What’s your favourite cult comedy? No, I’m not talking about The Mighty Boosh, Peep Show or Spaced! They’re mainstream. I’m talking about the sort of shows that weren’t even given a DVD release (most of the time), the kind of rare British comedy gems that we only have enthusiastic owners of VHS recorders to thank for.
You know of Harry Hill, Paul Merton, Peter Kay and Lee Evans. But do you know of The Harry Hill Show? What about Paul Merton: The Series? That Peter Kay Thing? or the Lee Evans sitcom: So What Now? That’s the kind of thing I’ll be looking at and I wanted to start with the first comedy show I can remember watching, and that’s the sitcom/stand up/sketch show hybrid: The Harry Hill Show.
After Harry Hill had gained attention and recognition for his stand up in the early 90s, he landed a show on Radio 4: Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner, which began in 1993. It was a mix of stand up, sitcom, sketches and special guests. The show was the blue print for Harry Hill, which later became known as The Harry Hill Show.
Around the same time he worked on a sort of spin off for BBC2: Fruit Fancies, which was a series of 10-minute black-and-white surrealist silent comedy shorts. It was Hill’s debut on TV, though it didn't have that much in common with what eventually became The Harry Hill Show (except the theme tune) and ended after just one series, while Fruit Corner continued on Radio 4 .
Fruit Corner came to an end in 1997, presumably when the show was snapped up by Channel 4, as that same year The Harry Hill Show debuted on TV.
The Harry Hill Show was a completely unique format with an extremely diverse cast and team, which included: Al Murray (as Harry’s big brother Alan); Burt Kwouk, who played a version of himself hell bent on catching chickens; Barrie Gosney as himself, but also Ken Ford (the man from the joy of sex books); Matt Bradstock, a real-life friend of Harry’s who was actually a GP playing his ‘tiny mute three-year-old son’, and many more.
Even the behind-the-scenes team included some unlikely names, with Stewart Lee being credited as the script editor and, blink and you'll miss her, Catherine Tate, starting her career as a supporting artist.
Its genius can be found in its madness. The Harry Hill Show was unapologetically off the wall 100% of the time! A great example of this can be found in the random incidents in which Harry would come into contact with Savlon (Savlon instead of toothpaste, Savlon instead of salad cream), which would cause him to ‘come over all Channel 4’, leading directly into the news-reading sketch in which Harry would very loosely impersonate the Channel 4 newsreader of the day, Zeinab Badawi, simply by sticking a wig on and helpfully announcing that was who he was.
It was part of the 90s wave of surreal comedy popularised by Vic Reeves Big Night Out. In fact, Vic Reeves Big Night Out is probably the nearest comparison you could make to it, but even then they’re not very much alike. What set the Harry Hill Show apart as a format was Harry’s unique sitcom approach to making a traditional sketch show/stand-up hybrid that was a very popular format in classic comedy that has almost died out now. The most famous of that genre being The Morecambe and Wise Show.
However, there was also another unique element that set it apart: Harry’s love of puppetry.
Pretty much half of the show’s main characters were puppets, most famously: Stouffer, Harry’s iconic blue cat; Gary, the controller of Channel 4 (who later regularly made an appearance on TV Burp dressed as Alan Sugar);, Tasmin Archer Badger; Gareth Southgate Badger (but without his iconic waistcoat); and even Keith Harris and Orville.
In fact that was my favourite part of the show as a child! Orville ran a bar, much like Cheers, for all the puppets. It was a place where Stouffer would be having a few drinks after the recordings, while Gary, the Channel 4 controller, whose wife had just left him (for Gary Wilmot), would think up ideas for ways in which he could be included in the show. In many ways it was a lot like a slightly more adult version of The Muppet Show.
One of the ongoing features was Harry’s attempts to finish the show with the badger parade, which would always get immediately postponed, resulting in Alan, or the special guest star, informing Harry that ‘You’d better get down that grooming bay!’ This involved Harry confronting the badgers, and again, much like that not so obvious comparison The Morecambe and wise Show, it lead to a big song at the end featuring their special guest star.
So what happened to The Harry Hill Show? It ran for three series, had two Christmas specials, and even a spin-off book. It was very successful at the time, but the problem is that it never had a commercial release, and still hasn’t to this day. It’s a problem that has plagued almost all of Harry’s projects; however, all of the episodes have survived in varying degrees of quality, mainly from people's VHS rips, and you can find them all on YouTube.
Over the years I’ve contacted Channel 4 asking for some high-quality copies, but much like the BBC they have a policy not to send out copies of TV shows, even if you’re willing to pay for them. That’s if they even have access to the master tapes themselves anymore!
In 2012, shortly after the end of TV Burp, Harry brought back The Harry Hill Show for one last go as a mockumentary-style look back at the making of the show, comprising a big finale at the end, complete with all the surviving members of the original cast.
Harry Hill will probably always be known best for the undeniably brilliant TV Burp, and is probably asked endlessly about that show. However, if you ask me, it is The Harry Hill Show that I always think of when someone mentions Harry Hill to me, and it's a crying shame that not a lot of people know about it!
It’s a forgotten series but if you go and watch it it won’t be forgotten anymore!
Written by Rhianna Evans