It is, Harry Hill agrees, a interesting time to live through. “You’ve got a global pandemic, a war in Europe, the death of a monarch, global warming ...” says the comedian over a Zoom call from his London home. “Weird times.” He pauses sombrely, then perks up. “That’s why I’ve been called to go on tour and cheer up the nation.”
Hill’s TV commitments over the past decade, from Harry Hill’s Tea Time, in which he tasked the likes of Paul Hollywood and Gok Wan with cooking outlandish dishes, to the panel show Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule, have long scuppered his plans to tour. But he’s now embarking on his first tour in almost a decade with Pedigree Fun!, “an all-singing, all-dancing one-man spectacular”.
It’s been quite a while since he played Ireland, but he does remember a particular incident. “I did gigs in Dublin and Belfast last time I was there, and I used to do this thing where I’d play the [British] national anthem on car horns at the end of the show. And it hadn’t even occurred to me,” he says, chuckling. “I did the show, and I got to that point and I said, ‘Here’s a tune you won’t have heard for a while.’ I start playing it, and they all start booing in a kind of comedy way. So I come off, and the promoter’s standing there, saying ‘I wouldn’t do that in Belfast tomorrow night if I were you.’” He raises his eyebrows with a theatrical grimace. “So the next night, in Belfast, I skipped it.”
It’s 30 years since the comedian born Matthew Hall was awarded the inaugural best newcomer award at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, for “a very ropy show” called Flies! In the subsequent years he has become a fixture on the comedy scene through his numerous TV shows and been applauded for his silly, slapstick, surrealist-infused humour. Yet being on stage was not on Hill’s initial career path. He famously left a career in medicine after training in neurosurgery and working as a doctor for a short period, after which he hoped to break into comedy writing.
“I used to have this fantasy that I’d be working in casualty and John Cleese would come in very ill and I would make him better,” he says. “And in the process of making him better we would become friends, and he would invite me to write things with him. I know,” he says, shaking his head and sighing. “I know.”
‘It’s quite nice at Christmas, London, because everyone goes away – so you can park outside your own house’
Initially influenced by the likes of Monty Python and later by “deadpan” comics like Stewart Lee, Jack Dee and Jo Brand, Hill is aware that his own variety of comedy has always been polarising. “I mean, to this day, I do gigs and it’ll be the husband has dragged his wife along, and he’ll be laughing his head off, but she’ll be sitting there like that,” he says, folding his arm and scowling. “Or the other way around; sometimes it’s the woman laughing. And often they’ll end up in the front row. I don’t know why they sit in the front. So, in my mind, the only person I can see is the person not enjoying it. But normally I can wear them down and win them over.”
Hill has fostered a reputation for being family-friendly but says that there has always been a flipside to his comedy.
“I am quite mean, I think,” shaking his head when I suggest that his comedy has never been cruel for the sake of generating a laugh. “I always think that there is a slightly darker side of me. Tim Vine’s a very good friend of mine, and he doesn’t have any darkness at all in his comedy. But I’ll joke about my nan dying, or whatever, and some of that can be dark.” He shrugs. “But I think I get away with it because of my persona, which is sort of playful, really.”
The new show, Pedigree Fun!, was developed during the pandemic.
“When the lockdown came and it was like ‘Well, you can’t do anything’, I thought ‘Well, I want to!’ It’s that thing of when you’re told you can’t do something, you just want to do it more,” he says with a grin. “Everyone has to do something about the pandemic so I’ve got a bit on that, and y’know, I kind of pride myself on the fact that there’s no obvious theme,” he laughs. “But it makes sense to me. And I think it’s probably the most consistent show I’ve done for a long time – and it is different, in many ways. I’ve got some video things that I’m interacting with, which I’ve never done before because the technology was always a bit flaky. But at the same time, I’ve got some of the old staples, like Gary the ventriloquist’s son and Stouffer the cat.”
‘I still think it’s a bit dirty to watch TV on Christmas Day. It’ll be interesting this year to see the king’s speech’
Before the tour takes him to Ireland, there is, of course, the festive season to navigate at home with his wife, the artist Magda Archer, and three grown-up daughters, Kitty, Winifred and Frederica. “It’s quite nice at Christmas, London, because everyone goes away – so you can park outside your own house,” he quips.
“But my wife and I differ somewhat in our approach. She very much liked the lockdown Christmases, where no one could come round,” he says, chuckling. “But because I grew up in a big family, I’m always used to having people around playing games and mucking about. I mean, like any family, we’ve got our own traditions: I always put a suit and tie on, I always carve the turkey, Magda makes the trifle. My mum will come over at some point, and my brother’s the only one living in the country, so we’ll see him at some point.”
Despite his successful TV career with shows like TV Burp, the telly may not be switched on on the day itself. “When I was a kid, we were never allowed to watch TV, apart from the queen’s speech,” he says. “So I still think it’s a bit dirty to watch TV on Christmas Day. It’ll be interesting this year to see the king’s speech, I suppose. Otherwise, we always get too much food in, too much booze in, and I’m the only one that really ever drinks ...”
Next year is already shaping up to be a busy year for Hill, Pedigree Fun! aside. He has already ticked numerous items off his bucket list throughout his career – TV, stand-up, books, film – but there is one thing that he hopes to see through next year.
“I’m trying to make a black and white silent film about a caveman, with me in it. That’s my last ambition – but it’s quite a difficult thing to sell to people,” he says, laughing heartily. “It’s written, and I’ve filmed some bits of it. It’s quite a small cast, it wouldn’t cost a hell of a lot, but it’s quite a big commitment. So when this tour’s over, I’m going to make a decision about it. We’re trying to get some money for it, but if we don’t, I might just make it anyway.” He shrugs, wiggling his eyebrows mischievously. “Why not, eh?”