I attended my first ever stadium comedy gig on Friday night. Alright, arena comedy gig. The O2, which is inside the Millennium Dome, apparently holds 14,000 people (I had read 20,000 but maybe that’s for music gigs – either way, it’s a lot bigger than Wembley Arena, the nearest London benchmark). On Friday, Richard Herring and I were two of those 14,000 people at this comic version of a Nuremberg rally, there to display our collective solidarity towards Al Murray The Pub Landlord – not to be confused with Al Murray, whom Richard has known since he had wavy hair. I saw Al Murray supporting Harry Hill many years ago at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, when he used to come out and make the sound effects of various weapons using his mouth, which was a pretty neat act in itself. I first saw Al Murray The Pub Landlord supporting Harry Hill too, at a London Theatre, since which the character has grown and grown and in many ways taken on a life of its own. The bits I have seen of this act over the years on stage and on telly confirm that Al Murray is a skilled performer, good on his feet and the proud owner of one of those characters who catches on a big, mainstream, ITV1 kind of way. That few people bothered to watch Al Murray’s recent sketch show just proves how inseparable he has become from the character of Al Murray The Pub Landlord.
Richard and I travelled East on public transport. Richard had his Hitler moustache on. I observed other travellers and very few seemed even to notice that they had a potential beerhall agitator in their midst. There was something quite apt about being with a man pretending to be one of the most right wing people in 20th Century history as we travelled towards a convention of either right wing people, or non-right-wing people who think a left wing man pretending to be right wing is funny. It would be offensive to suggest that the right wing people in the audience are stupid, and that they actually think the things Al Murray The Pub Landlord says about national identity and sexual politics and foreigners are the things that Al Murray thinks. I’m sure pretty much everybody knows he is a fictional character. He is a pub landlord with his own chat show on ITV1, for a start, which is clearly a fictional conceit. But that doesn’t mean that the non-stupid right-wing people don’t agree with many things the fictional Pub Landlord says. This makes for a very interesting night of comedy. (OK, let’s go mad and imagine that there are people not clever enough to know that Al Murray The Pub Landlord is a fictional character: we must never tell them the truth and ruin their lives.)
On reaching our seats in Block A1, Richard and I quickly found ourselves playing along with the conceit of the live show, waving our little supplied Union Jacks in unison with the 13,998 other people in the O2. (Mine broke, I was waving it so hard.) Part of the appeal of a massive stand-up gig is the unity of a large audience, the reassuring knowledge that thousands of other people are laughing at the same joke as you. Listen! That’s the sound of your laugh, multiplied thousands of times, resounding round a big barn! Al Murray is very good at insulting people on the front row of his gigs while keeping them onside – this, of course, being a pact between performer and fan: I will mock you in front of thousands of other people and your embarrassed face will be projected onto giant screens so that even people at the back can see it and laugh at it, but it will be done for comedic effect; it’s nothing personal. The first half of the two-hour show (no support act) comprised mostly Al Murray The Pub Landlord gathering information on about a dozen paying customers, and skilfully linking this information together, while storing it for later callbacks. It’s not a new trick in comedy, but done well, it is hugely satisfying.
The second half had more content in it, more written material, and this became slightly boring after a while, unless I was just tired. The long mime about a man bringing a lady to orgasm using his hand was very clever, and quite daring. However, the long section during which Al Murray The Pub Landlord showed photos of famous people he considered “lucky” (including Greg Rusedski, who was sitting in the row behind us and clearly enjoyed the joke*) dragged a bit, and when he just showed pictures of himself posing with guests from his ITV1 chat show, the fiction of the show and the character were stretched to breaking point. The encore, which was a singalong and involved an embarrassed conga line, was quite poor, I thought. But having watched one man hold the crowd for two hours, it seemed churlish to criticise. Aside from some beer pumps, a prop gun that was used to fire crisps once and the screen with the photos on, Al Murray had entertained 14,000 people using just his voice and his physical presence. This is not to be sniffed at.
There was one uncomfortable moment for woolly liberals, when, as part of a longer routine, Al Murray The Pub Landlord impersonated an Indian person at the other end of the line in a call-centre: this got a massive cheer from the audience. Some of them were cheering Al Murray The Pub Landlord for cleverly observing that some call centres are in India, and some of them were cheering Al Murray The Pub Landlord for insinuating that being Indian was either inherently funny or inherently bad. Because the brief impersonation of an Indian was not commented upon, or contextualised, or turned on its head to make comedy from our preconceptions, it just acted as a Pavlovian cue for recognition laughter, and recognition cheering. The man dressed as Hitler next to me did not cheer, and nor did I. There was actually nothing to cheer, when you thought about it, which I did, and some people did not.
I was glad to have seen this concert for free, as a guest of Avalon, as I don’t think I would have chosen to go and see Al Murray The Pub Landlord, and I would be one experience poorer. I was also glad to see the inside of the O2 for free, as I have been resisting its ubiquitous charms. It is actually a really well-run, well-staffed venue, with excellent digital sound (the critic Ben Thompson explained it to me during the interval), and it’s a piece of cake to get to by rail. On the Tube carriage we were on, there was a group of young men who were almost literally communicating with each other using grunts and noises. We agreed it would have been funny if they had confounded our lazy preconceptions and not got off at the O2 tube stop. But they did get off there, and carried on making noises at each other. Beautiful people, beautiful British people.
It was fun to be stewarded up in lifts and along secret corridors to the VIP bar before and after, where I was pleased to bump into Harry Hill (or Matt, as I know him – I have known him since he had hair), Ben Miller, Danielle Ward, Robert Ross the tireless chronicler of old British comedy (currently working on a Sid James biography) and Giles Coren, who did not call me or anybody else a “cunt” and impressed me by using his restaurant critic instincts and sensing lamb-based canapes at 100 paces. (Richard introduced me to Marc Bannerman, too, which was very exciting as I used to really like him on EastEnders, even though he left the programme just as I was starting to write for it.)
* Jon Culshaw was in the row in front of us, and Jim Rosenthal the sports presenter in the row behind us. It was like an audience with Al Murray The Pub Landlord.