The Big Interview: Hugh Dennis

Hugh Dennis, and below in Outnumbered
Hugh Dennis, and below in Outnumbered
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He’s the star of TV panel show Mock The Week and the award-winning sitcom Outnumbered. Hugh Dennis talks to Chris Bond as he returns to Yorkshire.

WITH his dry sense of humour and deadpan delivery, Hugh Dennis has become a familiar sight and sound to television viewers and radio listeners alike.

As the beleaguered dad in the BBC’s award-winning sitcom Outnumbered and elder statesman of the satirical panel show Mock The Week, he’s become an integral part of two of the best programmes on telly right now. He also writes and appears in Radio 4’s The Now Show with his long-time comedy partner Steve Punt.

He must have one of the strongest work ethics in the business because on top of all this during the past 12 months he’s somehow found time to drive across Ethiopia with David Baddiel to film The World’s Most Dangerous Roads, and publish his first book, Britty Britty Bang Bang – a humorous and informative look at Britain and all its quirks.

If that wasn’t enough he and Steve Punt have embarked on a new tour – Punt & Dennis: Ploughing On Regardless – that arrives in Harrogate on Monday and the Grand Opera House in York later this month.

It’s their first tour since 2010, although as Dennis points out its history can be traced back to their early days together. “We started out on the London comedy circuit and we’ve always been a slightly odd double act, we’re a kind of two-headed stand-up routine and this tour is a bit like The Now Show on stage.”

He’s pleased to be back on the road and says he’s looking forward to returning to Yorkshire, a place he knows well. “I’ve always felt very comfortable in Yorkshire. My dad was Bishop of Knaresborough and we lived in Ripon and Roundhay for a while. In fact his first job was in Armley as a curate.”

Although he’s a household name today, as a youngster Dennis had no burning desire to be a comedian. “I watched a lot of comedy as everyone else does but I didn’t think it was something I would do as a career.”

It wasn’t until he went to Cambridge University and joined the Footlights, the famous theatrical company whose alumni include the likes of Peter Cook, John Cleese and Salman Rushdie, that he started performing.

But once on stage he was bitten by the bug. “It can be quite addictive. It’s slightly terrifying to begin with but once you overcome that it’s fabulous, although I am probably a bit of a show-off.”

It was while at Cambridge, where he studied geography, that he first met Punt and the two of them quickly formed a rapport. “We weirdly came from very similar backgrounds. He grew up in Reigate and his dad was a civil servant and I grew up in Edgware and my dad was a vicar. We were products of the suburbs and both slightly obsessed about leaving them. It all seemed very boring and a bit petty, full of people mowing their lawns and cleaning their cars. It’s what we call ‘middle England’ today.”

By the time they left university they had formed a double act, although by now Dennis had got himself a marketing job with Unilever. “I wanted to do it [comedy] more as a hobby whereas Steve wanted to do it as a career.” So even when they started getting TV work quite early on Dennis didn’t give up his day job for another six years.

“I did comedy with Steve on a weekend and from Monday to Friday I did what I called my normal job. I’m glad I did because politicians are often criticised for never having done anything else and I think it’s good to show you can actually do the sort of things everyone else has to.”

During this period he worked on Spitting Image and he and Punt appeared on Jasper Carrott’s TV show. The change came when he and Punt teamed up with Baddiel and Rob Newman to create The Mary Whitehouse Experience. “This meant working during the week which threw my world into chaos,” he says. “Unilever actually let me go on a sabbatical so I could have my job back if it didn’t work out, although I don’t know if that offer still stands,” he adds, jokingly.

People often talk about comedians and actors getting their “big break” but Dennis believes success is about more than having one piece of good fortune. “You can’t keep trading on what you’ve done in the past. The Mary Whitehouse Experience was a big break but you’ve got to keep having them as I have with Mock The Week and Outnumbered. You could say that meeting Steve Punt and Jasper Carrott were also big breaks.”

He learned his trade on shows like The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Spitting Image, which he provided voices for, but it’s his more recent work – The Now Show, Outnumbered and Mock The Week – that’s made him a household name.

What’s interesting about these shows is they appeal to different audiences – from cult comedy fans to the more genteel world enjoyed by Radio 4 listeners.

Dennis has been part of Mock The Week since it started in 2005 and is the only panellist to have appeared in every programme. The show, hosted by Dara O’Briain, has been criticised at times for over-stepping the boundaries of good taste, with some comedians likening it to being in a bear pit.

“It was a bit of bear pit, but it’s become less of a bear pit in the last five or six series,” says Dennis. “It’s less aggressive now and I think it’s become more comfortable in its own skin.”

However, he admits he found it something of a culture shock. “I come from more of a comedy sketch background than stand-up and I did find it exhausting at times, I felt as though I’d been put through agricultural machinery.

“Outnumbered is a complete team game whereas stand-up isn’t a team sport. It’s like a gladiatorial fight to the death and I wasn’t used to that. But it’s become much more relaxed and I enjoy doing Mock The Week because it’s great to be in the same place as so many good comics.”

It’s often said that comedy is a young person’s game but Dennis, who turns 52 next week, disagrees. “I don’t think age is an issue. If I think of something funny to say, I say it, and if I don’t then I keep quiet – that’s how I operate.”

Which brings us to Outnumbered. From the moment it first hit our screens in 2007 the sitcom has become a huge hit with viewers. Dennis, who plays Pete Brockman, the out of his depth father-of-three, admits the show’s popularity took him a little by surprise. “We all knew it was very good but it wasn’t until the end of the first series that we knew we were doing something special, it just seemed to touch a nerve. Whenever people stop me in the street they want to talk about the show, it’s like a release valve for them.”

It’s slightly different from most other sitcoms. “Normally they’re about people going off the rails or the man who doesn’t get on with his wife, whereas this is more realistic it’s about the absolute chaos that we all go through. We don’t talk about our children being completely out of control but it’s something a lot of people can relate to. I think Outnumbered is a window into what life is actually like rather than how we pretend it is.”

One of the reasons the show works so well is because it’s partly unscripted, which means the kids’ dialogue sometimes veers off on hilarious tangents. “It’s immense fun to do and while the adults have always had scripts the kids didn’t, which was great because it meant they didn’t have to learn anything.”

“When the series started Ramona [who plays the youngest child, Karen] couldn’t even read so there was no point giving her a script. As they’ve got older they’ve seen more of the scripts, so they’re improvising less but they’re still expressing themselves in a way they want to.”

The fifth series, which started last week, will be the last, although there is talk of occasional one-off specials. With the show coming to an end Dennis is likely to become even more sought after, but given the fact he seems just at home on the stage as he does on TV or radio, does he have a preference? “The one I enjoy most is usually the one I’m not doing at the time. But really I’m just very lucky to have the opportunity to do all of them.”

Punt & Dennis: Ploughing On Regardless, Harrogate Theatre, 
Monday (very limited ticket availability), call 01423 502116. 
Also the Grand Opera House, York, February 16. For tickets call 08448 713024.