I don’t know whether you’ve met Simon Cowell, but it’s an odd thing. He’s smaller than you think and he has no feet.
His trousers appear to be glued to the soles of his shoes so that his feet remain invisible. I once commented on his suit and asked him where it was from.
‘I have to have them made, Harry,’ he said. ‘I’m a very odd shape.’
Harry Hill pictured with The Queen, who the comedian said he met when he ‘hadn’t eaten all day’ and was ‘unfortunately completely smashed’ during. He said: ‘I turned the Royal Variety Show into a Dignitas reunion dinner’
For a few years in the Noughties, my hit show TV Burp was on ITV at teatime on Saturdays, just before The X Factor. Simon and his team used to watch it while they were getting ready in make-up.
The X Factor was essential viewing in our house, especially with our three young girls. One year, I took them to see a live recording and much to their excitement they met One Direction, Louis, Cheryl and the gang.
The next year, I was sitting, a little tipsy, at the final as Little Mix lifted the big prize. I mused that I’d watched every single episode for seven years, and I thought to myself, ‘How can I turn this huge amount of useless knowledge into some kind of higher art, or better still . . . money!’
Then as the confetti cannons went off on screen and Little Mix wept with excitement, it hit me like a thunderbolt — an X Factor musical!
Simon’s right-hand man was Nigel Hall, a former ITV producer whom I knew a bit. My idea earned me a meeting at the Sony building just off Kensington High Street where Simon has his office.
Nigel called to explain that Simon was ‘running a bit late’. I’d brought my friend Steve Brown, who would be the musical director, along with me.
We were given tea and a Heat magazine. Twenty minutes later, he came back to us: ‘Good news, Simon has left home, and he’s now in the car on the Westway.’
Ten minutes later . . . ‘Simon is 15 minutes away, he’s at Shepherd’s Bush roundabout.’ And 20 minutes later . . . ‘Simon is in the road and walking towards the building!’
Then . . . ‘Simon is in the lift!’ Then . . . ‘Simon’s coming up the corridor!’ Then the door to the office opened and Nigel said, ‘It’s Simon!’
As the cigarette smoke cleared like some bizarre episode of Stars In Their Eyes, there he was in the doorway.
What he does have is an amazing stillness and weird charisma that I’ve never experienced before or since. When with him, you feel like anything is possible.
I actually came away from that first meeting wondering whether I might be falling in love with him.
‘What’s this about?’ he said, easing himself into one of the beige leather sofas in his beige-leather-lined office.
‘It’s about Harry’s idea for the X Factor musical, Simon, remember?’ prompted Nigel.
At the end of the meeting, Simon nodded, sat back on his sofa, and said the magic words: ‘It’s a yes from me!’
Steve and I tumbled out on to the pavement and looked at each other aghast. ‘S***!’ said Steve. ‘We’re going to have to write the bloody thing now!’
At that first meeting, Simon had told us that he’d recently banned two words from the show — ‘journey’ as in, ‘It’s been a fantastic journey’ and ‘dream’ as in, ‘This is my dream, Simon!’
Hill said: ‘For revenge, I told Keeley Hawes we’d both pose cross-eyed – except I didn’t…’. Hawes with Hill at the 50th Bafta Television Awards in 2008
So Steve and I decided we’d write a song called I’m Dreaming Of A Journey On My Journey To A Dream.
At the next meeting, I suggested it should be a duet. ‘It can’t be a duet,’ said Simon, looking at me with the look that says, ‘Cross me if you dare.’
‘Of course it’s not a duet! Ha ha!’ I said with a nervous laugh, thinking, ‘Bit weird, what was all that about?’
I think, in retrospect, it was about Simon flexing his muscles.
As Steve played the song, Simon put his arms in the air, waving them back and forth. He even started singing along.
At the end, he applauded and said, ‘That’s great, Steve, I really like it, but you should change key a couple of times at the end.’
To which Steve replied, ‘No.’
Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. Gone was the sunny, upbeat bonhomie and in blew an arctic frost.
‘It could do with a key change,’ repeated Simon.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Steve dismissively.
The next day I got a phone call. It was Nigel.
‘Well done, yesterday! But, ah . . . How important is Steve?’
‘We sort of come as a team. It’s a musical,’ I pointed out, ‘so we need someone to write the songs.’
‘Well, he can’t argue with Simon,’ he snapped. ‘Otherwise it’s going to be a very short relationship!’
‘He didn’t really argue with Simon,’ I reasoned. ‘It was more a frank exchange of views . . .’
‘Believe me, baby, that’s as close to an argument that Simon’s been for ten years.’
It was all smoothed over. We assembled a cast, workshopped it for a week or so, rewriting the whole time, and then the moment came for us to perform it in a stripped-down way, in the basement of the Soho Theatre in Dean Street for Simon, his entourage and all the West End theatre owners and their representatives, with a view to securing Simon’s permission to press on with the project — and crucially, a venue to stage it in.
Just before the show was due to start, we got a series of phone calls. ‘Simon’s running late, Simon’s on Oxford Street, Simon’s round the corner . . . Simon’s in the building . . .’
Hill said of Simon Cowell, to whom he pitched an X Factor musical: ‘I actually came away from that first meeting wondering whether I might be falling in love with him.’ He added that Cowell said he was ‘110%’ behind the show which closed four weeks later
Eventually Simon arrived with Nigel, Amanda Holden and Sinitta in tow. The rest of the audience were producers, promoters and theatre owners — really hard bitten, ‘Nothing impresses us!’ types. Your quintessential ‘tough crowd’.
The last time any of these guys laughed was when one of their rivals’ shows was cancelled.
The show started and, unbelievably, it couldn’t have gone better — everyone was laughing hysterically from the off.
The show finished to a standing ovation — unheard of in that kind of workshop situation and in front of that sort of crowd.
Smelling success, Simon sprang to his feet, ran up on to the stage and said, ‘I’m backing this 110 per cent!’
We were off! The producers accepted the offer of the Palladium which, after all, only seats a mere 2,400 people.
The opening night was studded with stars. We had Louis Walsh, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, David Walliams, Cilla Black, Philip Green, Jimmy Carr, Union J (waddya mean, who?), Sinitta and Amanda Holden (who appeared inexplicably to have forgotten to wear her trousers).
I know! What a weird bunch! We got mostly good reviews. I was doing a lot of what I believe is called ‘flouncing about’.
Suddenly, I thought I was Noel Coward. ‘I’ve got a hit show at the London Palladium, doncha know!’
Sir Ian ‘Gandalf’ McKellen turned up one night, Rowan Atkinson another! We were on our way — we were going to be rich!
Four weeks after opening night, I was in a cab on my way home after a matinee (Yes, I was even doing matinees!) and I noticed a missed call from the producer. I called her straight back.
For a few years in the Noughties, Hill’s hit show TV Burp was on ITV on Saturday evenings, just before The X Factor
‘Oh, hi, Rebecca!’ I said breezily. Then as a joke added, ‘I thought we’d get longer than four weeks, ha ha ha!’
To which she replied, ‘How did you know?’
I heard a low grunting noise that sounded like a wounded animal, then I realised it was coming from me.
‘Noooooooo!’ I groaned. And that was it.
Why did it fail? Probably because we took on too large a venue. I found out later that no one in the history of the Palladium had ever launched a new musical there. What we should have done is started small and toured the provinces, like all the other shows do.
The following night we broke the news to the cast and crew as they came off. They were the people who suffered most, this bunch of very talented people.
They were all signed up for a year and all they got was two weeks’ notice. I know it’s not quite the same as the pit closing in a mining town, but it’s as close as us luvvies get to it.
The best thing about a command performance before the Queen at the Royal Variety Show is the cast list. It feels like proper, old-fashioned showbiz.
On the bill when I appeared in 1997 were the Spice Girls, Celine Dion, Jim Davidson, Michael Ball, Cirque Du Soleil and the cast of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.
I shared a dressing room with a Russian strongman called Vlad — who spoke virtually no English. The big surprise was to be an appearance from Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker, back together for the first time in ten years as The Two Ronnies.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked them. Barker explained that they were to come on dressed as those TV chefs, the Two Fat Ladies, on their trademark motorbike and sidecar — then take their helmets off to reveal their real identities.
‘I mean, God knows how it will go down — it might be met by complete silence!’ Ron said. He seemed genuinely nervous about how the audience would react.
In any event they got the biggest applause of the night — bigger than the Spice Girls and Celine Dion put together.
I, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well.
Des O’Connor was hosting. ‘I won’t do very long,’ he said, as he went on to introduce me, but then proceeded to tell a tortuous shaggy-dog story that had a number of false endings.
Eventually, Des finished his gag — but when he introduced me, it felt like he just put a little bit of distance between the two of us. It was a subtle thing, a signal to the audience that he wasn’t entirely convinced by my act — like he was covering himself in case I bombed.
‘Well, this next guy should know what he’s doing,’ he said. ‘He used to be a doctor and somehow [Somehow? That’s not a great sell, Des, is it?] he’s going to find your funny bone.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, the madness [Madness, notice — not comedy] of Harry Hill!’ Then he rolled his eyes. Thanks, Des.
It was like performing at the Dignitas reunion dinner. I found the camera and played it all ‘down the bottle’ — straight into the lens.
That old telly trouper Chris Evans taught me the trick: ‘Make it look like you’re doing it for the punters at home, the viewers,’ he told me. ‘After they’ve dubbed a few laughs on it, it’ll look like you’re having a good time.’
And he was right! When you watch it now, it looks like I’m having the time of my life.
I didn’t know that yet, though. I headed out through the stage door, across the road and into a pub, where I walked up to the bar and ordered three pints of lager.
I downed all three in close succession and felt the tension that had built up over the preceding weeks gradually evaporate.
I hadn’t eaten all day, and unfortunately I was now completely smashed and due to meet my sovereign.
Back at the dressing room, I found Vlad the Russian strongman was standing there in a necklace strung with fake tiger teeth and just his loin cloth.
‘You can’t wear that to meet the Queen!’ I said with a surprisingly high level of indignation — well, it was cut very high over his thighs.
‘Huh?’ he grunted in a broad Slavic accent.
‘We’re meeting the Queen!’ I said ‘You’d better put something on!’
There was a real party atmosphere as we all lined up backstage, waiting for Her Maj. Jonathan Ross was mucking about, wise-cracking with Scary Spice.
As the Queen and Prince Philip appeared, everyone stiffened, standing to attention — like naughty schoolkids caught smoking behind the bike shed.
We’d been briefed not to on any account talk to the Queen before she talked to us, and that we should address her as ‘ma’am’.
The Queen stopped, looked me up and down and seemed to be momentarily at a loss for words. Maybe she could smell the booze.
‘Well . . .’ she said, after what seemed like a year. ‘I suppose it will have raised an awful lot of money!’
To which I replied, ‘Exactly, Your Majesty, I always say you can never have too much money!’
She gave me a look like she’d trodden in something, then turned and greeted Michael Ball like an old friend.
I bumped into the Queen a few times after that. What I love about her is the way she apparently has no idea who any of us are. At ITV’s 50th birthday celebrations, I overheard her asking Ant and Dec where they ‘fitted in’, which was a great leveller.
In his book Hill described his stint with a Simon-Cowell approved X Factor musical at the London Palladium, which lasted four weeks
The last time I saw her was at her 92nd birthday bash at the Royal Albert Hall. The BBC had put together an eclectic bill consisting of Tom Jones, Sting, Shaggy and Kylie Minogue — all the Queen’s favourites!
I was there with Frank Skinner and Ed Balls as part of the George Formby Society, singing and playing When I’m Cleaning Windows.
In a bizarre moment backstage, Frank and I bumped into Sting, who went into an impromptu version of Leaning On A Lamp Post with us playing along.
We’d been told that at the end of this feast of entertainment, we should all file on stage. The Queen and Prince Charles would then join us to take the applause.
As we assembled in the wings, I was right at the back of the line. I looked round, and there behind me, in a sparkly gold dress, was the Queen.
‘Oh, hello there!’ I said, a little startled.
‘It’s awfully dark, isn’t it?’ she said.
‘Did you not bring a torch, Your Majesty?’ I replied with a little chuckle.
‘Hmm,’ she said, once again completely thrown by my attempt at humour. ‘Surely, you should have a torch bearer!’ chipped in Frank.
Then the band started playing the National Anthem, and we were on.
Showbiz delivers soaring highs and crushing lows. In 2008 when I was awarded a couple of Baftas I was genuinely gobsmacked — never had my gob been smacked quite so hard.
Ant ’n’ Dec had seats on the front row. I wrongly assumed this was a dead giveaway that they’d win for Best Entertainment Show and I wouldn’t.
I was placed maybe eight rows back, next to Piers Morgan.
Behind me was James Corden, who was also about to get his first gong for Gavin And Stacey, and he was quite — how shall I put it? — ‘hyper’.
He kept swinging on the back of my seat like a kid in a car who needs the loo. I felt like doing what my dad used to do if I was playing up — sticking my hand round the back of my seat and smacking his legs!
Gordon Ramsay was there too, and gave me the firmest handshake I’ve ever had. It was like slamming your fingers in a car door.
Anyway, when Keeley Hawes and Nicholas Hoult announced that I’d won, the three of us were sent round the back to have our photographs taken.
But moments later, I overheard Keeley saying to Nicholas ‘ . . . and I’ve never found anything he’s said remotely funny!’
Maybe she was talking about the host Graham Norton, but they both looked at me like they’d been caught with their hands in the slagging jar.
I got my revenge. As we stepped in front of the press, I whispered to Keeley, ‘I always do cross-eyed for photos!’
She giggled and for the next three or four shots, she went cross-eyed. I didn’t. It’s a nice photo — I look strangely normal for once.
And at the other end of the scale, if you ask my wife what the worst night of her life was, she’ll reply without hesitation, ‘The evening of the recording of An Audience With Harry Hill.’
It’s pretty high up on my list too.
I had gone through all my previous set lists, selected all my best jokes and routines and assembled them into what I hoped was an hour of blisteringly funny comedy.
The producers were hoping David Bowie would turn up, but when I peeked through the curtains, all I saw was Kriss Akabusi sitting next to Richard Stilgoe and Hank Marvin.
Hill’s memoirs is filled with hilarious self-deprecating tales of some thirty years in the world of British comedy
Moments later, a stagehand popped his head round my dressing room door. ‘Steve Wright’s just called, he’s got a snuffle and can’t make it — break a leg!’
As I walked out on to the stage, there was a rather muted round of applause. The first ten minutes were bad and then it got steadily worse, until I actually thought I was going to be the first person to do An Audience With . . . and be booed off by the celebrity audience.
When I came off, I headed straight to the dressing room and felt like bursting into tears.
When I told this to Paul O’Grady some years later, he said he’d felt exactly the same after doing his and added that Ken Dodd told him, ‘That’s nothing — I did burst into tears!’
- Extracted from Fight! by Harry Hill, to be published by Hodder on November 11 at £20. © 2021 Harry Hill. To order a copy for £18 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 22/11/2021.