Alexander Armstrong is reminiscing with his parents about family life in the Armstrong household. ‘There were certainly many moments of hilarity,’ he recalls. ‘The Pig’s Trotter Incident springs to mind. We were on holiday in France (it was very rare that we ever went abroad) and Mum was determined that we should drink deep from the well, and spotting some slightly green and sweaty pig’s trotters in the market one day, brought them back for us so we could get into the French way of things. You could smell they were already on the turn – they could practically have walked home on their own – but Mum wasn’t going to let that get in the way of our education. We had a kind of stand-off at supper when nobody wanted to offend Mum but no-one was going to eat these bloody things. My rather half-hearted ‘yum’ was the moment the dam broke, and we all collapsed into gales of laughter. It was a watershed moment – all of us, including Mum, realising that so much of what one feels one ought to do, is slightly ridiculous, slightly past its sell-by date.’
Mum and Dad are retired Northumberland GP Dr Angus Armstrong, 79, and his wife Virginia, 77. They are on a visit south to stay with Alexander and his family at his Oxford home. I have joined the three of them as they talk about the influences and upbringing that helped turn Alexander into one of Britain’s most successful and sought-after entertainers. This is the first joint interview they have given.
Alexander, who has an elder brother and sister, says: ‘I am generally very optimistic, and I get this entirely from Mum and Dad. They did not restrict us in terms of what we were able to do. They were strict on manners, but our horizons were never limited. There was an enormous sense of trust and freedom. After I passed my driving test, my grandmother sometimes lent me her car. I asked Mum if I could drive to a party about 200 miles away, expecting a thumbs-down. Instead she said, “Oh, what a brilliant idea. Let’s plan your route.”
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‘As a family we talked quite openly. There was no such thing as pas devant les enfants [not in front of the children]. Growing up was an unfettered joy. All these years later I still find life very exciting. I have always loved getting up in the morning.’
At 49, his life has seldom been busier. The TV game show he hosts, Pointless, airs five times a week, and he has a regular music show on Classic FM. He is also preparing a one-man comedy show which will tour England in November.
Virginia says: ‘He was always very creative. By the age of seven he could cut the grass with a petrol-driven lawn mower. For the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, he came running up to our bedroom and asked us to look out of the window. Amazingly he had managed to cut “E II R” into the grass. It was fantastic.
‘Musically, he started young too. There was always a lot of music in the house. The first opera we took him to see, aged seven, was Die Fledermaus. He was utterly entranced and for the next few weeks he acted out all the characters at home.’
Like his brother and sister, Alexander went to a village school in Northumberland, ‘walking through three open fields of sheep,’ recalls Virginia. At the age of 11, he won a place and later a scholarship to St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh. Angus says: ‘In his first term, he was chosen to play Sacha in Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour for the Scottish National Orchestra Proms. It was fantastic and very moving to see this small boy without apparent nerves performing with well-known professionals. At one point he had to sing the words “Papa, where have they put you?” I was so moved that I nearly shouted out: “I’m here!”’
Alexander attributes his strong work ethic to his parents. ‘During the holidays us kids had to be available for “jobs” at any random moment. We got vegetables from the garden, hoovered, set to with a scourer on the baths and basins, and sometimes polished brass, even fighting over who should do the ironing. We didn’t think there was anything odd about it. We imagined everybody did the same.’
Angus and Virginia, whose other children, Dominic and Alice, have also carved out successful careers, smile at the memory of this junior task force dashing round the house and garden. ‘We “brung ‘em up tough” and by modern standards they were quite deprived,’ says Virginia. ‘We expected them to take responsibility for things and trusted them to do so at an early age. I think and hope this has stood them in good stead.’
Alexander says his parents were environmental ‘trail-blazers’. He recalls: ‘Our farmhouse had hideous low-energy florescent lights, and we must have been the only household where paper cups would be washed up after a picnic and put away for re-use. We grew all our own veg and learned not to complain when armies of caterpillars crawled out of the broccoli. There was heating, but not central, so you ran from one hot spot to another, and my goodness we were for it if we left a light on or a door open. We once found my Uncle Mark sitting on a chair on top of the Aga. He said he’d found the only hot place in the house.
‘Waste was anathema; everything was recycled. I watched my grandfather, who was a brilliant economist, shave with water from his hot water bottle. He’d say: “Never throw anything away if you can find another use for it.”
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‘All this rubbed off on me. When Hannah [then girlfriend, now wife] moved into my London flat she was surprised to find dozens of old butter papers on the top shelf of the fridge. I’d been hoarding them to put on top of veg, and to grease cake tins, but I never did either. I suppose I kept them out of habit and comfort.’
Much of Alexander’s ability as a raconteur and public speaker comes from his father. Angus, steeped in the Northumbrian tradition of dialect poetry and song, would jump up to perform at any occasion. During long car journeys he made up elaborate stories for the children. Angus recalls: ‘Many of the characters were named after features we passed, such as the River Bladnoch, on the way to Stranraer for our Irish holidays. I made Bladnoch a baddie from the Borders who did terrible things to people he didn’t like. The stories had child heroes, and good always won the day. I just developed the plots as we went along.’
Alexander remembers: ‘We loved Dad’s stories. They were quite sophisticated in the John Buchan mould, full of colour and detail, and absolutely thrilling. He told them in 20-minute instalments while driving. He was incredibly fluent. We sat spellbound in the back. We also sang in the car, and so learned the words of many musicals and hymns, as well as every last word of [Irish songwriter] Percy French.
‘Another thing I learned from Dad was patience and an untiring work ethic. I have never heard him complain. His work as a family doctor required total dedication. His practice covered some 400 square miles and it was not unusual for him to drive 100 miles a day visiting patients in their homes as well as doing a surgery in Rothbury. One night he counted 117 twists in the road on his way to a patient. Any knack I have of being able to engage with people comes from Dad and his own doctor father.
‘Mum’s greatest quality is that she knows her own mind and has enormous wisdom. The value of that is incredible. You know that in any storm there is a firm port. Once it might have been heartbreak over a teenage romance. Today it might be a career decision. She won’t necessarily tell you what you want to hear, but you are told, come what may. To have that a telephone call away is wonderful.
‘From Mum’s family there also comes a marvellous, practical eccentricity. She would roll up her sleeves and climb on to the roof of my grandparent’s house to clear the gutters, happy as a lark. I remember our drawing room fire used to smoke terribly, but she thought it was too cold to open the door. Instead she got a hammer and chisel and knocked a hole through the wall to let some air in.’
Living in Northumberland, Angus and Virginia do not see as much of Alexander and his family as they would like (he and Hannah have four sons). Virginia says: ‘He’s so busy that he’s hard to get hold of. We comfort ourselves by occasionally watching him on TV, and if I think he looks tired I remember that it was probably recorded months ago, and that no doubt he’s looking fine again now. Sharing him with the rest of the country was difficult for us at first and we’re still surprised when people know who he is. Happily, he has remained completely himself in spite of all this.
‘We are immensely proud of our children. They’ve worked hard and they’ve picked wonderful and complementary spouses, who have carried them forward in their endeavours, and they all remain very close to each other. This brings immense joy to their old parents.’
Alexander Armstrong’s one-man show, All Mouth and Some Trousers, will be at venues across England in November. Tickets via Ticketmaster.
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