The Perfectly Suitable, Perfectly Silly Comedy of Harry Hill

by Christine Brandel

19 May 2017

Harry Hill pulls funny faces and he does stupid things. But these are things I like in a comedian (as opposed to, say, a US president).
Publicity photo: ITV 
cover art

Harry Hill’s TV Burp: The Best Bits

(ITV)
US DVD: Import
UK DVD: 14 Nov 2011

cover art

The Harry Hill Movie

Director: Steve Bendelack
Cast: Harry Hill, Julie Walters, Simon Bird

(Lucky Features)
US DVD: Import
UK DVD: 14 Apr 2014

cover art

Harry Hill Live - Sausage Time

(2entertain)
US DVD: Import
UK DVD: 24 Nov 2014

There are times when the only discord and disagreement I can face is a fight between a gorilla and a Smurf.

Harry Hill started out as a stand-up comedian. Well, actually, he started out as a doctor named Matthew Hill who created the character of Harry Hill—big bald head, big glasses, big collar, big shoes—a cartoon man come to life.

In 1992, Harry Hill won the Perrier Award for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe. This led to the BBC Radio 4 show Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner, which was a combination of sketches and short stand-up bits. It had recurring characters, some songs, and a strong devotion to badgers.

His first TV series, Fruit Fancies, appeared in 1994 on BBC Two. It was an unusual way to introduce him to the wider viewing public; the series was a collection of silent, black and white sketches, complete with silent-movie music and wacky sound effects. Despite the presence of some hair on his head, though, it was in true Harry Hill style, with its silly storylines and characters (like a Punch and Judy man whose real life is as stupidly violent as his puppets’, or a man who must have his monkey hands removed to win back his love).

His Channel 4 series, Harry Hill, ran from 1997-2000 (though briefly revived twice). It was essentially Fruit Corner for the small screen, so viewers got to see that yes, it really was Burt Kwouk from the Pink Panther films singing “Hey little hen, when, when, when will you lay me an egg for my tea?” while playing Harry’s Chicken Catcher who’s never able to produce the goods.

We also saw some of Harry’s family: Nana Hill (Evie Garratt), his adopted son Alan (played by Dr Matt Bradstock-Smith, one of Hill’s classmates from medical school), and his brother Alan (Al Murray) who each week was in charge of preparing the badgers for the badger parade. Songs opened and closed each show and were now accompanied by choreographed dance routines.

In 2001, Hill began making Harry Hill’s TV Burp on ITV, a show that would eventually turn him into a household name. It was a simple review of each week’s television, but with Harry Hill as the presenter and writer, it became so much more. With running gags galore, the show started a cult favourite and grew to mainstream popularity, with millions of viewers each week and a few episodes taking in around 32 percent of the timeslot’s audience (Paul Millar, “‘Harry Hill’s TV Burp’ Surges to 7.9m”, Digital Spy, 16 November 2010).

Although there was the occasional cheap shot, the tone was mostly teasing rather than cruel, as it made us laugh at over-the-top performances or ridiculous concepts, e.g., when Hill hears the name of the BBC Three show Young Butcher of the Year, he first looks confused and then turns directly to the camera and explains, “We haven’t made it up. It’s a real show.” Episodes had various “Highlights of the Week”, which came with a short jingle and title. These included “TV Voiceover Highlight of the Week” (example: a 20 second clip of a dog urinating on a carpet that ends with a man saying “With his mouth full of teddies, Jumbles’ urinating seems defiant”); “Most Casual Turning on of a Car Indicator of the Week” (with a clip of a man, um, casually turning on a car indicator); and lists like the Top Three Campest Waiters of the Week or Nigella’s Innuendo Countdown, all done with Top of the Pops-style music and graphics.

There’s some slapstick and lots of props, including a Knitted Character who appeared briefly on Eastenders but became a star on TV Burp. Like all of Hill’s work, there were catchphrases; the most famous came before the ad break. He’d refer to two things from the previous clip and wonder “But which is better? There’s only one way to find out ... FIGHT!” The pairing would emerge from opposite sides of the stage (often in utterly ridiculous costumes) and fight it out. Memorable fights included Harry Potter vs. Dr. Who, a dinosaur vs. a blue tit, and Hitler vs. Heather Mills (fighting for the title of Naughtiest Vegetarian).

During TV Burp’s run, Hill also began narrating the public’s funny home videos on ITV’s You’ve Been Framed, and—perhaps because that show introduced him to a younger crowd—he also created Harry Hill’s Shark Infested Custard, a children’s show on CITV.

Hill ended TV Burp in 2012, saying his departure was due to the change in television and the grueling schedule of watching all those shows each week (Andrew Williams, “Harry Hill: The Only Way Is Essex Helped Kill Off TV Burp”, Metro, 20 August 2012). Although everyone seemed to agree there was no point to the show without Hill at the helm, it was a great disappointment to ITV (which had offered him big money to continue) and to his fans, who still fill his Facebook page with calls for TV Burp’s return.

He moved on to make The Harry Hill Movie in 2013. Critics (and many fans) thought that, while the cast was game for the zaniness, the story line and jokes were too thin to sustain the film’s length. Harry and his nan (Julie Walters) take his dying hamster Abu (voiced by Johnny Vegas) on a last hooray, all the while unaware that henchmen working for Harry’s evil twin brother Otto (Matt Lucas) are trying to kidnap Abu. I actually thought it was quite funny. I liked seeing a world created by Harry Hill, which featured singing and dancing, ridiculous costumes and sets, funny cameos (the trio stayed at a B&B run by The Magic Numbers), and lots of silliness. The film, however, did not do well.

He had another bit of a flop in 2015, when he returned to ITV as the host of the revamped Stars in Their Eyes, where members of the public get to dress up and perform songs as famous singers. Hill’s presence drew in his fans who might not have otherwise bothered with the outdated concept, but those who loved the original found his style too distracting, and the show was not renewed.

In 2016, he spoofed cooking shows on Sky’s Harry Hill’s Tea Time and in 2017, he returned to ITV with a panel show called Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule. The show begins by explaining the premise: “Harry Hill has been given a mission by the world’s top governments to collect the funniest stuff he can find to prove, in the event of an alien invasion, that humans are quite good fun to hang out with.” When he was a guest on The Last Leg, Hill described the premise as “probably the weakest idea I’ve ever come up with—wafer-thin”, but it works. It has a similar feel to TV Burp with the same blend of clever and stupid, and it’s seriously funny. Critic Mark Lawson wrote:

[The show’s] combination of daftness and sharpness—both beautifully crafted—is Hill at his best. At one point, [guest Josh] Widdicombe says, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had on TV,” and it is the only moment in the show that isn’t a joke. Burp has, in the best possible way, repeated on him. A genius talent and a great show have found each other again. (”Harry Hill is Back! And He’s Showing Aliens How Funny Humans Can Be”, The Guardian, 2 March 2017)

In April 2017, it was announced that ITV had ordered a second series of Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule to appear next year.

Hill has also created an internet comedy series, released a comic album, produced a sports quiz show, and developed a musical. He’s also a novelist and a painter. He played Professor Branestawm in Charlie Higson’s adaptations of Norman Hunter’s classic children books. His distinctive voice can be heard in many television adverts, and he’s also continued to do stand-up tours.

Indeed, Hill has experienced considerable success during his long career and has received much recognition for his comedy. In fact, while I’m not sure this is a distinction any TV presenter really wants, a woman once actually turned to murder over her desire to watch TV Burp (”Leonora Sinclair Jailed for Killing Husband in Row Over Harry Hill”, The Telegraph, 6 Dec. 2011). A more pleasant honor occurred when the cartoon man come to life was immortalized with his own comic strip by Nigel Parkinson, published in The Dandy from 2010-2011.

Clearly, Harry Hill is a popular and hardworking comedian.

Despite this, the famous Marmite comparison is frequently made about Hill—you either love or hate him. Interestingly, whether people rate or hate him, their evidence is always the same claim: he’s silly.

Reviewing one of Hill’s stand-up gigs, Steve Bennett wrote, “There can be few entertainers who divide an audience as much as Hill. Half the world seems to think he’s a creative absurdist genius, the other an unfunny jester who’s just talking nonsense” (”Harry Hill-Original Review”, Chortle, 2012).

Yes, Harry Hill is a bit of a jester and yes, he does talk nonsense. He pulls funny faces and he does stupid things. But these are things I like in a comedian (as opposed to, say, a US president). His silliness is exactly why I love him and why I think the world needs even more of his humor.

There are some times in life when stress gets to me and all I want to do is just listen to a man with a blue rubber cat on his hand reminisce over a book of banana stickers, or watch a man dressed in ‘80s workout gear sing “Fame” while he dances around with badgers also dressed ‘80s workout gear. There are times when the only discord and disagreement I can face is a fight between a gorilla and a Smurf.

Political comedy, cerebral comedy, dark comedy are all needed to help us make sense of ourselves and our world. But Harry Hill doesn’t do those types of comedy. Hill himself said, “What I like is an escape. It’s an escape, my act, it’s an escape for me, to be silly, and do all the silly things you’re not allowed to do when you’re a 48-year-old doctor” (Christina Patterson, “Harry Hill: The Private Life of the Lord of Misrule”, The Independent, 8 February 2013).

His comedy is an escape for me too, a much-needed one. I sometimes think his DVDs are the most effective therapy I’ve ever had. Matthew Hall has given the world a gift in the form of Harry—a perfectly silly man whose only goal in life is to remind us that it feels really good to laugh.

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