Starting out as an oddball stand-up comic, Harry Hill made the big time as a family entertainer in the long-running Harry Hill’s TV Burp. Although it opened his childlike persona to an ever-larger audience (particularly kids: during the TV Burp years, Hill starred in a CITV series and even a comic strip in The Dandy) the comedian expressed displeasure in being hemmed in by the series format. This definitely showed as TV Burp became increasingly tired as it rumbled to its close.
With The Harry Hill Movie, he has departed entirely from the TV Burp formula of riffing on television series, and with the aid of director Steve Bendelack and co-writers Jon Foster and James Lamont (scriptwriters for the cartoon series Amazing World of Gumball) has been faced with constructing an entire 88-minute narrative around his persona. Has he pulled it off?
Well, this is about the best that we could reasonably expect from a Harry Hill feature film. That means that those who were never fans in the first place are unlikely to be converted, but established followers will be pleased to see that Harry is most certainly back on form.
The film reveals that Harry has an evil twin brother named Otto (Matt Lucas). Abandoned by the Hill family and brought up by a pair of Alsatians, Otto has grown bitter and resentful, and hatches a nefarious plan to get back at his more successful brother by stealing Harry’s hamster Abu (voiced by Johnny Vegas). Meanwhile Harry and his Nan (Julie Walters), mistakenly believing that Abu is fatally ill, take him on a trip to Blackpool; along the way they are accosted by Otto’s incompetent henchman (Simon Bird and Guillaume Delaunay). The plot was clearly scrawled on a hankie, yes, but that’s the charm.
Certain critics praised TV Burp for subverting television culture, but this seems to be missing the point. While he regularly poked fun at EastEnders and X Factor, Hill actually had very little to say about trash TV or the viewing habits that have grown up around it: much of his humour was derived from taking clips out of context, or by adding his own inserts as punchlines. The appeal of the series was not because it actually meant anything, but the exact opposite – taking soap operas and reality shows as his raw material, Hill mutilated them into something utterly meaningless, like a child cutting up newspaper images and making them into weird scrapbook collages.
The Harry Hill Movie does something similar in its approach to scriptwriting. But instead of quoting directly from films (there are occasional spoofs of movies such as Godzilla and The Exorcist, but these are not a major part of the humour) it makes a collage of plot devices. The film uses wearily familiar movie conventions – the evil twin, the incompetent henchmen, the love interest, the final showdown atop a famous monument – and instead of either playing them straight or subverting them, it treats them as though it just found them lying around and thought they might look good together.
The best example of this is the romantic subplot. After mistakenly ending up in Blackpole – a small town whose biggest tourist destination is a pole that is black – Harry stumbles across a race of aquatic humanoids with skins which are covered in shells (it turns out that those googly-eyed shell sculptures sold in seaside giftshops are, in fact, the children of this proud people). Harry then falls in love with Michelle (Sheridan Smith), the princess of the tribe, and the two elope together and enjoy a date at a chip shop, although it turns out that Harry’s Nan does not approve of his new girlfriend.
The key thing here is that Hill and his co-writers are not parodying a specific film. They have taken the idea that all films must have a love interest and dutifully worked one into their narrative, resulting in a plot thread that perfectly showcases Hill’s absurdist sense of humour.
Underpinning all of this is the great British tradition of naffness. The film celebrates a culture of cheesy seaside attractions, stripy male bathing costumes, coin-operated telescopes and glam rock. It has a particular love of that naffest of decades, the seventies: flashbacks to the Hill family’s younger days dutifully recreate the era, right down to the authentic seventies packets that hold Otto’s barbeque beef Hula Hoops. Commendably, the film avoids the CGI animal sidekicks seen in the likes of Alvin and the Chipmunks and Scooby-Doo and instead portrays the hamster Abu using what is clearly a glove puppet. A pretty expressive glove puppet, yes, but a glove puppet nonetheless.
Being deliberately naff does not always work, and there are admittedly scenes that fall flat. I noticed that the cinema was silent during a skit in which Harry goes boxing, with a spoof training montage as a punchline; presumably this was because the kids hadn’t seen Rocky and the adults had seen Team America. Nevertheless, the ramshackle plotting hits more than it misses, and Harry’s practiced persona keeps the film watchable even during its weaker stretches.
Perhaps most heartening of all is the general lack of self-reference. While TV Burp ended up as a tissue of running gags, Hill resists the temptation to fall back on catchphrases: there is no “only one way to find out”, no “chippy chips” (even when Harry is, in fact, eating chips), and only a single rub-your-ear-and-you’ll-miss-it “dirty boy”. Long-time fans of the comedian will notice a few in-jokes, such as a cameo from Stouffer the Cat, but these are not allowed to become crutches.
The Harry Hill Movie will not win over any new admirers for the star, and looks unlikely to go down as a classic of British comedy. But as a Harry Hill movie, it hits the spot.