Camilla's delightful so I have to stick up for her: Alexander Armstrong on why there's one public figure he won't ridicule

By Moira Petty
Last updated at 10:40 AM on 13th August 2010

Even at public school, Alexander Armstrong found himself accused of being posh.

‘I was unlike everyone else at Durham School. It was like a country club for the children of rich, Northern industrialists, so an awful lot of big hairstyles on high stiletto heels climbed out of sports cars.

‘I was the only one there who didn’t speak with a Geordie accent and was quite mercilessly teased for being posh.’

The son of a Northumbrian country GP, Alexander says: ‘That’s how we spoke at home and I’m suspicious of people who shed accents, but I was about the poorest person there.

Royal favourite: Alexander Armstrong, with his wife Hannah, is a popular guest host of Have I Got News For You

Royal favourite: Alexander Armstrong, with his wife Hannah, is a popular guest host of Have I Got News For You

'Our upbringing was ridiculously threadbare: Until I was about 15 I don’t think I owned a pair of trousers without a ladder of letdown marks where people before me had worn them.

‘There wasn’t a yoghurt pot in our house that didn’t have to be washed up and reused. My mother was an environmentalist long before anyone else.’

Alexander will reveal more of his background when he investigates his family tree in BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are? on August 23.

He agrees he has used his posh image to advantage. ‘Oh I’m not complaining,’ he says with a sniff and swirl of the wine which will accompany our lunch.

As an aperitif, he has ordered a spicy bloody Mary. He loves Pimms but, since he played the Hooray Henry character in the lucrative TV ads, no longer orders one in public in case some wit shrieks: ‘It’s Pimms o’clock!’

He put a ‘substantial’ amount of his Pimms money —‘not seven figures but six’ — into a restaurant chain set up by his friend Henry Dimbleby, the son of Question Time’s David.

Alexander, 40, might have been brought up in Northumberland, a county he says that’s ‘remote and on a completely different weather system’ to the rest of the country’, but one way or another, he has an impressive set of connections, stretching from the Prince of Wales to chancellor George Osborne and culinary One Fat Lady Clarissa Dickson Wright.

Double act: Armstrong and Ben Miller as the two WWII pilots they play in their live show

Double act: Armstrong and Ben Miller as the two WWII pilots they play in their live show

And though he might have to poke fun at friends as guest host of Have I Got News For You, he always protects the Duchess of Cornwall from satirical barbs.

The admiration runs both ways as Charles and Camilla have declared themselves aficionados of The Armstrong And Miller Show, which returns to BBC1 in October.

The Royals are particularly fond of the World War II pilots who speak with clipped accents but in today’s street slang.

‘We did them in the Royal Variety Show and Prince Charles told us afterwards that he’s a great fan.’

Alexander ‘bumped into’ Ben Miller at Cambridge, where he was reading English and Ben astrophysics.

Contemporaries included Sacha Baron Cohen, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc. After graduating in 1992, Alexander met Ben again at a comedy club each trying out sketches.

The format seemed dead in the water at the time. Harry Hill told them: ‘You’re like two gentlemen tailors making clothes no one wears any more.’ But then came The Fast Show and sketches were back in fashion. 

Armstrong and Miller did four series for Channel 4 between 1997 and 2001. ‘Then we had a bit of a falling out. We’d only ever been a double act and thought we had no career apart. We were joined at the hip out of friendship and fear.

I had such a yearning for fresh air, and, thank goodness, because we’ve both built up rather nice careers for ourselves.’

Following a bit of breathing space, they revived their double act on BBC1 in 2007 and this September they start a 60-date live tour.

But their solo careers continue. In the latter half of 2009, Alexander fronted a documentary on the British holiday, appeared on Have I Got News For You (with 16 appearances he holds the record as guest host) and played Sir Clive Sinclair in a drama about the battle for the home computer market.

‘I won’t do anything I don’t think I can do well. I was lucky that my role on HIGNFY and on Life Begins (the family drama, with Caroline Quentin) began at about the same time and I was allowed to do both.’

Two years ago he turned down the job as host of Channel 4’s Countdown also being subjected to much teasing on HIGNFY when news broke that he was about to sign the contract with C4. ‘I had a long talk with Ian Hislop and he said: “Don’t for God’s sake do it, because you won’t be able to do anything else.” ’

Popular: The Duchess of York is a fan of the Armstrong and Miller show

Popular: The Duchess of York is a fan of the Armstrong and Miller show

Jay Hunt, controller of BBC1 apparently ‘hit the roof’ at the idea of him going to Channel 4. Yet he has cause to feel let down by the BBC which had all but offered him the permanent role of host of HIGNFY. ‘We had contracts ready to go, then the David Kelly affair happened.’

The BBC was enveloped in controversy over its coverage of the death of the weapons expert and the top echelon of executives left. By the time things settled the practice of having different guest hosts had proved a winner.

‘I’d still love that job and would give up other things to do it,’ he says. Does he ever worry that there might be a clash between people he knows socially and those who are the butt of the show’s jokes?

‘Entirely,’ he sighs. ‘And it’s a tough one. ‘The father of a lovely old friend of mine was one of the MPs who made himself conspicuous in the expenses scandal and I had to be rude about him. If you’re in the public eye, you have to accept it.

‘At home they named the village hall after my father, Angus Armstrong, when he retired, as he was the eighth generation of his family to be a GP there.

‘When he was a young houseman in London, Dad shared a flat with a friend who went on to become the Prince of Wales’ Private Secretary. He arranged for Charles and Camilla to open the village hall for Dad.

Sadly, I was away filming but we heard the best possible things about them, and she was particularly delightful.

‘It’s become part of the unimaginative building blocks of comedy that you have to have a pop at them if they’re in the news. It sticks in my craw and I tone down jokes about them on HIGNFY as it’s all part of that bizarre post-Diana hysteria.

‘I know George Osborne a bit through his wife Frances. He’s bright but before he became Chancellor I was beginning to wish he’d grow out of that class prankster thing. There was a joke about autism at one stage and he waded in and said: “I’ll come to Gordon Brown later.” ’

Perhaps Alexander can flaunt his own ‘poshness’ due to the political shift which has seen David Cameron mix Notting Hill smartness with popular appeal. Although Alexander lives in West London, he says he was never part of the Cameron set — or any set as he and his wife, Hannah, six years his junior, are constantly exhausted by the demands of their three sons.

Rex, three, and one-year-old Patrick were joined on June 25 by Edwin. Alexander is very happy in his marriage. ‘I am stupidly romantic and I’ve had my heart broken many times. But I don’t think I’ve ever laughed a women into bed. My humour is polished and honed. Women don’t like “try hard” and I have a particular brand of unctuousness that’s absolutely revolting.

‘Hannah, an events organiser at Harvey Nichols when we met, was out of my league and I pursued her. She appreciates my jokes in an “Mmm” kind of way.

‘I believe strongly in marriage and think family is the point of everything. She doesn’t need to worry about my loyalty when I’m away working —- I’m a bit predictable.’

Not that predictable. On his stag weekend in 2004, Alexander invited Clarissa Dickson Wright, related by marriage, along. ‘She’s a hoot. She had made our wedding cake and on the Saturday morning she led some hungover stags in an icing and fluting session.

Some of the more filthy things had to be taken off the cake before the wedding.’

For information and tickets for The Armstrong And Miller Live show go to www.mickperrin.com Alexander Armstrong’s Who Do You Think You Are? will be shown on BBC1, Monday August 23, 9pm.

 

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£300 old nissan micra .. luxury ! you were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the paper bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down t' mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep wi' his belt.
- Harry Bluenapp, Sussex, 13/8/2010 12:51

Paper bag! We just hole in t'ground. Ad andfull of hot gravel.... Love it!
- Killing off your own chances, UK,

Septic tank and 14 hours a day at mill ? Luxury !! we used to get up 3 hours before we went to bed and work 26 hours a day downt pit...try telling kids that today !

Click to rate     Rating   9

£300 old nissan micra .. luxury ! you were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the paper bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down t' mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep wi' his belt.
- Harry Bluenapp, Sussex, 13/8/2010 12:51

Paper bag! We just hole in t'ground. Ad andfull of hot gravel.... Love it!

Click to rate     Rating   6

So... he won't make a fool of Godzilla..... why not???? Everyone else does.!!

Click to rate     Rating   14

Sorry but that's a load of rubbish. It is true that most public school children have no idea but I can assure you some do. My father worked 70+ hours weeks to get me to public school while my mother worked two part time jobs just to feed us. I went to school in a £300 old nissan micra while at home you couldn't take a shower because the plumbing didn't work. Some parents sacrifice everything to get their kids to school. Just because he has made it doesn't mean his parents didn't either! Now please, 'red arrow' away...

- Killing off your own chances, UK,
£300 old nissan micra .. luxury ! you were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the paper bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down t' mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep wi' his belt.

Click to rate     Rating   24

Just another NUTTER.......nuf said

Click to rate     Rating   12

The Duchess of York?

- Elena, Moscow, Russia, 13/8/2010 11:53

One day the DM will have real researchers and proof readers and be a real newspaper, but for now just best to take it for what it is... a rag mag! It makes it easier to digest and you don't get so hung up on the awful editing. Actually makes it quiet pleasurable to read if you take it all with a pinch of salt.

Click to rate     Rating   24

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