Comdedian Hugh Dennis tells Ellie Rose how he created an "unhecklable" set when he first started performing at The Comedy Store in London.

…standing in my garden watching the air display for Churchill's funeral

It was 1965, I was three and we lived in a vicarage on the Isle of Dogs. A group of four fighters—Lightnings, I expect—flew down really low in formation over our heads, because we were just next to the river.

It must have been quite traumatic because I’m not aware of anything at all before that point.

 

…my dad John was a vicar, but my upbringing wasn’t strict

He served in east London [later becoming the Bishop of Knaresborough in Yorkshire] until I was ten. We went to church, but it wasn’t the kind of family where we were really well behaved and prayed a lot.

My older brother Ian and I fought sometimes, but we ended up friends. Ian wasn’t interested in sport, but I spent a lot of time doing keepy-uppies with a football. In fact, I don’t have many memories that aren’t playing football.

I set fire to things… normal boy stuff. There was an old bomb site nearby, which I spent hours on, around bits of wreckage and probably unexploded bombs. Quite dangerous, I imagine.

Read more: 7 Unusual religions from across the world

 

…the vicarage was a great place to grow up in (especially if you liked amphibians)

It was a huge Victorian house, by far the largest on the Isle of Dogs. It had three bathrooms, which—considering everybody else in the area was living in prefabs—seemed a bit wrong, somehow.

One bathroom wasn’t used, so my brother and I kept newts in it. Mum had no objections; being a nursery-school teacher, she had a good sense of play.

One of her pupils—I’ve always liked this—was the daughter of the Kray twins’ getaway driver. Proper East End!

 

…the main lesson my parents taught me was that people are just people

That’s the thing about vicarages—you’re sharing them with all sorts of individuals. There’s no status. This was a time when there were still proper tramps—people who just walked around houses asking for a cup of tea. You’d often come home after school and find somebody sitting in the kitchen, having a sandwich and telling his life story. That seemed completely normal.

Apparently, tramps used to have a code where they’d leave chalk marks outside places they’d visited, which meant, “Don’t bother coming here, they’re horrible,” or, “These people will give you a cup of tea.” I think there would’ve been one outside our place saying, “Nice sandwich.”

 

…applying to study geography at Cambridge

There was never any pressure from my parents. But both of them had been to Cambridge, my brother was at Cambridge, my uncle had been at Cambridge… and two of my grandparents had been offered places at Cambridge.

It wasn’t that anyone tried to make my mind up for me; it was probably just the only place I’d ever heard of.

 

...joining Footlights in my second year

I went with a really old mate from school. I can’t remember why he wanted to do it; probably girls. But we took a sketch along and someone laughed, and that was sort of it.

 

...Working in marketing at Unilever by day, and doing gigs by night

The Comedy Store [in London] was quite a scary place. At Cambridge, you’d have a guaranteed audience that was quite gentle. But in the early Eighties, comedy was changing—Ben Elton and The Young Ones were starting. It had become a different beast. Suddenly, appearing on stage and saying, “I’ve just come down from Cambridge”… well, it’s not going to help you in any sense, is it?

Steve [Punt, Hugh’s long-term comedy partner and co-star on Radio 4’s The Now Show] and I were scared, so we developed what we thought was an unhecklable set, where Steve narrated a story and I brought a bag of hats and played all the characters. We went so fast that there was no time for interruptions. It worked, and we did that set for three or four years.

Read more: The best British comedy clubs

 

Thinking “I have no idea where I’m headed”

When I did Spitting Image [1989–1991], working with Steve Coogan and people who knew precisely where they were going, I thought, I really don’t. I have no idea where I’m headed.

I used to think it was a terrible weakness, but now I just think that’s who I am and what makes me happy. I dive off in lots of directions.

 

…having this big success with the Mary Whitehouse experience, then getting bored

We did two series on BBC2, but for two years before that we’d done 43 shows on Radio 1. At the end, in 1992, we’d had enough.

I think Dave [Baddiel] and Rob [Newman] had been offered something called Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, and me and Steve had been offered a BBC1 show. We just thought, Let’s go and do that, then.

 

...Encountering scepticism about Outnumbered in its early days

The BBC supposedly didn’t understand what the series would be. When the production company Hat Trick took them a sheet of paper saying, “It’s a sitcom, there’s a mum and dad and three kids, and they’re outnumbered,” they kind of went, “Mmm. It sounds a bit like things we’ve had before. Would you make a little taster?”

So Hat Trick made a ten-minute version and, for some reason I’m still not entirely clear about, I was asked to do it. In the producer’s house that Saturday, I just thought, This feels really new and fresh.

Read more: What's the best British sitcom of the 21st century?

 

...taking inspiration from others

I’ve learned a huge amount from Claire Skinner, my pretend wife, because she’s so naturally good. I spend a lot of time thinking, I’ve got to make my reactions as small and significant as that.

I also have a deep admiration for Stephen Fry, because he makes no distinction at all between highbrow and lowbrow. He thinks Shooting Stars is as important as King Lear.

 

...enjoying the trappings of fame, then having kids

We [Hugh and his wife Catherine Abbot-Anderson] lived in Islington, ate out a lot and went on a lot of quite groovy holidays.

I always wanted kids, and I was about 35 by the time I had them. But for the first five years of their life, you just disappear. People probably think you’ve died; you don’t go to the cinema, you don’t go out…suddenly we were going on holiday to Devon.

 

...having one of those “This is what my life is” moments

Before we had kids, we had a VW sports car. We got rid of it when Freddie [the older of Hugh’s two kids, now 15] arrived, and I thought, We can’t get an estate car. We can’t! So I went out and bought a BMW from the 3 Touring series. It didn’t call itself an estate car, which made me feel better.

But it still wasn’t big enough. So I was then forced to get a roof box from Halfords. We also had cats at this point.

So one very sunny day, I was driving along the King’s Road, admiring the people walking by—some quite attractive girls—and I caught sight of myself in a shop window: a very tired-looking 35-year-old man in an estate car with a roof box and a cat-guard.

What you are in your head, and what you actually are, are very different things!

 

...finding that careers only make sense backwards

As I’ve never thought, I’ll do that, then this, then I’ll be a household name and it just happens, I’m always trying to look on life as another fun surprise. Whatever it throws at you, you deal with it and think, Oh, interesting. I’m glad I’m here.

On the occasions when I’ve thought I could possibly be feeling depressed, I’ve just thought, Ooh, I’ll have a biscuit. And then I feel much better.

 

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