Classic Interview: Harry Hill

harry hill

When I decided to republish this interview with Harry Hill that appeared in The Times in October 2004 I was torn between running old or new pictures of the former GP. In the end it barely matters. The pictures here (left, (c) Andy Hollingworth Archive @andyholl) are pretty timeless. Once Hill perfected his high-collared, multi-penned look he has stuck with it. If it ain't broke don't fix it. And with Hill it certainly ain't broke. He has already been receiving brilliant reviews for his current tour, his first in eight years, proving that once a surreal idiot always a surreal idiot. Tickets for his tour can be purchased here.

This interview below is quite prescient. Hill had not been doing TV Burp for very long at the time, but he still felt uncomfortable about presenting what he reluctantly described as a clip show and he called the process of watching so much television for research purposes as "a form of torture". By the end of TV Burp I wondered if he was going a bit mad. It is no surprise that there seems to be a sense of liberation being back on the road. I presume he doesn't go back to his hotel every night and turn on the television. In fact if anyone is allowed to chuck their TV out of their hotel room window on tour it is probably Harry Hill.

 

It’s a blustery Saturday in South London and Britain’s erstwhile top Morrissey impersonator is having his photograph taken. From a distance Harry Hill looks as if he is sporting his trademark black suit and brothel creepers, but up close there is a difference. This outfit is made of foam. Oh, and he’s sporting a giant pink Teletubby head. Relaxing over a salad he reveals that the previous night he celebrated his 40th birthday: “We went out for food,” he says, adding after a pause, “. . . Sainsbury’s”.

Television is about to be littered with Hills. This week the former doctor fronts An Audience With . . . while next Saturday the gloriously daft TV Burp returns. Hill is very much commercial television’s resident cultural commentator. Now, he also does the voiceover for You’ve Been Framed, adding his own sarcastically silly narration.

The man behind the oversized collars is no melancholic, but neither is he the relentlessly chirpy screen incarnation. One-liners trickle out rather than tumble furiously and they are more deadpan, less surreal. Of his recent appearance in TV ads for The Times he remarks: “I did them for nothing because I love the paper.” I suspect he is joking.

Onstage the wisecracking carapace never breaks. At least it hadn’t until I saw him road-testing his Audience . . . material last month. During a story about how acupuncture is good for some things but not for pins and needles a buzz started coming out of the monitors. Hill was visibly peeved, eventually asking for something to be done about it. It was an odd sight, as the postmodern music hall mask slipped to reveal the vexed perfectionist behind it.

“That was the worst of the warm-ups,” he recalls regretfully. “The sound was unforgivable.” The visible annoyance was a reminder that Harry Hill is really the onstage persona of Woking-born Matthew Hall. “The golden rule is never show that you are angry, or the whole conceit disappears and the audience thinks: ‘He’s a normal bloke, we didn’t pay to see him angry, we want to see him funny.’”

Managing the gap between role and reality is harder for celebrities these days, particularly with so many PR-led demands being made on them. Hill’s recent appearance on Room 101 was not the best outlet for his talents, but it was just another hoop personalities now have to jump through to keep up their profile. “You have to play the game, but I’d rather not do chat shows. If I go on and just do my act it looks forced. Tommy Cooper could do it on Parkinson, but now they want more of the real you.”

Hill (picture right, (c) Andy Hollingworth Archive, @andyholl) was reluctant to do this week’s prestigious special. “They’d been asking me for years, but I was really nervous and I don’t usually get nervous. harry hillEverything is against it. It’s stand-up in the studio, which is hard. It’s an hour, which is long, and the lights are up so that you can see the parade of semifamous faces in the audience.” He prefers real club gigs and still does them whenever possible. There aren’t many acts who will be performing in primetime on Saturday night and then in the pub on Monday.

He overcame misgivings by doing a greatest hits set. Frank Skinner and Miss World cue some gags, but this is essentially a seamless weaving together of Hill’s mix of vaudeville and pop trivia. The exemplar of this is his marching band version of Kelis’s Milkshake, delivered while dancing like the rubberlegged music hall legend Max Wall.

No sooner had An Audience . . . wrapped than Hill started work on TV Burp. This brilliantly frivolous take on the week’s telly, from EastEnders’ economically unviable nail bar to life with the Pop Idol judges, won Hill a Golden Rose at the Montreux TV Festival, but it undoubtedly dilutes the lunacy of his early Channel 4 outings. It’s Shooting Stars syndrome — cult status eroded by accessible tomfoolery.

Hill has mixed feelings about it. “I haven’t really compromised the gags, but unfortunately I’m a snob and I can’t help thinking that I’m presenting a clip show.” He does enjoy making it, though. “It’s a doddle to film. I get to sit down and it is all on autocue. The only downside is that you have to watch a lot of TV, which is like a form of torture.”

There’s an undeniable nostalgia for Hill’s less pressured, more experimental work on Channel 4. One of the routines that he is currently developing during low-key gigs makes an explicit nod to his origins. “I’m trying out a thing as Harry Hill Sr, who is my dad and the guy from the old series. You have to do things to find out what is funny, but I see a lot of acts that haven’t. Success can make you a bit lazy.” Hill claims that ambition is for dummies but there is no doubting his competitive edge. “The thing with telly is that you are only as funny as your last joke, but I accept that challenge.”

And with that it’s back on with the Teletubby head and more antics. “I’m a bit extreme and not very good at sharing the spotlight. A lot of comedians are like that. We are all lead singers.”

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