Harry Hill on making TV Burp: ‘Watching every EastEnders omnibus was bloody awful’

When the Sun’s TV critic Garry Bushell went on holiday, I covered his column and thought it might make a good TV show. The only show that had done something vaguely similar was Bob Mills’s In Bed With Medinner, where he’d watch a programme and comment on it. But TV Burp was basically a caption competition, except it’s a moving image that leads into a sketch rather than just one line.

We tried various writers over the years – Dave Gorman, Chris Addison, Richard Herring – but most people couldn’t hack it. Every waking hour was spent watching TV. We could only make the show by using preview tapes sent out to reviewers. Ally Ross, a later TV critic at the Sun, would pass them on and they would be circulated among our team. You’d have two video recorders: you’d watch on one and have a blank tape in the other. Any clips you liked, you’d tape on to the blank VHS. As soon as you’d taken the EastEnders omnibus out, you’d put the Emmerdale one in. It was bloody awful.

The ideal show for us was one that took itself very seriously and was made in a hurry: basically, EastEnders. With ITV or Channel 4, we licensed the clips, but the BBC wouldn’t let us, so for series two we used them on the basis of “fair dealing”, which meant the actors didn’t get paid. After the first episode of series two went out, I had EastEnders executive producer Mal Young shouting down the phone: “This is outrageous. I’ve got actors here in tears because of what you’re doing!” Once, at the Soap awards, I was heckled by Todd Carty, who played Mark Fowler. “Where’s our money?” he shouted.

At first there were long sketches, but when the producer Spencer Millman took over he said we shouldn’t do them. The show went up a level after that. Later episodes are so dense with clips, there’s a laugh every 10 seconds. One thing I liked about TV Burp was that it was on ITV: mainstream channels usually patronise the audience but TV Burp proved you can do weird comedy and people do like it. People used to think of me as a cult comedian, but TV Burp gave them a way in to my humour because they were prepared to go with jokes about EastEnders.

Barely a day goes by without someone asking me when I’m bringing back TV Burp. In the end, I just couldn’t do it any more. ITV wanted more and more – I didn’t have a life outside of it. I know it sounds really whiny, but I can’t explain the pressure. Also, TV changed, maybe as a result of TV Burp. Shows started having a knowing commentary: the obvious one is Come Dine With Me. We never got anything out of Bake Off either, because Mel and Sue were making the jokes first.

Occasionally, I come across clips on YouTube and think how funny it is. Recently, I’ve been getting recognised by people in their early 20s. They say: “You were my childhood.” Which is really chilling.

I was working as a comedy producer when I got a call from Harry’s agent. He said: “We’ve got a feeling Harry’s column for the Sun could be a TV show and I think it would be up your street.” I’d never worked with Harry but I was a big fan.

We quickly realised there were no short cuts to finding clips because you didn’t know what the funny was – it wasn’t always obvious. It meant watching the EastEnders omnibus, the Emmerdale omnibus, two-hour documentaries, just to get one clip – it was incredibly labour intensive. Then we would look for stuff live over the weekend: Harry would do The X Factor, I did Strictly, for years. It gives you a form of PTSD: if I hear the Emmerdale theme tune now, I start shaking.

You’d end up watching TV but not watching TV – because you were always looking for stuff in the background, especially silly things. We noticed that every time Bradley from EastEnders walked into the pub, he looked like he’d just farted. Writer Dan Maier said Phil Mitchell looked like he was constantly deflating.

Initially, the viewing figures weren’t great. We were shunted round the schedule. Then, almost by accident, ITV found it a home. It was lovely when people started to watch. It was a Saturday night mainstream show but it could be pretty strange: finding that balance between being accessible and funny to a wide audience, but also very niche and out there, was one of the joys. It’s really quite rare to be able to produce something like that.

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