three years ago. Murray, who was already the drummer in the band, stepped into the breach. From hosting the show, it was a small step to becoming Mein Host - and no one could deny that he looked the part, a genetic hybrid of schoolboy and bulldog.

"We did 70 dates, and by the end of the tour I had a complete act up and running: from 0-40 minutes in six months. It was tough because Harry's audiences know what they like and they like Harry Hill. It was pretty daunting performing in his shadow."

The Landlord's verdict on Bannermans is positive: "Cosy. Barrels on display. Good to be close to the source of the beer." But he's still not happy about the late drinking. "Landlords will never sleep. A landlord's life is short enough anyway. Most of them are dead by the age of 43." Murray admits that he has never worked in a pub, knows little about beer and - "unless you count Grant Mitchell" - still less about publicans.

A brewer who failed to see the joke once offered him the freehold of a couple of pubs in Suffolk, but he wasn't tempted. "For God's sake," he says. "I'm a 29-year-old Oxford-educated ex-public schoolboy from Bedford. I like beer, but I'm not mad."

The Living Room: The Landlord's England

The Living Room is a half-heartedly yuppified pub 50 yards down the road.

As he enters the bar, Murray casts his eyes disapprovingly at the pseudo- Chesterfield leather banquettes. "Now the Landlord would not like this. A bit fancy. A bit wine bar. I think we could be venturing onto the dark side here." He plumps his large frame down on to one of the offending benches, and orders a pint of orange juice and lemonade, which the Landlord would definitely not approve of, and an immense greasy plate called a Trainspotter Special. The conversation takes a turn for the serious.

By the time Murray did his first solo show last year, it was obvious that something sharper had been added to the mix: the vodka chaser that gave the pint a kick. The Landlord had become satirical. Murray had understood the thought processes of xenophobes and Little Englanders, cruelly caricaturing their unique brand of illogic. Suddenly the Pub Landlord looked like he might be to the Nineties what Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney had been to the Eighties.

"I never intended to write satire but it's there. This year I thought I'd take a crack at the new nationalism that Gary Bushell is promoting in The Sun: the idea that Britain is worth celebrating and that we should all pull together and feel proud of it. He's got this lunatic idea, for example, that because the BBC does St Patrick's Night and Burns Night on the telly, it should do St George's Night. And yet what is English identity? We're one of the few nations that doesn't even have its own national dress, which is pretty unusual." By now Murray is in full pub- philosopher mode himself. "Bushell's worth reading, not because he's any good, but because in some peculiar way he knows what's going on in the country." According to the Landlord, Britain has the following things to be proud of: a) we stop at zebra crossings; b) Greenwich Mean Time ("We invented time. Why are all Timelords British in Dr Who?"); c) it is called Great Britain, not Alright Britain or New Britain like New Zealand.

Greyfriars Bobby's Tavern : Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

In the story of Greyfriars Bobby, a faithful terrier visits his master's grave for years after his death. There's a tear in the Landlord's eye. "A touching tale of devotion - and it's a real tourist trap, too, so there's plenty of trade. The guvnor's sitting on a goldmine."

Much like Murray himself, in fact. This year he has confounded the doubters who suspected he was a one-year wonder, by writing a show that is even stronger than 1996's Perrier Award-nominated Late-Lock-In. "Touch wood," he says, "the pub theme does seem a bottomless pit." "Well," I suggest, "it is an interesting blend of liberal humour and political incorrectness." "Well," he interrupts, "everyone's been in a pub, and everyone's met an idiot. If they've only done one of those things, the other will take up the slack.''

And, as if to emphasise what a fertile field of comedy he's ploughing, he tells a true story about the night he was invited to a dinner of the British Guild of Beer Writers in order to receive their inaugural award for the Best Humorous Writing About Beer. The meal was a terrible revenge of life upon art. "It was fantastically heavy. The starter was beer sausages and little Yorkshire puddings with beer gravy on them. The main course was a suety oyster pudding, cooked in super stout, and we had a different connoisseur beer with each course. The pudding was a malt whisky thing. It was," he adds redundantly, "a full-on beer experience. Amazing. I'd never felt so ill in all my life as I did the next morning. Like I was 400 years old."

The dinner was last Christmas, but from the disapproving look he gives the untouched half of lager in front of him, you'd imagine it was last night.

For a moment, the King of Beer looks like he might throw up

`King of Beer' is at the Pleasance, Venue 33 (0131-556 6550) to 29 Aug. A national tour is planned for the autumn