Show People: Meek inherits the mirth: Harry Hill

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE GLASTONBURY Festival is famous for giving a home to alternative lifestyles, and few this summer were more alternative than that of Harry Hill. A large crowd crammed into the comedy marquee to get out of an impending storm, many of them already looking like survivors of a small-scale nuclear attack, with two days and nights of takeaway food and satanic toilets still to come. Hill stalked the stage in his usual blazer and shirt, neck subsumed in the starched folds of an enormous wing-collar, Biros protruding officiously from his top pocket. 'You heckle me now,' he told a recalcitrant hippie in the audience, 'but I'm safe in the knowledge that when I get home, I've got a nice chicken in the oven.'

There is a contrary, elliptical beauty about Hill's stand-up routine which transcends the dull next-big-thing aura he has been saddled with since the Perrier Best Newcomer award was created for him at Edinburgh in 1992. The Pub Internationale show he is taking to this year's festival, and Harry Hill's Fruit Fancies (starting on BBC2 in September), to add to his successful Radio 4 series Harry Hill's Fruit Corner, are unlikely to lower his profile. One hopes they won't diminish his capacity to surprise and delight either.

The first and most shocking thing about Harry Hill, meeting him in his day clothes (dark jeans and a T-shirt saying 'Don't mess with Texas'), is that he does have a neck. Only surgically precise sideburns and - readers of a fragile disposition should make sure they are seated at this point - sandals worn over patterned socks hint at the sartorial eccentricity of his stand-up persona. Has he always dressed up to go on stage? 'The first time I wore a tie, and gradually the shirts got bigger and bigger . . . but I don't think of it as dressing up, because it's quite me anyway.'

The best reference point for anyone yet to experience the joy of Hill's tangential virtuosity is probably Vic Reeves ('I remember seeing him when I was just starting out,' Hill admits, 'and thinking that in a way he'd done all of what I was setting out to do'), but all they really have in common, aside from a warped respect for variety traditions and a great sense of comic rhythm, is originality. Whereas the pre-TV Reeves had to start his own clubs to create a suitable environment for himself, Hill weaves his surreal flights of invention into the fabric of a conventional stand-up act, which he plies fearlessly around the drunken bear-pits of the London circuit. 'I do suffer a lot,' he observes, poignantly, 'because a lot of people don't really enjoy what I do.'

Hill's bumbling, mole-like demeanour not only defuses potential crowd hostility, but also acts as a cover for material which, in more aggressive hands, might seem savage. 'I get away with a lot really,' he says, 'people don't realise, and I quite like that.' Just as his audience is congratulating itself on keeping up with his rhythmic roundelay of running jokes and obscure cultural references, Hill will confound them with a story about getting his grandmother to buff his car's paintwork because the skin under her arms has the texture of chamois.

A lot of his comedy, and not just the stuff about 'mingling with the monkeys and gaining their confidence', appears to have a strong Darwinian element. Hill is nonplussed by this evolutionary theory, but a lot of what he says - down to his description of himself as a 'small, weak man with glasses' - would seem to back it up; and it does tie in with the fact that he used to be a doctor. Hill's comic odyssey might have started off in medical-student revue, but he has no truck with the scatological crassness that implies: 'It really wound me up, battling against that gynaecological stuff. I thought it wasn't funny but it would always get a laugh.'

He exhibits a similar frustration (but a tragic reluctance to name names) with those of his peer group who are similarly satisfied with easy laughs. 'New Lads,' he proclaims, 'need to be punched in the face.' Is there a secret cell of sensitive comedians? 'Yes, there is actually,' he replies, quoting kindred spirit stand-up Ian Macpherson to the effect that 'If you've got a great long post-office queue, there's one group of comedians who'll say, 'Look at that queue; look at them all standing there; how ridiculous they look]' Then there's the other group, which is Ian and me and various others, who are in the queue, and saying, 'Well, we're getting a bit closer to the counter.' '

This autumn, when his long-awaited proper TV debut finally hits the screen, Hill will reach that counter. He shows a shrewd awareness of the different demands of TV and live comedy - 'The thing is to write specifically for TV and not do your act'. His Fruit Fancies, a series of black and white shorts, filmed in the house in Kent where Hill grew up with his mother ('She was selling it, so we didn't have to pay her anything'), promise much. Hill has been making films since he was at school. 'My friend Robert had a cine camera and we used to make horror films in the woods, but as you get older it gets harder to get your friends to give up their time for things like that - they think you're being a bit childish.'

'Pub Internationale': BAC, London SW11, Wed & Thurs; Edinburgh Pleasance Cabaret Bar, 031-556 6550, 12-29 Aug.

(Photograph omitted)