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armstrong and miller

first published on oilzine.com

Cambridge Footlights has acted as a conveyor belt for the past 40 years, producing some of the best and most glorious comedians and comedic actors in the world: Peter Cook, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie, Graham Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Bird, Miriam Margolyes, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie. But two of the more little known products to have fallen off the end of the line are Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller.

Fair enough they have what you might call a ‘cult’ following, but it’s is mainly formed of drunk billy-no-mates (so that’s me then), gained from having a TV show on at a ridiculous hour of Friday night. Are you one of us?

Armstrong and Miller met in 1992 at Cambridge University and began their first forays into the big bad world performing at The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, then the only ‘sketch club’ in the capital. After around four years of regular exploits at said theatre and in the pubs and clubs of South England, an appearance on The Talk of London Theatre caught the eye of a scout from LWT. In 1996 they appeared on ITV’s Saturday Live as their popular Euro-Rock duo, Strijka – a couple of characters noted for their spectacularly pidgin English:

We are loving playing in England, but everywhere we go, the people they are shouting ‘Wankis, Wankis’, and I am saying ‘No, it is a long time since I am playing with the band ‘Wankis’.’

In fact 1996 was a big year for them, as they were also the first sketch act to be nominated for The Perrier Award (a year before the more famous The League of Gentlemen won), and given their first commissioned series. The Armstrong and Miller Show appeared on Paramount Comedy Channel, and was later the basis of a one-hour special shown by Channel 4 in 1997. The relative success of this one-off programme led to three series on Channel 4, which aired in 1997, 1999, and 2001.

Add to this So 90s, a weekly show running from 1997 to 1999 and at the time MTV’s highest rated show, and you would think that, MTV and Channel 4 being some of the best hunting grounds for emerging talent, they would be two of the most well-known people on TV today (rather like Ricky Gervais is becoming as I write). But no. Armstrong’s (probably) best known work for most of the country is his appearance in the lead role in BBC1 sitcom Beast, and mothers and fathers everywhere will recognise Ben as a serious actor in such ITV dramas as The Blind Date and Passion Killers.

This is doing them both a great disservice however, as although they are fine actors, as comedians they are intelligent, inventive, witty, and have a propensity for the bizarre. For example, take Inspector Force. Jack Force is a typical regional detective that you see on TV every week – he’s a maverick, not afraid to break the rules if he has to, he’s also an alcoholic - typical apart from the fact that he explains his complex deductions to imaginary train-driver sidekick Chuffy. Another good example is Naked Practice, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a veterinary practice. There’s nothing really unusual about the sketch apart from the vets featured are naked, hence the title. Trust me, it’s funny. The pair reckon that he comedy inherent in the sketch is not to do with nudity, it’s to do with the triviality of veterinary dramas. If you think that’s over-intellectualising, you’d better stick to Jim Davison. Their fan base (despite, or because of, what I said about drunks earlier) is, surprise, surprise, students. But the strength and quality of their satirical references to pop culture (docusoaps, reality TV, Youff TV presenters, alcoholic detectives) should mean that they become the next big thing.

As has been highlighted, they have visited all the traditional stops that British comedians make on their way up – Edinburgh Festival – Radio 4 – cable – Channel 4 – although not necessarily in the correct order (they had appeared on TV before trying radio). But next up for them is writing a narrative comedy series of 6 half hour episodes entitled The Fold, showcasing the exploits of Radio 4’s Children’s Hour presenter Craig Children (Miller) and his bit-dim-really assistant Martin Bain-Jones (Armstrong), both supposedly music journalists. If the radio series is anything to go by, expect waffling, ‘irony’, hashes and mishaps, and no-little humour.

You can also catch Alex and Ben in their eponymously titled tour Armstrong and Miller on Tour 2001. Which will present you with the chance to see all your favourite characters, the best sketches from the Channel 4 series, plus masses of new, previously unseen, material.

The aforementioned Craig Children and Martin Bain-Jones will host the evenings of joviality featuring the likes of Jack Force and Chuffy, the two Chauvinist Gays and Strijka. Also promised are skits on the admissions procedure of the University of England, battle treaties between the Cavaliers and Roundheads, cover-ups in local authorities, quick business skills courses, and Andrews and Johnson (two 1930s POWs who are permanently tied to a chair). And don’t miss the Nude Practice finale.


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