15 October 2015 by Ronan Gay
Freddie Reynolds talks to British comedian and actor Alexander Armstrong about his new travel series: Land of the Midnight Sun
Alexander Armstrong is someone that some might more likely associate with home.
As in: ‘What do you miss most about home?’
‘Chips and gravy. A proper cup of tea. Comedies on BBC Two.’
As it so happens, he’s currently beaming into my home – my bricks-and-mortar home, not that imagined Great Cuppa Kingdom that exists outside – this time over the phone, from his own home in the reception-free “wilds of Oxfordshire.”
It’s worth noting here that there’s very little to distinguish Alexander Armstrong on TV/radio with Xander – as his publicity people call him – over the phone. Warm, friendly, always on the cusp of a chuckle. A sunny presence. A proper cup of tea.
He’s got a new TV show out soon, and an accompanying book, too, neither of which have anything to do with home. Although the prospect of a broken home was, he says, utterly apparent.
“My wife and I have quite a young family,” he tells me, speaking in that voice, his voice. “And we were discussing what perhaps might be a manageable balance between doing something exciting and avoiding divorce.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, that something ended up being a travel series about the far north and a short while later he set off, film crew in tow, and swung pendulum-like from Scandinavia to Iceland, then Greenland, Canada and Alaska where he plonked onto the island Little Diomede, right on the international dateline. An epic 8,000 mile journey.
(Credit: ITV Studios)
“It’s part of the world and part of my mind that I haven’t explored,” he says. “I grew up in Northumberland, which is northern, you might say. I grew up a long way from anywhere – Northumberland is a quite remote part of the country and we lived in a very, very remote part of Northumberland. So I have an affinity with cold and isolation.”
“I have always felt that the Arctic has called to me,” he says, and laughs.
Armstrong is somewhat aware of the greats of Arctic exploration whose footsteps he loosely and more leisurely tracked. ‘For some reason all my music is on the iCloud,’ he writes. ‘I bet Ranulph Fiennes doesn’t make such schoolboy errors.’ And he’s happy to undergo the pre-trip training ‘provided by the excellent Paul Mattin, an ex-Major in the Marines, who spend the day plying us with cautionary tales of sub-zero derring-do. Paul said that our trip was going to be “gnarly – very gnarly indeed.”’
Evidently his producer was keen for Armstrong to do the sort of stunts you might associate with the Arctic region. In a preview from the series, Armstrong is invited to go swimming in a sub-zero Norwegian sea. “This is very, very cold,” he says as he approaches the shoreline. A beach of ice. “I’m wearing five layers, including quite a lot of feather and wool, gloves, hat. I’m sure it’s going to be invigorating. I guess getting tazered is probably invigorating.”
He strips. Heads for the waves. Strides bravely in.
(Credit: ITV Studios)
But he’s all but lost for words as he emerges for a post-dip piece to camera. “That really hurts,” he says, visibly bothered, unable to hold then lens’ gaze for more than a few seconds. This, you sense, is not how he understood his Arctic calling. The new voice of Danger Mouse has tamer tastes, subtler interests. Like snow, just looking at snow: “There’s just nothing about snow that isn’t beautiful,” he tells me. “It falls beautifully and it lands beautifully and the way it treats the light, the way it holds the light. I rather love the anarchy it encourages, even in our country when snow falls. It’s sort of festival of fools. There’s a delightful anarchy to it.”
Which is a pleasing way of describing much of what Armstrong encounters on his journey. The activities are too pre-planned to be anarchic. There’s a section where he heads off to the east coast of Greenland to spend time 24 hours camping out with the Danish Special Forces, which is all well and good, pleasing ex-Major Mattin who ‘would consider this a plausible Arctic activity’ but what does it all mean? By contrast, many of the people he meets swagger deep into the realms of the eccentric, and Armstrong’s attraction to the subtler aspects of life mean these characters tell us a great deal.
(Credit: ITV Studios)
Take the fellow guests at the Snow Hotel: ‘Astrid explains that she and her fellow Snow Hotel people like to go out at night or in storms and just ‘experience the cold’, whether walking in the snow or ‘langlaufing’ (like cross-country skiing but more ‘German-sounding’) through the spindrift. They LOVE the cold. LOVE IT. Simply can’t get enough of the stuff.’
And then there’s, Denis, rhymes with penny, a gold prospector in the Yukon and one of the book’s most memorable men.
“He was a funny old fish,” says Armstrong. “He was like a terrible low-rent gangster in a comedy. He kept calling me ‘Buddy!’ [AA puts on a hyperactive Danny di Vito]. ‘Hey, buddy! Hey, buddy!’ He was just ridiculous. I kept expecting a bucket of glue and a bucket of feathers to come flying down. He was such a rascal.
“But I was so glad that we got to meet him and spend time with him because he was incredibly eloquent in his portrayal of his life. He opened up everything for us. And we spent most of the day with him, prospecting. And I got it. I understand entirely why people could get bitten by that, by gold fever.”
It’s perhaps the sketch writer’s eye, but Armstrong wonderfully magnifies these characters, these fools, reveals the significance of their lives, how the harshness of the surrounding landscape is reflected in their actions.
Doors left unlocked for polar bear escapees in Svalbard. Breathalysers-to-start-your-car in Sweden. Hard drinking in Alaska. All disparate, quasi-anarchic. All signifiers of a place where expending energy to survive is a daily demand. “When there’s something potentially lethal about your climate, I think you are naturally switched on a survival instinct, and it’s a very sociable survival instinct,” he tells me. People, he says, are far nicer in the cold.
Land of the Midnight Sun airs on ITV from 14 October and is available to view here. The accompanying book is published by Bantam Press and is available now.