The comedian’s new book is a love letter to standup, discovers Janet Christie.
Talking to comedians is a funny business. There are those who take interviews seriously, yet constantly lob in gags and jokes (Milton Jones), charming left-fielders whose take on life is as surreal as their comedy (Noel Fielding), story tellers who delight with a comedy narrative (Jason Byrne, Bill Bailey) and those who are warm and funny in their bones (Billy Connolly). There are comedians who can hold a rational conversation then spin off into an alternative reality onstage (Ross Noble), the quietly-spoken and polite (Kevin Bridges) and shy and charming (Jack Whitehall) who transform in performance. There are fizzingly bright and politically sharp ones (Shappi Khorsandi and Sara Pascoe), magic mimics (Rory Bremner and Alistair McGowan), fascinating, complex one-offs (Limmy) and attack dogs of comedy who turn out to be pussy cats (Jim Jefferies). And then there’s Harry Hill.
You start off talking to the comedian born Matthew Hall, and every now and then Harry Hill breaks in. And Harry Hill is just plain silly. The problem is that sometimes it’s hard to discern where one ends and the other begins. Ask about his parents and he’ll tell you his mother was a hand model for Amateur Gardener – “she modelled trowels” – and his father may have been a spy. Or a commuter. Or possibly worked for a shipping company. This may well be true. Or not.
As Harry Hill, with his ridiculously high-collared shirt, too short breeks, bald head, massive specs and heavy jewellery – “a nod to showbiz of the past, in the ‘70s the comedians wore this kind of jewellery” – he’s been a fixture on our TV screens for the past 20 years. With 11 series of his multi-BAFTA winning TV Burp and You’ve Been Framed! keeping us groaning and giggling since 2004, he’s the master of family fun, serving up entertainment you can enjoy with all ages, confident that no-one will be offended – unless seeing people playing with their food, ruining a perfectly good pair of trousers or watching celebs being ridiculed upsets you.
Hill has also branched out into equally daft children’s (big and small) books, such as The Whopping Great Joke Book and A Complete History of Tim the Tiny Horse.
His latest, and the reason for our chat, is Matt Millz: The Youngest Stand-up Comedian in the World. Just back from a week of going around schools and libraries meeting children and telling them about his book, Hill has clearly enjoyed the experience. Not content with getting everyone to sit cross-legged while he does a bit of reading, he’s turned the visits into mini talent contests in which the kids are invited to get up and tell a joke.
“Ha, ha, ha,” he says.
“Yes I get them up and it’s a mixed bag, but generally there’s at least one kid that has a bit of talent. I don’t really do other people’s jokes, but one was ‘Why does Adele cross the road? So she can say Hello from the other side.’ That’s not a bad joke, and they’re always funnier coming from kids.”
Matt Millz is the story of an 11-year-old boy who wants to do stand-up, and as well as telling Matt’s story, Hill has peppered his book with jokes, catchphrases, how-tos and mini fact files on his own comedy heroes, from Stewart Lee to Tommy Cooper and Billy Connolly.
“Comedians have quite a short shelf life if the shows aren’t re-run on TV, so I thought kids could read the names and Google them, watch a bit on YouTube. Kids today don’t know who people like Tommy Cooper are, but they’re timeless.
“When I started writing it, I thought oh yes, this is a bit of fun, then I really got into it, and it became a sort of love letter to stand-up. Growing up in a rural Kent village your connection to the world was through TV and these great entertainers like Brucie, Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and the Two Ronnies were really important to me. And part of the reason I started writing it, apart from a publisher asking me, was I get a lot of letters from kids asking how you become a comedian. They see it now as a possible career in a way I didn’t.”
No, you couldn’t have gone to your careers adviser at school and said I want to be a comedian in Hill’s day.
“No, you’d have been laughed at,” he says.
“I was writing it for the ten-year-old me,” he says.
“When I was ten, I read Birdy Jones: The Amazing Story of a Pop Whistler, about a boy who wanted to be a pop whistler, and my mate Rob Mills decided he would be a pop whistler and I would be his manager.
We were a bit of a double act. But I was never as funny at Matt in my book, or as extrovert.”
Young Matt starts out like Hill, who was born in Woking in 1964, writing the joke page for the school magazine. Matt goes on to make it big in a TV talent show, whereas Hill’s rise was less meteoric, beginning with a career in medicine, which he left when Radio 4 began transmitting Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner in 1993.
Four years later it crossed over onto TV as The Harry Hill Show on Channel 4, and the comic’s star started to climb.
“Young Matt starts off well, then has a terrible gig, so there’s a low point, then big success.
That is the life of a stand-up comedian,” says Hill. “It’s brilliant and terrible in equal measure.
One day you think you’re the funniest man alive and the next you’re thinking ‘why am I doing this?’
“Every comedian gets it to a degree, and when I started, because I’d given up a career in medicine, if I had a bad gig, it would haunt me for weeks. I would think ‘look what you’ve thrown away!’
“Once I was in a club in the sticks and went down really badly but had to hang around for my lift back, so I couldn’t hide. A guy comes up and goes ‘you are s**t’ so I said ‘oh, thanks’. Then he says, ‘No, I’ve seen some really bad comedians, but you REALLY are s**t. Give it up.’ “I was broken by it. Crushed.” He laughs.
Despite this early setback Hill persevered and he never regretted leaving the NHS and the life of a junior doctor – “100 hours a week, dodging around casualty trying to resuscitate people – without much success, I might add!
“I may have at times regretted being a comedian, but never giving up medicine. I was quite sure it wasn’t the right thing for me, and comedy was the only other thing I was interested in. But I think having a proper job did me a favour and I appreciate my life now because I know what it’s like to leave home at seven in the morning and get home at eight at night.”
As well as his book, he has recorded a second series of Harry Hill’s Tea-Time, part chat-show, part spoof cookery show on Sky1.
Once more Harry will be teaching celeb guests how to cook his own recipes – last season saw him explaining the difference between batter and butter to Joey Essex – before it all descends into a glorious food fight. This run features one of his heroes, Jenny Agutter, helping a sausage give birth, while Gok Wan is introduced to sweet and sour banana – that’s a banana with a Twiglet sticking out the side.
“It’s the favourite show I’ve made,” he says, “because it’s me undiluted. And we’ve got some great guests.
We’ve got Trevor McDonald, I teach him how to make camel sausages, and yeah, Jenny Agutter helping the sausage give birth, that’s the maddest thing I’ve ever done. Like a lot of 50-year-old men, Jenny Agutter was an idol of mine.”
Oh yes, The Railway Children...?
Silence. Obviously he preferred her in Logan’s Run.
“She was great, in fact all the guests were. Gregg Wallace helped me make Angel Delight with tunnels through it – all just silly stuff, a lot of mess,” he says, satisfied. Job done.
“Yeah, I think, there aren’t many shows where you’re allowed to make a mess. It’s become a thing where you’ve got health and safety on your back the whole time so it’s easier not to. I had a few wrangles over throwing water and squirting cream with Tea-Time but we did it... I do think there’s something really funny about it if you can get it right. Although there’s nothing worse if you get it wrong.”
Mess is Hill’s stock in trade, along with silliness and clever quippery. Why does he think he is so attracted to the daft?
“I don’t honestly know,” he says.
“Maybe because medicine is such a serious thing, that for me just to act like a child was a kind of escape. I like political comics, and I like some rude comics, but for me there’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing an hour of someone where you just forget for a moment what your trouble is.
“That’s what appeals to me about Eric and Ernie and Tommy Cooper. Tim Vine’s another one I really admire.
“I’d say my humour is silly. Sometimes it gets called surreal, but I think Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and Noel Fielding are more surreal. Though I have my moments…
Jenny Agutter and birthing sausages?
“Yes, ha, ha, ha.”
Hill’s mother is “a real laugh, always mucking about and will sing at the drop of a hat,” according to the comic, and probably where he got his comedy genes. A sense of humour must have been essential as Hill is one of five and his mother gave up work to look after them all.
“I used to wonder what the hell she did all day when we were at school, but now I have kids, I think how did she manage?” he says.
Hall has three children, Kitty, Winifred and Frederica, 20, 19 and 13, with his wife Magda, an illustrator. These days, with his TV commitments and family, he no longer does a tour most years, so he’s around at home in Whitstable, Kent, presumably to inflict his signature Chicken Tom Jones – chicken with mashed potato piped into curls – onto his family.
“Nah, I don’t cook much at home,” he says, bursting the bubble. “I do roast chicken sometimes, and maybe Christmas dinner. But I’m not the best cook in the family.”
With the series in the can and the book being launched Hill is about to do some dates in London to try out some new stand-up routines.
“I enjoy stand-up, but it’s tricky to find the time,” he says. And I don’t do panel shows, because… I dunno, but I think my thing doesn’t work so well in someone else’s environment. I have to create my own world in a way. And also I stick with the advice Bruce Forsyth gave me once – I was a big fan of his – ‘don’t go on other people’s shows. Do your own show if you can.’”
Presenting a cookery show doesn’t interest him either, despite his new show – he’s into TV cooking purely for the mess potential.
“Nah, I wouldn’t do a cookery show,” he says. “I’m more interested in the scripted stuff. I enjoy the writing side. When I was young I always used to watch the credits, so I knew Morecambe and Wise didn’t write the show, that it was Eddie Braben and Barry Cryer writing it. I still write the scripts myself for You’ve Been Framed!, though I sometimes take jokes from other people.” As well as Tea-Time, the TV fun continues over on ITV2 with a rerun of Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule, which sees panellists including Sara Pascoe and Josh Widdicombe helping Harry amass enough funny footage to persuade aliens that earthlings are a species worth saving. With his tried and tested mix of TV clips, Harry’s quips and game household names, it’s gloriously anarchic and just the thing for a dreich weekend lunchtime.
A new series has been commissioned and will be broadcast next year.
And the perennial You’ve Been Framed! continues to entertain, now in its 29th series, as audiences appear to never tire of collapsing bouncy castles and animated animals. Does Hill think it’s popular because it’s slightly cruel?
“Well, it’s a primeval thing, people falling over. It’s just funny. That’s the main thing, and then the TV clips bring another layer for the grown ups. In 200 years people will still be laughing about people falling over, although I’d be happy for someone to take it over,” he says.
“I talked to Peter Kaye and Micky Flanagan about that, but it was too many hours of TV watching for them. So yes, please apply someone! Please take over You’ve Been Framed!”
Meanwhile Hill is working on the second Matt Millz book, in which Matt has become famous overnight, before watching his fame dry up, and learning how to cope with the ups and downs of showbiz.
“Again I’ve used some of my own experiences in the book,” says Hill.
“Being a stand-up is a marathon not a sprint. And Matt realises there’s no rush to fame. That you have to work at it to get good. There’s no such thing as overnight success.”
Matt Millz by Harry Hill, illustrated by Steve May, is published by Faber and Faber, £10.99 hardback;
New You’ve Been Framed! is on Saturdays, STV, 6:50pm