The man who has kept Britain laughing for half a century

He started the British Comedy Awards and gave Cilla Black 'the bollocking of her life'. As Michael Hurll marks his half-century in broadcasting, he tells Tim Cooper the secrets of keeping stars sweet
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The Independent Online

There's a cruel irony in being a television producer. It's their job to make sure everything goes right, but the moments that stick in our collective memory are when it all goes wrong. No one knows that better than Michael Hurll, who has been the force behind the best British TV comedy for half a century.

Take the python, for example. Not even the presence of Madonna could stop the snake - which was brought on stage by a guest but tried to escape into the audience - from stealing the headlines at this year's British Comedy Awards, the annual beanfeast devised by Hurll in 1990 to raise the profile of home-grown comedy talent. He's certainly succeeded: Julian Clary brought the awards front-page coverage with his gag about fisting Norman Lamont and a year later Spike Milligan topped it by calling Prince Charles a "grovelling little bastard". And now the snake.

Hurll, who has just celebrated his 50th year in broadcasting, joined the BBC straight from St Paul's School in 1956. He had already directed fellow pupil Jonathan Miller in a school revue but started work as a lowly "call boy", alongside fellow newcomer Michael Winner ("He doesn't put that on his CV, funnily enough"), ushering guests on stage for The Billy Cotton Band Show. He stayed with the BBC for nearly 25 years, taking charge of programmes as diverse as The Two Ronnies, Top of the Pops and Blind Date.

He argues that production is mostly a case of massaging the performers' egos. "We're not producers. We're psychologists," he says. "The great trick is when you want to tell the talent something they don't want to hear, you always say 'We don't think it would be a good idea...'. It never fails." When Cilla Black turned up late as a guest on Billy Cotton's show, the young producer gave her "the bollocking of her life" for keeping everyone waiting. His effrontery paid off when Cilla got her own TV series and requested Hurll to produce it on the grounds that he would look after her the way he had looked after Billy Cotton when the guests were out of order.

Hurll sees his influence on British television as more of a guiding hand than a creator. "I'm one of those people like the TV doctor: when the patient needs a bit of TLC I'm brought in," he says. "It's about trying to convince the performer they should be going in a different direction - or making them bloody well work. So many of them take it easy once they've made it. It's hard to get to the top but it's even harder to stay there."

Despite working closely with so many comedy stars, Hurll insists he has never had an urge to be on the other side of the camera - this is the first print interview he has ever given. Nonetheless, he will step into the limelight later this week to give a Groucho Club talk about his life and times to an audience of his peers. This may or may not include some scabrous references to Sir Jimmy Savile and Jonathan King; sad reflections on his time producing the last Pete 'n' Dud show ("Peter Cook was vile to Dudley Moore"); a controversial claim about the tragedy that brought an end to Noel Edmonds' Late Late Breakfast Show; and a rather disturbing memory of Louis Armstrong's obsession with bowel movements.

Hurll stayed with the BBC for a quarter of a century and freelanced during the 1980s before forming Michael Hurll Television and joining forces with the Unique Communications Group. Having made his name in comedy and light entertainment, Hurll became synonymous with live events, producing the Eurovision Song Contest, The Royal Variety Show and Comic Relief.

At the age of 70 he still goes to work at Unique's offices every day, and his influence can clearly be seen. David Walliams: My Life with James Bond took the much-loved heritage brand of Bond and put it in the hands of a much-loved comic star, while It Started with Swap Shop reunited Noel Edmonds and Keith Chegwin and Maggie Philbin. "It's always been a matter of finding the talent and nurturing it," he says. "Looking to the future while drawing on the past."

He admits that some of the shows he produced were "terrible rubbish" and he won't be watching any reruns of Cannon & Ball. "I had to produce them under my contract, even though I found them as funny as a cow's crotch," he recalls. He says that in his 50-year career, the biggest star he has worked with is Simon Cowell. "He's the only one who can walk down any street in Britain or America and people will know who he is." He thinks Peter Kay is "the funniest guy around" and that there's no chance of Michael Barrymore making a TV comeback because "the British public likes to kick you when you're down". He'd love to produce a show with Russell Brand. "He's got great talent but it ain't on the screen." He's a great admirer of Ant and Dec, for whom he once produced a "bloody dreadful" hidden-camera show, but believes they need to decide which is the funny man if they are to sustain their career.

If he has any criticism of today's broadcasting, it's a matter of detail. He thinks we're missing a popular pre-watershed comedy for the mid-evening entertainment slot, and laments that Channel 4 has lost the cutting edge that produced such programmes as The Word. "I must tell you something else that makes me laugh," he adds, holding out a visibly shaking right hand: a sign of Parkinson's disease in its early stages. "When there was a recent Parkinson's Awareness Week I rang them up and said I'd like to help out. They asked for my medical notes and phoned back to say: 'To be honest, you're not really sick enough to help us with this campaign ... but can we come back to you in 18 months?'"