Andy Hamilton & Guy Jenkin: Comic Relief comes of age. Meet two of its guardians

If a show has ever made you laugh, these two probably wrote the script. They gave us a rare interview for Red Nose Day, which this year includes an episode of their hit comedy 'Outnumbered'. Cole Moreton meets... Andy Hamilton & Guy Jenkin

Andy Hamilton is not a dwarf. He is a horny little devil, on the radio at least: he plays Satan in the long-running, very clever Radio 4 comedy Old Harry's Game, which he also writes. And he is a regular on panel shows such as Have I Got News For You, QI and The News Quiz, where jokes are very often made about his size. But it is humour-free Wikipedia that reveals his true height – 5ft 3in – and puts it bluntly, in exactly those words: "Andy Hamilton is not a dwarf."

On reflection it is probably a mistake to ask him about this when we've only just met. "Oh, right." There is an awful silence. Hamilton chews on a smoked salmon bagel. The world turns. "Yeah. That's very funny..." Like bubonic plague? But he is a trouper, this comedy genius who created Drop the Dead Donkey with his writing partner, Guy Jenkin, who is speeding this way on his bike as we speak. We can both see him through the plate-glass windows of the meeting room at Hat Trick Productions, the company in north London where they are both directors and where Hamilton is on full view to anyone in the street as he summons up every reserve of joviality to find – yes, it's OK, he has it – an anecdote that will get us out of this embarrassment.

"I think my son started this rumour," he says. "It's understandable. For people who have only heard me on the radio, my voice does sound quite dwarfy."

Dwarfy? "Hmm. And I am a patron of a charity that helps get disabled people into work. But my son Pip was at university and for reasons I can't quite fathom, to wind this girl up he also told her that I was in a wheelchair. Then he did horrible jokes about it to shock her.

"But it's now prevalent, to the extent that when I was touring in the autumn, a theatre in Windermere asked if I needed a ramp. And I was offered the part of a dwarf in a Christmas episode of The Bill once."

Does he mind? "I don't care, really. If people want to see me as an overgrown dwarf, that's fine."

In the circumstances, that seems generous. Hamilton and Jenkin have managed to become acclaimed in their profession and remain surprisingly private – hardly anything has been written about their lives – and they only agreed to do this interview to promote Comic Relief, which takes place on Friday and is 21 years old this year. Both were involved in the first one. So, for the moment, let's try to keep the smiles going by saying something nice about Old Harry's Game, which is on its seventh run on Radio 4 and still quite brilliant. A topical comedy, set in hell. How could that possibly work? It does, though, getting away with jokes that nobody else would dare.

"I remember doing an episode about an incompetent suicide bomber who ends up in hell and is outraged that he has not got the virgins he was promised," Hamilton says, smiling. This may or may not have been the episode in which the bomber was placed in the fiery pit with a Christian fundamentalist who ran Faggot Hunters for Jesus. "On paper you'd say, 'I bet this show gets millions of complaints.' But either the people who might be offended don't listen or there's some kind of force at work. So instead we get fan mail. Some Quakers sent a Bible for us to sign." What, to autograph? "Yeah. I signed it 'Andy Hamilton (Satan)'. Marvellous."

Indeed. If you haven't listened, do so. You won't regret it. Then go to YouTube and watch clips of Donkey, which sought to demolish the news industry with humour during its run from 1990 to 1998. After that, go to our website to watch an exclusive clip from the Comic Relief special edition of Hamilton and Jenkin's latest hit, Outnumbered, which will be shown in full on BBC1 on Friday.

One critic called it The Thick of It for families. "Without the swearing," Hamilton says quickly. If the jokes seem improvised it is because the young actors are given only scenarios and suggested lines. "The only time they see a script is when it's whisked away from under their noses," says Jenkin, who has now arrived.

He is tall, thin and stoops slightly. Dressed in tones of grey, in combat trousers and a nice cardigan, he makes a good companion for Hamilton, who has paired his scuffed brown shoes and gunmetal trousers with a bright orange short-sleeved shirt. These two have been working together for more than 30 years and they finish each other's sentences. "It's our family on Comic Relief day," says Jenkin, and Hamilton picks up the flow, "and in the morning the kids are excited because they're going to get to wear funny costumes, and in the evening," – Jenkin again – "it's the aftermath."

Another critic said Outnumbered was as unfunny as Kids Do the Funniest Things without the jokes, and criticised the show for being smugly middle class. "They've got to be some class," Jenkin protests. "There are more middle-class people in Britain than anyone else." The father is a fairly ordinary teacher, Hamilton says. "They don't send out for sushi."

What the show does do is nail down that parental feeling that the children are ganging up on you. "It's honest," Hamilton says. "It reassures parents that what they're going through is not just them." Jenkin again: "We're all rubbish." At least one person has been put off having a family, he says. "But I hope it's a gentle warning, rather than a contraception."

Jenkin is 53 and lives in Clapham with his partner and his nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old twin boys. "They're young enough to still fall for divide and rule," says Hamilton, 54, whose children are grown up. "The term 'grown up' has many... they're 20, 18 and 13." He lives in Wimbledon, with his wife Libby.

Jenkin and Hamilton went to Cambridge and met through shows there, although they were two years apart. After college they shared a house in Herne Hill, south London, and collaborated on the radio show Weekending, before going on to write for Not the Nine O'Clock News, Shelley and Alas Smith and Jones – before the breakthrough that was Donkey.

Jenkin has stayed off-camera, winning awards for his satirical history Jeffrey Archer: The Truth, but Hamilton is one of those performers who seem made for panel shows: quick, funny, but not very likely to get his own show. He is the sort of comedian who does the circuit of radio and television panels, with the likes of Stephen Fry, giving the impression that comedy is a closed shop: do not apply unless you have an Oxbridge education and the right agent.

"That's television," Hamilton says. "It is reactionary. Producers tend to choose people they feel safe with. It is not a very welcoming environment for new people. Mind you, I can remember railing against the mafia in 1976, and then you end up... you're in the mafia." Contrary to popular opinion, he says, shattering an illusion, they don't all live together. "I don't go down the pub all the time with Sandi Toksvig."

Hamilton and Jenkin helped to put together the first Comic Relief in 1988. "My memory is of working with Richard Curtis on a sketch show, trying to get as many faces in it as possible," Hamilton says. "We recorded something like 80 sketches in two days. You had this conveyor belt of actors and celebrities coming through. For a sketch about Jeremy Paxman bringing his baby to work we used my son, because he was a very still baby and we thought he might not fall off the desk." Jenkin laughs: "An early view of health and safety there."

Comic Relief has turned into "a fantastically well organised, highly professional operation that permeates society," Hamilton says. "It's in Sainsbury's." But how do you stop it from seeming tired? "Oh, I don't know," they say together. "That's not our problem, it's something Richard has to tackle."

So, confession time. Don't we all do the same thing: have a good laugh, see the presenter's face fall, realise there's a tear-jerker documentary coming on, and run off to make the tea? "Oh right," Hamilton says, and he's got that face on again: the scowl he wore after the shortist comment.

His eyebrows arch and he strokes his straggly beard with the fingers of one hand (which is missing a thumb, because of a childhood illness). He actually says (and I check the tape later, because when was the last time you heard anyone say this?): "Tsk." Then: "Er. I'm not sure I do that." Jenkin jumps in: "All you need to do is catch the first 10 seconds of the tear-jerker and you're hooked."

Hamilton again: "We shouldn't call them tear-jerkers. Some of those films are extraordinary. I can remember the one in 1995 with Billy Connolly, where they reunited a father and a boy who had been separated by conflict in Mozambique. That was one of the most memorable moments of television I have seen."

He's right, of course. So is Jenkin when he says: "There's only so much tea you can drink in an evening." And anyway, does it matter? "Just as long as people ring in and donate," says one of them, but I don't know which because I am distracted by the sight of these two extremely bright grown men putting on red rubber noses that have this year – for no apparent reason – been given eyes and teeth.

"Comic Relief has established itself in the calendar as a day when kids and adults – teachers, parents – do dress up and do silly things. It's National Daftness Day," Hamilton says, pressing his nose on.

Do his children dress up? "I could try persuading the 18-year-old to dress up as a banana," he says, in that arid tone that makes him funny, "but I think I'd get short shrift."

cheryl and Co scale new heights

Celebrity climbers who reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro yesterday raised almost £1.4m for Comic Relief.

The Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Cole, who was among the first of the team to reach the 19,300ft (5,900m) summit after a six-hour trek, described the experience as "hell on earth". The exhausted pop star was joined by the presenter Fearne Cotton, performer Denise Van Outen and television host Ben Shephard as dawn broke.

They were followed to the top of the highest point in Africa by Cole's bandmate Kimberley Walsh, the singer Ronan Keating and Take That star Gary Barlow – all three of whom were said to be "in agony".

The Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles and singer Alesha Dixon also succeeded in reaching the top.

Team members wrote: "Cheryl, for one, has already said she's never done anything so mentally and physically demanding, and I doubt anyone in the team will disagree."

Several members of the team, including Cotton and Cole, suffered from altitude sickness during the five-day ascent.

Alena Miklasova

Highlights from the writing careers of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin – collaborations for television, except where stated

1979 Shelley; Not the Nine O'Clock News

1980 Scotch and Wry

1983 Who Dares Wins

1984 Alas Smith and Jones; The Kit Curran Radio Show

1990 Drop The Dead Donkey

1995 Old Harry's Game (Hamilton, radio)

1996 Crossing the Floor (Jenkin)

1999 Sex'n'Death (Jenkin)

2000 Revolting People (Hamilton, radio)

2001 Bedtime (Hamilton)

2002 Jeffrey Archer: The Truth (Jenkin)

2003 Trevor's World of Sport (Hamilton, TV then radio); The Private Life of Samuel Pepys (Jenkin); The Sleeping Dictionary (Jenkin, film)

2007 Outnumbered

A special episode of Outnumbered will be screened as part of Comic Relief, by BBC1 on Friday, from 7pm

Cheryl and Co scale new heights

Celebrity climbers who reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro yesterday raised almost £1.4m for Comic Relief.

The Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Cole, who was among the first of the team to reach the 19,300ft (5,900m) summit after a six-hour trek, described the experience as "hell on earth". The exhausted pop star was joined by the presenter Fearne Cotton, performer Denise Van Outen and television host Ben Shephard as dawn broke.

They were followed to the top of the highest point in Africa by Cole's bandmate Kimberley Walsh, the singer Ronan Keating and Take That star Gary Barlow – all three of whom were said to be "in agony".

The Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles and singer Alesha Dixon also succeeded in reaching the top.

Team members wrote: "Cheryl, for one, has already said she's never done anything so mentally and physically demanding, and I doubt anyone in the team will disagree."

Several members of the team, including Cotton and Cole, suffered from altitude sickness during the five-day ascent.

Alena Miklasova

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