Harry Hill Brighton

BN1 chats with Harry Hill

Absurdist national treasure on extending tours, exacerbating division with baking and working with long-lost relatives

Last night Harry Hill, TV star and the standard bearer for the more abstract end of British comedy, wound up the original run of his tour at Brighton’s Theatre Royal. But he’s already excited about returning in a few weeks’ time. “We all felt quite sad. I was wondering what I’m going to do with myself through December. I was the one who requested that we try and get some more dates in, because I’ve really been enjoying it. I’m so pleased by how the show has been received.” 

With the suitably daft name, Pedigree Fun, the tour has had at least another 15 dates added – including Thurs 12 Jan at Croydon’s Ashcroft and Theatre Royal Brighton on Sat 21 Jan. This outing has already been quite sizeable. Even after ending his iconic TV Burp television show a decade ago, there’s still a huge demand for Hill and his leftfield antics.

“I don’t know where the time has gone. It’s made me think I should do this more often. Other people do…” he says with a laugh. Hill says you obviously need to have the material prepared, which is no mean feat for a performance lasting around 120 minutes. But there’s nothing like booking dates in to make creative sorts come up with things. In the old days, he would tour once a year. “But then I was only doing a single hour, and there’d be a support act. For a long time now, I’ve done the whole show. Basically, because I don’t want to be on with anyone else in case they’re funnier than me!”

Where I had visions of his creative process involving him being locked in a room for months, accompanied by only a box full of strange objects and a packet of Jammie Dodgers, he says a lot of the time material will just come to him – either while walking the dog, watching TV or from something he overhears. “It is just sitting down trying to write jokes. I’m a good friend of Tim Vine, and he goes to the library and gets a book out and flicks through it. Maybe I should try that.” The main thing is to be able to concentrate somewhere. A coffee shop is off the cards, as he thinks he’d be a bit self-conscious. If you’re off the telly, people are going to recognise you.

“If I haven’t got the big collar on, I don’t look that much like me. If I have, then virtually everyone does, because I’ve been at this for so long. I’m not saying they necessarily like it…” he says with another chuckle. There’s still a wide range of ages coming to see the shows, possibly because absurdist humour exists beyond trends or even frames of context. “Looking out at the audience, obviously there’s a lot of people my age, but there’s also a lot of younger people who say they grew up with TV Burp or You’ve Been Framed. It’s a bit of a shock, but it is really nice. There are kids. I’m not a rude act, some of the stuff in my act is quite extreme, but there’s no bad language. It’s a bit like panto, in some respects. It works on that level where some of the jokes will go over children’s heads.”

A big element of comedy seems to rely upon pushing boundaries, challenging people’s concepts of offence and silliness. “Part of the fun is not saying it but inferring it. I’ve got this whole thing in this show about dividing people up into traybakes or tears-and-shares. Obviously, it makes no sense whatsoever. But by the end you are looking at people, thinking: ‘Yeah… traybake!” Hill’s surreal brand of comedy delights in nonsensical premises, absurd characters and extreme leaps in logic. There might be a few people who don’t get the joke, but nobody expects it. Which BBC Breakfast found to their cost when he appeared on the morning show in October.

“I said to them: ‘If you want, I can bring my ventriloquists dummy in.’ They said that would be great. When I got into the studio, it turned out the presenter didn’t know anything about it. It was the same day the Tories were electing a new leader, so they were all a bit more focussed on that bigger story.” With a completely straight-face, he introduced the dummy as his son Gary (from his first marriage), and regaled presenter Victoria Fritz with some knowingly bad ventriloquism. A few confused viewers soon started voicing their displeasure on social media, which only generated more interest in the interview.

“Everyone was laughing, and all the cameramen were slapping me on the back, but then it turned into some kind of weird Twitter thing. I think everyone was looking for something else, because we were all sick of that leadership battle.” He says he doesn’t really watch Breakfast TV, so was unaware of how much impact the interview had made. “But when I was driving back home, I kept getting these texts saying it was really funny. As soon as those start coming in, you know something has happened.”

But then he’s never been an artist who slows down so others can ‘get’ the joke. When he started doing the legendary TV Burp, directors were worried that audiences might struggle to keep up with its febrile flow of ideas and gags. “Modern TV is so quick with the way it’s cut now. Things don’t get time to breathe. But when you start pandering to another group… I appreciate that not everyone ‘gets it’… But, if I’m not happy with it, then no one is going to enjoy it.”

Much of TV Burp’s appeal came from simplicity. Hill would introduce a clip from the previous week’s television, then point out why it was a bit silly. If you were lucky, the actors or broadcasters in question would show up and play along with the joke. Pop in some surreal or cheeky humour, some badgers and a little bit of anarchy, and draw millions of viewers. And it was shown straight after his other hit programme, You’ve Been Framed.

Produced at a breakneck pace, with a talented team of scriptwriters around him, Hill didn’t really appreciate the impact he was having while making TV Burp – he’d spend all his time watching clips. “When a series was finished, I’d go out and everyone would be like: ‘Oh! It’s him!’ It’s an odd thing.”

“I’m very happy that people think fondly of it. It was a very funny show because we packed so many jokes in. I don’t think you could make it now though. A lot of it was punching down. You can’t make fun of people for their appearance.”

One prime target for the show was soap operas. With their feverish production turn arounds and tight schedules, it’s inevitable some scenes become unintentionally funny. And TV Burp took real delight in highlighting these. “We always focussed on doing popular shows. It’s quite easy to make jokes about what used to be called satellite channels, that kind of junk TV. But we knew we had to talk about the shows everybody was watching. The idea was just to say what everyone was already thinking.”

The show also came up their own reality-bending homages to familiar faces. Like The Apprentice’s Lord Sugar, Heather from Eastenders and a strange knitted-character. Then writers went one step further with the introduction of Wagbo, the fantasy love-child of two contestants on The X Factor. Ostensibly a man in a wig and wild make-up, the character ‘escaped’ and went on a rampage through some of television’s most famous studios. Like Dancing on Ice, Loose Women and even that bastion of respectable late-night broadcasting, Newsnight. “We approached them, to see if we could get the character on, and they said ‘no’. Then someone got to Kirsty Walk…” he tells me, giggling at what his team leveraged.

With TV Burp ruling Saturday teatimes, there was no shortage of other programmes willing to get in on the jokes. ITV inarguably saw it as a great way to cross pollinate and promote their shows, and other broadcasters slowly caught on. “You can only do these things so many times, before it becomes predictable.” He says the ten-year run seems like an entire lifetime. Aware of the hit they had, the network soon started demanding longer runs. Which only increased demands on Hill. “At times, we came close to making a bad show. But always managed to avoid that. But it was getting harder on us all.” He tells me he was trying to cancel the show long before it ended; but would always cave to their wishes. TV everywhere was changing. Many other shows were starting to reference their own shortcomings with sarcastic voice overs. 

“The problem was they wanted more and more episodes. If we’d kept doing a shorter run, then I’d probably still be doing it. I know it sounds pathetic, but there is a lot of pressure on you. You start the week with nothing, and it’s got to be a really funny show by Saturday, it’s quite a lot of stress. Especially when it’s your name on it.”

Image by Andy Hollingworth

It’s clear that Hill truly understands the power of television as a medium, and that he grew up watching it. His influences read like a list of 70s small screen comedy staples. Bruce Forsyth, The Two Ronnies, Morecombe & Wise… Later, when he was a teenager, came Monty Python. Then the alternative thing happened. “When I was a medical student in Tooting, I’d go to all these comedy clubs and see people like Jo Brand and Jack Dee. But I’m still really fond of Laurel & Hardy.”  For him, the only thing which really matters is offering some kind of personal truth through comedy. If he starts bowing to trends or expectations, it’s not going to be satisfying. 

“Otherwise, I could be doing any job. Just doing something which I didn’t enjoy. Like the rest of you! Ha ha!”

While TV Burp might be ten years in the past, he’s still a regular face (or voice) on our screens, with shows like You’ve Been Framed, Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule and Junior Bake Off. And the funny clips still play a very big part in his comedy. If anything, technology has caught up with his ambitions to include them in the live shows. The Pedigree Fun tour includes plenty of video oddities to delight audiences. 

“I’ve amassed this huge collection of funny clips over the years. Before, it’s always been quite difficult to play them quickly during a show; and could be quite unreliable.” They fold into this odd one-man variety spectacular, which is dense with gags, funny dances, surprises and an appearance from his son Gary ‘from his first marriage’. For the avoidance of doubt, Hill is still married to his first wife and that imaginary offspring is very much a dummy. He’s not received any formal ventriloquism training, and that’s hilariously self-evident. “People don’t know what to expect. And by the end, they leave, having not expected it. I want people laughing all the time.”

He says he always has a good time in Brighton, especially at the Theatre Royal. “It’s a great theatre. It’s one of my favourites. It’s unchanged. You could walk in there, and bump into anyone from Norman Wisdom to Charlie Chaplin.”  Hill very much sees himself as part of the proud British musical hall tradition. He loves walking into those Victorian theatres – and has almost exclusively booked them for this tour. “There’s just something about it. You do get the sense you’re walking on the same floorboards as some of the greats…”

Harry Hill brings his ongoing Pedigree Fun tour to Croydon’s Ashcroft on Thurs 12 Jan and Theatre Royal Brighton on Sat 21 Jan. www.harryhilltour.com

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