| Armstrong & Miller on their BBC One reunion © BBC

Armstrong & Miller on their BBC One reunion

Seven years ago, Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong decided to give their comedy partnership a rest. They had achieved a good level of success, having had four series of their own Channel 4 show, but they decided they were running out of ideas. So, not wanting to milk a dead cow, they decided to call it a day.

But now they’re back, their creative spark reignited by a one-off reunion for a charity show at London celebrity hangout The Groucho Club in 2005. And this is not any old reunion – they are back in the full glare of a prime-time, Friday night BBC One show.

Armstrong says of that fateful gig two years ago: 'It was the first time we had performed together for many years, and it was lovely, really good fun. Because we'd worked together so much and so intensively, we thought we'd done enough to last a lifetime. But we realised how much we missed it and how the chemistry just worked. Reuniting suddenly seemed the sensible thing to do.’

Miller adds: 'Our wives Belinda and Hannah were there to watch. They had never seen us do our act before, and they encouraged us to get back together.’ And it wasn't only them; Jimmy Mulville of Hat Trick Productions, the company behind Have I Got News For You, had also been encouraging them to do another series together.

Armstrong says: 'Hat Trick started making noises to me about Ben and me getting back together at around the time they were discussing the possibility of my becoming the permanent host on Have I Got News For You.

‘I remember having lunch with Jimmy Mulville and I said that Ben and I had done so much over a four-year period and worked at such a pace that our ideas were all wrung out and I wasn't sure if we had anything fresh to say.

‘But now, a few years down the line, the reservoirs are full again and the timing seemed right.

Having decided to reunite, Armstrong and Miller recruited a team of writers, including The League Of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson as script editor.

Armstrong explains: 'We have always been big fans of Jeremy. He has a fantastic outlook and a wonderful scientific and emotional handle on comedy. He's really good at putting his finger on what is funny and we leapt at the chance when he was suggested.'

The pair tried out some of their sketches in front of a live audience, and Miller said: 'It was one of the best things that we did. It got us used to performing in front of an audience again, and helped us try out lots of material before we went into the studio.’

But he admits the move from Channel 4 to mainstream BBC One has meant some changes in their work.

'When we did the Channel 4 show, the subjects that we showed and the targets that we picked were sometimes a little bit obscure – the more obscure the setting the better, in fact.

'For example, we'd do a whole sketch about a Mike Leigh film in which the improvisation was very bad – but of course Mike Leigh films aren't something we all share. So this time round we wanted to work from mainstream reference points. And treat them in a barmy way.'

'Some people say that it's hard to do good comedy on the BBC and ITV because the audience isn't necessarily a comedy-loving audience, but our touchstone has always been Have I Got News For You.’

Armstrong agrees: 'The move hasn't affected our style, but a lot of the stuff that was slightly more left-of-field we had to explain a bit more or ditch.

'We don't want to alienate the BBC One audience. The references had to be more universal which means we do spoofs on programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? and sports programmes rather than Mike Leigh movies.

'We were determined not to spread ourselves too thinly, though. Our watchword is to do stuff that we find funny. And I think we've pulled it off – our humour is genuinely things that we love and that make us laugh and situations people will recognise only too well.'

Miller adds: 'We like to think of our brand of comedy as accessible absurdity or barmy smut. And we are very specific about what we want it to look like.

Since they last worked together, both Armstrong and Miller have forged their own acting careers. Ben, most noticeably, in two series of The Worst Week Of My Life for BBC One; and Xander in Don't Call Me Stupid, TLC and a regular guest host on Have I Got News For You. And they believe that working apart has made them better together

Armstrong says: 'What has been the saving grace of our friendship and our working relationship has been that we both have day jobs now, which is a good thing. When we did the original Armstrong and Miller we clung onto the series with a white knuckle grip – if that wasn't happening, what else did we have?

'But since then we have forged our own respective careers, so we can really enjoy getting back together and do it as a labour of love. We have both had our areas of comedy neurosis in the past, but that hasn't come into play this time round, and I guess that has a lot to do with getting older. It has been so much more enjoyable, because the pressure is off.’

Miller's favourite character in the new show is a forgetful prime minister. 'He's voiced a bit like John Humphrys and is very dignified. Usually the scene starts with him being in some high-level meeting.

'Everyone is very impressed and happy with what he suggests and he walks out on a high with the applause ringing in his ears. Then once he's outside he goes, "Oh shit, I think I left my briefcase behind!" And Xander, who plays my aide, asks if I want to go back in and get it and I say, "Um, I think it might be a bit embarrassing, actually. Left on a bit of a high – I think we'll just leave it."

'That's constantly happening to me in real life. I leave in a gale of laughter and a few passing jokes and then I realise I've left my jumper there and I have to go back in…’

Armstrong says: 'My favourite is a tiny part, but I do love him. He's a character called Max. It's all about the conspiracy surrounding half-price pots and how it's a bit of a scam because they're really full price. I really went to town with that character, and had a white lens made for my eye. It's based on a guy I used to know who'd leave the last consonant on every word until about a minute after the rest of the word.’

'There's a great divorced dad character. We often see him walking in the park with his son who will ask him why he and his mum had to divorce, and he says, "Well, it was all your fault; your mum and I were perfectly happy until you came along – come on, race you to the swings!' That was a part meant for Ben but I got it.

'At Channel 4 we tried to have as many stand-alone sketches as possible. We had a few running sketches, such as Nude Practice and Scandinavian trock band Strijka, but this time round, we wiped the slate clean pretty much, although there are some similarities.

The new series – which also features Lucy Montgomery, Katherine Jakeways, David Armand and Renton Skinner – will go out immediately after Have I Got News For You on Fridays. And by no coincidence at all, Armstrong will make his tenth appearance as guest presenter just before the first new edition of Armstrong and Miller.

Armstrong said: 'It's a brilliant slot for us in that the Have I Got News For You audience are probably pretty familiar with both of us. I remember when I was little I used to love Friday night television, so I've got a great affection for it. And let's not forget that Have I Got News For You is watched by a lot of people, so let's hope we can persuade them to watch us too/’

The duo began performing together in the early Nineties, after they had both left Cambridge. They started working together at a comedy club in Notting Hill, West London.

Armstrong says: ‘We didn't know each other at uni because Ben was a bit of a superstar – an amazing astrophysicist and left-field comedian who was going out with Rachel Weisz – so he seemed to live on another planet.’

Miller adds: 'When we started in 1991, we performed at the only Sketch Club in London, TBA, at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. Now 15 per cent of young men between the ages of 18 and 30 are in a sketch comedy troupe!’

Armstrong says: 'Sketch shows are like a big box of chocolates; if you're not so keen on one sketch, the next one might be absolutely to your taste. Ben and I have always made a big play for trying to act as well as possible, and I hope our enthusiasm comes across and that people will agree that it is a classy show, and that Armstrong and Miller looks like something we've put a lot of fun and love into.’

The Armstrong & Miller Show starts Friday October 26 at 9.30pm on BBC One

Published: 15 Oct 2007

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