Pub landlord reveals his literary side

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

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

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

News
peopleActress speaks out against historic sexual assault claims, saying things have 'gone quite far now'

Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
Review: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
Guests enjoy food and cocktail parings by Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Jimmy Bannos Jr, Daniel Rose and Mindy Segal with mixologists Josh King and Alex Gara at Bounty & Barrel: A Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Dinner Series at Heaven on Seven on April 9, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.
news Sprinkle Palcohol 'on almost any dish' for 'an extra kick' firm says...
Arts & Entertainment
Charlotte Brontë, the English novelist, poet and the eldest of the three Bronte sisters who lived into adulthood, has been celebrated with a Google Doodle depicting her most famous novel, Jane Eyre.
arts + ents "Reader, they doodled her".

Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Arts & Entertainment
Oxegen in Ireland has been axed as promoters decide it is 'no longer viable'
arts + ents Promoters have axed the event as it is 'no longer viable in current form'
News
The troubled star is set to give fans the biggest insight into her life away from the headlines
people Star made the announcement during the final episode of the programme, entitled Lindsay
News
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

Business, Marketing and Tourism Volunteer Projects

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: As part of an ongoing effort to support local...

Day In a Page

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players