The best medicine

He’s widely regarded as one of the UK’s most original comedic voices but Harry Hill’s life almost took a very different path

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“As one door opens, another one closes… but that’s second-hand cars for you.” It’s this type of silly cosmic wisdom that’s peppered throughout comedian Harry Hill’s new autobiography Fight! Starting each chapter with a different daft gag, the former physician turned big-collared comic emerges from this retelling of his life so far with enough one-liners to fill a compact comedy set list. However, it’s the behind-the-scenes peek at the former TV Burp host’s solitary early childhood, driven stand-up years and rise to fame that emerge as the real takeaways from this humorous, honest and easy-to-read memoir.

Born in Surrey in 1964, Matthew Hall (stage pseudonym Harry Hill didn’t arrive until the early 1990s) always knew his taste in humour was a little different. After spending his school days harbouring a fascination with pyromania – even going so far as to open his own tuck shop for smoke bombs and homemade fireworks – his love of chemistry eventually earned him a degree in medicine from the University of London in 1988. As a new decade loomed, Hall was working as a doctor and training as a neurosurgeon at Doncaster Royal Infirmary, taking his first steps in what would surely become a lifelong career. But deep down, he knew he was on the wrong path.

“I’m not naturally someone that looks back,” laughs Hill when we ask him about the difficulties of finding narrative structure in the unpredictable nature of life. Today, the 57 year old may be best known for his oddball jokes and larger-than-life stints on 1997’s cult hit The Harry Hill Show, 2001’s Bafta-winning Harry Hill’s TV Burp and the current edition of You’ve Been Framed but Fight! is the first chance he’s had to reflect on the unusual road that led him to critical and audience acclaim.

“I’ve never really talked about my years at medical school and being a doctor before because in a way I was a little bit scared by it. I found a lot of it quite traumatic – not the medical school so much but the doctory stuff. That was a bit weird to revisit.”

By age 25, Hall had turned his back on medicine for good to focus all of his efforts on a passion he’d been harbouring for years. When he was just 14, his father accepted a high-paying new job that whisked the family away from the comfort of their Kent home and landed them in the alien surroundings of Hong Kong. Stripped of his friends and plonked into an English-speaking school where the kids of fellow expatriates came and went each day, Hall found solace in the comedy of Spike Milligan and Monty Python, urging his friends back home to send him updates from the comedy scene he’d left behind. It was perhaps during this solitary period where a teenage Hall formed the surrealist sense of humour that would pester him during those stressful medical years, ultimately leading him to make one of the biggest and riskiest decisions of his life.

“It was a really odd time because I was a teenager,” says Hill. “You just want to have fun and those first six months in Hong Kong were really difficult. Suddenly we were better off and in this foreign country so it was exciting but at the same time, what I really wanted was for my friends to come with me.”

Instead, he poured himself into any comedy material his pals back home would send him, with Milligan emerging as a clear favourite.

“With Spike, some of it was really funny and some of it was like, I don’t get it, but what I enjoyed was the excitement. You never really knew what was coming next.”

It’s a mirror to Hill’s own early stand-up, when his unpredictable, almost cartoon-like humour seemed to defy conventions and often logic. “A lot of it was very odd and weird. I was really quite extreme in some ways.”

This was during a time when access to influential comedy was rare, even if you weren’t halfway around the world. But this detective-like element of discovering comedians and absorbing everything he could find about them only helped cement Hill’s growing love of the craft.

“They were exotic and distant. The most famous person I ever saw live in front of me was Alan Minter, the boxer, who opened the village fete,” he chuckles. “When I went to see Ronnie Corbett for the first time it was fantastic because I’d only ever seen him on TV. He hadn’t posted what he had for lunch on Instagram, he was completely unreachable,” says Hill, still marveling at the enigmatic allure of 1970s comics. “If Tommy Cooper was on Parkinson and you missed it, that was that. You really had to be on your toes.”

Thankfully, he was, and as he found himself staring down the very real prospect of a lifetime in medicine just a few years later, the comedic voice in the back of his mind grew louder. Inevitably, things came to a head. After a few difficult moments on the job involving increasing work pressures and struggling to deliver bad news to unsuspecting patients, Hill reached a pivotal moment where he decided to ditch the stethoscope in favor of a microphone, regardless of the odds stacked against him. Had years of shunning his deep love of comedy to achieve a more secure career left him feeling depressed?

Hill ponders the question. “I don’t know if I was miserable. I’ve never been a depressive person. I’ve always been very optimistic and positive,” he reasons. “The thing with medicine, just like comedy, is that if you love doing it, it’s the perfect job because it’s all-encompassing. The people who I worked with would be there long after they were supposed to go home. They were interested in it, would look stuff up after hours and talk about it endlessly – but that wasn’t really me.”

He continues, highlighting a truth about balancing creative passions with social expectations and paying the bills. “When you’re young, you just sort of deal with it and live for the time off. I think a lot of people live their lives like that. I had this epiphany where I realised that maybe, in an ideal world, I’d want to be doing something I enjoyed. I’m amazed at myself for giving it up to this day,” he says.

“I’m a very middle-class, polite bloke and I don’t like to rock the boat. It’s strange that I had the nerve to do it. I must have been unhappy because it was so extreme. I was quite certain I didn’t want to do [medicine] but I think if I hadn’t had something else that I wanted to do, I would’ve just rolled over and done it. A lot of my friends wanted to leave at that time but they stuck it out.”

Stouffer the Cat used to frighten guests on the late-1990s Channel 4 sketch series Harry Hill

Changing his name from Matthew Hall to Harry Hill, by the early 1990s he was well on his way to a new career, compensating for lost time by doubling-down on his persistence to make it.

“You had to have that,” says Hill of his early determination. “It’s not the funniest comedians that make it, it’s the pushiest – and I did have a lot to prove, not just to myself but to other people. I’m sure everyone was just waiting for me to fall flat on my face and I’m sure my mum was thinking, he just needs to just get this out of his system. It’s a mixture of self-delusion and self-belief that’s bordering more on the side of delusion.”

What followed is an ongoing story that has seen Hill become one of the most original comedic voices the UK has produced. “I make the point in the book that it’s the getting there that’s the fun bit, rather than actually being there,” says Hill, focusing on the joy that came as a result of following his dreams. It not only led to numerous successes but allowed him to forge enduring friendships along the way. The late Sean Lock, who passed away from cancer in 2021 aged just 58, was one pal whose memory helps Hill stay grounded.

“It’s difficult for me to talk about without feeling upset. We were very close in the 1990s and shared a flat in Edinburgh for a couple of years but then I didn’t see him much. We’d keep in touch and pick up where we left off. Then when he was ill, I made an effort to see him. Obviously being a doctor, I was aware of what was around the corner.

“He had worked as a scaffolder and had various shitty jobs – the opposite of what Sean Lock should be doing – and I’d worked as a doctor. I think we both really appreciated the idea that we’d escaped,” smiles Hill, contemplating what life might’ve been like had he taken a safer path.

“We were both very grateful that we got to muck about for money.”

Fight! Thirty Years Not Quite At the Top by Harry Hill is out now (Hodder Studio) 

One line wonder

Nobody delivers leftfield one-liners quite like Harry Hill. Here’s a few of his best jokes that never fail to get a laugh

“I was doing some decorating so I got out my step-ladder. I don’t get on with my real ladder.”

“I knew I was going bald when it was taking longer and longer to wash my face.”

“What’s purple, round and calls for help from the hedgerow? A damson in distress.”

“My mother was a lollipop lady… and by that I mean she had a long thin body and a big, fat, sticky head.”

“My dad used to say ‘Always fight fire with fire,’ which is probably why he got thrown out of the fire brigade.”

“Why did the cookie cry? Because her mother had been a wafer so long.”

“I never saw much of my grandfather… he was very good at hiding.”

“What is it about people who repair shoes that make them so good at cutting keys?”

“My father used to like my mother to get dressed up as a nurse. Then he used to like her to go out to work… as a nurse. Brought in some extra money.”

“What do you get when you cross roast pork with a telephone? Crackling on the line.

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