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“I recall…” Hugh Dennis

Comedian 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.

…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 unhackable 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.

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.

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