“Hi, is that Andy Hamilton?”
These are the words that I’ve scrawled at the top of my interview notes: the start of a pre-scripted introduction which I’ve prepared on the presumption that I’ll probably mess it up otherwise. I am, after all, talking to one of the greatest comedy writers in the country, so my nerves are justifiable.
When I actually hear the lively “hello” on the other end of the phone, however, the script flies out of the window: only a ‘hello’ from Adele or Lionel Richie would have been more impressive. This is undoubtedly the voice of comedy writer Andy Hamilton, creator of Outnumbered and regular panellist on QI, and I’m slightly star-struck; when he follows this up by asking, “is that Jeremy?”, it was all I could do to hold myself together, mumbling an overexcited “brilliant, yeah!” in response.
Even if you don’t recognise his name, you’ll probably know Hamilton’s greatest success, Outnumbered – a BBC sitcom which focused on a normal, middle-class family, living in London. When I say ‘normal’, I mean slightly dysfunctional; in Hamilton’s own words, the programme was quite happy to celebrate “the incompetence of parenthood”. And it clearly struck a chord with the general public too, with the final series attracting about six million viewers to each episode: no doubt parents who recognised the moody, chaotic, and infuriatingly inquisitive children.
These young actors stole the show in many ways, thanks partly to their freedom to improvise, so I start by asking Hamilton if he thought that was the key to the show’s success. It’s clearly a question he’s had before, and there’s a polite, almost diplomatic hesitation before he points out that the improvisation was only occasional: “I think it’s probably the observational element that is the heart to it”.
He definitely has a point. Mundane, realistic experiences – lost shoes, traffic jams and missing keys – were typical, but they were always honoured with perfectly-balanced, characterful humour. Hamilton agrees that the kids had a great “naturalness” about them, and I’m reminded of the scene when seven-year-old Karen is told “a woman can be any size or shape she wants”, and replies cooly: “what about a hexagon?” Perhaps that’s why the show burnt out as the children grew up.
Now aged 61, Hamilton’s been in the business for years. He tells me he first started writing properly as a member of the Cambridge University Light Entertainment Society, a group which performed sketches “in prisons and old people’s homes”. These days, Hamilton has no need for such a captive audience. He’s been on Have I Got News For You 16 times over the years, making him their most popular guest, and he’s a common sight on QI too. Last year, he even found time to write a blockbuster film, starring national treasures like David Tennant and Rosamund Pike.
So why is such a successful writer suddenly turning to stand-up? This is only his second tour, and its premise seems unique; he’s titled the show ‘Change Management’, after the painfully-euphemistic term for redundancy, and tells me he felt he’d finally reached an age where he can “look at the things that have changed, and maybe think about the future as well”. I ask him whether he’ll be offering guidance, and he laughs, saying that although there might be some smatterings of wisdom “I’m not sure I’d ever take my advice – I’m not qualified in any regard on the advice front”.
“Just write: write stuff that interests you, don’t try to second-guess anybody, write what you want to write.”
Having said that, Hamilton’s happy to offer tips to Chelsea manager José Mourinho a few minutes later. He’s a lifetime fan of the club, and even ran away to Stamford Bridge at the age of six (“but it was only round the corner, it wasn’t like I’d gone on some epic quest!”). I teasingly mention Chelsea’s season so far: does Mourinho need change management? “I think he needs anger management,” he jokes, before seeming to drift into a fantasy world as he quietly says, almost to himself, “but I’m sure he’ll be fine… I’m sure it will all be fine”. Somehow, I’m not convinced.
I quickly move on to ask what advice he would give to students who are interested in producing comedy. “Just write: write stuff that interests you, don’t try to second-guess anybody, write what you want to write.” He’s very encouraging about people rejecting scripts, too: “you can’t get around that, that’s what happens, but try not to be disheartened by it. If it’s a thing you really want to do more than anything else, just stick at it.”
I’m surprised to hear that Hamilton has also dabbled in acting – he’s the voice of ‘Dr Elephant the dentist’ in children’s cartoon Peppa Pig (no relation to Percy Pig). Apparently his character’s friendly nature has improved children’s attitudes to visiting the dentist. “I’m bewildered by it,” he admits. “He’s an elephant, so I’d have thought – if anything – people would be disappointed to get there to find the most boring person, without a trunk.”
It’s not often you find Hamilton struggling for material: he’s managed to write a brilliant radio sitcom set in hell, after all. I hardly have time to talk about that, sadly, and only get a quickfire comment on his highly-topical election satire, Ballot Monkeys (“the deadlines were so tight, it meant no-one had time to worry”).
Too soon, the interview is over. I thank him for the “absolute honour” of talking to him (I have a habit of embarrassing myself in front of celebrities) and he kindly, inexplicably, thanks me back.
It may be a certain demographic that fills most of the seats at the Corn Exchange later this month (I’ll fondly refer to it as a ‘Radio 4 audience’), and stand-up might not be Hamilton’s first love, but there aren’t many comedy writers whose careers have been more prolific – or more impressive – than his. Exeter’s future comedians should be brawling in the streets for the chance to hear just one of his many words of wisdom.