How We Met: Ben Miller & Alexander Armstrong

'We usually ended up in one of those weird speakeasy places underneath a cab company'

Interviews,Rhiannon Harries
Sunday 13 December 2009 01:00
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Ben Miller, 43, is a comedian, actor and director best known as one half of comedy duo Armstrong and Miller. He has appeared in TV series including 'Doc Martin' and 'Primeval' and in films including 'The Parole Officer'. He lives in north London with his wife and child

The first time I met Xander was outside a World Party gig in Cambridge in 1990. I remember thinking, "Who the hell are World Party?" I was doing a PhD and Xander was doing his undergrad degree. We didn't know each other, but for some reason we both said hello. I knew about him already, by reputation, mind. Apparently there was this guy doing a very funny play called A Watermelon Killed My Daughter who couldn't stop laughing all the way through it.

When Xander graduated, he came to London and was in a play with my flatmate, Jez Butterworth. He was the funniest person I'd ever seen. It was like a thunderbolt; I thought, "I should be doing a double act with that guy."

We're such different personalities – he's an optimist, I'm a pessimist, he's outgoing, I'm introverted – but we shared a sense of humour. I'd been doing one-man stand-up, but as soon as we started working together I realised it was much more fun.

Xander is phenomenally generous – with his money, time, humour, everything. He is a bit like Tigger in his boundless energy and enthusiasm. In our bachelor days we lived around the corner from one another. We went out a lot, usually ending up in one of those weird speakeasy places underneath a cab company.

By 2001 we had spent every waking moment together for eight years and both needed to recharge our batteries. It was a turning point in our friendship, because both of us had started to worry about whether we could survive on our own.

Now we are working together again we know we are there because we love it. When we hang out now it is usually with our kids. We spend Sunday afternoons in parks, munching on kids' party food.

My favourite memory of him is when we were nominated for the Perrier Award at Edinburgh in 1996 and celebrated at the Witchery restaurant. We drank this incredible wine, after which Xander began hallucinating that Francis Bacon, Winston Churchill, Gandhi and god-knows-who were sat at our table and started conversing with them all. That's how I like to think of Xander – in the company of greats.

Alexander Armstrong, 39, is a comedian, actor and TV presenter best known as the other half of Armstrong and Miller. He presents ITV comedy quiz show 'Don't Call Me Stupid' and is a regular on 'Have I Got News For You'. He lives in west London with his wife and children

Ben Miller was world-famous at Cambridge – he was in a band [the Dear Johns] who had made a single, he went out with [the actress] Rachel Weisz. Everybody hated him. I saw him first in 1989 at a Cambridge University Footlights "smoker", a show where anyone who thinks they're funny auditions a sketch, then anyone who is good enough – and I mean that in the loosest sense – gets a slot. I watched Ben do something with his guitar and a glove puppet. He had an earring and peroxide blond hair at the time.

I saw him again at Edinburgh in 1992. He had this ability for well-observed realism, my favourite kind of comedy, so I was really hoping we might get a chance to work together. I had been in a double act before, so I had baggage. Ben and I were performing at the Gate theatre in Notting Hill once and we ran into my ex-partner – it was just like When Harry Met Sally.

We used to write in Ben's kitchen. We liked the sound of our own comedic voices a bit too much in those days so we'd write reams, occasionally stopping to go out for tea and Boasters chocolate biscuits.

At night we spent a lot of time in this fantastic Spanish tapas bar in Soho with live flamenco music. We mainly went there because we were utterly impoverished and you could pay for a round by cheque.

One of the highlights of that period was when we made a speech to lots of industry people in Cannes to try to raise money for [private members' club and hotel] Babington House. We hadn't really grasped after-dinner speaking and thought we'd just go out there and jot a few things down in the afternoon. We did that, got quite drunk and bunged this terrible stuff down. We made such arses of ourselves.

We had a bit of a falling out in 2002. It wasn't Ben or me, it was the strictures of doing everything together. You just yearn for a bit of freedom. We were lucky that we were able to build separate careers. We always stayed friends, though, and would still go on holiday together.

By 2005, we were both married and we realised our wives had never seen us perform together. We did something live for a charity gig and I realised how much I had missed it. Ben and I now have a much better relationship because we're more assured in our separate selves.

Ben is the dynamo when we write; he holds the pen, so to speak. It makes him absolutely dementing at times because he takes a minute interest in things. If you're as impatient and dilettante as I am, you want to waltz on to the next thing. But his ability to be master of so many trades is so unusual, you can't help but be dazzled.

The second series of 'The Armstrong and Miller Show' is out on DVD now

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