Andy Hamilton: I Remember

BY Vicki Power

17th Jun 2022 Celebrities

Andy Hamilton: I Remember

Comedy writer, Andy Hamilton, 67, looks back on finding his feet in TV comedy and explains why he refuses to carry a mobile phone

My bedroom window overlooked a bomb site. Because my dad was a returning prisoner of war, he got our house in Fulham at a controlled rent. Out of my window I could see the remains of about six houses overgrown with weeds, but with lots of ghostly staircases and features still there.

My brother, Pete, who’s seven years older than me, and I were warned never to play on the bomb site because of the possibility of unexploded ordnance.

Still, on Bonfire Night a massive bonfire would be built there and our windows would get so hot that they’d actually start to bend and move. It usually ended with the fire department being called.

I was born with scoliosis [a curvature of the spine] and I’ve got the thumb missing on my right hand. They’re just congenital things. I’ve not got dwarfism, which some people think because some of the vertebrae in my neck are fused and left me with a short neck. I’m five foot three—I used to be five foot four, not that I’m sensitive about it!

I used to go to hospital regularly for clinical photographs. There was some worry that during puberty I would grow really fast and that would cause problems with my neck, but luckily I didn’t, so there was no need for medical intervention.

As a kid I was conscious of being one of the smallest in the school, but I don’t think I was bullied any more than the standard level of bullying in a boys’ school. I never felt singled out.

"I’ve not got dwarfism, which some people think because some of the vertebrae in my neck are fused"

My dad’s experiences of the war probably affected him. He’d been a prisoner of war for five years and he was not an easy man in some ways. He was a maintenance man for an insurance company, very hardworking and capable of being very social, but also of being very distant and quite moody.

We had sticky patches in our relationship. But there was no shortage of love.

My mum, Sylvia, was very loving and good-natured. She worked for the Ministry of Defence and I remember her coming home at the height of the Cold War with a pamphlet telling her to stock up on canned goods and to discreetly whitewash the windows to prepare for a nuclear war.

Hard to do without arousing suspicion!

Andy Hamilton posing with awards won by his choir group in 1961A young Andy Hamilton posing with two of several prizes won by St Luke's Choir, 1961. 

I was a choirboy from the age of six. I had a decent treble voice and they would push me out in front at Christmas to sing “Away in a Manger.” It was a good choir, St Luke’s on Redcliffe Square, and we won lots of competitions.

I had no religion in me at all, but I loved the music, and I still like to wander into churches and look around.

I went to a direct grant grammar school called Westminster City, not Westminster School, which is a public school. Academically, I was reasonably good. I had a tendency to be a bit lippy and argumentative.

I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch Hancock. Galton and Simpson, who wrote Hancock’s Half Hour [1954-61] and Steptoe and Son [1962-74], were a huge influence on me in terms of comedy, and the Monty Python lot.

My dad, Jim, was quite funny in an impish or practical joke kind of way: he didn’t do verbal jokes quite so much. My uncles and aunts were funny.

I think it’s a sort of working-class London thing that the way you express affection for people is by winding them up. So as a family we were all quite good wind-up merchants.

"It’s a sort of working-class London thing that the way you express affection for people is by winding them up"

I felt a bit like a fish out of water at Cambridge. It was mostly because there’d been a coup in the English department the year before and it was very different to what I expected.

My friends were mostly bright Welsh kids from Methodist schools, because the rest of the college did seem to have a huge number of public school boys.

I didn’t join Footlights [comedy troupe] because I joined Cambridge University Light Entertainment Society [CULES]. I suppose I was quite happy being a larger fish in a smaller pool. I joined to meet girls, principally.

We did shows in old people’s homes, children’s hospitals and prisons—to people who couldn’t get away, basically.

I thought I’d drift into teaching and become sarcastic and disappointed. But while I was at Cambridge we took shows to Edinburgh in 1975 and 1976.

We were performing in an old Bovril factory and luckily for me a man called Geoffrey Perkins, then a trainee producer in comedy [later a legendary comedy producer] came to see a show, then came backstage and asked, “Who wrote that?”.

When I said I had, he said, “Have you thought about doing it for a living?”. I put the performing on hold and started writing for radio and the TV sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News [1979-82].

Andy Hamilton, Jay Tarses and James Fleet in Revolting PeopleAndy, Jay Tarses and James Fleet in the BBC Radio 4 comedy show Revolting People, 1998

I’ve had great comedy collaborators. In the early days there was a lot less interaction between writers and performers, but I’d already worked with Griff Rhys Jones on radio so I knew him a bit on News, and Mel Smith was equally brilliant.

So when they started their own show, Alas Smith and Jones [1984-98], I wrote a fair amount for them.

I also worked with Jay Tarses, a top American comedy writer who’d written for Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore, when we were both working for Hat Trick Productions. Jay and I did Revolting People [2000-06], a radio show which co-starred James Fleet. It was a very happy show.

I’m currently working with the wonderful Brenda Blethyn on our sitcom Kate & Koji.

Guy Jenkin has been my writing partner for 40 years now. I’d met him at a show by CULES in Cambridge after I’d graduated. He’d written the show and wanted to come to London, so I helped him find a place to stay—basically in a windowless room at the top of the house I was living in in south London—and comedy writing work in London.

We ended up working on a lot of the same shows and started writing sketches together. We’re not sure how we came up with the idea for Drop the Dead Donkey [1990-98], but that was our first hit.

We liked the idea of a newsroom—and of filming episodes the night before transmission so they were really topical—and knew we could write well under pressure.

Cast of Outnumbered tv show featuring Hugh Dennis written by Andy HamiltonThe multi-award winning TV sitcom Outnumbered, starring Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner, depicts the day-to-day chaos of family life

Our comedy Outnumbered [2007-16] was a hymn to bad parenting. By the time we started writing it, my kids [Pip, 34, Robbie, 32, and Isobel, 30] were grown up. But Guy’s kids were younger and he was living through it, so between us, we had a pretty good handle on all that daily chaos.

At the time, Guy was cheesed off with all the parenting manuals out there and we saw Outnumbered as the antidote to that: as long as there’s love in the house, you muddle through.

We co-directed Outnumbered as well, which was less common back then, for writers to be so involved in production, but it worked well for us. We’re not directing Kate & Koji but we go on set and deliver performance notes to the actors.

"Guy was cheesed off with all the parenting manuals out there and we saw Outnumbered as the antidote to that"

Without my wife, Libby [Asher], I wouldn’t have succeeded at anything. I got contacted a while back to do one of those reality shows where they put celebrities on a tropical island and see if they can survive. It was bewildering to be asked, because the reality is, if Libby leaves the house for more than a couple of hours, I’m probably at risk.

She’s an organised and dynamic person and that’s what I need because I’m not either of those things. In a work context I can be organised, but not in a life setting.

I don’t carry a mobile phone, because they’re a bit tyrannical or too fiddly.

I’m not a recluse, but I do like to be able to sit and think. I also worry that a mobile phone would impinge on my ability to daydream. I do it when I’m strolling around. I think stuff is happening.

I’m sure all writers are the same—that at any given moment, there are lots of ideas drifting about inside their brains, and gradually the ideas acquire solidity.

And that is how daydreaming is work, although, of course, it’s quite hard to convince people it’s not random thinking. It’s a form of play, really.

There is no lovelier sound than of a full theatre, laughing. That’s why I’ve kept my hand in performing. I’ve performed on and off for decades, I do panel shows like Have I Got News for You, and since the late Nineties I’ve gone out, just me and a microphone.

It’s great to meet your audience—I’m presuming that most people come because they like my work and my style.

That’s why I’m going on a short tour this summer. I’ll be talking about the topics of the day and I’ll often leave a bucket onstage at the interval for audience members to put questions in, so we interact. It is really great fun to meet your audience. 

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