Away from the desk job...

David Phillips on Harry Hill's return to stand-up

Having seen Harry Hill’s stand-up only twice in my life, bookended by avidly watching his TV shows on Channel 4 and ITV, I was eager to find if he had kept the music-hall magic alive after being tied to a desk for the last few years, as he made his return to live performance in front of fewer than 100 Christmas punters in the tastefully decorated Battersea Barge on the Thames.

I wandered back stage, being a guest of the organiser, Lady Harriet (billed as ‘Post Totty on Acid’) and found a quiet, reserved and bescarved Mr Hill carefully writing notes on his hand and sitting next to his tattered suitcase. It’s a lesson for any new and nervous stand up that even a comedian of his experience can show some trepidation before a performance. Harry seemed to have some reservations about  the venue and the crowd as well as performing stand-up in such  intimate circumstances, the detail in his notes belying his belief in the army adage of proper prior preparation preventing piss-poor performance

Just before his stage entrance, Harry stood up and listened behind the curtain to try to divine the exact nature of the audience. Resplendent in his uniform of flapping collared shirt, dark suit jacket with ever-present Harrow Hill FC badge and platform trainers, he stood like a child evacuee from the Second World War, clutching his suitcase. And after a drawn-out introduction from a proud Lady Harriet, he bounded onto stage with a child’s Christmas enthusiasm.

From the first second, Harry engaged with the crowd, forming a connection that was to last throughout his set. His mocking of the clichéd ‘What’s-your-name? Where-you-from? What’s-your-star-sign?’ gambit helped this no end. His voice became its famous rasping projection of the self confidence of an East-End costermonger, filling the venue with his London brogue.

After the brief introductions, the audience were treated to some of Harry’s edgier material, including jokes about Sharia law, Britain’s legacy in Iraq and pubic hair. He avoids being offensive, even at low levels on the Clarkson-ometer,  due to his three attributes: he’s funny; he’s ludicrous and he’s Harry Hill. His familiarity breeds contentment. Thrown together with bathetic interludes (including Beyonce’s advice on keeping pigeons) his delivery helps to keep all seriousness and political intent at bay.

In the latter half of his performance, Harry reverted to surrealism tinged variety in his amateur ventriloquist act featuring his ‘son’, Garry Hill. The audience seemed less hungry for these mock end-of-pier capers but they chuckled along convivially as one would when watching a funny (ha-ha) uncle perform a party piece after the Christmas pud. This kept them amused until Harry launched into a five-minute anecdote about how his prejudice against ‘aborigines’ got him into trouble in a restaurant in Australia. The sledgehammer punchline proved a fitting finale to his act and stamped his authority on his return to stand-up.

With his audience whooping for more, Harry gave a lap of honour in the form of brief musical number on how he helped John Lennon rework Imagine from its original incarnation of a list of adhesives, initiating a quizzical stupor as the crowd wondered where the hell he was going before the brain smack of a clincher at the very end.

Striding off stage with props in hand and a relieved smile, Harry and Garry were surrounded by applause that followed them back stage and into a welcome return to a possible stand-up tour. Cherish those dream tickets when they become available.

  • David Phillips is a musician, writer and entertainer who blogs here.

Published: 30 Dec 2011

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