Born Matthew Hall in Woking in 1964, Harry Roy Hill has gone on to be one of Britain's most entertaining - and quite definitely most surreal - comedians. His act generally revolves around a series of bizarre observations and stories and constant references back to those observations as the show continues. His appearance is rather distinctive too: he is bald-headed1, sports thick-rimmed glasses, wears brightly coloured socks, a suit - for which the trouser legs are just a little too short, with a jacket breast pocket that holds a line of pens - and a white shirt with a huge starched collar that stands way above his neck. He has been described as 'The Self-styled Super-varmint' and 'The Debonair Dachshund'2. However, he didn't always intend to have a career in comedy. It could all have turned out so very differently.
Harry's first calling was medicine. He obtained his MBBS3 after studying at St George's Hospital, Tooting. At the same time, he began to appear in a double act called The Hall Brothers in revue shows. He looks back on this time with fondness, and has been known to share stories of his student days. One such tale involves the year when the students had reached the point when they were first allowed to practice surgery on corpses. They were introduced to their subjects by the tutor, who opened up the freezer containing the cadavers with the words 'Welcome to Madame Tussaud's!' Hill continued to practice medicine until 1990, when he decided to move into comedy full time.
His breakthrough came at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of 1992 when he won the Perrier Best Newcomer award. On the back of that success he had a short-lived series on BBC2 called Fruit Fancies. Each show was just a short black and white silent film, which therefore featured none of Harry's trademark random digressions, and hence was not a real example of his act. For that, early fans would have to look - or rather listen - elsewhere.
The show ran on Radio 4 from 1993 to 1997, comprising four series in total. Each show would begin with Harry singing a few lines from a famous pop tune, which would have the line 'Welcome to my world' tagged onto the end of it, thus giving the impression that you are leaving normality and entering Harry's domain, one unlike any you have known before. Each show was recorded in front of an audience, which Harry would occasionally lead in the simple joy of singing along to records.
Appearing alongside Harry in the show were his family and friends4, with a special guest at the end of each episode. Notable regulars included:
82-year-old Nana Hill, who would appear in order to dispense her pearls of wisdom, gleaned from many years of not dying. She was a clever yet devious individual, who would cheat at Scrabble by firing her own letter-pieces in a little kiln under the table.
Big brother Alan (played by comedian Al Murray, AKA 'The Pub Landlord'), who was always confused by everything going on around him, but would dutifully be grooming the badgers for the Badger Parade at the end of the show.
Harry's adopted son Robin, who, regretfully, could only communicate by tapping, which would be demonstrated during the course of each show. So that's one tap for yes, two taps for no, and something exotic to convey a more complicated piece of information, a fan favourite being 'a fast rumba beat to signal mild consternation'.
Finsbury Park was a scientist employed by Harry in an effort to find a cure to Robin's tapping problem, and thus return him to a more normal means of expression. His payment for this work was simple; he wanted some chops - the only difficulty was whether it would be the pork or the lamb. Harry would offer either variety of chop, and Finsbury was forced to choose between them, to the sound of an enthusiastic audience who would be shouting their preferred choice of meat to him.
Burt Kwouk turned up as a special guest in an episode in the second series, and enjoyed the experience so much that he came back as a regular for the next two series. Each week he would tell Harry about his efforts to catch a chicken, and would regularly display confusion between Tenko (the Japanese prisoner-of-war drama in which he played Captain Yamauchi) and The Beatles (in which he... didn't).
Harry transferred the format5 to television for The Harry Hill Show on Channel Four. Perhaps the most important difference is that there was no studio audience for the show, which meant that, on the whole, the first series fell rather flat - the Finsbury Park character just doesn't work when there isn't a crowd advising him which meat to pick, and Harry paused for laughs that didn't come. But by the second series Hill had worked out how to cope with that, and each show moved a lot quicker. The show continued for three series, and provided some of the most surreal moments of television in recent years. Seeing a six-foot badger dancing in a Freddie Mercury-style leotard is something that must be seen to be believed, as is Alvin Stardust in a bird-suit singing My Coo Ca Choo.
One of the strangest moments from the show involves a special guest. As with Fruit Corner, Harry had a special guest on the show each week, but they were more heavily scripted than in the radio show. The guests always said exactly the same lines every week - it didn't matter who the guest was, you always knew precisely what they were going to say. Then, in a moment of absolute bizarreness, the last guest of the second series was Sweep the dog6 who, though audible, everything he squeaks simply cannot be understood or rearranged into normal speech. Generations have grown up hearing Sweep, but having no idea what he's saying. Until, that is, he appeared as special guest on Harry's show. Suddenly you could understand every word, because the special guests always said exactly the same words! For this Researcher at least, it was a moment of blinding revelation; you could actually hear the words that Sweep was saying!
Though the Channel Four show started with many of the characters from the radio show, only brother Alan lasted all the way through. Other characters that were introduced include Kenn Ford (life model from the Joy of Sex books), Harry's mail-order wife May Sung, Gary (the controller of Channel Four), and, most importantly, Stouffer.
Stouffer is Harry's blue right-hand cat. He is quite clearly a puppet, and Harry also quite clearly has no powers of ventriloquism, nor even pretends to have. Despite, or maybe because of, this Stouffer has become the most popular recurring character in Harry's shows, and is the only regular to make the transfer to The All New Harry Hill Show on ITV17. He also has a collection of his own catchphrases, of which 'He got a big face' and 'Sorted, Respect due' are but two.
In 2002, Harry moved to ITV to present TV Burp in which Harry casts his surreal eye over the previous week's television. Like his previous series, the key to his comedy here was repetition. For instance, at the end of the first half of each show, he'd ask the audience to compare two people - for example, Harry Potter or Doctor Who - and then claim that there's only one way to find out which one is 'best' - 'FIGHT!' at which point two look-alikes would run in and wrestle each other to the ground. In 2003, he followed this up with the more traditional (well, traditional for him) The All-New Harry Hill Show.
2002 saw the publication of Harry's first novel. Flight from Deathrow is a meandering book that constantly seems to be going off at tangents. Indeed, there are points at which the tangents layer up on each other so much that they end up curling back onto the supposed plot of the book. Which is about Harry trying to get a flight from Heathrow8, and it is plainly stated at the start of the book that the last word is intended to read like the sound of a plane taking off. This therefore removes all confusion over whether Harry will make his flight, so the book then revolves around how Harry gets there - the journey is the aim.
The book features a diverse cast of characters including twenty-two pygmies, Estrakhan the pig, manufacturer of artificial feet Manny Durban, Deng Xiao Ping and Prince Edward.
At the time of writing, Harry is in the middle of a nationwide tour. Despite his successes in other media, Harry is still primarily a live comedian, and he loves touring as often as possible.
Visit Harry's site. There isn't really much information there, but it is another string to his comedy bow.