HARRY Hill, comedian, TV show host, writer, actor, artist and former doctor, is playing his first tour in nine years, promising absurdist Pedigree Fun! at the Grand Opera House, York, tomorrow night.
It was there that he last appeared in York, squeezing everything into Sausage Time in February 2013 after another long lull between tours since Hooves in 2006.
From Harry Hill’s TV Burp to You’ve Been Framed voiceovers and Junior Bake Off, Harry has been a fixture on the TV, but his brand of manic mayhem, slapstick comedy with daft props, pop culture send-ups, pertinent observational satire, daft songs and surrealist wit, always just too quick for the crowd, utterly suits the live arena.
“I hadn’t realised how much I missed performing live until lockdown stopped me from doing it,” says Harry, who turned 58 on October 1. “It’s great to be going back on stage and the good news is I’m planning a very silly show.”
A show with “brand-new amazing jokes in an all-singing, all-dancing one-man spectacular” with regular sidekick Stouffer The Cat, Harry’s new baby elephant, Sarah, and Ian, The Information Worm.
“No,” says Harry, correcting that piece of misinformation. “Not Ian.” What? Is the Information Worm worming his way out of the show? “No, he had to be cut. In the theatre no-one could see him. He’s been sacked!”
No tours for nine years, but it was not a case of Harry giving up live comedy. “I’ve never stopped doing stand-up; always doing bits here and there when I wasn’t doing anything else,” he says.
“I would do ten minutes in clubs around town because that’s how you come up with the jokes till you’ve built up an hour, and then more. The new show is two halves of about 50 minutes because I think two hours is too much of anyone’s time!
“What I try to do is more of the stand-up in the first half with some videos, then it goes up a level in the second half with Gary, my son from my first marriage, coming on.”
Gary, inevitably, takes the form of a dummy. “He’s got Covid, so we have to do a Covid test on stage,” reveals Harry. “Then there’s Sarah, the baby elephant. She won’t have been seen outside London, so she’s fresh and new and very nervous. I’ve rescued her from a circus clown who had a fetish for ears.”
How has his 2022 tour contrasted with his Sausage Time travels? “Well, I’m that much older, and my show is very physical, so I’ve been hobbling to the car after the show out of breath and in a pool of sweat,” says Harry.
“I had planned to get fit for the tour but then I hosted Junior Bake Off, so I put on a little weight with all those cakes.”
The pandemic lockdowns and the loss of his friend, fellow comedian Sean Lock, to cancer in August 2021, sparked Harry’s return to stand-up gigs. “I’d sort of forgotten, the thing that I really like about live comedy is being able to do what I want, which is what first attracted me.
“Whereas when I worked as a doctor, I was being told what to do, which I reacted against. It’s the same with TV, with people saying, ‘No, do it like this’. ‘Don’t do that’.
“The other thing is, and I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, but audiences are more up for it, because, (a), they’re pleased to see you’re bothering, and (b), it’s often the first time they’ve been out to a big gig when people are still nervous.”
Did the NHS put out a request to Harry to revive his medical skills during Covid? “I’m still on the register, and yeah, they approached me. I got an email, like all retired doctors, asking if I would help out, right at the start, when everyone thought it was a chance to play their part.
“So I clicked on this email and the next thing I got was another email, from the General Medical Council, saying, could I start working at the Nightingale Hospital [in London]?
“Well, I was available, but fortunately, because everyone washed their hands and stayed indoors, I was never called on.”
Now Harry is focusing once more on that alternative medicine: laughter, or in his case “a very silly show”. “There are trends in comedy, as with all things, and silliness is coming back, particularly now,” he says. “My view is that people want to escape the everyday and on a good night, I do achieve that.
“I take people on this journey where I say, ‘it’s not a dream’ and we re-set what’s normal for people after what we’ve all been through.”
Part of the pleasure for Harry is enjoying his badinage with dummy Gary in his chair and the unruly Stouffer. “It’s like having an alter-ego psychologically,” he says. “As a kid and as a comedian, I’m a big fan of double acts, and sadly there aren’t really acts like that anymore,” he says.
“I was once in a double act, The Hall Brothers, with a friend of mine when we were students. We had a few laughs, but we liked the idea of it more than the work, because it’s hard work being a double act – and it’s only half the money!”
Harry’s autobiography, Fight! Thirty Years Not Quite At The Top, was published last November. What did he learn about himself? “I don’t know about that, but I was surprised by how much I’d got done, how single-minded I was,” he says.
“It wasn’t a psychological study but I learned the most important thing is to enjoy the process, not whether something is a success or a failure.
“It was a tongue-in-cheek title because there is no ‘top’, That’s the thing you discover. If that’s your motivation for success, you’ll find there’s always someone more successful than you.”
Savour the enjoyment of being creative, just as Harry did when his artwork featured in Grayson’s Art Club, iconoclastic artist Grayson Perry’s art-of-the-people series on Channel 4 during lockdown. “That was the best thing on the TV to come out of lockdown,” he says. “My wife [Magda Archer] is an artist and we were invited to his house for dinner. He was just as interesting as he is on the TV.
“I’ve always been interested in the visual side of things.” Witness Harry’s tour brochures, or his trademark attire of brothel creepers, slim-fit suit, elongated collars as if designed by Salvador Dali and a pocketful of pens.
Pedigree Fun! in that rata-tat-tat voice is on its way to York. Welcome back, Harry Hill.
Harry Hill: Pedigree Fun, Grand Opera House, York, November 2, Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/york
Did you know? Harry Hill’s real name is Matthew Keith Hall.