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‘Our ears were bleeding!’ – Harry Hill on making his Tony Blair opera

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2022-05-31

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It’s a Tuesday morning and Harry Hill and Steve Brown are discussing their unlikely musical about the New Labour years. There’s a song “in absolutely awful taste” about Blair’s “people’s princess” eulogy , they tell me. They’ve got John Prescott and Robin Cook, played by women. “And there’s a song in it,” says Brown, “that started life as a dull speech of Gordon Brown’s.” Hill elaborates: “It’s him explaining macroeconomics. It’s a lovely song, that.”

They start singing it – and heads turn towards our table in Bafta’s Piccadilly cafe in London. “It’s one of those recitative songs,” says Brown. “It’s very stirring.” “I still don’t know what macroeconomics is,” interjects Hill. A pause. Then Brown ventures, helpfully: “It’s like macrobiotics, I think.”

From messiah to pariah! Why didn’t I think of that? Hold act two!

I arrived at today’s interview having Tony! (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) pegged as the year’s most surprising theatre package, and nothing I hear over an hour with its creators disabuses me of the notion. “I’m not a particular fan of musicals,” says Hill, cheerfully, “or politics.” Brown, who writes the songs, adds: “Harry’s not the person you first expect to write a satire. And it is satire – or a cross between satire and surrealism.” Pause for thought. “It’s sur-tire, or sat-realism.”

They’re quite the double act, bantering back and forth, sending themselves up. Hill, of course, is standup and TV’s big-collared lord of misrule – though smaller of collar today. Brown is his composer and collaborator, a veteran of Spitting Image, bandleader for Alan Partridge and, incidentally, father of the standup Alfie Brown . Their Tony Blair show, they tell me, started life as a spoof jukebox musical when Hill decided (as you do) to crowbar party hits from the compilation CD Vintage Cheese into a performed biography of the former member for Sedgefield. This concept got as far as a staged reading, reports Hill, but “after the third song, our ears were bleeding”. Turns out there’s only so much Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep a theatre audience can take.

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‘My wife refers to us as the Flop Twins’ … Harry Hill and co-writer Steve Brown. Photograph: Mark Douet

But Hill stuck with the idea, drafting in Brown to develop it. “I just think Tony Blair’s story,” he says, “is really operatic. He starts off as a peace-loving hippie in a rock band, then becomes enormously successful and we all turn to him as a beacon of hope. Then it all goes terribly wrong. And now he’s in a situation where, if you bumped into him in the street, you wouldn’t necessarily want a selfie.” From messiah to pariah, I venture. “Why didn’t I think of that?” says Hill. “Hold act two!”

By a happy coincidence, the show, long in gestation, premieres within a month of the 25th anniversary of New Labour’s landslide election to power. But some people’s memories are yet to acquire a rosy tint. “We’ve had all these idiot George Galloway followers online,” says Brown, “telling us, ‘It’s terrible! It should never be staged. You shouldn’t memorialise someone like that.’ And I’m like: ‘Did you see the film Downfall ? It’s about Hitler. That was all right, wasn’t it?’” Both writers insist the show is no apologia for Blair, and more about the forces that created him. An Oh What a Lovely War for the New Labour years, as they describe it, the show is “about power, and the absurdity of one man being in charge of a country”, says Brown. “That system is really not working out well.”

“We’re also saying: ‘You voted for him. We all voted for him,’” says Hill. “He had another election after the Chilcot inquiry, and he won by a sizeable majority. So who’s to blame? Is it him, or is it us?”

Over and above any of that, mind you, Tony! is designed to be a hoot. Blair is played by the comedian Charlie Baker . Saddam Hussein, with moustache and cigar, is given a Groucho Marx makeover. Hill describes the show’s Cherie Blair as “a cross between Lily Savage and Lili Marleen – seductive, but coarse”. And “we have a woman playing Osama bin Laden,” says Brown, “which absolutely defuses that – I was going to say ‘bomb’, but that may be a bad choice of words.”

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‘We bought all the props from a joke shop’ … Baker and the cast in rehearsals. Photograph: Photo by Mark Douet

“When musicals are billed as funny,” says Hill, from bitter experience, “they’re not funny enough. I’ve been hoodwinked so many times. I’d like to see a show that’s as funny as watching a standup comedian for an hour and a half. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

This is not the duo’s first comedy/musical theatre crossover. Casting a shadow over Tony! is their 2014 show I Can’t Sing , a musical based on The X Factor, and notorious as one of the West End’s most precipitous failures. The pair can laugh about it now, secure in the sense that I Can’t Sing wasn’t bad (its reviews were quite positive) so much as overexposed. “It would have been fine if we’d opened in a smaller theatre,” says Hill. “We were selling as many tickets as most West End shows, but in the [2,300-seat capacity] Palladium, it was always half-full.”

But I Can’t Sing’s fortunes have affected ambitions for the Tony Blair show. “I tried to get [investors] interested,” says Hill. “But people were thinking: look what happened to the last one. My wife, who is not one to mince her words, refers to us as the Flop Twins.”

But the Flop Twins are undaunted – excited, even – by the chance to make a show unburdened by the responsibilities that come with multi-million pound backing. It’s a problem, says Hill, when a West End production gets so unwieldy you can’t tweak the jokes, or “when they’re saying, ‘Can you write another four bars of music so we can move this scenery?’”

Tony!, premiering in a 200-seater in London’s Finsbury Park, is gloriously low-budget and light on its feet by comparison. “For the work-in-progress, I basically bought all the props from Smiffys ,” says Hill, referring to the fancy dress and joke shop . “And 80% of them are making it through to the final production.”

If that means the pair can’t make money from the show – well, that’s a small price to pay for the good times. “We’re like cricketers used to be,” says Brown. “Gentlemen players, just for the summer. They were all doctors and solicitors, and they didn’t get paid. Writing musicals is like that.”

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Wrong size of venue … I Can't Sing. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

At least they’ve got other sources of income. Hill embarks this autumn on his first solo tour, Pedigree Fun, in a decade. (His last, Sausage Time , was a cracker.) He cites lockdown as the catalyst. “I wasn’t planning to go on tour. But when they say, ‘You can’t go on tour’, you think, ‘I want to go on tour now.’” But the bar for live performance, he reports, has been raised by a 2018 gig by Talking Heads’ David Byrne , produced and choreographed far beyond the expectations even of Byrne’s biggest fans, Hill included. “I saw it and was completely knocked out,” says the comedian. “I came away thinking: he could so easily have just turned up with a band and sung. And I thought: that is what you’ve got to do. Go for it! So that’s my plan.”

With his tour in the offing, and summer commitments to his hosting role on Channel 4’s Junior Bake Off , Hill can afford to be sanguine about the prospects for Tony! The Islington venue notwithstanding, they don’t expect Blair himself to attend. “We have it on good authority,” says Hill (from “new friend of mine” Robert Peston, no less) “that he’s not a man who can laugh at himself.” As long as normal punters show up, says Hill, “I’d be happy for it to do just these five weeks, honestly. For it to go well and enjoy it.” Prospects for a West End transfer may be low, after all, given their Flop Twins reputation and a Theatreland ever less conducive to original material.

“They used to do shows like [the Private Eye-inspired] Dear Bill in the West End, didn’t they,” recalls Brown, wistfully.

Hill: “And what about George IV? That was brilliant.”

Brown looks quizzical: “Do you mean King Charles III?”

Hill: “Charles III, sorry. Did you see it?” Mike Bartlett’s verse play about Prince Charles’ accession to the throne , he says, “provided a certain amount of inspiration for this. I thought it was brilliant.”

The pair are here, finally, neither to bury Blair nor to praise him, but to play with the remarkable Shakespearean arc of the ex-PM’s career, particularly in light of the world that’s followed in his wake. “There’s a lovely song at the end,” says Hill, “where Blair says, ‘The truth is, the whole world is run by arseholes, always has been. I just happened to be the one at the time.’ Then he lists the leaders we’ve got now: Putin, Bolsonaro, and so on. And he says, ‘If I could help you rid the world of them, and say I’m sorry – would you have me back?’”

Call it sur-tire, call it sat-realism – either way, that’s a thrilling moment in the theatre for Harry Hill. “You sit there thinking: actually, maybe …” He trembles. “It’s really weird. It sends a real shiver up your spine.”

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