Xenophobic, loutish and aggressively opinionated, it would be impossible to picture Al Murray’s most popular creation, The Pub Landlord, handling sensitive secrets from his family’s past with due delicacy.
But unlike his famous character, the 46-year-old comedian is about to show a softer side, in the new ITV family history show, Secrets From The Asylum.
In the two-part series, Murray and fellow famous faces Ray Winstone, Sue Johnston, Lesley Joseph, Claire Sweeney and Christopher Biggins, delve into their family’s pasts to find out why their ancestors spent time in a lunatic asylum.
While Sweeney goes on a journey to find out how senile dementia was treated in the Victorian age, and Winstone discovers more about his great-great-grandmother’s first husband who was committed to an asylum, Murray looks back at the life of his great-great-great-grandparents, Vanity Fair author William Thackeray and his wife Isabella.
When Thackeray was 29, Isabella, then aged 23, attempted suicide by trying to jump overboard from a ship.
Desperate to help his wife, Thackeray paid for her to stay at a private asylum in France, where she had the very Victorian sounding ‘Moral Therapy’, which involved “exercise, occupation and amusement”.
“It’s a total crisis,” says dad-of-two Murray. “His family’s fallen apart, his career isn’t established yet, it’s [the treatment’s] costing him a fortune, and they’re saying, ‘Well, we’ll keep her on for six or seven months of trial’; he doesn’t even know if it’s going to work.”
After five months away, Thackeray “busted” his wife out of the asylum and took her back to the UK, where he tried treatment after treatment, including hydrotherapy, where patients were togged up and encouraged to sweat before being splashed with buckets of ice-cold water in the belief that it would purify the body.
Born in Buckinghamshire, Murray grew up knowing that his great-great-great-grandmother had suffered with postnatal depression.He found out a lot about his famous ancestor from his history buff great-aunt, he says. But discovering the lengths Thackeray went to in trying to help his wife, “completely reversed” his opinion of what his ancestor must have been like.
“I’d always assumed that what he’d done was put her, Victorian style, out of the way,” says Murray. “In fact, what he did was get her the very, very best care he could at the time.”
Murray has always been interested in history, even opting to study the subject at Oxford University, before launching himself onto the comedy circuit.
Two decades ago, he showcased his Pub Landlord character at the Edinburgh Festival, where he was asked at the last minute to compere for Harry Hill.
He’s maintained his interest in history, though, which is reflected in his 2013 book, Watching War Films With My Dad, and passing on his enthusiasm for the subject to his daughters, Scarlett and Willow, has always been important to him.
Privacy is another thing that’s always been important to Murray, who likes to keen his private life and opinions to himself, insisting that he’s “never, ever been tempted to come out with my own views”. “I’m thinking about what would I do in this situation,” muses Murray, who won a Perrier Award for his stand up show in 1999. “I have two girls, similar age gap [to Thackeray’s children], you’d worry about what to do about them. He’s lonely, his children are upset and his wife’s lost to him. It’s agony.”
Ever the history student, he took some valuable lessons from participating in the series.
“It was a really exciting project to be involved in. The people of the past had different decisions in front of them, and different attitudes back then,” Murray adds. “The thing to do is look at them and think, ‘I hope I don’t make a mistake like that in my own life.