COMEDY / A hope in Hill: It's not every stand-up who compares himself to Tarbie. James Rampton takes a dose of Harry Hill's logical surrealism

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The Independent Culture
Harry Hill is fed-up with reading headlines about himself such as 'Doctor hits funnybone', 'Surgeon on the ridiculous', 'Bedpan humour', and 'Laughter the best medicine'. But what does he expect? If you are unique among stand-up comedians in being a former hospital doctor, then medical puns are always going to be on the prescription - sorry, the agenda.

Fortunately, there is much more to Hill than that; he also happens to be an imaginative stand-up. His act is an engaging hotch-potch of questions expressing his bewilderment at life ('What would the world be like without mouths?'), references to kitsch pop culture (Anita Dobson's toenail-clippings), and sharp one-liners.

The latest show, Pub Internationale, which he is taking to Edinburgh, features Hill and his regular sidekicks Matt Bradstock (who also plays Harry's 'adopted son, the bearded three-year-old, Alan Hill') and Al Murray in a pub band who are'ambassadors to the brewery trade'. The highlight of their set is a version of 'Material Girl' that segues into 'Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?'

It is touches like this that have led critics to dub Hill surrealistic. Sipping Coke in Soho at 9.30am one morning last week, Hill bemoans this. 'I find that a bit annoying. All humour is in some way surreal. 'Doctor, doctor, I feel like a pair of curtains.' 'Pull yourself together.' It is cod surrealism that never works. The reason I get away with it is because there appears to be some sort of logic or consistency to it. I'd never say something like, 'There's this pub booked into Butlin's for a week, and it gets custard all over its trousers'.'

Perhaps a better word to describe Hill would be ironic. He has called his act 'cod Tarbuck'; it simultaneously honours and mocks showbiz conventions. He pays tribute to such veteran gagmeisters as Tarbie and Brucie; at the same time, his fare is seasoned with comments sending up their school of comedy. He precedes jokes with a conspiratorial 'tell you what'.

Hill's appearance, too, is both a homage to and a pastiche of trad entertainers. The day we met, he sported drainpipes held up by an Elvis belt, a huge-collared white shirt with Jesus cufflinks, thick Joe 90 specs, and sideburns that George Best in his Seventies heyday would have been proud of. The badge on the lapel of his slightly-too-tight jacket read 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina'. Hip or what?

All the same, Hill professes a distaste for the idea of comedy as fashion. 'The thing about comedy is that nothing ever really changes. There are always certain types of comedian around.' For the same reason, he eschews overtly political material. 'If you come on and do a gag about Kim Il Sung, you'll get a laugh just for saying Kim Il Sung. But it won't last. Most political humour isn't satire - it's just cheap. Most jokes about the Royal Family, for instance, are about Princess Margaret drinking or Fergie being fat.'

Hill has carved a niche for himself on the circuit; radio and television shows (Harry Hill's Fruit Corner and Harry Hill's Fruit Fancies, respectively) have followed. But if one day it all went horribly wrong, might he consider a return to medicine? 'My mum holds out that hope,' he laughs, 'but I've now learnt that there are other things in life. I could always run Anita Dobson's fan club.'

'Pub Internationale' is at the Battersea Arts Centre (071-223 2223) on 3 & 4 Aug, prior to an Edinburgh Festival run at the Pleasance Theatre from 12 to 29 Aug. 'Harry Hill's Fruit Fancies' will be broadcast on BBC2 in the autumn

(Photograph omitted)

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