Pub landlord reveals his literary side

Al Murray, the bar-room comic, is making a documentary about his ancestor William Makepeace Thackeray
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The Independent Online

William Makepeace Thackeray is a "beautiful British name", as Al Murray's comic character the Pub Landlord would say. But few would associate the comedian and his shaven-headed Little Englander alter ego with one of the greatest writers in the 19th-century literary canon.

Yet the two are in fact related, with the comedian being the great-great-great grandson of the Vanity Fair author. And Murray has revealed that next year he will make a landmark BBC documentary to mark the bicentenary of the birth of his famous relative.

In an interview with The Independent, Murray described Thackeray as "a fascinating character" but said that he had only in recent years taken an interest in the work of his forebear. "We are trying to get something off the ground for next year because it's the bicentennial of his birth in 1811. His life was amazing. He was a journalist really, a Grub Street hack in the finest sense," he said.

Despite the rough-edged nature of the Pub Landlord, a character the comedian has embodied and developed over the past 15 years, Murray himself is an Oxford University history graduate. Last year he presented a documentary for BBC4 on the emergence of the German national identity in the late 19th century, and his programme on Thackeray could be for the same channel.

He disclosed that he was invited to visit the Israeli embassy in Palace Gardens, Kensington, a residence originally built for Thackeray in the 1860s. "They found out about the connection and invited me to visit which was really interesting," Murray said. "That's in Kensington on the side of the park. He built it as his status house, it was meant to cost him £2,000 and cost him £4,000. He had to sell it because he was broke and he had gambled it all."

Murray said Thackeray's bicentenary will be a literary event in America, with an archive being opened next year in Boston. "They take him very seriously in America, he's still a huge author there. He was there for nine months and it had been quite a risky trip because the packet steamers were quite dangerous, exploding and sinking. He then went to the South and said some ill-advised stuff."

Like Murray, Thackeray stood 6ft 3in. But the comedian said he didn't want to exaggerate the significance of his connection. "I don't take it terribly seriously but it's a good starting point [for the documentary]."

Although his family made him aware of the relationship, the comedian resisted the urge to read his relative's oeuvre. "I didn't read any of his stuff until quite recently. I read Vanity Fair about 10 years ago, but I've read a lot of his journalism, The Yellowplush Papers, The Book of Snobs and a lot of the Punch writing. I prefer it. Things like The Virginians and Pendennis are extremely heavy going."

When Thackeray died, the last mourner at his graveside in London's Kensal Green cemetery was Charles Dickens, the only English writer to achieve greater fame in the mid-19th century. Murray said: "Dickens, his great rival, stayed at his graveside for an hour after everyone else had left... all the actors and gambling buddies and journalists and," – Murray coughs – "prostitutes."

Thackeray, like Murray, was a fine satirist. And like Murray, whose act is enjoyed by some of the conservatives who the Pub Landlord cleverly sends up, he was able to satirise elements of his audience and be lauded by them at the same time.

Today, the author is remembered largely for Vanity Fair, which was subtitled "A Novel Without a Hero" and was originally published as a series in Punch magazine. It highlights the greed, snobbery and hypocrisy in British society at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

The bellicose Pub Landlord would surely make the point that Britain, the world champion of wars, was ultimately successful in that conflict. Murray, the historian, will no doubt offer a greater insight into the legacy of his lofty antecedent.

Al Murray

Born 1968 The grandson of a diplomat, Sir Ralph Murray, who worked at the Political Warfare Establishment propaganda unit, the Buckinghamshire-born comedian was educated at Bedford School and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he read modern history and started performing comedy.

William Thackeray

Born 1811 William Makepeace Thackeray’s early life provided the perfect preparation for his later fame gained chronicling the moral shortcomings of his fellow man. His mother was tricked into marrying his father, a wealthy Anglo-Indian official, after her family lied that the man she really loved had died.

Following his father’s own death the young Thackeray was dispatched from Calcutta at the tender age of five which left his mother free to wed her childhood sweetheart.

A three year separation proved deeply painful for the young boy as did the traditional public schooling he received in Britain. His six years at Charterhouse were particularly brutal. The first words he heard uttered there were “come and frig me” and the young gentleman amused themselves between canings by witnessing the public hangings at Newgate.

An undistinguished scholar he made little academic impression at Trinity College Cambridge preferring to attend wine parties, gamble and make visits to sample the illicit pleasures of the Continent. Having failed to gain a degree Thackeray travelled to Weimar where he met Goethe though this brush with greatness failed to deter him from the wild parties which dominated his life on his return to London.

He flirted briefly with the law but instead found himself drawn to the raffish world of journalism though his inherited fortune soon disappeared with the collapse of an Indian bank and the failure of two newspaper ventures that were to act as a vehicle for his writing talents. He tried and failed to make it as an artist in Paris though it was there that he was to meet and marry his wife Isabella.

Yet while Thackeray found he could earn a living as a freelance writer turning out articles to order for publications such as Punch it was his satirical novel Vanity Fair published in installments between 1847/8 that was to cement his reputation in the Victorian literary cannon.

However as his financial situation improved his home life deteriorated. Isabella suffered severe depression following the birth of their third child and after repeated searches for a cure and a suicide attempt, her care was given over to others allowing Thackeray to live the life of a respected single man of letters.

With his reputation now matching that of his friend Charles Dickens (who he later fell out with in a legendary public spat – one of many he feuded with) Thackeray visited America and was to find himself embroiled in two love triangles and worsening health fuelled by his own excesses. 

His later reactionary views have jarred with those who saw him as an early rebel. He favoured aristocratic rule over the extension of the vote while his anti-semitic and racist views continue to alienate him from modern day readers. He died in 1863 aged 52.

Jonathan Brown