The Conversation: We chat to comic and actor Hugh Dennis
The 52-year-old English comedian is well-known to television viewers for hit shows such as The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Mock the Week and Outnumbered.
Q: Happy New Year, Hugh! Have you made any resolutions?
A: I've resolved to drink more in the daytime and increase my intake of processed sugar. That's the trick to a New Year's resolution; finding one where it'd be much better if you didn't stick to it, because, frankly, you won't.
Q: As a comedian are you always on the lookout for funny things to use as material?
A: I think every disaster is an anecdote. I find most things amusing rather than annoying; I sit there thinking, "How can I use that?" I was driving out of London recently in my new car, and both tyres blew out at 60mph. Afterwards I remember thinking, "I've done quite a lot of damage to my car, I could have died - but how can I turn this into a story?"
I'm constantly looking for humour in the news as well. Several years ago I came across a list of how different European countries celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome (which founded the EU). In Denmark, the government gave everyone a free bun; in Belgium, they had a concert fronted by Kim Wilde. And in Cyprus, they opened up the local EU office to sightseers; that'll get them excited about the Great European Dream - show them the photocopier. The UK was the only country to do nothing.
Q: Was there ever the possibility of you following a different career?
A: Well, I would have been a desperately bad spy. I was approached twice, in a slightly clandestine way, while at (Cambridge) university, as were a lot of my friends. First for MI5: I had the interview and turned them down before they could turn me down. Then, a month later, there was a note in my pigeon-hole, saying, "You may wish to know that there are jobs in the Admiralty that aren't normally advertised." I thought, "Wasn't James Bond in the Admiralty?" I wondered about a life of women, helicopters and people with steel teeth, but I turned that down, too.
Q: What do you think makes British comedy so unique?
A: Most of them are about losers - whether it's Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers or The Office, it's about people who haven't been able to achieve what they wanted to. There's something inherently British about siding with the underdog. While comedy needs victims, it doesn't need to treat them in a brutal way - we're kind of lauding them.
Q: What are your bad habits?
A: Not listening to what my wife tells me. I'm always losing my concentration. On one occasion she said something like, "Could you please go to the shop?" And I was like, sure. And then, a few minutes later, "Will you go to the shop?" Of course … "When?" Sure, of course. She was so worn down by me forgetting to go that when I went to the car, in the middle of the steering wheel she'd put a Post-it note that said, "Go to the shops!"
Q: You're involved with a new charity appeal to help children in poorer countries. How has it opened your eyes to those parts of the world?
A: There's a danger of being overly earnest about charity work. When you go and meet people in far-flung parts of the world who need help, they're not earnest; they're having a laugh and a joke as they transport the water you're buying for them - not trudging around saying serious things.
The idea of sponsoring a child for charity was always problematic for me. You know how you hate writing thank-you letters? Well, it's the same thing with sponsorship, and I never wanted a child to feel beholden to me. But I've just started sponsoring this child, and I went to Myanmar to visit her, and it was a revelation. I've been thinking of it in the wrong way for 25 years: she was genuinely excited that someone from elsewhere was interested in her life.
Born in Northamptonshire, Hugh Dennis began his comedy career in the Cambridge Footlights, before finding fame as part of the The Mary Whitehouse Experience. The father of two is fronting an ActionAid appeal to find sponsors for 2,700 children in the developing world (www.actionaid.org.uk/child)