Having seen Harry Hill in 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. Standing in the tastefully decorated splendour of the cosy Battersea Barge on the Thames, next to the iconic presence of the adjacent power station, the red curtains at the end of the room fluttered while fewer than 100 Christmas party goers tucked into their fine fare.
I wandered back stage, being a guest of the organiser, Lady Harriet (billed as “Post Totty on Acid”) and there I 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, skill and talent 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 pending stage entrance, Harry stood up and listened behind the curtain as a vertical Tonto may divine the exact nature of an approaching 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 World War II, clutching his suitcase and looking beyond the curtain to an unknown reception. After a drawn out introduction from a proud Lady Harriet, Harry Hill bounded onto stage with a child’s Christmas enthusiasm.
From the first second in front of his audience, Harry engaged with the crowd, forming a laughter 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 of comedians immemorial 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 then 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 Clarksonometer, due to his three attributes: he’s funny; he’s ludicrous and he’s Harry Hill. His familiarity breeds contentment and his geniality laughter. Thrown together with bathetic interludes (including Beyonce’s advice on keeping pigeons) his delivery helps to keep all seriousness and political intent from his ramshackle suitcase of mirth.
In the latter half of his performance, Harry reverted to surrealism tinged variety in his amateur ventriloquist act featuring his “son” from his first marriage, Garry Hill.
The audience’s appetite, having been whetted by his cutting edge humour, seemed to be less rapacious 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 is finished. 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 terminal sledgehammer punchline proved a fitting finale to his act and stamped his comic authority on his return to stand-up.
With his audience whooping for more, Harry gave one last victorious lap of honour with a little musical number on how he helped John Lennon rework “Imagine” from its original incarnation of a list of adhesives, initiating that quizzical stupor in the crowd wondering where the hell he was going with it 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 as, judging by this thunderous forty minutes, Harry Hill’s stand-up is back and is as entertaining as ever.