There’s a funny moment when I arrive at the Battersea pub where I’m to interview Harry Hill. Sitting over in a corner, he’s instantly recognisable, not least because he’s in what he calls the “uniform” – the National Health specs, the enormous shirt collar, the suit, badges on lapel, pens neatly tucked into the breast pocket. It’s clear that the woman sitting opposite him is a journalist doing what I’m about to do – ask him questions. As I sit down, somewhere else, she finishes. He stands up, shakes her hand and she scarpers. And he, catching sight of me, shouts “next” and gestures with his hand for me to approach.
For one strange moment I imagine Hill as the doctor with me as his next patient. Totally weird. And not quite as random as it sounds because before the collars and specs, Hill, then Matthew Hall, born in Surrey, the middle child of five, was a doctor. According to him he wasn’t a very good one. He didn’t like the hours or the responsibility – this was back in the days of junior doctors clocking up 100-hour weeks. He wasn’t mad keen on the patients either, though, so he decided to quit and become a comedian. It was, he says, “the only big decision I ever made”. He was 26. “It was a life changing decision,” he says. “But it wasn’t really so risky because I probably could’ve gone back to it. OK, I wouldn’t have been a brain surgeon or a cardiologist but I probably wasn’t going to be that anyway. I was going to be a GP.” He leans forward, eyebrows raised, “No offence.”
Instead, though, Harry Hill has rather unexpectedly become one of the most successful and best known comedians around. I say unexpectedly only because Hill couldn’t be further from the swaggering, arena-filling stand-up that currently dominates. Partly, it’s that Hill’s brand of humour is much more surreal and silly, sometimes downright bizarre than the usual suspects. Partly it’s that he also paints, has written a novel and a memoir that was entirely made up and a brilliant series of children’s books about Tim the Tiny Horse. Not exactly Michael McIntyre.
So the fact Hill has found mainstream success and a huge audience is a little unusual and kind of pleasing, if you hope that comedy can be more than mediocre observational humour and DVD sales. It has also, largely thanks to him, occupied an enormous slice of prime-time Saturday night telly – You’ve Been Framed! and TV Burp – for more than a decade. We’ll get to that, of course, but first we’re supposed to talk about his new touring show, Sausage Time. His first since 2005, it promises to be everything you’d expect from Hill. There’s stand-up, of course, but there’s also live music, physical comedy including a 20ft sausage, and topics which range from the existence of God to his nan’s ailments. He’ll be joined by his band, The Harrys, plus Stouffer the Cat, his “son” Gary and “grandson” Sam who is “an expert whistler of chart hits”. See what I mean.
In a pub bedecked in fairy lights and whimsy, Hill’s trademark outfit (back at the start of this career he used to wear a sequined waistcoat but he got rid of it) is making me a little unsure as to whether he’s in character or not. I love his humour, the slapstick, the weirdness, but it doesn’t entirely gel with a chat over a cuppa. He doesn’t seem concerned; he’s not exactly ebullient but neither does he answer my questions with gags and made-up stories as he has done (he used to claim that his dad was a fireman sacked for living by the motto “fight fire with fire”. He wasn’t), but I’m a little discomfited.
Still, though, Hill is charming in a slightly reticent way. He does what the practised stand-up always does: he warms me up with his local knowledge. “I always look forward to Glasgow,” he says. “It’s usually the best one. They’re just so up for a good time. Much more than, dare I say, Edinburgh.” I laugh. Of course. I don’t know if he knows I’m from Edinburgh but I suspect so. He smiles and explains that on the last tours he did, he didn’t even bother to come to Edinburgh, such was Glasgow’s superiority, although he’s done the Fringe (he won the Perrier Award in 1992) and Aberdeen and before that Dundee.
“I remember in the early days going up to Dundee with Al Murray. We were booked into Dundee Rep. There weren’t enough people there to do it there so we performed in the foyer.” He laughs.
“The last time I was up in Scotland,” he means apart from his visit to Edinburgh Art Festival last summer when he had a well-received exhibition of his paintings, “was to see The Bay City Rollers in Stirling. It was great.”
I don’t know if he’s joking. Maybe he does really like Shang-a-Lang. Who am I to judge? So I don’t. Instead, I ask him if he’s enjoyed writing Sausage Time or whether he’s missed collaborating with writers as he did on TV Burp.
“I like a bit of both,” he says, “but there’s something nice about just doing what you want. That’s what I’ve enjoyed about putting together this show – just trying stuff out and not having to ask anyone else. I mean it’s harder and you’re more likely to get a result if you’ve got more minds working on it probably, but there’s just something nice about being your own boss.”
He says he’s a “bit anxious” about the slog of touring, which surprises me because Harry Hill is a man used to hard work. After all, he spent more than a decade watching unwatchable telly to make it enjoyable for the rest of us. That’s what TV Burp was: bad TV digested by Hill and then regurgitated with added humour. To make it as funny as it was, Hill had to watch ten hours of TV a day. You only need to have been confined to the sofa for a couple of sick days, too achey to reach the remote control, to know that a root canal procedure would be only marginally more painful.
In the first few years there were only six or eight episodes a year which kept down volume down of telly to watch and gags to write. But in 2005, in response to the soaring ratings one presumes, each series became longer and that’s when, for Hill, it “started to get tough”.
“One hundred and thirty shows we did,” he says, sounding like the veteran of some televisual conflict, half proud, half battle-weary. And it’s true that if you were to add up all of the hours of TV watched and the writing that it took to make this happen, then it is a huge amount of work. “It’s quite an achievement in that sense,” he admits.
A surreal, satirical scamper through the week’s telly with added humour in the form of sketches which built to the climax of a fight (the audience chanted Fight! to get things going) including one called the Naughtiest Vegetarians in which Heather Mills squared up to Hitler and Hill shouted “Come on, Hitler!”, TV Burp regularly bagged eight million viewers. It’s the reason that groups of kids now shout in excitement when they see Hill in the street. The show won three Baftas, two British Comedy Awards and the Rose D’Or at the Montreux International Television Festival.
If you’d been following Hill’s career from his first big break on telly, landing his own show on Channel 4 in 1997 that ran for three years, you probably wouldn’t have imagined that things would’ve worked out this way. It’s not that anything changed that much. His first show had all the elements that have become Harry Hill trademarks – regular characters, including Al Murray as his big brother Alan, Burt Kwouk as “Chicken Catcher” and Stouffer the Cat, the glove puppet cat made from blue rubber whose job was to intimidate the guests that Hill was interviewing and who’ll be on tour with him in Sausage Time.
Idiosyncratic is probably the best word for him and it’s not often a property that transfers into prime-time gold dust. But that’s what TV Burp was and the fact that Hill also does the voiceover for You’ve Been Framed!, which for a number of years was the programme shown right before TV Burp meant that Harry Hill had a double whammy of Saturday night telly.
It might be baffling but it also makes me optimistic about the kind of humour that people like – it was satire but in a cheeky way and it allowed us to have a laugh at the kind of telly programmes that watched in isolation would be a bit depressing. It was redemptive, a way of keeping in touch with the cultural zeitgeist without actually having to watch all those bad soaps. If Emmerdale can be classified as part of the cultural zeitgeist.
“I always liked it being on ITV,” he says. “I thought it made it funnier because it meant we were a bit like a Trojan horse, in there amongst all these shows, firing out rather than firing in.” He mentions Charlie Brooker, whose show he says he loves but it’s “nastier”. “I like that, but what I liked about our show was that somehow we were managing to get away with it in mainstream TV.”
He still catches up with the writers, he says. They’re like “a survivor’s club”. “Friendships forged in the fire of a TV show with a weekly turnaround,” he says with mock solemnity. “We all feel the same about it, we all feel that it was the right time to knock it on the head.”
Hill says he’s like a man emerging, blinking, into the light after years of being trapped watching hours of bad telly (he tells a funny story about not having a leg to stand on when his daughters, he has three with his wife Magda, an illustrator, wanted to watch rubbish on the box). There’s a sense that he’s got plenty of ideas, even if he’s not quite got the time to make them all happen, and that he’s ready for something different.
“When I gave up medicine, I realised it’s really good to have a change,” he says. “Giving up TV Burp almost felt the same. It’s the feeling of a new phase beginning. I almost feel like when I first started stand-up, I’ve got the fun of it back. Of not quite knowing what’s happening next.”
But it’s not quite true that he doesn’t know what’s happening next. The only time that ITV got a bit nervous with Hill’s antics on TV Burp, apparently, was when he did a sketch of a knitted X Factor. One of the contestants got a bit carried away and snipped off knitted Simon Cowell’s head. It’s ironic really because Hill’s next project is a musical of the show that he has written with Cowell’s blessing.
“It’s funny, I like The X Factor and I kind of admire that Cowell’s done this, you have to hand it to him. But I’m not in awe of him, I didn’t feel nervous about meeting him. I had this idea and I thought if he likes it, great, and if not, no problem.” He did like it. In fact, Hill says that he’s a “big laugher” and he did just that the whole way through. “The thing about him is that he’s got this charisma, this aura, so when he says ‘great, let’s do this’, you think yes, it’s going to happen. There aren’t many of those around.”
Still, though, Hill admits that if you were thinking of asking someone to write a musical based on that particular show... “I’m the last person you’d think of,” he says. “I agree. But you know what, that’s why Simon Cowell is so smart because straight away that’s interesting. I like it too. I think it’s a funny idea that I would be working with him.”
The show isn’t going to be the story of the curse of fame or the tortured lives of former contestants, it’s a kind of TV Burp treatment of the talent show, which is what interested Hill. And if anyone can do it, Hill probably can.
“I’ve got to give it my best shot, because I can imagine the knives will be out,” he says. More for Cowell than him, though, surely? “Yeah, maybe. People are certainly out to get him. But that’s why it’s got to be great. And I think it could be.”
Hill’s phone buzzes in his pocket. It’s his cab. We shake hands and he’s off. I’m not sure I feel much wiser as to who the real Harry Hill is. But I’m not sure it really matters. What I know is that first it’s Sausage Time, then it’ll be X-Factor the Musical time. And I bet they’re both hilarious. Maybe it’s just always going to be Harry Hill time.
• Harry Hill’s Sausage Time tour comes to Glasgow as part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival on 22 and 23 March and Edinburgh’s Playhouse on 29 March. See harryhilllive.com for tickets from £34.50.