It’s not an overstatement to describe Andy Hamilton as something of a comedy legend, although he would probably baulk at that description.
Chatting over the phone from his London home, he is every bit as lovely and down-to-earth as you might hope he’d be. His credits as a comedy writer include, among many others, the hugely popular BBC TV sitcom Outnumbered, C4’s satirical newsroom comedy Drop the Dead Donkey and the long-running BBC Radio 4 series Old Harry’s Game in which he also plays the role of Satan.
He frequently appears on BBC TV panel shows such as Have I Got News for You and QI as well as on BBC Radio 4’s The New’s Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. His contributions are always incisive, witty and well-informed. He also co-wrote, with regular writing partner Guy Jenkin, the 2014 comedy-drama movie What We Did On Our Holiday starring David Tennant, Rosamund Pike and Sir Billy Connolly. In 2016 his debut comic novel The Star Witness was published to critical acclaim and his latest Longhand, which is entirely handwritten, has so far received much praise.
“The notion of publishing a book in handwriting has been floating around in my head for about 20 years,” says Hamilton. “In a way it is more achievable now because of developments in scanning technology, but apart from Wainwright’s books about the Lake District there are very few books published in handwriting. We are pretty sure that this is unique for a work of fiction.
Longhand takes the form of a long, loving missive written by protagonist Malcolm George Galbraith, a large, somewhat clumsy Scotsman, to Bess the woman he loves and has lived with for two decades, explaining why he has to leave her. Outlining the plot in any more detail is difficult to do without spoilers, so let’s just say that the circumstances that lead to Malcolm’s hasty departure are very unusual indeed.
Warm, funny, moving and profound, Longhand is a compelling read, beautifully written in Hamilton’s elegant italic script. There is something very special, and intimate, about reading handwriting and the book itself is a wonderful artefact – Stephen Fry’s assessment of it as ‘a glorious comic novel, a brilliant satire, an artwork and a historical document’ is spot-on.
Hamilton says that everything he has ever written starts in longhand – all his scripts began that way. “With this, though, whenever I spent a day writing up the pages in fair copy, by the end I felt strangely calm, there was a therapeutic aspect to it,” he says. “I had to know what I wanted to write before I set off – I had to think about it a bit more. It was quite reflective. I have spent so much of my life writing to such tight deadlines, it was a nice change.” And he got through a lot of pens. “The official number is 43 but I have a feeling it might be more.” It took him two years to write, off and on, working on it around other jobs. “I handed in the manuscript just before the first UK lockdown in March 2020,” he says. “So it has had a bit of a faltering start in life as the hardback edition came out when the bookshops were closed.”
The paperback version is out now and Hamilton is back on the road talking about it at literature festivals, including at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf next week. He is also touring with his stand-up show An Evening with Andy Hamilton and is relishing being in front of a live audience again. “It’s just so nice to be out of the house,” he says, laughing. “To connect with people in real life is wonderful. The first show I did on the tour was quite emotional and affecting – the audience seemed to feel that too.”
Given world events over the past few years I wonder, as a satirist, how hard it is to keep coming up with comic takes on tough issues.
“In normal circumstances I think it is healthy to make jokes about things that are scary,” he says. “In the stand-up show I do joke about the Covid experience because it would seem odd not to. However with some stories it can become difficult. Like Trump for example – we all knew before he was elected that he was mad and dangerous and we had a kind of golden period just after the election when that was all playing out, but by the end when we were watching the mob storming the Capitol, I did think I’m not sure I want to get up and tell any more Trump jokes now.”
Longhand is out now. Andy Hamilton appears at Off the Shelf Festival, Sheffield on October 23. offtheshelf.org.uk