The Armstrongs: The common touch

The success of the TV series about their firm, peppered with expletives and homespun philosophy, took them by surprise and turned them into cult heroes. So, they tell Oliver Bennett, it's goodbye Coventry, hello Languedoc
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The Independent Online

When I call John Armstrong to arrange a meeting in his Coventry home, he says: "Take a taxi from the station, but dress down, mate. The bastards round here will fleece you."

It's a characteristically dyspeptic response from Mr Armstrong, owner of the Coventry double-glazing firm U-Fit, and star with his wife, Ann, of the reality TV show The Armstrongs. In the course of two BBC2 series, millions watched John and Ann run the U-Fit office, amused at the pair's idiosyncratic managerial style, peppered with expletives and self-help homilies. John in particular caught the public imagination: a post-Thatcherite everyman philosopher, Loadsamoney meets Eric Cantona via David Brent.

The viewers wanted more. A one-off film is out in December and a diary-like book with thoughts from John on subjects from the World Cup to pay rises: "There's the door. Take it or leave it. We don't care." Ann's pensées are gentler - "Dealing with smelly people in the workplace can be a delicate matter" - but similarly gnomic: "I'm going to have to put my foot down with a firm hand."

Their bungalow outside Coventry, with two cars in the drive, a pond full of koi carp and Corinthian columns grafted to the hallway is the self-made couple's palace. Also present is the African grey parrot Doofus, upon which they dote, vowing that the birth of Angus - the couple's already-named first baby, due this winter - will not push him off his perch.

The Armstrongs is a contemporary story of insta-fame. In 2003, Ann emailed the BBC show I'll Show You Who's Boss, and asked to be on it. Up came the researchers, "but then there was a fight in the office. They were horrified." Even so the BBC but put them in the file marked "Potential", and the idea for the series came up. Ann recalls her disbelief. "I thought, 'How the hell are they going to make an eight-part programme out of us?'" They did, and it was a hit. Ann, who gets her viewer feedback in the local Tesco, thinks it's because of their honesty. "People say they like to see people who say what they think, and who react they way they would."

The show was typical reality television fare, made particularly compelling by John and Ann, a natural comedy double act. Both came out of it well, possibly because they knew that people were being invited to laugh at them. "You don't go into this and bleat about it afterwards," says Ann. "And there's always going to people who think you're an idiot." Anway, they got paid for it, and it publicised their business. "I think it added to the brand recognition," says John, revealing his marketing acumen. U-Fit, with its 40 employees, has since crept up the double glazing league, and has a turnover of about £4m.

There were complaints about John's liberal swearing habit (almost every sentence he says contains a phrase that it would be hard to use in this paper - this is the edited version). "Swearing's part of our cultural heritage," he argues. One woman in particular bothered them. "She wrote an email saying how stupid we were," says Ann. "I sent her an email back: pure profanity. She emailed me again and said 'that's exactly what I mean about you two'. I emailed back: 'Go fuck yourself.'"

A complaint ensued. "The thing that pissed me off is that the BBC said, 'We've got to investigate the complaint. Would you be prepared to apologise?'" says Ann. "That's one reason I don't want to do any more." For it seems that the pair are somewhat disenchanted with their television career. "We've done it now," says Ann. "I've had enough. It's mostly the emails. I can't be bothered."

Their idiosyncratic management style was perhaps the most amusing aspect of The Armstrongs. Any tips? "I'd say, read the Bible," says John. "Seriously. King Solomon was quite a dude. He was probably the wisest man ever." He then goes into a rant against Coca-Cola, Warner Brothers and consumerism. "I often think that America should have been left undiscovered. We're consumer addicts, like heroin addicts." This does not stop him selling windows or merchandise from his personal site, such as U-Fit watches, which could become as banally cultish as the series.

A lot of viewers thought they were actors playing character parts. "That was weird," confides John. "People waited till the end to see who played us." They get recognised and Ann became a bit of a pin-up, receiving mail from swingers. "That was great," she says. "I didn't sell my knickers. But believe me, if there's money to be made, why not?"

Any discussion of The Armstrongs comes back to The Office, with John as a real-life David Brent. He hated The Office. "I've never been able to see the point," says John, before launching into a real Brentism. "It's like comparing Mother Teresa to Jesus."

Once a Young Socialist, after the programme he proclaimed himself a protégé of Thatcher: "We're all leaves blowing in the wind," he muses, "and when the wind changes we go with it. As for Tony Blair, Disney or Pixar Pictures couldn't make him up." "I vote Conservative," says Ann. John is his own man, politically: "You cannot say now that there are distinct political parties. I advocate true proportional voting via the internet. St Kilda, the island in Scotland [John loves the Western Isles] used to vote every day. That's what I call a true democracy. You decide what you're going to put into your shopping trolley in the supermarket." Ann disagrees: "No, you don't decide what you're going to put in your shopping trolley."

He wants to be in politics, as an independent. "Or I'd join a party and change it, like Tony Blair." But first the couple are planning to move to their second home, a new-build in the Languedoc in southern France. How often do they go there? "Er, once so far," says John. But when the baby arrives, they'll move. "I want to get an ordinary job there, selling croissants," says John. "They've got socialism right: you work, then have a two-hour lunch. Anyway, I shouldn't be in business. I should be a poet or a philosopher."

To the BBC and the public, who want more, he says (but in rather more graphic language), no chance. "It's my life, not theirs."

The Armstrongs' television film goes out on 6 December on BBC2. 'The Armstrongs' A-Z Guide to Life') is published by Random House at £7.99. Websites: thearmstrongs.tv; thearmstrongs.tv/blog

BIOGRAPHY: A window on television fame

JOHN ARMSTRONG

Born: 7 February 1968, Corby, Northamptonshire.

Education: Roade School, Northamptonshire. Left with one A-level.

Early career: Left school to become a salesman. Worked for L'Oréal and then a double-glazing company, where he met Ann. They started U-Fit in 1994, then married. The firm is based in Boston Place, Foleshill, Coventry.

ANN ARMSTRONG

Born: 18 October 1968, Coventry.

Education: Whitley Abbey Comprehensive, Coventry. Left at 15.

Early career: Worked in Marks & Spencer. First married at 19 and had a son, Louis, at 21. Then worked as a sales representativefor a localdouble-glazing firm, covering the east coast region. Louis also works at U-Fit but keeps out of the limelight.

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