Belatedly pursuing one of his defining true loves – Armstrong first had to crack a cheerfully triumphant two-decades-plus career on TV, radio and stage – he signed a record deal with Warner Music in 2015. He’s released two collections drawing from the pop, traditional and classical repertoires. Both A Year of Songs and Upon a Different Shore reached the upper regions of the album and classical charts. But for his third album, it was time for Alexander to grasp the holly of an undertaking only attempted by the gifted, the bold or, well, the deluded.
Luckily, the 47-year-old has natural-born and long-nurtured talent on his side.
"Christmas without music would be unthinkable. I mean I daresay you could still find some joy in an old mince pie or something, but just imagine no carols, no Bing, no boys of the NYPD choir, no For Unto Us A Child Is Born, now that really would be bleak midwinter. The truth is we haven’t got time to hang about in December so we use our favourite music each year to take us straight to where we want to be: maybe it’s to savour the more mystical side of Christmas as an ancient religious festival or maybe it’s to celebrate an uproarious winter knees-up with those we love. Or - ideally - a bit of both…“
That beloved heritage is on full, glorious display on In A Winter Light. Recorded with the City of Prague Orchestra, abetted by the Choir of New College, Oxford, the RAF Squadronaires big band and Jools Holland, it’s the rich, enveloping sound of a gifted baritone pursuing the range of his seasonal and musical passions.
The songs were scored and arranged by the husband and wife team of James and Juliette Morgan Pochin. James was Armstrong’s organ scholar at Trinity College Cambridge, while Juliette was an alto in the choir at the same time (“I really wanted to work with James and Juliette because we speak the same musical language – we were reared in the same tastes”). It’s a fitting and inspired collaboration: the threesome’s long connections and shared eclecticism help cohere this classically coloured, elegantly wrapped festive selection box.
And Armstrong’s seasonal playlist takes us carefully around his many loves. The judicious song selection ranges from beardy neo-folkies Fleet Foxes’ White Winter Hymnal to revered early 20th century church composer Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose. We move seamlessly from the wintry paganism of the Middle Ages (There Is No Rose) to the cocktail cheer of the Fifties (Winter Wonderland). Nina Simone (Little Girl Blue) clinks a glass with Bing Crosby (Let It Snow). And, finally, you can barely hear the distance between a brace of 19th century hymnal wonders (Angels From The Realms, O Holy Night, Bethlehem Down, Silent Night) and a pair of fresh-off-the page compositions written by one A. Armstrong.
Of his two self-penned contributions, Armstrong acknowledges that I Still Believe in Christmas is “pure Bing”. In the lyrics he hymns the nostalgia of all our idealised Christmases, where “every card’s a snow scene/every Christmas brings new tunes/but still we’re dreaming Bing’s sweet dream”.
Christmas, he expands, “is all about love. That’s what it comes back to. The last line is: ‘Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to see the world in a rosy kind of light.’ And that’s what Christmas does – it gives everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
His other song is This Glorious Morrow, which we might characterize as Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas as reimagined by Chaucer. “It’s about a difficult journey back to heart and hearth, in a previous age, possibly on foot – in my case, back to a Northumbrian homestead.”
“It’s about finding a kind of peace at home, which for me was a farm at the end of a three-mile single track road. Christmas made sense of that – I loved the fact that we might be in the middle of nowhere but we still had a glow of our own. But other times,” he sighs theatrically, “it could feel like we were out on one of the universe’s furthermost tendrils. On a clear night you’d see the glow of Newcastle, 20 miles away. Oh the bright lights!” he laughs affectionately. “One day I’ll make it, maybe as far as Morpeth… Of course, now I’d live at the end of a Northumbrian farm track in a heartbeat.”
But Alexander Armstrong did make it to Morpeth. And beyond. At that time of his undergraduate studies in Cambridge, music was pulling him one way, comedy the other. It was a choice between being poor and poorer.
“Music is a slog – you have to give up your entire life to it to survive as a professional singer or player,” reflects this musical all-rounder who does know his Bruno Mars from his Elbow. And from his oboe: he can play the latter, as well as the piano and the saxophone. “If you want to see someone doing what they do purely for love, then look no further than a professional musician: there’s someone who’s turned down the filthy tickle of mammon to pursue their passion. I hope we’re all grateful enough...”
So, instead, in a craven cash-grab worthy of a Trumpist corporate raider, Armstrong pursued the “sure thing” of a career in comedy. Fast-forward a quarter-of-a-century, via enduring partnerships with Ben Miller and Richard Osman, as well as myriad other artistic connections over the years, Armstrong has become a much-loved fixture on our screens. Next year, too, he’ll be touring a stage show. But for now he’s set on helping listeners snuggle up for Christmas.
“It’s the time of year where want to make our burrow as comfortable as possible. And music is the easiest and loveliest way of doing that, of pulling down the mental eiderdown. It’s the closest we come to hibernating, isn’t it?”
He’s full of praise for his musical compadres for their contributions, whether it’s Jools Holland on Little Girl Blue (“It’s such a heartbreaking song, and Jools just informed the whole vibe of the song”) or Winter Wonderland’s players, the RAF’s legendary Squadronaires (once led, fact fans, by Pete Townsend’s dad).
“I played with them at the Albert Hall at the Festival of Remembrance last year,” he notes of Royal British Legion’s long-running annual concert. “And while I was there I heard them rehearse something that made me prick up my ears: this quite cartoony number with a massive wall of saxes doing mad chromatic stuff and hooky syncopations.”
This, it transpired, was Hunting Wabbits by Gordon Goodwin. “I looked it up and got to know it. I love what Goodwin does – it’s the next generation of big band sound. So I asked James and Juliette if they could keep it at the back of their minds while arranging Winter Wonderland for the album. Spool forward a few months and there we were recording it with the Squadronaires in their studio at RAF Northolt. Marvellous.”
These, he insists, are the only guests on the album. Further investigation, however, reveals the vocal presence of young Paddy Armstrong, one of his two sons who are choristers at Oxford. By not crediting his son for his contribution, was Armstrong père trying to avoid having to pay Armstrong fils? Well, as he said himself, this is Christmas, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
“This is the complete Christmas,” Alexander Armstrong says of the album. “I’ve drawn together every single style of seasonal music that I love, so you’ve got the full English here all in one place: mysterious medieval through to lavish Victorian Christmas, sacred through to profane, carols through to cocktails.
“I did a TV show a few years go with Giles Coren,” he continues, “called the ‘12 Drinks of Christmas’. You’ve got to keep going over the festive season so you might as well broaden your repertoire a bit. We introduced our viewers to some new ideas: cocktails, port, decent liqueurs, more cocktails, mulled wine, ciders, sloe gin – just ideas to make the Christmas grog intake a bit more varied and fun.
“So, for me, In A Winter Light is kind of the 12 Songs of Christmas! It’s the perfect Christmas present for ANYONE WHO LIKES CHRISTMAS!” he hoots, wryly embracing that other festive tradition – marketing. “And if a Winter Wonderland fan gets to know Herbert Howells, I’ll notch that up as a small victory. And if they in turn can be gateway drugs to my own little compositions,” Xander Armstrong concludes with a twinkly grin, “well then...”