Book review: Fight! – Thirty Years Not Quite At The Top, by Harry Hill

The pandemic has turned many comedians into authors.

It’s perfectly understandable. With many of the usual avenues of expression closed off to them, the lockdowns have provided a golden opportunity for many comics with a story to tell to finally put their words on paper. For many, it was either that or start a podcast. Little wonder then that, the Christmas 2021 books market is overflowing with comedy biographies. Harry Hill’s new autobiography is a weightier tome than his previous literary works, Harry Hill’s Whopping Great Joke Book, Harry Hill’s Fun Book or Harry Hill’s Bumper Book of Bloopers. But Fight! is a great read and I’d actually rank it alongside Bob Mortimer’s …And Away! as one of the very best comedy-themed books of the year.

As Harry himself admits, however, he is not for everyone. Chris Tarrant and Keeley Hawes are amongst those famous names who Harry has encountered who have not taken to his unique sense of humour. I myself have often been amazed how even during the long reign of Harry Hill’s TV Burp as one of the most consistently funny shows on British TV of the 2000s, a surprising number of people, many of whom I would have otherwise said had a good sense of humour suddenly became insufferably snooty whenever Harry’s name was mentioned. If you are one of those people, chances are, neither this book or even this review will be for you. Kindly go elsewhere.

For the rest of us, this is a treat, often funny, particularly in its early stages and revealing. Harry, after all, has a story to tell.

Today, with his winged collar, NHS spectacles and distinctly eccentric appearance, Harry Hill’s comic persona although well-established is hard to define. He looks like a middle-aged Bash Street Kid. Back in the 1970s, he was Matthew Hall, a bright young teenager busily engaged in developing smoke bombs and other homemade explosives with his other bored, science-obsessed school friends in rural Kent. “My interest in science was largely a by-product of pyromania” he admits now but it led directly to a medical career, something he abandoned only in the early 1990s as his love for performing live comedy took over. As Harry himself might reflect, “what were the chances of that happening eh?”

His accounts of his medical career make fascinating reading. Although he does not seem to be one of those comedians with an obvious dark side, his experiences as a doctor (including an excruciating sequence in which he makes a hash of informing a young husband that his wife had died unexpectedly) along with the premature deaths of a number of his old friends have obviously given him an appreciation of the fact life his short.

He has also clearly retained a treasure trove of memories and physical relics of his comedy career. It is interesting to learn that he often collaborated with the likes of Alastair McGowan and Stewart Lee in the 1990s: not names one would obviously associate with him now. By the end of the decade, he was a familiar face on Channel 4. Between 2001 and 2012, he enjoyed his biggest ever success with over 160 episodes of ITV’s Saturday evening “sideways look at the week’s television,” TV Burp. The build-up to the show’s commercial breaks during which a staged fight between two often very surreal rivals, incidentally, explains the book’s title. Such showdowns included; “the Archbishop of Canterbury versus the Footballers’ Wives,” “a paw versus a claw” and “who is the best vegetarian: Heather Mills or Hitler?” During the last of these skirmishes, Harry can be clearly heard shouting, “come on, Hitler!”

In the end, the strain of trawling through hours of often terrible TV to find a few nuggets of comedy gold proved too much for Harry and the other writers and the show ended. Nothing else he has done has ever proven quite as successful. Harry proves unafraid to mention his lesser successes, which include Alien Fun Capsule (essentially a less popular version of TV Burp), Harry Hill’s Tea Time (an enjoyable but little seen Sky One show) or the fun but not especially commercial 2013 Harry Hill Movie featuring Julie Walters, Sheridan Smith and pop rock band, The Magic Numbers.

He also does not shy away from mentioning his few outright failures either: these include his short-lived X-Factor-themed musical, I Can’t Sing and disastrous stints presenting Capital Radio, an attempt to revive Matthew Kelly’s Stars In Their Eyes or the filming of a never-aired pilot of an unpromising Beadle’s About style prank show.. That said, his failure to mention anything about the character Professor Branestawm or his sixteen series narrating home video clips show, You’ve Been Framed! (as far as I noticed anyway) is more surprising, however, particularly as neither of these were obvious failures. He’s has a busy life: perhaps he just forgot to mention them?

Ultimately, it is a book and a career to be proud of. Now 57, what does the future hold for the onetime Doctor Matthew Hall?

Well, there’s only one way to find out…

Book review: Fight! – Thirty Years Not Quite At The Top, by Harry Hill. Published by: Hodder Studio. Available: now.

DVD review: Inside No 9 – Series Two

The premise behind Inside No. 9 is so thin that it barely amounts to a premise at all. Every story occurs inside a different “No.9” usually a house number although sometimes something else, for example, as in the first of this series, a railway carriage. That’s it. But from this, writers and performers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have found the perfect vehicle for their brilliantly judged macabre humour.

Anyone who has ever fancied travelling on a sleeper carriage may well be put off the idea forever by ‘La Couchette’. This first episode sees Shearsmith’s doctor increasingly disturbed by first, a flatulent drunk (Pemberton), then a noisy middle aged couple before finally a pair of randy young backpackers (Jack Whitehall and Jessica Gunning) discover something which changes the nature of the journey for everyone.

The ’12 Days of Christine’ starring Sheridan Smith is a more sober but hugely effective piece. As we see Christine’s life pass before her rapidly before our eyes  from  the night of her first meeting her future husband, through to marriage, motherhood and then divorce, an element of horror seems to be threatening to creep in. But the end, when it does come, packs an enormous emotional punch.

‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’ is much funnier, sending up the real life insanity of the 17th century witch trials. Having taken only very minor performing roles in ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, Shearsmith and Pemberton return to the fore in this, the most ‘League of Gentlemen’-esque episode with veteran actor David Warner (The Exorcist, Time Bandits, Tron) also taking a role.

None of the episodes are weak although the quality perhaps does decline ever so slightly with ‘Cold Comfort’ set in the offices of a busy phone helpline and ‘Nana’s Party’ which suffers slightly from having barely any normal characters in it at all. Yet even these contain moments of excellence.

The series finale ‘Séance Time’ is brilliant, however. With some vaguely insightful behind the scenes featurettes for each episode, this is ultimately a superb series of comic anthologies. Let us hope there will be more.

Release date: May 4th 2015

Bonus features: Behind the Scenes Featurettes on Each Episode

Certificate: 15

Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Jack Whitehall, Sheridan Smith, Claire Skinner, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Alison Steadman, Jane Horrocks, David Warner

BBC Worldwide