Harry Hill - "Shoot me if you see me on I'm a Celebrity..."
The TV Burp comedy genius says pardon me… time for a break
From humble beginnings as a leftfield comedian plowing a surreal furrow on Radio 4 with Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner, the former Dr Matthew Keith Hall has become the least likely host of Saturday night primetime on ITV.
The double-whammy of You’ve Been Framed and the hilarious TV Burp have made him one of the most recognisable voices on the telly, but 10 years into his career as master mocker of all that is ridiculous on the box, Hill is about to call it quits. Speaking from his home in south London (or as some papers would have it, his £3.65m mansion), where a video of Countryfile that he has been plundering for gags is on pause, Hill tells The Big Issue the truth about ITV’s reported million-pound bid to keep him – and why he quite fancies being the new Roman Abramovich instead.
So Harry, you’ve recently taken a break from pointing up folly on the TV to write a book that will give us journalists nightmares – the Bumper Book of Bloopers. How did that come about?
Being associated with You’ve Been Framed, it’s a similar sort of territory, isn’t it? It’s kind of a written version of the same sort of thing.
It’s got cuttings of brilliant cock-ups from all over the place – was it as big a research job as TV Burp?
No. Not as far as I know. The difficulty with TV Burp is you have to find half an hour of material from the week’s TV. You have a deadline and if you haven’t got it – what do you do? You still have to do the show.
How many people give you a flat 'no'?
A lot of the big names. I’ve been trying to get Nigella Lawson on the show for years. And Kirstie Allsopp. We don’t pay a hell of a lot. And you can’t really come on and plug anything either. It’s not like going on Des O’Connor and saying: “I’ve got a book out.”
It’s definitely not like that…
We are quite cheeky. I guess people might not like that. Actually on Saturday, we had Kitty Brucknell from The X Factor – that’s about the biggest name we’ve had on the show for years. Which gives you some idea of the level we’re operating at.
At Christmas everyone else has their feet up in front of the TV – but for you watching TV is working. What do you do for fun?
What I really like doing is listening to the radio while I paint. Recently, I manned a coconut shy for an autism fundraiser. It was organised by Jarvis Cocker’s girlfriend. My wife came and she won a coconut. So I painted Jarvis Cocker’s face on it. It was a Jarvis Cockernut. Then, what I thought was I should get more coconuts and paint different faces of people from the Britpop era – Damon Albarn, maybe the Gallagher brothers. It’s actually quite difficult to get a hold of coconuts.
I heard you weren’t much into having celebrity friends – does hanging out with Jarvis mark a departure?
He’s not a friend. I just met him once at a coconut shy. You’re right; I try and steer clear of all that. Just because you’re on the telly doesn’t mean you’ve got anything in common.
Has television got worse since you started TV Burp in 2002?
I don’t know if it’s got worse – it’s certainly changed. It is harder to make the show than it used to be. When we started, the reality shows were just straightforward reality shows. Now we’ve got slightly ironic shows like Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex. And the Come Dine With Me thing, where they’ve got a voiceover already doing the joke. Also, Coronation Street now is quite light-hearted and quite fun – between the serial killers. We hardly get anything out of Corrie any more. The Apprentice is good for us because the idea is pretty straightforward. EastEnders is still reliable because it’s quite serious.
Are ITV doing the best TV drama now? They do have Downton, after all.
Downton was a rare thing because I enjoyed watching it, just as a viewer, and we did get quite a few gags out of it.
Of course that sort of programme used to belong to the BBC, not the commercial channels.
Yeah, it’s interesting. Received wisdom is that what’s popular is things like game shows and challenge shows, but it just shows you. Downton Abbey – a period drama – people have just lapped it up. I’ve always sort of thought that if something is good then it can be as popular. You can’t really second-guess it.
I don’t mean to be rude, but your career’s been a bit of a surprise hit too.
A lot of people say to me, out of all of the people around when I got going, that I’m the last one they’d have expected to see on ITV at teatime.
What do you put it down to? Is it just hard work?
It’s really just getting a chance. History tells us that today’s alternative is tomorrow’s mainstream. Think of the The Young Ones [generation] – Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French – they’re the family favourites now.
So is that where you’re heading – an inoffensive middle age?
Heeheehee… I hope not!
It’s been all over the papers that you’re leaving TV Burp next year – say it ain’t so!
I think it’s likely. I’ve been doing it for 10 years and I’ve done more than 100 shows. I’ll certainly be taking a year off doing it and I’ll see how it goes. But it’s not like I’m saying I’ll never do it again.
Did ITV really offer you a £1m pay rise?
No, no, no! We haven’t actually had a discussion about it. I haven’t been offered a million quid.
It can’t hurt your negotiations to have that in the papers, though.
It’s not really about the money. It’s just that it takes up six months of my year and that doesn’t give me enough time to pursue anything else.
What would you like to do, aside from painting coconut versions of the Gallaghers?
I’ve got some film scripts. Maybe I’ll write a Harry Hill film. I have a long list of ideas that have built up over the last five years.
So you won’t have to resort to going into the jungle on I’m a Celebrity…?
Oh, Christ no. Shoot me. When you see me on that, you can hire a contract killer.
When I was wee, I was told not to watch too much telly – can you get away with that with your three daughters?
No, that’s the problem. They come in and see me slumped in front of Signed By Katie Price. A 47-year-old man, with a medical degree. Sometimes they say: “Can we watch it with you?” I say: “No you can’t, it’s awful.”
How is The X Factor musical doing?
That’s my big hope for next year. I’ve got lots of funny ideas for it, but we’re not quite through the door with it yet.
Hasn’t The X Factor been a bit rubbish this year?
For some reason the papers decided to go for it this year. Strictly has done slightly better in the ratings and that’s basically the long and the short of it. I watch The X Factor and they’ve had some bad luck – with the Frankie Cocozza thing, Kelly getting a throat infection and the power cut – but I enjoy it. The way I’m coming at it for the musical is to take the piss, but we also celebrate it.
As a big Morrissey fan what did you make of John Lewis using a Smiths song in their Christmas ad?
The thing with Morrissey is you can never predict how he’s going to react. In fact, whenever I’ve tried to clear anything with Morrissey, he usually just says yes or he ignores it and Johnny Marr says yes.
Having qualified as a doctor, do you despair at the state of the NHS?
I’ve managed to stay out of hospital for a long time but I can’t imagine that it’s any worse than when I was working in the NHS. It was absolutely on its knees then. That was the tail end of the Thatcher years. Buildings were crumbling and there were no beds.
I hear Harrow Hill FC had some financial problems recently. Given your links with them [the team, also known as ‘Harry Hill’, presented Harry with a badge he often wears on TV Burp] did you ever think about stepping in and becoming the Abramovich of the Gloucester Northern Senior League?
They didn’t contact me about their financial problems. If they had, maybe we could have talked about it.
You’ve become involved with the production of periodicals with your work on The Dandy. If you had some more time after the end of TV Burp, would you like to write a column for The Big Issue?
That is kind of the point of taking a break. Over the years, when I’ve been doing TV Burp, a lot of interesting jobs come in and I always have to turn them down. It may be that when I stop doing TV Burp all the offers will dry up as well – that’s the risk.
That would be a horrible irony.
Yeah, maybe it’s all or nothing – I’ll find out the hard way.