Harry Hill: The private life of the Lord of Misrule
Harry Hill's TV Burp ripped up the rules of family TV – but not without taking a toll on its star's real-life alter ego, Matthew Hall. Ahead of a tour and an X Factor musical, he talks about life beyond Saturday teatimes
Christina Patterson is a writer, broadcaster and columnist. She writes about politics, society, culture, travel, books and the arts. She has interviewed writers and artists ranging from Martin Amis to Eddie Izzard and Werner Herzog, and did the first interview after he left office with Gordon Brown. A former director of the Poetry Society, and literary programmer at the Southbank Centre, she has written for the Observer, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, Time, the Spectator and the New Statesman. She’s a regular commentator on radio and TV news programmes, a regular reviewer on the Sky News press preview, and a regular guest on The Review Show. She has campaigned to improve standards in nursing in a series of articles in the Independent, by speaking at conferences, and in programmes she has made for Radio 4 and The One Show. Christina is the only woman on the shortlist for the Orwell Prize 2013. She has now left The Independent, but can be contacted via her website, www.christinapatterson.co.uk .
Friday 08 February 2013
We're in The Magic Garden. It feels about right. For half an hour, I've been nursing a cup of tea, and escaping an icy wind, in the slightly grim (if we're honest) pub next door. I was early. It was cold. I didn't want to intrude on whatever was on the schedule before me. But now, thank God, I'm in a pub in Battersea called The Magic Garden, which seems to be full of fairy lights and flowers. There are big, squashy sofas. There are nice pots of tea. It's cosy, and it's comfortable, and it's warm, and it's nice, and it seems like just the kind of place to meet Harry Hill.
And here he is, in his big specs, and his white shirt with the massive collar, and his trousers which are just a bit too short. Here he is, with his massive cuffs, and massive cufflinks, and with lots of massive gold rings. He's smiling, but then Harry Hill, who's about to do his first live tour for six years, is nearly always smiling. Harry Hill smiles in ways that make him sometimes look cheeky, and sometimes look camp, and sometimes look sweet. But today, he doesn't look cheeky, and he doesn't look camp, and he doesn't even look all that sweet. Today, he looks like a man being polite to a journalist because this man, although he looks an awful lot like him, isn't actually Harry Hill.
This man is Matthew Hall, who was born in Woking in 1964, and who didn't grow up with a weird brother called Big Al who looks very like the comedian Al Murray, but with five brothers and sisters in Surrey and Kent. This man trained as a doctor, and ran a cardiology and diabetes clinic, and worked, as junior doctors used to have to work, 100 hours a week. This man used the fax machine at the hospital to fax jokes to Week Ending. This man decided, after he failed his exams with the Royal College of Physicians, to take a year out of medicine to see if he could make comedy work. And he did. This man won a Perrier Award in 1992. This man, in fact, dreamt up a character called Harry Hill.
“Someone,” says the man sitting opposite me, who I'll call Harry Hill even though he isn't, “has written a thesis on 'TV Burp as Carnival'. She says,” he says, “that I basically take the role of the Lord of Misrule.” He says this because I've just said, perhaps out of a kind of guilt, that I feel I could make him the subject of a PhD. I have, it's true, been reading his books, and watching DVDs of the TV show he did for Channel 4, and of the show with an audience of 8 million he did for ITV. But I'd never, though I don't really want to tell him this, watched Harry Hill's TV Burp before. I don't really want to tell a man who has made a smash-hit show out of TV clips that I don't really watch TV.
But now that I have read the books, and seen the shows, I agree. Now that I've watched the man in the specs sing a song in place of a “badger parade” which never actually takes place, I agree with this woman who seems to have beaten me on the PhD. Harry Hill is the Lord of Misrule. He's the court jester, the one who can wave a blue glove-puppet cat he calls Stouffer and make it seem like quite a normal thing to do, and invent a character who's half boy and half speed camera, and make that seem like a normal thing to do, and wear wild wigs, and false teeth, and write a book about a horse the size of a pea.
He's the man who's funny, and silly, and subversive, but in quite a gentle way, and whose comedy ranges as freely as the “free-spirit turkeys” he describes in his faux-celebrity memoir, Livin' the Dreem. The turkeys don't “hold with the conventional rules of society” and “have no respect for authority”. The turkeys, too, are “lords of misrule”. And so is Tim the Tiny Horse, the central character in his bestselling children's books, who worries about the lists of ingredients on fudge bars, because “there's nothing to stop people from making their own fudge bars”, and who seems to think, like the man who created him, that reality is “better in small doses”, if you let it in at all.
“I have,” says Hill, leaning forward in a way that's almost earnest, “a kind of naïve enthusiasm. For example, this X Factor musical… I thought let's do a musical about The X Factor and I really had no idea what that involved. Everyone was saying to me 'it's a really big job, it's like a year's work,' and I was thinking, 'how can it be?'”
Ah yes, The X Factor. You might have thought that a musical about The X Factor, and particularly a musical by a comedian who's famous for parodying TV shows, would be a send-up of the celebrity culture The X Factor feeds. But The X Factor musical was commissioned by Simon Cowell. So what has Harry Hill done about the tone?
“The tone,” says Hill, fiddling with a teapot, “is sort of the tone of TV Burp, in that it's taking the micky playfully. There's a story, and there are some really touching moments in it as well. A couple of times I've been watching it, even though I know it, and I've had a real lump in my throat.” Suddenly, I'm touched. I'm surprised, and I'm touched, that a very successful comedian, who's won an awful lot of awards, including three Baftas for TV Burp, could write a musical about The X Factor and feel a lump in his throat. It reminds me that he said in an interview that he often finds himself in tears. “Yes,” says Hill, “I do. Maybe it's about getting older, and having kids. But it isn't always sad things. Actually,” he says, with a cheeky smile that makes me think maybe I am with Harry Hill, “I'm more prone to cry for joyful things.”
He grew up on The Generation Game, and Morecambe and Wise, and The Two Ronnies, and Mike Yarwood, and Dick Emery, and so, I tell him, did I. He seems, in fact, to be in the “bring me sunshine” line of comedy, which has less to do with satire, and more to do with cheering people up. “Well,” he says, “I'd like to be, but I don't think I am entirely. I think I'm slightly more ironic than that, and slightly more edgy.” Edgy? Really? There were, it's true, some songs on his album Funny Times which you might describe as “edgy”. There is, for example, one called “I Wanna Baby”, about a 14-year-old girl who wants “a boob job” and a baby and a mobile phone, which is about as near as you could get to sneering at the working classes without actually using the word “chav”. I suppose you could call that a kind of “edge”.
But wasn't the reality TV he says he “took the micky out of” a relatively easy target? “It wasn't,” says Hill, and he almost looks hurt, “all reality TV.” No, but there was quite a lot. I don't tell him that I've been shocked by the shows about “dating in the dark”, and how to fold your towels in ways that make your house look like a hotel, which crop up in TV Burp, and which I didn't know existed. “I think the problem for us,” he says, “was that, as the show progressed, they started casting reality TV. When reality TV started, it was naïve people thinking 'what's going to happen', and then it became people who saw it as a leg-up to the next reality TV show. The kind of hybrid of The Only Way is Essex… I don't know if it's scripted, but it's manipulated, and we weren't really able to get a knife in there because they were sort of doing it. It's sort of postmodern.”
I of course, have never seen it, but I think he might be agreeing with my point about easy targets. I should, he says, see a few episodes of The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, “just for the phenomenon”. His teenage girls – he has three daughters, with his wife Magda, who's a freelance illustrator – love it. “It's almost,” he says, “like performance art. It's almost like Andy Warhol filming nothing going on.”
Well, yes, maybe it is, but isn't life a bit short to be watching “nothing going on”? And is it true that he had to watch TV for 10 hours a day when he did TV Burp? “Yup,” he says, in the way you say something you're not necessarily all that pleased about. And what effect, I ask, because I can't imagine what it would be like to spend your days watching programmes about dating in the dark, did that have on the way he saw the world? “Well,” says Hill, “it killed my enjoyment of TV.” Does he watch it now? “Hardly. Hardly at all. It's funny because I grew up in a village in Kent, and I loved TV, it was kind of my lifeline out to the world. Now, I don't really like it.”
I don't doubt it. I'd have gone mad. But Harry Hill, being Harry Hill, and the kind of man who thinks it's perfectly normal to work 100 hours a week, and having chucked in a TV show which is said to have paid him at least £1m a year, has hardly been sitting around. He's still doing the voice of You've Been Framed. He has been writing a musical. He's been making a Harry Hill film. It is, he says, “a caper, basically, a road movie”, and it should be coming out at Christmas next year. And he's about to go on tour. Is he nervous? Does he get nervous?
Hill fiddles with the teapot again. “Not really. I've never suffered really badly with nerves. I've had terrible gigs, ranging from complete silence to being booed off in the early days, but I know the worse thing that can happen and it's not that bad.” It sounds, I can't help thinking, as someone who at least gets my “heckles” on the relative privacy of online message boards and Twitter, pretty terrifying, but there is, he says, “a real buzz” to live comedy that you don't get from a TV.
So can he tell me a bit about the comic process? Presumably, I say, pointing at the teapot, he could just take something like that, and make a lovely winding narrative out of it? “Not necessarily,” he says. “Ross Noble could. I have a series of ideas and I go and try them out, and what tends to happen is you do a joke, and it gets a laugh, and then you ad lib something, or I'll tape it and I'll go home and listen to the tape. It'll fire off lots of other ideas and I'll jot those down. A lot of it is just accident.” He then tells me about the idea he had that Gary, the “son from his first marriage” who has cropped up quite a lot in his work, and who is, in fact, a ventriloquist's dummy, should come on stage as a character of his own. He explains that he persuaded a bloke called Kevin, who's only 5ft tall, to wear false shoulders, with the ventriloquist's dummy over them, and that he should tap dance, and sing. As he goes into the details of how this all works, he sounds excited. He sounds, in fact, almost like a child. “If you can get an element like that,” he says, “you go home and think 'I can't wait for people to see it'.”
Can he tell if something's going to work or not? Has he learnt to trust his judgement? I say this because, although I think some of his work is surreally brilliant and inspired, I also think some of it isn't. “Normally, to be honest,” he says, “if I like it, it stays in. But 90 per cent of my jokes don't work, and it probably is 90 per cent.” Well, that certainly is being honest. And what does he want his audience to experience? Is there anything beyond making them laugh? “No. Not really, no.” He tells me about the time he went, as a medical student, to see Jack Dee, and everyone was “laughing so hard they were sort of out of control”. That, he says, is what he wants from an audience, and what he's sometimes had. “It's almost,” he says, “like you're on a kind of little trip together, and we're all part of this little club.”
But isn't it also a kind of power kick? “Yeah,” he says, “I think it is. It's an endorphin thing, I'm sure. It's like driving a car. You're kind of controlling the audience.” Yes, I nod, as if I know exactly what that's like, even though I don't. So what drives him to do that? For the first time, he looks floored. “I don't know. I think,” he says, and there's a long pause, “I just have lots of ideas. I've always got ideas.” His wife, he tells me, asked him the other day if he knew what it was like being married to him, and says she started doing an impression of him, saying “oh, I've had an idea for a film, it's about a cat that doesn't think it's a cat, it thinks it's a dog”. I smile, but find myself feeling for his wife. “It's a belief,” he says, “that if anyone can do it, I can probably do it. I have a kind of… I don't know if it's an arrogance.”
Well, if it is, where does it come from? “I don't know,” he says, and then he laughs in a way I can really only call sheepish, “because it's not entirely born out. I did a clip show on TV for 10 years!” He said that, I tell him, as if he wasn't proud of it. “I am proud of it, but it wasn't that much fun.” So why did he keep doing it? Was it just the money? (And, of course, it was an awful lot of money.) Hill stares down at the table and then looks up at me. “That's a good question. I think… I was a kind of fan of the show. It was sort of about making hay while the sun shines, but a lot of it was about not really coming up for air. But I am,” he says, finally spelling out what the laugh seemed to say, “a snob about it, in a sense, in that I kind of wish it wasn't a clip show.”
Now I want to cheer him up. There isn't, I tell him, feeling the need to change the subject, much darkness in his work. “What I like,” he says, “is an escape. It's an escape, my act, it's an escape for me, to be silly, and do all the silly things you're not allowed to do when you're a 48-year-old doctor. The older I get, the funnier I think it is.” And what about politics? He doesn't, I say, seem to engage with politics. “Not in my act,” he says, “no.” And outside his act? Is he interested in politics? Another pause: “no”.
“What I hate,” he says, “what I can't bear is mediocrity. I don't mind if something's really bad, and obviously I love it if something's really good, but I think a lot of TV is mediocre.” And apart from mediocrity? Does anything else make him angry? Hill looks confused. “I don't know. My act isn't really about angry thoughts. This guy said to me, 'I'd really like to see you do a political act', but you can't force it, you're either interested, or you're not.”
He is, I tell him, but I don't really need to tell a man who's had a weekly audience of eight million, famous. Did he want to be famous? Harry Hill smiles, and his smile isn't cheeky, or camp, or even sweet. His smile, in fact, is almost sad. “I wanted to reach the widest audience, but I didn't really know what fame entailed. I'm not Madonna, but I think, broadly, it's better not being famous… If I could look completely different for the act, if I could be black – well, not black, but perhaps like Barry Humphries, or Lily Savage, I'd definitely choose that.”
So what effect has Harry Hill had on Matthew Hall? Is it a liberation to have access to another character or a trap? “I don't,” he says, “really see it as two separate things. It's a sort of exaggeration of me. Sometimes I talk to myself as Harry. It's an odd one, because obviously it's not my name.” Is it, perhaps, a way of keeping private? He seems, I tell him, like a very private person. Hill looks surprised again. “I always thought,” he says, “that I'd given away too much.”
He wants, he says, to make more films. He wants, he says, “to write more stuff”. “I think,” he says, “I'm a writer, really.” Yes, I say, thinking of his Tim the Tiny Horse books, which are pure, and funny, and beautiful, and sweet, and which don't see the world through the eyes of a man with big specs, and a big, camp smile, I think you are. I'll add it, I tell him, to my PhD.
Harry Hill's 'Sausage Time' tour runs until 11 April (www.harryhilllive.com)
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