Alexander Armstrong: 'Dominic Cummings looked like Sharon Stone when we were at school'

The comedian tells Ben Lawrence about his new Classic FM show, the disease of musical snobbery – and a famous schoolmate

Alexander Armstrong has taken over Classic FM's weekday morning show
Alexander Armstrong has taken over Classic FM's weekday morning show

"My god, I was teased when I was at school.” Alexander Armstrong is talking about his love of classical music and how, when young, it set him apart from his peers. He played the cello, which he dropped “for the much more masculine oboe”, and was a choral star, later winning a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge.

But those high-end passions that once made Armstrong an outsider have served him well. From this morning, he is the presenter of Classic FM’s highly successful weekday morning show, taking over from John Suchet, who is moving to an evening slot.

It’s a good fit. Armstrong, who lives in Oxfordshire with his wife and four sons, projects as a middle-class everyman. He will be a balm for those in lockdown and perfect for a station which, as he puts it, “kicked in the big, gilded doors of classical music, [an art form where] people took one look and ran away because it looked like it was either too damned posh or that it was going to require some level of intellectual output”.

Talking to Armstrong over the phone, I realise that beneath the niceness there is an intellectual rigour. When I ask him about snobbery in the classical music world, his answer is perhaps surprising.

“We went through the 20th century with an awful lot of stupidity in the name of intellectualism. Everyone in classical music became the most godawful snob. Famously, those in the second Viennese school – Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – took the view that as soon as Wagner had written the first four chords of Tristan und Isolde, there was nothing left to achieve in classical music.

“Everything flew in the face of tonality from that moment – you had to write challenging things that hurt the ear, so hundreds of great composers who just liked writing a tune ended up seeking solace in light music, probably at the cost of their reputations.”

Armstrong sounds slightly uneasy when I mention that bastion of recherché tastes, BBC Radio 3 – his station’s main rival (“I do listen to Radio 3 from time to time. It’s great, er, what is the tactical answer?”), before saying, diplomatically, that “good music is good music”.

When pressed for a dream playlist, he conjures up some Bach Passions, Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Mahler’s 5th, a Scriabin piano sonata and Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia. Nevertheless, he is “very keen to break down barriers. Don’t think for a minute I don’t wind my car windows down and belt out McFly.”

No doubt hearing the Northumberland-born Armstrong’s best boy band impersonation would be a thing of beauty. His voice, a rich and pleasing baritone, has proved to be a lucrative sideline (he has recorded studio albums) and he has loved singing in a choir ever since his days at Durham School.

Ah, yes. If that north-eastern public school sounds newsworthy that’s because it’s the alma mater of one Dominic Cummings, two years below Armstrong, who is now 50. By coincidence, Armstrong is a cousin of Cummings’s wife Mary. So what was Cummings like as a child?

Armstrong was at school with Number 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings Credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

“He was a rather brilliant person. Of course, he didn’t have that enormous bald head in those days. He had golden hair and, if this doesn’t sound too Another Country, he had a look of Sharon Stone about him.”

What, I ask, like in Basic Instinct?

“Well, er, no,” says Armstong, temporarily flustered. “Just very striking, a bit aloof, very self-contained. He used to blink a lot.”

He remembers Klute, the dodgy Durham nightclub owned by Cummings’s parents, where “every ne’er-do-well for miles around would get drunk until the early hours. I found the fact that Dominic, this golden child, had anything to do with Klute hilarious.”

Does Armstrong think Cummings, who apparently worked on the door, could have handled himself in a fight? “Yes. I think he would probably have bamboozled any assailant.”

Armstrong has a lovely, rather Panglossian manner. He speaks ill of no one and talks a lot about having incredible luck. But he is surprisingly downbeat about his comedy career. For years, he was in partnership with Ben Miller, and I sense that he is slightly bruised by the high stakes such a high-profile life (they had sketch shows on Channel 4 and then BBC One) brings.

“Comedy double acts just don’t last, unless you’re Morecambe and Wise,” he says. “Any double act successful in the Nineties has no hope of maintaining their career now. Tastes change.”

Armstrong, right, with his comedy partner Ben Miller on their BBC One sketch show Armstrong & Miller Credit: BBC/HAT TRICK/RICHARD KENDAL 

Armstrong tells me he is proud of a lot of what he has done; recently, in lockdown, some of it has gone viral. Yet he and Miller fell foul of political correctness when, several years after their sketch show ended, they revived their RAF wartime pilot characters (who speak in a modish yoof parlance) in an advertising campaign for Spitfire Beer. Describing Vera Lynn as “well fit” didn’t sit well with the virtue signallers and Armstrong tells me “the fact that we were having to defend ourselves was a bit…” Exhausting? “Yes.”

The comedy career hasn’t completely died, though. Armstrong did a number of solo dates at the end of last year and he is nothing if not resourceful. As well as the musical career and the DJing, one must not forget he is also the voice of the revamped Danger Mouse. He admits to once having actorly insecurity. “At a time when everything seemed to be drying up I was kept awake at night thinking: ‘What next?’ ”

Next, luckily, was Pointless, BBC One’s phenomenally popular teatime quiz show, which he says he knew was a brilliant format from the start, though was less sure about his own suitability as the host. “Me and Richard [Osman, the series’ resident know-all] were just a couple of jokers. We’re not from the usual school of game-show hosts and at first we were a bit shambling and chaotic. We didn’t stick to the scripts and we kept trying to make each other laugh too much.”

Armstrong with his Pointless co-host Richard Osman Credit: Drew Gardner 

Quiz, James Graham’s superb recent drama about the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire gaming scandal, has made me wonder whether Armstrong’s own show has to be protected against such wrongdoing.

“It’s not in the professional quizzers’ interest, I don’t think. If the winning pair get the £1,000 jackpot, that’s £500 each, which is jolly nice. But it isn’t a second home in France.”

For now, Armstrong is looking forward to his Classic FM gig (“the first office job I’ve ever had”). Is he daunted? After all, Suchet’s are big shoes to fill.

“I hope I don’t scare people away. I just want people to know me well. It will not be a varnished or scripted version of me.”

I think that Armstrong – genuine, affable, urbane, but unsnooty – is unlikely to frighten the horses, or Classic FM listeners for that matter.

Alexander Armstrong presents Classic FM’s flagship weekday morning show from 9am today