Al Murray is a writer and comedian famous for his alter ego The Pub Landlord. He has a keen interest in history having graduated from Oxford with a degree in Modern History. His new book, Watching War Films With My Dad, is out now.
Where did your interest in history originally come from?
Well, I grew up in a house and in a family that was fascinated with history. We would talk about it endlessly over Sunday lunch. My dad and his brother would discuss the bomber offensive while we would watch The World at War and we would talk about not just the Second World War but about pretty much a bit of everything. I’m an avid consumer of history and will pick up any book which looks interesting.
How do you see history’s role in society?
I had dinner with a Tudor Historian last night and we were talking about the function of history, and she said that the thing about history is that it is the ‘only guide that we have got’, which is an excellent way to see it.
Your book is titled Watching War Films With My Dad and you detail a certain pedantry about war films, however, do the films have to be completely historically accurate in order to portray the war or convey a pertinent message?
This pedantry has made a complete fool of me but there is a point in the film A Bridge Too Far, which misrepresents what actually happened and has coloured people’s interpretation of that event and culturally how we look at it, and I think that is very interesting in itself.
You also describe your book as a means of ‘getting over history’ – could you elaborate what you mean by ‘getting over’?
I have often thought that World War Two is such an interesting event, not only because it is incredibly complex but also because it has assumed such an important and powerful moral role in how we view ourselves, what we think we stand for and what we think our values are; it is used by politicians to back-project ideas and fears onto you. The amount of dictators since WWII who have been compared to Hitler, who was undeniably a bad person, in order to influence policy! Tony Blair, George Bush in the Gulf and Eden in Suez are prime examples. The thing about WWII is that it is kind of in black and white – good guys/bad guys – it has even got a mythic element to it as well because we had to do a deal with the devil to win and there is a bit of me that wants to leave that behind, get over looking at the past and engage with the present more.
How does that perception fit with you own interest in history?
Writing the book was partially to get the WWII fascination out of my system, but in order to write it properly I had to read a load more stuff and it completely reawakened my interest all over again. But people should also try to have their heads in the present; they should read newspapers as well as reading about the Corn Laws.
Can you reconcile your historical interest with your work as a comedian?
I’ve used bits of history in the act and I’ve use the act to muse on people’s relationship with history, which is generally that they remember four or five things and then use them to prove points, which is obviously incredibly dangerous! At the beginning of my book I say that I half-know a lot of stuff and I’m prepared to admit that, although I think that makes you a more interesting person than someone who knows nothing at all. If you get out there some people think that Henry VIII had eight wives or that Churchill is just a car insurance dog, so people and their relationship with history is fascinating and it is shifting enormously. The way it has been taught differently in schools in the past twenty years has changed audiences; what they know is different.
You recently talked to your nephew’s primary school class about the Second World War – what did you talk to them about?
My nephew had been showing off about having an uncle that people might have heard of and it finally came home to roost when I got invited to give a talk about the Second World War. It was interesting because kids who are ten, eleven and twelve tend not to know very much about World War Two but some of them know a great deal and because they have watched it on TV they have an interestingly distorted view. But as is traditional in the UK they don’t know what Russia did and they don’t know the Soviet price of the war and when you tell them that maybe thirty million Russians died they are astonished and cannot get their heads around the numbers at all.
Was it difficult to talk to children about the atrocities of the war?
We would have read Anne Frank’s diary in primary school but even that is hard to connect to the death camps because the death camps are very hard to connect to full stop. My daughter is fourteen and we went to the Imperial War Museum very recently and saw the Holocaust exhibition there. I have done it too many times and it gets to the point where I can’t look at it anymore because it gets too upsetting and she went round the whole thing very slowly and then at the end she said, ‘How did this happen? It doesn’t make any sense.’
If you go to Belsen it is incredibly upsetting because they have these huge mass graves – that’s a really shocking place to go. I’ve been to the Dora camp in Nordhausen where they built V-weapons with slave labour and that’s also an unbelievably grim place. It’s almost a discussion about ghosts, and it is maybe about what you bring to the place, what you know and how you view it because I have been to a place called Tuol Sleng in Cambodia, which was the processing camp and that is a place which is incredibly upsetting, but the killing fields didn’t have that emotive effect on me although I don’t know why not.
You are involved in a project called Story Vault can you explain what this is?
Yeah I’m involved with Dan Snow. It is a sort of YouTube resource where people can tell their stories and lots of interesting people can tells us their histories and experiences. It is essentially an instant online oral history archive and I know that if you study history seriously you are supposed to furrow your brow at oral histories but when written sources lack something and oral history sources lack something maybe you combine the two and get your answer.
You have done historical television work, notably your ‘German Adventure’ – can you tell us about how you made the show?
We asked ourselves whether could we talk about Germany without mentioning the war. Before Germany was essentially hijacked and nationalism went large, they had had small local nationalism and when they mainlined nationalism that it all starts to go wrong. When you make a programme like that we found that when we got to Dresden we had to talk about the bombing because you can’t not, even though it is arguable that the bombing in Hamburg was much worse because history is about perception and all history is about the present. So when you go to Dresden you have to talk about Dresden and the bombing, regardless of where it fits within the bigger picture because its history is in our present culture. As a British person when you arrive you almost expect it to be sooty and smouldering from the bombing still, because that is where it is in our conscience.
And just because one is at the middle of the war and one is at the end what difference does it make? Are people’s lives more precious at the end of a war? There’s a sort of moral obfuscation there that doesn’t really add up.
Finally have you got any forthcoming historical projects?
I’m very interested in writing about fools – looking into the history of my profession. Because they used to exist on the outside they weren’t lauded, feted, show-business people. If you look at actors they used to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through their heart and I think that it is maybe something we should reintroduce!