Skip to main content

Al Murray: 'The truth of Britain's military history is more interesting than the mythic version'

Al Murray
Al Murray wants to discover the truth behind our military history. (Image credit: Sky)

Al Murray and his alter-ego The Pub Landlord will be going on a quest to see if Britain's military record is as good as we think it is in Sky History's Why Do The Brits Win Every War?

Along the way, he’ll be helped by comedians and personalities from the UK and our historic rivals as a host of historic conflicts — from our battles with the Romans and Vikings to our wars against Napoleon and the Nazis — come under the microscope.

First Dates star Fred Sirieix will be the first celebrity to join the fray in the first episode of this six-part series, which looks at Britain's battles with the French at Trafalfar and Waterloo. The series starts on Sky History on Oct 20. at 9pm.

Al tells us more... 

Al Murray on how he came up with the idea for 'Why Do The Brits Win Every War?'

"We did Why Does Everyone Hate The English? for the History Channel a few years ago and it really exceeded everyone's expectations," he explains. "But we wanted to sort of find another way of asking a similar question, but a bit more on my patch because I'm really into the Second World War and started doing a podcast on it during the lockdown, which really took off. 

"Years and years ago, I did a pub landlord routine, which was about how the British have beaten everyone at war. It was 10 minutes of nonsense, but there's something about making a headline claim like that, which is absurd and funny, and, you know, throws up loads of absurd and funny things."

Al Murray on whether Britain glorifies its military history... 

"I think it's the same as saying 'My dad is the best dad in the world'," he explains. "It's an expression of undying affection rather than anything particularly meaningful. Britain along the way has thrown its weight around so much in the past, so there are lots of examples of really good stuff and really bad stuff along the way.

"The interesting things about history is there's academic history and then there's the history that's off reservation, it's escaped. When you get into people telling a nation's history, it's the story you're telling about yourself as much as anything else. 

"Which story would you rather tell? That we stood alone and were outnumbered and fought off the Nazis in the Battle of Britain? Or that we had a sort of ruthless grinding machine designed, designed to kill Germans? I know which I'd rather which story I'd rather tell about myself. But the truth is more interesting than the version, which is almost mythic."

Al on the idea of British exceptionalism...

"I think we're as close to reality as anybody else," he says. "People talk about British exceptionalism, but it's also British exceptionalism to say that we lie about ourselves more than anyone else! But I think a lot of it is kind of generally right. I also think everyone knows perfectly well, or anyone who has a glancing acquaintance with history knows it wasn't just British soldiers who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, for instance.

"The reason I'm interested in history is because it's so complicated. No one wants to admit they were an aggressor, do they? They want to say that they were defending themselves and so much of the history of war is written from that point of view. You know 'we had no choice!'"

Al on recreating the Battle of Trafalgar...

"In the first episode, Fred Sirieix and I wanted to recreate the Battle of Trafalgar, but how do you do that if you don't have the budget of Master and Commander?" he says. "What you do is you go to a boating lake in Southsea and act it out with pedalos. It's as simple as that. Nelson's plan at Trafalgar, where he split the French line in two places, can actually be illustrated very well with pedalos because you can just stick a drone up over everything and completely change the perspective. It worked a treat!" 

Al Murray

Lord Nelson commanded the British Navy to victory at Trafalgar. (Image credit: Getty)

Al on the Roman invasion of Britain...

"We looked at the Roman invasion of Britain with Bruno Tonioli for another episode and I recreated Julius Caesar's first attempt to land Roman soldiers in England," he says. "I do that by dressing up in a suit of Roman armour and then going to a swimming pool in Bristol that has a wave machine. We cranked there were three metre waves and they knocked me over, which was pretty unpleasant. 

"Caesar's first invasion is an absolute disaster and his men were overwhelmed in the sea trying to come ashore. Apparently the waves in the Channel were too strong, which is an interesting tale in relation to the series!" 

Why Do The Brits Win Every War

Bruno Tonioli helps Al dissect the Roman invasion of Britain. (Image credit: Sky History)

Al on the Battle of Bannockburn...

"We recreated England’s most famous medieval battle with Scotland, which was so long ago they might as well have been in Lord of the Rings to be honest!" explains Al. "Comedian Sanjeev Kohli and I re-enacted the Battle of Bannockburn, where lots of English knights drowned while fleeing across a stream. Sanjeev and I had to wade through mud up to our chests while wearing chainmail. I panicked a little bit during that one!" 

Al on paintballing with Henning Wehn...

"For the Second World War, we recreated blitzkrieg, and showed how the Germans had an advantage during the early years of the war," explains Al. "Henning Wehn and I went paintballing in tanks and Henning had a radio and I didn't have a radio. That's essentially the difference that leads to the Germans defeating the British and French in a fortnight in 1940. It's a generalisation, but it pretty much stands up. That was great fun and Henning is very funny in it."