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Hurlls of wisdom

The veteran comedy producer on 50 years in the business

Few people can boast the breadth and depth of knowledge about comedy that TV producer Michael Hurll has. Now celebrating half a century in the business, and probably best known as the mastermind behind the British Comedy Awards, he’s worked with everyone from Bob Hope to Little and Large. And at 70, he’s still got his finger on the pulse, just as happy to share an opinion about an up-and-comer like Russell Howard as he is to discuss the Two Ronnies.

And opinions he most certainly has. With the best part of a lifetime’s anecdotes from the world of light entertainment behind him, you might expect him to be full of good-natured luvviness for those comics the public holds in such high esteem. Not a bit of it.

Of Charlie Drake, who he worked with ay back when he was a holiday camp redcoat, he says: ‘He was a nasty man then and he stayed a nasty man – a horrible, horrible man’; Bob Hope was ‘the nastiest man I’ve ever worked with’, Jerry Lewis was ‘a nasty piece of work’.

But his harshest scorn is reserved for that jolly children’s entertainer, Rod Hull. ‘He was the most miserable, nastiest man you ever met ,’ he says. ‘And what he did with that emu…

‘I told him once, “Look Rod, you’ve got your hand in that emu, up girls’ skirts and squeezing their tits; doing things you would get locked up for.’ And he would just go “Oooh naughty emu”. That’s why Parky hated him; because he was a dirty bastard. Just a horrible, horrible man.’

Let’s not get him wrong. By no means all the entertainers he’s encountered over the past 50 years earn such vitriol; but Hurll is clearly a man who knows his own mind. And sometimes, he admits, ‘we make monsters… It’s a very serious business being funny, and because of what they are, comedians have to have supreme self-confidence, and sometimes it comes out in an heightened way.’

So, for sake of fairness, let us point out that Hurll is full of admiration for the talents of many comics: Sid Caeser was ‘wonderful’ and Jack Benny is ‘the man I admire more than anybody else, the nicest man I ever worked with. And he had incredible comic timing.’

But it was Ronnie Barker who made one of the biggest impressions on Hurll’s comedy radar. ‘With most comedians I was able to impart information, a certain technique,’ he said. ‘But when I worked with the Two Ronnies for 12 years, they taught me everything. Ronnie Barker taught me how to write a joke, how to rearrange the words. A Two Ronnies news item is like Latin verse, it has a meter to it.’

Hurll – whose credits also include shows as diverse as Blind Date, Top Of The Pops and Gerry Cottle’s Seaside Specials – got into showbiz when still a pupil at St Paul’s School in London. It was there that he directed his first comedian, fellow pupils Jonathan Miller. ‘He would have been a great comic if he hadn’t become a top director – a mixture of Danny Kaye and Rowan Atkinson.’

He joined the panto, variety and summer camp circuit as a lowly ‘call boy’, the equivalent of a runner today, alongside one Michael Winner, and under the watchful tutelage of legendary impresario Lesley Grade, a family friend, worked his way through he BBC from stage manager to producing and directing the Billy Cotton Show.

‘I was 26 when I got that job,’ he said. ‘but in those days you were allowed to make mistakes.’ But he learnt one of the essentials of producing: ‘You have to be decisive, otherwise, you’ll be almost completely ineffectual.’

‘Once you make a decision, you have to stand by it. On average, you may get sixty per cent of things wrong, but by Christ it feels good when you get it right.’

He sees the role of a producer as part talent-spotter, part psychologist. ‘For instance, if you’re trying to get something commissioned, always listen to the commissioning editor and repeat back to him what he’s just said. They always like that.

‘And if you’re having an argument with an artist, never personalise it. Don’t say ‘I think’; say ‘we think.’ That way, he can’t reply, ‘well, you don’t know what you’re talking about’, and you’ll get your way nearly every time.”’

And he’s not lost his eye for talent, as he proves by reeling off a roll of honour of contemporary comics, from names you might have expected to come onto radar like Catherine Tate, Peter Kay (‘he makes me laugh out loud’) Sean Hughes (‘very funny, but you never see them now), Dave Gorman (‘I think he’s great’) and Harry Hill (‘TV Burp is a very funny show - he’s exactly the same as the old comedian Harry Worth) to circuit names like Andy Parsons.

‘The two comedians I’d put money on making it would be Michael McIntrye and Russell Howard,’ he said. ‘They are very, very funny.

‘If it was me, I’d put them together in a double act. It would be stunning – they’re both good looking, funny guys. They would become what we’re lacking. Someone able to do primetime 8pm comedy with absolutely clean, funny material.

‘When comedy moved from the variety circuit to the clubs, the material became harder-edged and not for family audiences. There was nowhere for family entertainers to go, so they dried up.’

So what does he think it takes for a comic to make it long-term? ‘Some warmth, something that comes through the screen,’ he says. ‘Sex appeal.’

It’s why he turns his nose up at the names of a few comics, despite their success. Johnny Vegas he dismisses with a simple ‘nah’; Jimmy Carr he also doesn’t see as star material, comparing him to – of all people – Record Breaker host Roy Castle. ‘He was a talented all-round entertainer,’ Hurll says. ‘But he just had no sex appeal. It's the same with Jimmy Carr.’

Mention one comic who fits the bill, however, and Hurll’s septuagenarian eyes light up. ‘Russell Brand? Wonderful. I would love to produce him. That man’s a talent.’

But he warns that Brand needs to find the right TV vehicle soon. ‘He’s got to deliver. He hasn’t got long, if he doesn’t discover it soon, there’ll be someone else coming along.’

Don’t forget this is a man who knows what he’s talking about – and he has more than his fair share of cautionary tales of when comedy turns to tragedy.

‘I did an awful lot of shows with Mike Yarwood and that was really sad because he became an alcoholic. He lives just down the road from me now, but won’t come out the house. I don’t know what he does - he doesn’t drink any more. Very sad.

‘There was a great act called Dailey and Wayne and they never even talked to each other off stage. One even delivered a writ on the other one in the middle of the act. He wanted the props or something and he needed witnesses to the writ, so he served it on stage.’

‘With double acts the problem comes when one of them gets a girlfriend. I had it with Cannon and Ball - suddenly Tommy Cannon fell in love with the girl in the chorus so what was double act was now a triple act.’

At least they had someone to share the stage with, even if the relationships could turn sour, while the solo stand-up must brave the audience alone.

‘The loneliest job in the world is the stand-up comedian because you’re master of your own destiny and there ain’t anybody going to help you when you’re standing up there,’ says Hurll.

‘I have watched Ken Dodd, who is one of the best-stand ups in the country, even though he’s an old man now. I have seen him on a close-up camera, the fear come into his eyes. He was doing a Royal Variety Performance doing new material and wasn’t getting any laughs, so he thought ‘fuck that, I’ll go back to the act’ – and he did one of his old jokes and he didn’t get a laugh, His face was like squeezing a sponge. That fear is why I have great admiration for stand-ups.’

And why, after 50 years, his passion for comedy is undimmed.

Posted: 8 Feb 2007

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