There is only one Harry Hill. If you have watched his insanely popular TV Burp you will know what to expect: the big glasses, the oversized collar, the brothel-creepers on his feet. And that unsettling blend of the surreal and the bonkers. He sees the world in a way that is entirely different from any other comedian, thriving on unlikely puns, strange coincidences and bizarre imaginings.
In performance, it is exactly the same. At the Telegraph Ways with Words Festival at Dartington Hall, ostensibly to “shift units” of his new book Livin’ the Dreem: A Year in My Life, he bounds on to the stage grinning, gurning and bowing. He greets the audience, pointing out particular members: “Hello four-eyes.” “How you doing baldy” - comments that are not offensive because they so clearly apply to him as well.
From there he is off, into a mad spiel of observation and anecdote that is always silly and sometimes hilarious. He tells a story about his mother, with whom he supposedly lives in Bexhill on Sea, ringing him with the sound of gunfire and loud explosions in the background. “I’m just trying to get you the pants you wanted. In Lebanon.” “Debenhams,Mum. I said Debenhams.”
At another moment he enourages a boy in the audience to begin to quack, then unexpectedly hurls bits of bread at him. “See how you like it.” The suggestion that ducks don’t like bread, leads swiftly and with a kind of mad logic into a rambling account of the way that each animal has a certain type of food that will fit into its windpipe and deprive it of breath. This includes an imitation of an asphyxiated dolphin - “it’s hard to tell when they are dying, because for one thing they are show-offs and for another they are naturally blue.”
The many children in the audience convulse in silent laughter. But he carries the adults with him too - “This isn’t a dream. It is really happening to you,” he says, with a mad chortle. In the flesh, he is slightly edgier than you might imagine - more unsettling and fierce. But it is the zany insanity of his vision that makes people love him.
Following the pattern of a literary festival, he ends by taking questions from his audience. “How did you get your bald patch?” asks one intrepid youngster. With perfect timing, Hill waits, watches, raises his eyebrows and then replies: “I just noticed it was taking longer and longer to wash my face.” That’s his knack: turning an observation on its head.
At the close, he stages one of his legendary “fights” - only slightly undermined by the fact that the adult participant clearly has no idea of what she is being asked to do. But Hill’s crazed warmth has filled the room, leaving his audience very happy and queuing for his book. Mission accomplished.