Hugh Dennis interview

Over the past six years, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis have pretty much cornered the market in mass-appeal topical comedy, what with 13 series of The Now Show and 11 series of It’s Been A Bad Week.

It’s an enviable radio CV – but one, they claim, they fell into by sheer coincidence.

“I suppose you could call us accidental satirists,” Hugh concedes. “If that doesn’t sound like a film starring John Hurt.

“Steve and I have always been news junkies and tend to read a lot of papers through choice. And then it became our job.”

But they started their comedy careers doing sketches. First on the London comedy circuit before finding unprecedented, and unsurpassed, levels of adulation through The Mary Whitehouse Experience before drifting into the mainstream, first with Jasper Carrott, and then Radios 4 and 2.

Along the way, they picked up the reputation for the sort of fast-turnaround material demanded by a show as immediate as The Now Show, ditching much of the stand-alone sketches in favourite of up-to-the-minute topicality.

“It’s frustrating because when we were doing The Mary Whitehouse Experience, we weren’t doing that at all, we were creating characters,” Hugh says.

“And most the fuel for what we were doing on Carrott Confidential came from stuff we just identified as being ‘out there’. For instance, at a tine when planes were falling out the sky, we did a couple of air traffic controllers. The topicality just happened, it wasn’t a comedy construct.

“We don’t get to do sketches like we did for the Mary Whitehouse Experience any more, since we’re so focussed on the news.”

But now Steve and Hugh have the chance to go back to that world, with their first tour in nine years, save for a few try-out gigs earlier this year.

The characters from the Mary Whitehouse days have gone, of course, although Hugh confesses he does still have the anorak of the creepy Mr Milky Milky still hanging in the back of his closet.

“A guy rang up last week looking for weird ringtones. He wanted to record me saying ‘milky milky’ to download onto your phone. I think comedy catchphrase ring tones are a great idea.

“The tour is the kind of stuff we used to do. We did a run of warm-up dates in March or April – I can’t remember quite when but there were daffodils… The audience was a nice mixture, a much wider range than when we last toured.

“In 1995 we were playing to the Whitehouse audience. Look at the video of Rob [Newman] and David [Baddiel] at Wembley from that time and you’ll see that the audience are all about 16, mostly young girls.

“I can’t wait for this tour. We’ve had such strange careers, and when I’m doing something I always want to be doing something different instead. I guess I have a very short attention span.

“I’m actually looking forward to being in a car going to Abergavenny or Warwick. Though when I am physically doing it, I’ll be saying, ‘Why can’t I be doing another series of My Hero.”

Talking of which, it returns to BBC1 for a new series in January, with Hugh as the hapless Piers. And after that? “The BBC want a new series, but I’m not sure,” he says.

My Hero is one of the few things separating Steve and Hugh in the public conscience. For all their on-air mockery of Ant and Dec as interchangeable, Steve and Hugh suffer pretty much the same fate, so long have they been joined at the funnybone.

They’ve been comedy colleagues for 20 years, meeting at Cambridge, where they were both members of the Footlights.

“We always get asked why we have worked together so long,” Hugh says. “Either neither of us has an ego… or both of us have got huge egos but they are exactly the same size.

“We know each other’s ways now. And like any relationship, it works on how much you can stand the things you don’t like about the other person. For instance, I know Steve will always be late.”

Another thing Hugh has done away from his oppo this year was the most coveted job in comedy: guest hosting Have I Got News For You. “I felt privileged,” he says. “But it’s a very combative arena.

“At the time I had a blood clot in my left eye and it went blurred. I, naturally, thought I was dying. But the worst of it was I couldn’t read the autocue. Luckily they managed to make the text bigger.”

Published: 3 Jul 2006

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