The best medicine
It was a big step, leaving medicine for a career in comedy. But the odd 'bad night' on stage is a breeze compared to nights of watching patients die. And Harry Hill hasn't had a bad night in a long time
Aside from The Independent, Annalisa Barbieri writes for the Economist's Intelligent Life magazine, and the New Statesman. A former contributing editor of the Independent on Sunday and fishing correspondent of the Independent, she is also patron of Rights of Women
Sunday 02 November 1997
Harry Hill trod the safe path for quite a long time: school, O levels, A levels, medical school, becoming a doctor. Then one day he decided to become a comedian. "It was a huge, huge thing for me to do. I'd never taken any risks before and so I'm amazed I did it, it has completely changed my life. So many things have happened that otherwise never would have happened," he explains. Like meeting his wife, Magda, who plays a postman in the black and white film "The Boy with the Big Face" on his Man Alive! video - a macabre little tale about a boy who gets repeatedly beaten about the face by a lollipop lady and ends up with a big flat face. There is no redeeming Brady Bunch-style moral to this story either, other than that lollipop women can turn. In July, Mr and Mrs Hill had their first child, Kitty.
But before all this, Hill dreamed, like so many, of escape. "Everyone waits for things to happen to them. When I was a doctor, I used to think about doing something different, being an actor or a writer, but I thought what will happen is someone like Michael Winner will come in ill and I'll treat him and he'll say 'why don't you be in my film?'" Eventually, he realised that Michael was too busy eating dinner to come and carry him off, and seven years ago, Hill made the move himself.
The jolly path to comedy did not, of course, run smoothly straight away. Hill did some good nights and some bad nights, but, in a very matter of fact way, he explains that being a comedian is like any other job: "The more you do it, the better you get at it." Despite all that, right from the start, he loved it. "It was just fantastic, I found the whole thing so exciting and I'd been so fed up." One of Hill's first gigs was at a club in Greenwich, for which he was paid pounds 80 cash. "It was like a real wad. I was driving back and I had to stop in a layby and count it. I'd never been paid in cash before and suddenly, I was Mr Cash."
Harry Hill (real name Matthew Hall) was born in Kent and is only 33, although he looks older, especially on television. He is a funny little man, to look at, with his big shoes and skinny trousers and big collars. A friend of his described him as "very intelligent and charming", but then, that's what friends are for. There were times when I couldn't work out if he was making stuff up to see if I would question it ("doctors' writing is so bad because they're in a hurry"), but he was punctual, a quality I admire ('we must be the last two"), remembered - and correctly pronounced - my name and, despite me nervously scoffing toffees, offered me half his sandwich several times, which was caring and kind.
He has won quite a few awards: including the coveted Perrier award for Best Newcomer in 1992 and the Independent on Sunday Best Comedy Award in 1994. He has had radio shows (Fruit Corner), a series of black and white films on BBC2 (Fruit Fancies), videos, appearances on the US David Letterman Show, twice. But what really brought him to the masses was an eight-week run of Harry Hill programmes shown earlier this year, on Channel Four that went out on Friday nights, just after Frasier. Now, he is golden boy and, of course, he worries about whether it will last. "I think about the future all the time, oh yes. But I don't have any answers."
Hill pioneered "cut-up comedy", he sets a joke off at the beginning of his routine, then another, then another. Like spinning plates he returns to them at random, to keep them going. (He talks quite like this, too, often giving a follow-on answer to a question asked some time ago.) His humour reminds me of the jokes and teasing one gets at dinner parties, or after holidays - wherever a group of people have got together and made their own little, private jokes. He doesn't "tell jokes", there are no political observations, no faux storytelling of men in pubs. His humour is bonkers and about nothing in particular - the funniest things often are.
Coming to comedy relatively late, and having done "something else", gave Hill a perspective. "And you need that in comedy because you do have nights when it didn't go well, but having been a doctor and seeing people die... well, bad nights are pretty trivial compared to that." But even when the audience love him, Hill is very self-critical. "This is the only way to get better. I see some acts around and they haven't got any better at all and they come off stage and you say 'how did it go?' and they say 'fantastic, great' and you think 'hmmm'."
When Hill did the Letterman show, he stood in the wings of the Ed Sullivan theatre in New York waiting to go on. "That's where Elvis did his first TV appearance and there I was, standing in that very spot, it was unbelievable." So, if you're reading this and the thought of going to work tomorrow doesn't fill you with quite as much joy, Harry has this advice. "People think, 'I'd like to be a singer', but they think those are 'it can't happen to me' sort of jobs. What I've learnt is that you really can go for something. Life is too short, it's the only relevation you need."
Harry Hill is on a UK Tour from 7 November. For the tour hotline, call 0891 887766, calls cost 50p a minute. His new live video 'Harry Hill Man Alive!' is out on PNE.
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