Al Murray: The Pub Landlord’s Beautiful British Tour

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Review of the O2 Arena gig, May 9, 2009

Seeing Al Murray’s latest tour is like seeing a favourite local turn into a Wetherspoons. Where once you might have enjoyed a convivial pint, unsocial bawdiness is now encouraged, while the carefully chosen range of prestige ales has been replaced by a characterless mass-produced brew aimed at the undiscerning.

Enough with the forced pub analogy – but there is definitely a feeling that the more successful Murray has become, the less smart his material has been. Whether dumbing down is a cause of his larger audiences or an effect of them is a moot point, but there’s been a noticeable shift in the foundations of his act.

The Pub Landlord has always straddled what might call the Garnett Line, appealing to those very people he sets out to satirise; those who take his peculiar line on British common sense at face value. Surely no one’s that dumb, you might think. But the thrust of some of his routines could quite easily have come from the desks of Richard Littlejohn or Jon Gaunt – and there are plenty who agree with those cheerleaders of the Right.

The problem is that the Guv’nor’s irony is ebbing away. Once Nuts magazine started printed stickers with his face and catchphrases on them, as they have recently done, a big part of the act died.

That might have been the decision of the marketers, but Murray, too, has dropped many of the sops to the liberal minority. No more knowing asides or show-off set pieces flashing the undisputed intellect of the man behind the monster. Now it’s just populist rabble rousing and catchphrases like: ‘Fuck off nerds.’ Even the delivery of the line ‘never confused’, his protesteth-too-much declaration of heterosexuality, has been shorn of the hint of long-suppressed feelings, and now just stands as a bald, unambiguous statement.

This change of emphasis might concern no one other than us chattering-class critics, but it is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise in the writing. In this show, Murray repeatedly goes for the obvious, then doesn’t scratch too deeply, which makes for a dull couple of hours. Dull is not a charge you can easily level at his delivery – which is as bombastic and animated as ever – but it is true of large swathes of the content.

His take on the 2012 London Olympics, for example, is that of many a bar-room philosopher: that it’s going to be a bit shit. And that’s not paraphrasing his punchline, that’s exactly it, a line which he repeats and repeats, then gets the audience to repeat, in a bid to make this catchphrase stick. Several minutes this goes on for, it seems longer still.

Elsewhere there’s a long description of coming home drunk and resting your head on the reassuring porcelain of the toilet bowl, or how it can take a long time to bring a woman to orgasm – both staples of uninspired club acts two decades ago, but surely passé now.

The performance of these routines is faultless – if you stare at the O2’s giant screens, you can see every emotion of the noble drunk etched on his smilingly naïve face. And Murray has plundered his pre-Pub Landlord days, when his act revolved around silly comedy noises, with expert recreations of a jumbo jet taxiing, an approximation of how a couple of Frenchmen might sound, and the pumping Euroclub dance music that he imagines the three ‘fairies’ in the third row might enjoy.

That’s right, ‘fairies’. It might be intended, and received, as boisterous Knockabout joshing – but there’s an uncomfortable homophobic undertone to this running exchange, straight out of 1972. Other than that, Murray’s banter is still as quick as it is entertaining, having plenty of fun with those up front without alienating those 16,000 or so well out of his firing line. It’s club-compere stuff, really, but expertly done, even if it does rely on the now-familiar staples such as: ‘What do you do for a living, love, and remember the only correct answers for a woman are secretary or nurse…’

Of course some fans like to hear the old favourites – and some of this shtick will feel fresher for those who have only just discovered Murray through his ITV1 exposure. But he seems to be coasting on his hard-won reputation as an exceptional live act. He was so much more inventive and fresh when he was playing mere theatres, not these impossibly vast enormo-domes.

He still shows occasional flashes of brilliance, but he generally seems much more keen to say something that will get the crowd waving their Union Flags – issued to all on the door – than something that will surprise them, How else to explain the pre-encore finale, when he flashes up celebrity images for the audience to cheer or boo, This is a Price Is Right gameshow for the Heat generation. Much of the audience love it, but teher's little to it.

Murray has the track record to prove he can be one of the best, but this Beautiful British Tour… well, in his own words. it’s a bit shit.

Reviewed by:Steve Bennett
O2 Arena, London, May 2009

Review from the Brighton Dome earlier in the tour:

Al Murray may well be tiring of the Pub Landlord, using his current ITV1 sketch show to explore characters beyond the rabid Little Englander that has served him so well.

On this tour, he is fresh out of ideas. As he pads for time and repeats material, it seems evident that he’s lost his passion for the Guv that led to the multi-layered and cleverly constructed comedy that once elevated his creation above a crass rabble-rouser.

Fifteen years is a long time for an Oxford graduate to play a working class hero who will proudly announce that science has ruined everything and joke that all you need to know about gravity is that what goes up must come down - with the obligatory cock joke stapled on the end as an easy punchline.

Material seemed thin on the ground with the entire first half given up to bantering with his adoring crowd. And for every standard circuit put-down there was a rapturous round of applause, for every easy insult hurled at the front row there was wave of hilarity. To me it seemed like the lazy, bog-standard fare you’d get from a pub gig compere; to the audience it was exactly what they wanted of their Saturday night out. Murray is certainly expert at delivering what his fans want.

But is this willingness to cater for – or pander to – the crowd necessarily a good thing? Murray must be all too aware of the criticisms leveled at him for creating an environment where xenophobia, homophobia, jingoism and racism can be taken at face value by many. It’s criticism that can be justified when the biggest laughs of the night came from Murray’s attacks on the French, the inference that the two marketing men in the front row were ‘fairies’, and the appalling gag that Third World athletes should be making the running shoes, not wearing them.

Despite my discomfort at these jokes, Murray held everyone else in the palm of his hand and each repeated slur seemed to gain him more respect with his biddable audience who chanted along with catchphrases and even slapped their own heads when instructed, which made the gig feel at best like a panto, and at worst, like a rally.

This chanting became all the more uncomfortable when used to promote and sell his merchandise and chat show. Sections of the show including the contrived and self-congratulatory ending felt more like an advert than comedy, but again his fans did not let him down with one of them willingly modeling one of Murray’s T-shirts lambasting the banks for the credit crunch... ironically priced at £18.

There was a token nod to the fact that his patriotic dislike for foreigners should be taken with a pinch of salt, with a brief monologue at the end likening nationality to beer pumps, noting all colours of beers were sold in equal measure. This was the only bit of material that didn’t get a huge response from the otherwise enthusiastic crowd, and yet was the only section based on a cleverly constructed joke about racial stereotypes.

There is no doubt that Al Murray is an amazing showman and a great performer but with this lack of new ideas and catering to the lowest common denominator, he is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Should we be calling time on the Pub Landlord? The audience tonight certainly wouldn’t think so, but without a shot of something new, last orders cannot be far away.

Reviewed by: Corry Shaw
Brighton, March 2009

Review date: 1 Jan 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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