The nasty side of Harry Enfield

His new series appears on Sky this Monday - without Kathy Burke and Paul Whitehouse. Can comedy's prickly perfectionist pull it off?
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The Independent Online

At a recording of Harry Enfield's Brand Spanking New Show earlier this year, a great wave of affection rolled across the audience as soon as he appeared on stage. And, despite his worries about introducing a set of completely new characters, most go down well - especially Cornish Ladies' Man, a saloon-bar philanderer who claims intimate knowledge of almost every female celebrity in Britain, from Zoe Ball to Anne Robinson.

At a recording of Harry Enfield's Brand Spanking New Show earlier this year, a great wave of affection rolled across the audience as soon as he appeared on stage. And, despite his worries about introducing a set of completely new characters, most go down well - especially Cornish Ladies' Man, a saloon-bar philanderer who claims intimate knowledge of almost every female celebrity in Britain, from Zoe Ball to Anne Robinson.

On stage, Enfield comes across as charming and self-effacing. He asked the audience to shout out "Don't Worry, Love, We Think You're Marvellous" whenever an actor fluffs his lines, but to greet his own mistakes with a gleeful "Wanker!". He also ensured that the support actors got applause after each sketch.

Behind the scenes, though, it can be a different story. Rumours have circulated for years about how prickly Enfield can be in rehearsal, as an actor who's worked with him explains: "He can be difficult and you have to watch what you say. He can be very dismissive of other people's ideas - and I've also seen actors just told what to do and where to stand and allowed no input at all.

"On other occasions, Enfield can be much more open to suggestions, but he doesn't mince words if they don't work out. So I've certainly found him to be rather insensitive and hurtful at times."

Louisa Rix, who played Kevin's mum, Mrs Patterson, for many years in Harry Enfield And Chums, says she's certainly heard stories about Enfield being brusque but doesn't think they're very fair: "It's easy to say Harry's not very friendly but I think people forget the pressure he's under because it's his show - and because he's such a perfectionist. You've often only got four days to rehearse a complete episode so if something's not working, he'll get frustrated."

Rix remembers exactly the same kind of situation with her father, the actor Brian Rix, whose Whitehall farces were a mainstay of 1960s bank-holiday television. "One heard that Dad was difficult to work with, that he was a control freak and so on, but in the end, the shows worked and he made people laugh. And it's the same with Harry. I've witnessed time and again over the years that he knows what works."

As an example, she quotes the famous Turd Incident from the recent film, Kevin And Perry Go Large, in which Perry has an accidental bowel movement while swimming in the sea and his stool somehow floats into Kevin's mouth.

"We all said 'You can't do that. It's absolutely revolting'. But Harry insisted that we give it a try and he was right. It was very, very funny."

Since making the film, Enfield's old partners, Kathy Burke and Paul Whitehouse, have both moved on to other things. Although they are all still on very friendly terms, there's some evidence that Enfield's insistence on having the last word was a factor in their decisions.

Burke only agreed to do a final series of Harry Enfield And Chums if she was allowed do some new characters, and Whitehouse has said that one of the benefits of his own series - The Fast Show - is not having to do what Harry tells him. This was clearly a joke - but with a glimmer of truth behind it.

Their departure has certainly played a part in Enfield's move to Sky One, which approached him just as he was mulling over the difficulties of writing a new BBC1 series without all the various characters that they had played.

"I think he felt it was less risky," says his long-standing series producer, Clive Tulloh. "On Sky, he could experiment all over again and see what the reaction was without doing so in front of 10 million people. Viewers were also less likely to notice Kathy and Paul not being around if he went somewhere new."

Enfield also started telling people that he was fed up with nice characters and wanted to do some nasty ones. There are certainly plenty of laughs in the 25 new characters in this series - Short Bloke, Strange Bob, Gay Nazis - but there's also a darker, coarser aspect to much of the humour. Sketches about a famous red-haired breakfast DJ called Chris, who grossly humiliates his posse; a spoof Jeremy Paxman who abuses politicians ("Do you think I've got a sign across my forehead saying 'F***ing Idiot'?"); and an old slapper who dresses identically to her teenage daughter and shags her boyfriends ("People think we're sisters!") all paint a rather sour picture of humanity.

Harry Enfield hasn't become one of the great comic innovators of the past 15 years, though, without sabotaging social taboos, and a few sketches wander into decidedly dodgy areas - such as the electrical department shop-assistant who's also a serial sex killer and bases his sales patter around each product's suitability for removing or storing body parts. It's funny in the usual Enfield loony character way but also the most tasteless thing he's done. Two other characters, Office Wanker and Soft Cop, were dropped in rehearsal after Enfield eventually decided they weren't strong enough.

"Harry doesn't just hand his scripts in and that's it," says Tulloh. "He constantly monitors their progress to ensure each sketch gives that extra 10 per cent. That's him being a perfectionist again."

* 'Harry Enfield's Brand Spanking New Show', Sky One, Mon, 10pm

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