“ Channel: BBC / Genre: Comedy / Premiered: May 30, 1997 „
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Before he became a regular fixture of the ITV mainstream, Harry Hill developed a strong cult fan base throughout the 90s, aided by winning the Edinburgh festivals Perrier Award in 1992, before exploding modestly onto a Sunday night slot on Channel 4 back in the days when that channel was any good. The self-titled The Harry Hill Show (simply Harry Hill on screen) provided a perfect arena for Harrys highly visual as-live performance, incorporating stand-up monologues, running gags, musical numbers, dance, ventriloquism, pre-filmed sketches and elaborate stunts in an attempt to create the ultimate theatrical experience. But without the tragedy.
Theres a fantastic cosy, live feel to the whole show, performed mostly from one small stage in front of an unseen audience whose enthusiasm grows as each series progresses and catch-phrases become more apparent, in a style that cant help but compare to the channels earlier success with Vic Reeves Big Night Out. As with that show, there is a sense that viewers are missing out on what would be a spectacular live performance, but Harrys familiar style translates well to television and makes use of some of its benefits in cutting to pre-filmed material recorded elsewhere. With its small cast performing a regular clientele of characters whose reliance on catch-phrases either spirals out of control or remains stubbornly fixed as each eight-episode series plods on, the show reminds me mostly of Lee and Herrings This Morning With Richard Not Judy from around the same time, which is perhaps inevitable considering Stewart Lees prominent role as the series script editor and the comedians history of performing together.
Harry Hill would present the bulk of each show from the small, brightly coloured stage in his regular guise as the eccentric frontman with ridiculously oversized collar and thick-rimmed glasses, delivering surreal new and classic stand-up material before moving seamlessly on to entirely unrelated subjects and running gags. The TV series is essentially a continuation of the long-running radio series Harry Hills Fruit Corner and involved many of the same situations and characters, mostly from Harrys own alleged family. Prior to winning his own Perrier for his Pub Landlord character, Al Murray reprised this series most consistent role of Harrys dim-witted, belt-loving big brother Alan (if its too hard, I cant understand it), while other notable characters included Harrys tiny adult son also called Alan (who communicated only through tapping), the risqué Nana Hill, actor Burt Kwouk playing himself (but with an insatiable quest to capture chickens with increasingly elaborate gadgets), and Harrys cockney chief scientist, bizarrely named Finsbury Park, who was paid for his services with pork or lamb chops, decided through an elaborate game show system.
No real attempt is made to explain why many of these characters turn up on stage when they do, adding to the frivolous atmosphere. All of these characters were intentionally one-dimensional and limited in scope, and many of their appearances amounted to little more than a direct repetition of the previous week, and the week before that, making the changeover between series something of a relief. Most successful are the brief scenes of banter between Harry and his big brother Alan, which usually involve them indulging in strange playground-style, name-calling games that gain momentum through the series and start to overlap with each other, before Harry reminds Alan to get back to organising the badger parade, later replaced with an alphabet song, ultimately delayed due to various distractions until the final episodes. The shows use of puppets is probably its most debatable move, despite being one of the few truly new additions after the radio show, and is really quite confusing. While the badgers sections are innocent fun, they are a little pointless, often the mere precursor to the shows musical finale, while the use of the huge, monstrous, eye-popping recreation of Tufty the Road Safety Squirrel seems more aimed at giving children nightmares. Most memorable is Harrys blue cat hand-puppet Stouffer, acting as an enjoyable, well-meaning parody of ventriloquism acts, in which Harry is fitted with a deliberately unconvincing Rod Hull-style false arm and makes no attempt to hide his mouth movements.
Its clear that Harry intends his shows to be enjoyed by people from all walks of life and all ages even to the extent of introducing a special section on biscuits in one episode for older viewers and the series repeats in an evening time slot may have helped to spread its appeal to children, who can get just as much from the series as adult viewers. I certainly would have loved it when I was about seven, and the only real change that has been made for these repeats is the quite distracting and badly-dubbed word slug whenever the Little Orphan Boy calls Harry a slag. Unfortunately, it seems that these are the versions that were sold for endless circulation to the Paramount channel and can now be seen more often than the originals, which may have contained further material edited for the earlier broadcast. The series hasnt been released on DVD or video, but there are always ways to see these things on the internet.
Harry Hills show is a highly enjoyable half-hour of television (twenty-five minutes if excluding the advert break), but its extensive range of styles makes it rather hit-and-miss by necessity. The reliance on formulaic jokes is incredibly high, even compared to similar series, and while the anticipation can increase the enjoyment in some cases, particularly when expectations are confounded a little, many of them get quite old, quite fast it all depends on the individual viewers tastes. While its always enjoyable to see Burt Tenko Kwouk stroll on unannounced with his latest chicken-catching gadget, you know its always going to be followed by his hey little hen song with no variation whatsoever. The good thing about this scattered approach is that each section is mercifully short, rivalling The Fast Show in its frequency of scene changes, so even if a viewer isnt fond of the dull clown sit-com, it wont be long before Harry has a Savlon flashback leading to his Zeinab Badawi news section. The use of celebrity guests is also satisfyingly low-key and ridiculous rather than a genuine publicity stunt, as those involved are usually placed in a meaningless situation along the lines of Garry Bushell sings the instrumentals.
This certainly isnt comedy for those who believe stand-up should be all about making angry satirical observations in the style of Bill Hicks, but as some unadulterated traditional entertainment its hard to beat it. The show rarely makes me laugh out loud, and I could never watch more than one in a day due to the degree of repetition, but its a nice, bizarre and heart-warming family show that viewers are invited to completely lose themselves in for half an hour. The show ran for two series and a Christmas special before being cancelled, but has been succeeded by Harrys other projects such as TV Burp and The All-New Harry Hill Show, both of which Ive avoided for fear of disillusionment. His tenure on Youve Been Framed inaugurated a new commercially viable Harry Hill that likely upset many of the die-hard cult fans who knew him when no one else did, but they should at least be thankful that the terrible rumours about Harry fronting a revamped version of Beadles About have turned out to be a total lie.