Felix & Murdo. Image shows from L to R: Murdo (Alexander Armstrong), Felix (Ben Miller). Copyright: Objective Productions / Toff Media.

Felix & Murdo

Armstrong & Miller interview

Felix & Murdo. Image shows from L to R: Murdo (Alexander Armstrong), Felix (Ben Miller). Copyright: Objective Productions / Toff Media.Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller star in Felix & Murdo, a sitcom pilot set in 1908 which follows the adventures of two best friends. In this interview the actors chat about the show, their other projects, and their thoughts on comedians fronting adverts...

Hi guys. You presumably have been offered lots of sitcoms over the years, but this is your first one. What attracted you to this particular script?

Alexander Armstrong (Xander): The calm, assured hand of Simon Nye. The man can write the most exquisite comedy. You always spend your life hoping you're going to discover some brilliant new writers - and, I have to say, we were very lucky we did discover some fantastic young writers and performers on our sketch show - but something like a sitcom you really need somebody whose got quite a lot of experience. Particularly with a commercial half hour as, by the time you've cut away the adverts and the titles, you're left with something like 22 and a half minutes... so to tell a story in that time, that requires someone who has a really firm understanding of narrative structure - Simon has that and so much more. He's just brilliant!

It was filmed in front of a live audience?

Ben Miller: Yeah. One of the things we decided quite early on was we wanted to shoot the whole thing in a studio. Partly so we could do it in front of a live audience, but also because there'd be no restriction really to where we could go then. We could have an episode set in India. Xander is quite keen on us having an expedition to the South Pole...

You're already thinking about a series then. Has anything been confirmed?

BEN: No, we're still waiting to hear. It very much depends upon what the critical reaction is, how many people watch it and all that kind of stuff...

Fingers crossed for you! Would you say there's any link between Felix and Murdo and your RAF pilot characters (pictured)? The dynamic seems similar...

RAF Pilots. Image shows from L to R: Alexander Armstrong, Ben Miller. Copyright: Hat Trick Productions / Toff Media.

XANDER: Well, in both cases, the heart of it is a friendship between two poshos. It's a different joke though because the gag with the pilots is you're enjoying the friction between two different attitudes, one from an era of sacrifice, the other from the modern era of entitlement I guess, and how these guys set in a world of sacrifice are fully conversant are with world of entitlement and rights... and also that these old fashioned looking pilots speak in this very modern argot. With Felix and Murdo, there is something quite contemporary about them too - the way Simon has written them they do speak in a modern vernacular...

BEN: There is an anachronism in both. In the pilots I suppose it's modern characters transported to the past, and in Felix & Murdo it's characters in the past that are tunnelling into the present somehow, if you know what I mean? The clear difference though is, with something like the pilots it's very much based on the joke; whereas in Felix & Murdo most of the laughs are coming from the characters - it's much more a character-based piece. In the end you really need to care what's going to happen to Felix and Murdo in order to connect with the sitcom. We'll, we're trying to convince ourselves that anyway!

Ha ha. No you're right. Felix and Murdo are much more 'sitcom'. So does this move into sitcom mean your sketch show is finished? It's been over a year now since the last series of The Armstrong & Miller Show...

XANDER: We were keen to have a break from that. Apart from anything else, inevitably after three series working on a sketch show, some other ideas creep in. We were quite keen to do something with a longer narrative as we've never actually acted together before in a story telling show. We've only ever done things together that have lasted about three minutes at the most. And actually to develop characters is great. It's ridiculous to thing we've never done that before... I guess in Plunkett & Macleane we played the same characters for longer than three minutes, but they were peripheral characters...

BEN: I think we'll definitely come back to the sketch show. We were both just itching to do some other stuff really. I think we want to keep developing and trying new things and, as Xander has said, we haven't really done any acting together so we're keen to develop some sort of comedy drama and we're very keen on Felix & Murdo... but, as ever, this is showbiz and we don't know how this pilot is going to go and you don't really know much about what the future holds so I wouldn't rule anything out.

XANDER: After three series of a sketch show you have to work very, very hard not to have diminishing returns and you need to make sure you don't fall into traps like taking things for granted and repeat things way beyond their accepted shelf-life. I think it's good to have a break from that and it will be something we'll always have on our back burner...

The Armstrong & Miller Show. Image shows from L to R: Alexander Armstrong, Ben Miller. Copyright: Hat Trick Productions / Toff Media.

You both keep yourselves very busy with other things too, do you never think about taking a holiday?

XANDER: I try and schedule some breaks in. I find that one project is actually quite a good holiday from another though. It's all work - that's true - but I think presenting is a really good antidote to doing a longer thing like a drama or a sketch show. Just for the simple maths if no other reason. You can do a half hour of Have I Got News For You in about 90 minutes, and there's something lovely about that, making something on the hoof. Whereas - pro rata - a half hour of The Armstrong & Miller Show probably takes about five or six weeks if you work out all the writing time and divide up the time it takes to make.

But equally, if you're doing lots of stuff 'on the hoof' - the quiz show Pointless for example, where we do about six hours of recordings to get three shows a day - you're then kind of longing to do something where you can sit down and do some preparation. With Pointless I always walk off set going 'ah, I know what I should have said', or 'I've thought of a good gag now'... but you can't go back and re-do it. So there's no greater treat than your own show where you can put anything in there.

Does light entertainment presenting not appeal to you as well Ben?

I think Xander is being slightly disingenuous. I think he does it because he really enjoys it and he's very good at it... whereas I neither enjoy presenting, nor am I very good at it! Ha ha. I'm eager to try new things as well... I'm writing a book at the moment about my favourite bits of science, so that's a nice little sideline project that I'm doing on my own. I think it's always been very good for the stuff we do together that we also do a variety of different things on our own. I think that's very important.

One of the sidelines you both do is adverts. Some people criticise comedians for getting involved in advertising. Do you have any thoughts on this topic?

XANDER: I take my hat off to people who resist. It's a nobler spirit than mine that can say 'no, I'm not going to sell my soul'. I wouldn't do anything that I didn't think was going to be funny though; I wouldn't do anything that you couldn't do a decent job of. There are no certainties in our industry - if you've got a family to support, and all that sort of thing - you kind of take what's in front of you. I've seen people turn down adverts and I think, 'good on them', but I'm afraid I'm made of weaker stuff.

Ben, we've noticed the adverts you do tend to be voice-only...

The fact I've never been 'in vision' in an advert is nothing to do with principle - ha ha, it's simply that I've never been asked. Well, that's not quite true - I have been asked but I've got my price and no one has reached it yet! Like Xander I completely understand why some people might not want to do them. I have to say, the Monkey adverts are some of the things I'm most proud of in my career, and I'd have hated to have missed out on those. I always loved seeing comedians in really good ads: Morecambe & Wise doing those Texaco adverts I just remember being hilarious; and Paul Merton's classic Imperial Leather adverts.

XANDER: I know exactly what people are saying, and maybe they're right... maybe you do sell a bit of your soul, but is it that awful?

BEN: You lose a bit of your soul, but we've got a lot of soul!

Published: Monday 26th December 2011