It is entirely apt that I meet Al Murray, aka the Pub Landlord, in a pub where he is friendly with the landlord. It's early when we arrive at his local in west London, and empty save for a few earnest midday drinkers. Murray, perhaps to distance himself from his beer-swilling alter ego, orders not a pint but a cup of tea, and screws up his face when he is brought English Breakfast instead of Earl Grey. He requests that his agent rectify the error. "Diva-ish of me, I know, but still," he says. Up close, the man's shaved head is massive; when he screws his face up, as he is currently doing, his features appear to sink into a pit in the middle. He looks like a dog about to bite.
The Pub Landlord is on a nationwide tour. This being the onset of winter, Christmas looming, he also has a new DVD out, The Only Way is Epic, in which he goes some way to proving that the comedy creation he founded 18 long years ago still has legs. The Pub Landlord was initially a somewhat two-dimensional character, a heavy-drinking xenophobic barman with a propulsion to share his belligerent opinions with everyone. But, insists Murray, he has actually developed him exponentially these past few years.
"Oh, a massive change, really," he says. "Before, I used to just tell stories and stuff, but now I'm doing all sorts of prescriptive mental bullshit, informing the nation what we should do about this, that and the other."
His current show, then, is a raging polemical rant, the landlord furious at the state of the nation, the state of the world, and those he considers responsible. "In his own head, you see, the Pub Landlord has become a common-sense revolutionary," he says. "Our current leaders have let us down – our leaders throughout history have always let us down – and he reckons he knows how to put it right."
Plenty gets it in the neck: the euro, Scottish devolution, and every leader we've had from David Cameron all the way back to Lloyd George. The conclusion is that we are going to the dogs, all of us doomed.
"Politicians," he says to me, "are preposterous. Especially this current lot. They have done nothing in life but be in politics, which is ridiculous, and so I love the idea that this bloke who works behind the bar considers himself every bit as qualified as anybody else."
It's something that Murray himself clearly shares with his character. While he was at Oxford, one of his fellow students was Michael Gove, the Education Secretary.
"I think I find so much of this current government hard to stomach because they are all my age. Members of Parliament should be old people, guys in their sixties, not people I went to university with." Affecting an utterly perplexed look, he says: "I'm sorry, but that's just absurd."
The most interesting historical fact that Wikipedia offers up on Al Murray – an accurate fact, and one that the man himself will corroborate – is that he is a descendant of the 19th-century novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. His family has further impressive credentials: his grandfather, a diplomat, married into an aristocratic Austrian family, and his own father was a heavily titled Army man (Lt Col). Born in Buckinghamshire, the undeniably well-healed Murray was a boarder at the prestigious Bedford School by the age of nine. He hated it.
"Worse than that, I despised it," he corrects. "The first five years was a hideous existence. Why? I wanted to be home, that's why. That, and the fact that the whole boarding environment, the pecking-order thing, can be, and was, vicious."
Murray may be a big man now, but in his teens, he suggests, he was weedy, and terrible at sport. Friends were hard to make, and even harder to maintain.
"My own kids are at school now [he has two daughters, aged 13 and nine] and, whenever the older one says she is having problems with friends, I tell her that at least she gets to go home. I never did. I was cooped up."
He must have hated his parents for sending him there, I suggest. "Um, of course, yes," he begins, suddenly awkward, perhaps at having inadvertently veered on to personal territory, "but, as a teenager, you always resent your parents, don't you? If they had sent me to the Bahamas for a holiday, I'd have probably still resented them." But they didn't, I say, they sent you to boarding school. Murray laughs loudly, too loudly, and we move on.
He studied history at Oxford, but was far more into the attendant social life, and regularly performed alongside Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. Comedy was attractive, he says, because it allowed him to show off, a natural inclination. "I enjoyed the laughter of strangers, and other things that are probably quite pathological," he laughs.
Upon graduation, he worked intermittently with Harry Hill, and early comic routines comprised of him making funny noises with his mouth, among them the sound of a car boot shutting. He came up with the idea of the Pub Landlord in 1994, and has stuck with him ever since. "The moment I stumbled upon the character, I realised it could be a bottomless pit for writing," he suggests. "But I never had any idea he would endure for quite so long. I'm 44 years old now, and I'm still scratching my head because it seems that I've made comedy my living. How did that happen?"
He has remained as loyal to the character over the years, he says, because it has helped to pay his mortgage. It has likely paid for more besides: Murray is divorced from his first wife (with whom he had his children), and is separated from his second.
Nevertheless, it is practically comedy law that any comedian successful with a particular character must come to loathe being so defined by them. John Cleese became sick of Basil Fawlty, Steve Coogan spent years trying to distance himself from Alan Partridge, and even Keith Harris grew weary of Orville. But Murray insists that he hasn't yet tired of his, arguing that he has done more with him than he ever thought possible – a sitcom, quiz show, chat show – and he believes there is more to come.
"The moment I get fed up I'll stop doing it," he says, but insists he's not run out of steam yet. "The man is a giant shining idiot, and there is much you can do with one of those."
Only sparingly over these past 18 years has he strayed from the course. He has made – as Al Murray, and complete with hair and beard – a perhaps unexpectedly erudite documentary on modern Germany for BBC4, and hopes to make one on a forgotten army campaign in Burma during the Second World War. In 2010, he stood alongside Stephen Fry to defend free speech on Twitter, and he has occasionally hosted shows on Radios 2 and 5. Each diversion reveals a very different Murray to the one we think we all know: better spoken, less bigoted, and clearly possessed of a keen mind.
The fact that this surprises people, I suggest, must rankle. Isn't it hard to be so inextricably linked to such a buffoon?
Here, he smiles knowingly. "I actually quite like it when people come up to me in the street and say that they didn't know, for example, that I talked like this, or was interested in that. I'd much rather the landlord was famous than me. They can make of him what they want. That way, the real me can come as a pleasant surprise…"
Al Murray's new stand-up show, The Only Way is Epic, is on nationwide tour and at London's Queens Theatre tonight and on 18 November. The DVD of the tour will be available from 26 November
Born 10 May 1968.
1986 Attends Oxford University, where he gains an MA in modern history. Performs in the Oxford Revue, and collaborates with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring.
1994 Debuts the Pub Landlord on a nationwide tour supporting Harry Hill.
1996-99 Performs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where he is consecutively nominated for the Perrier Award, eventually winning in 1999.
2005-07 Fronts a quiz show called Fact Hunt on ITV, then a chat show called Al Murray's Happy Hour.
2010 Alongside Stephen Fry, Murray campaigned for the right to free speech on behalf of Paul Chambers, an individual prosecuted for sending an allegedly menacing tweet.
2012-13 Embarks on a new six-month stand-up tour, The Only Way is Epic.