“Playfulness?” smiles Harry Hill. “Yeah. That playful thing is kind of my…” A pause. “I was going to say ‘my message’, but that sounds a bit heavy.”
Still, at 57, the comic who became a household name as the winkingly whacky presenter of TV Burp and You’ve Been Framed! has definitely relaxed into the joy of his job. When I first interviewed him, at the height of his fame back in 2007, I felt the jangle of nerves as he jumped to the defence of jokes I hadn’t criticised.
Today – riding high on the sell-out success of Tony! (his rock-opera about Tony Blair) and looking forward to an autumn stand-up tour – he’s much looser and more lighthearted.
“Yeah!” he agrees. “I’m glad you picked up on that. There’s been an odd change.”
A head shake. “I used to really worry about work.” His punishing TV schedule left him “feeling tense, with a really short fuse. I used to get quite worked up when I was doing a lot of TV. The pressure, you know? I didn’t like that in me. I’m not an angry person by nature. I’m an upbeat, optimistic person.”
About 18 months after we last met, Hill was papped by the Daily Mail in Battersea Park. The story was absurd – almost as surreal as one of his sketches. The headline floundered in amazement that the off-duty comedian (real name Matthew Hall) looked “almost unrecognisable” when not wearing his stage persona’s big specs and huge collar. Instead, the south London father of three was – shock horror! – sporting “beard, cap and iPod walking his fox terriers”! Hold the front page!
Hill remembers the incident with an eye-rolly shrug. “I think that was the extent of the pap intrusion,” he sighs.
“They realised I wasn’t exactly clickbait.” But he also concedes he did become “a bit paranoid around that time”. During a later park visit, he spotted a photographer and assumed the man was there to snap his picture.
“I challenged him and he turned out to be just a bloke taking photos of the ducks.” Big wince. “A bit embarrassing.”
Hill can think of two reasons he’s chilled out. First: “presenting Junior Bake Off was very good for me. A lot of the kids on that show can get blinded by the competition element. My job is to distract them, annoy the shit out of them and encourage them to have fun.”
Helping children to find the giggles in every sunken sponge and sprawling meringue made him more mindful about enjoying the process of comedy himself. Second: his hobby making art in his kitchen – mug of tea and the radio on – has helped him “calm down and live in the moment”.
He’s talking to me today on video call (“I still dressed up in the shirt!”) about a public art project called “Brighter Future” that will be bringing colour to the streets of Central London from August to October.
In collaboration with the National Gallery X (NGX), Hill has joined the judging panel at Art of London to select up-and-coming artists, who will be commissioned to splash vivid, optimistic images throughout a trail across the West End.
On the morning we speak, Hill has met two of the artists he helped choose. He’s bubbling with enthusiasm for the “fascinating” work of “incredibly young” multidisciplinary artist Fiona Quadra. And that of only-slightly-older Zarah Hussain, whose zingy Islamic geometric patterns are all hand drawn.
“She was telling me that you’re not supposed to do Islamic art on a computer,” he says, “because the hand-drawing process is part of the contemplative aspect of it. I suppose I had thought: ‘You could probably do some of it in two minutes on the computer.’ I’m exaggerating. I like the way she’s kinda modernised the colours to make it ‘pop out’.”
Hill relates to Hussain’s ability to lose herself in the concentration on her work. His own paintings – of celebrities, dinosaurs and layers of rock – are ostensibly less spiritual and he says he’ll be contributing some “alien-themed” work to Brighter Future. But the former doctor tells me he really finds his ego evaporating while working on them. His wife, artist Magda Archer, has always encouraged him to decompress with a paintbrush. He’s been dabbling away at the kitchen table for years “just for myself and people who happen to pop over”.
Hill did well at art at school and only took a tilt towards the sciences after enjoying a few explosive larks with a chemistry set. He began painting again as an adult, inspired by copies of Hello! magazine that he mined for celebrity material.
“Hello! used to put a recipe in the back pages and I put it all together. One of my early paintings was of Princess Diana, Michael Jackson and a recipe for dressed crab.”
Later he became obsessed with painting Chris Tarrant. The quiz show host had been the most famous of a handful of B-list celebrities to materialise at his 2006 ITV special An Audience With Harry Hill, a show he has previously described as “pretty high up” on the list of worst nights of his life. Apparently the ITV producers had promised him a dazzling crowd including David Bowie. In the event, he got Kriss Akabusi, Richard Stilgoe and Chris Tarrant, who “didn’t laugh once”.
But I can’t detect any act of revenge in Hill’s decision to repeatedly paint the host of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.
“Part of it is simply: you paint one picture of Chris Tarrant and you realise you’ve got the hang of painting Chris Tarrant,” he says, “Then it’s hard to stop.” Lately he’s been painting Cliff Richard. He’s done twelve portraits of the singer (including one in which he’s had a bad reaction to a crab stick and his face is all swollen and another in which his face and body are made from bricks) and is considering compiling them into a calendar. I suggest that both Tarrant and Richard are slightly jokey British versions of more American alpha males and Hill agrees. “Yeah, yeah, I suppose…” Although he’s been painting America, too. “I’ve been focused on aerial views of the stars’ homes. I’ve done Lady Gaga’s, Taylor Swift’s, Justin Bieber’s and Oprah Winfrey’s.”
Looking at celebrity from an unimpressed angle is, of course, what Hill has always done best. The middle-class Kentish lad taking the amiable and quintessentially English piss. I ask if he’s aware of the legacy of TV Burp. Does he know how meme-able his slapstick smart-aleckery is? “No,” he boggles. “I’m not aware of that.”
So, was he once a Blair fan? He nods. “Well, everyone was, weren’t they? The point we make in the musical is that that’s why everyone hates him so much. Because we thought he was different”
I ask if he thinks a small screen commentary show like TV Burp would work in this golden age of binge-watchable telly and he has no doubt it would.
“TV is more self aware than it was. More knowing. Maybe the result of TV Burp was that people started to make their own jokes about content. Do you know what I mean?” Absolutely! I say. My 10-year-old knows what a tracking shot is, and when things have “gone meta” or “jumped the shark” in a way that I’d never have found the language to explain at her age. But Hill suspects that awareness can just deepen the connection between comedians and the audience.
Alongside elephant puppets and a 20-ft sock, his new tour will feature big screen footage for the first time.
“I used to think the technology was too flakey to use on stage,” he says. “But now I think the audience will come away talking about what they’ve seen on those screens.”
He doesn’t want to give away too much, but he does hint that it hinges on “the differences between a tray bake and a tear-and-share”. Then he gives me a moment to allow the intensity of that controversy to sink in.
Back in 2007, Hill had told me about a joke he planned to make on stage, based on a discomforting punning confusion between the words “paedo” and “speedo”. Today he tells me that the gag never made his act. But he generously concedes that he was “on the bill with Milton Jones the other day and he did a slightly better version of [that joke]. He said he was wearing his Speedos in the local leisure centre but the S had fallen off of the logo. Which is a much better joke than mine was. Because he doesn’t have to say the word I would have used. He lets the audience make the connection and that makes it less toxic.”
Although Labour-voting Hill never met Tony Blair, he did enjoy venting his disappointment in the musical, Tony! While critics sniffed that it was “scrappy”, “puerile” and “packed with a ton of bad-taste gags about Princess Diana’s death, 9/11 and the Iraq War”, the show has been a huge success with the paying public, who’ve been delighted by a clownish take on modern politics that includes balloon modelling, a slapstick wrestling match and a jaunty chorus that runs: “The whole world is run by assholes”.
Hill tells me it was the “tragic arc” of voters’ relationship with the former PM that attracted him to the story. So, was he once a Blair fan? He nods. “Well, everyone was, weren’t they? The point we make in the musical is that that’s why everyone hates him so much. Because we thought he was different.”
He thinks it would be impossible to write a similar musical about Boris Johnson because “everybody knew what they were getting. Especially Londoners.”
But he’s committed to thrilling the depressed capital with the Brighter Futures project. “London has taken a battering through the pandemic,” he says.
“There’s nobody here on Mondays and Fridays any more, is there? If this art gives people a reason to come into town, that’s great. I’m a Londoner. I came here from Kent as such a young man – it was an escape for me. And this is where I started my stand-up career. In the 1990s, I would drive across town all night, doing the comedy store [in Soho] and driving down to do the Balham Banana. I know the town really well. This opportunity to do something right in the centre is just great.”
Because he lives so close to Battersea Park, Hill has spent years admiring that space’s iconic and accessible sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
“Can you imagine, in this modern world, where you’d have such valuable works of art, by such great artists, commissioned to just hang out in a public space?”
He notes that “you can actually touch them, and surely the mark of great sculpture is that you want to reach out and feel it? My father-in-law, who is no longer with us, designed cars for Ford. The Capri and the Granada. He said the mark of a good car is that you want to touch it. I think it’s a shame sometimes, that you’re not allowed to touch the sculpture in museums. The same with Stonehenge.” The prehistoric monument is now fenced off from the public. “I remember, as a kid, having a wonderful picnic there. I mean, it’s been there for 4,000 years, what’s the problem?”
When it comes to his own alien artwork, he tells me he’s been “banned” from giving spoilers. But he does note that “I’ve had to get health and safety involved. Because you have to think about health and safety, about the drunk kids on a Friday night, don’t you?” Does that mean that there are trip-hazard tentacles? “I can’t say,” he laughs. Then: “No, no tentacles!”
Art of London: Brighter Future is on display in the West End from August 2022. Find out more at www.artoflondon.co.uk/brighterfuture