Harry Hill's rib-tickling case notes on starting out as a doctor

Doctor, doctor, you’ve hit my funny bone! He’s one of our best-loved comics. But HARRY HILL started out as a doctor…. and from almost castrating a patient, to rushing to a heart attack with a sausage, his case notes are as rib-tickling as his stage act

  • Comedian Harry Hill reveals hapless life in medical profession in new memoirs
  • Titled Fight!, the book will be published by Hodder next week on November 11 
  • It will explore the legendary comic’s past thirty years and Noughties-era success
  • In an excerpt, Hill describes how he started out as a doctor before comedy

On Saturday, in our first extract from Harry Hill’s uproarious new memoir, the funnyman told how his comedy career has been beset with disaster — from meeting the Queen while drunk to his doomed attempt to launch a new musical. But as our concluding part today reveals, his life in the medical profession was even more hapless . . .

Let’s get one thing straight: I was never a neurosurgeon. Some joker put it on Wikipedia and, because I rather like the idea, I’ve never bothered to change it. Not that I couldn’t operate on your brain if you wanted me to. If you need a brain operation, I’m happy to have a go. I just can’t guarantee the results.

It is true that I qualified as a doctor. Fundamentally, though, I wasn’t cut out for life as a medic — one of logic and reasoning. I’m a dreamer at heart. I live in my head and I’m always looking for new excitements, but it took me a while to work that out, and in the meantime, I’m afraid my patients didn’t always get a smooth ride.

So why did I become one? My friends and I had enjoyed trying to make explosions after I was given a chemistry set for my birthday, and that early apparent interest in science somehow morphed into the idea of me becoming a doctor — which Mum, in particular, was thrilled about.

To be honest, though, I was conflicted. Inside, I knew I wanted to be a comedy writer or possibly a comedian, but I couldn’t work out how on earth you became one.

It is true that I qualified as a doctor. Fundamentally, though, I wasn’t cut out for life as a medic — one of logic and reasoning

I’d seen interviews with comics such as Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Tommy Cooper, and it seemed that the way they’d all got into it was through entertaining the troops in World War II. I became the only 16-year-old praying for World War III so I could be fast-tracked to stardom!

Monty Python had got together at Cambridge University, but none of my teachers was suggesting I was smart enough for that.

For my A-levels, I studied the sciences — but as the exams approached, I was struggling in physics and chemistry. My physics teacher had shaken his head and told my parents that there was ‘absolutely no chance’ of me getting a good enough grade to do medicine, and suggested I should consider chiropody instead.

I’m an awkward b*****d and don’t like to take no for an answer. I was also quite certain that I didn’t want to spend my days fiddling with other people’s feet. As soon as that teacher told me I couldn’t make it as a doctor, I decided to make sure I would be one. You could say I became a doctor out of spite.

Once I’d passed my exams, though, and enrolled at St George’s Hospital Medical School in Tooting, I was keen to get involved with the drama society. Within a few months I was writing sketches, including one where a shark had somehow got into the operating theatre because it had ‘smelt blood’.

So why did I become a doctor? My friends and I had enjoyed trying to make explosions after I was given a chemistry set for my birthday, and that early apparent interest in science somehow morphed into the idea of me becoming a doctor — which Mum, in particular, was thrilled about

The third year was when medical school got really interesting. That’s when we finally got to meet the patients. Back then, doctors were treated like gods. Before the internet, when people couldn’t Google what was wrong with them, there’d be a notable frisson when a doctor in a white coat walked into a room. The oracle had arrived!

Suddenly, I found that people would take what I said completely at face value. I remember a visitor asked me if it was OK to smoke in the corridor.

‘How many do you smoke a day?’ I demanded.

‘Er, about 20?’ he said.

‘Hmm, well, you need to cut down,’ I snapped. ‘I need you to promise me you’ll have quit completely by the end of the year.’ ‘Yes, Doctor!’ he said, almost jumping to attention.

I was not as infallible as they thought. Within my first couple of days on a general hospital ward, I had diagnosed a heart attack in a perfectly normal woman, and was told off for daydreaming while observing an aortic aneurysm operation. It didn’t help that the heart surgeon was trying to deal with a burst vein at the time.

One patient, a Lebanese man, came to me for the repair of bilateral hernias — lumps in the groin. I handed him a form to sign. Unusually, he took out his reading glasses and started to scrutinise it.

‘I’m sure it’s all fine, Doctor,’ he said, looking up. ‘But just one thing. What is a bilateral orchidectomy?’

‘Removal of the testicles,’ I said. ‘Castration, if you like . . .’

‘Hmm, so why am I having that, too?’

‘Eh?’ I said, snatching the consent form back off him. Sure enough, in addition to hernias he was down to have his balls off. Good job he spotted it, really.

I was not as infallible as they thought. Within my first couple of days on a general hospital ward, I had diagnosed a heart attack in a perfectly normal woman, and was told off for daydreaming while observing an aortic aneurysm operation

Then there was the inadvisability of having a cardiac arrest — never a good idea, obviously, but especially on my shift.

The medical senior house officer [SHO] on call (which is what I was) is automatically on the cardiac arrest response unit or in hospital slang, the ‘crash team’ — day and night. At 2am, the shriek of the crash team alarm makes you fall out of bed. You automatically start pulling your shoes on before you’ve even opened your eyes, and then you run.

You run like your life depends on it, even though, in fact, someone else’s does. As soon as a person’s heart stops beating, their chances of survival fall off exponentially with the amount of time that passes. Minutes, seconds even, make a big difference.

When St George’s was built, it was the largest teaching hospital in Europe, with a mile of corridors between the furthest points. When they opened the new wing, there was only one crash team on call for the whole hospital.

If your arrest bleep went off while you were in the old wing and you were needed in the new wing, you really had to leg it if you didn’t want your patient to peg it.

I was on call once and dropped by the canteen. I’d just loaded up my plate with Sausage Lyonnaise, one of their specialities, when my cardiac arrest bleep went off. I looked at the bleep . . . then I looked at the sausages . . . then I looked at the lady on the till.

‘Poor you!’ she said. I sighed, grabbed a sausage, turned and ran. I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried eating a sausage and running at the same time — well, it turns out you can’t.

And it doesn’t look good turning up to a cardiac arrest holding a warm sausage either.

If you are called to a cardiac arrest during the day and you aren’t clutching a sausage, it can look terribly glamorous. Old ladies would swoon as I cantered down the corridor, stethoscope trailing behind me. Passers-by would shout encouragement: ‘Go on, Doc! Sort him out!’

As the SHO, I’d usually be the first on the scene. The responsibility doesn’t get any greater than for a cardiac arrest — what you do in those few minutes makes the difference between life, death and occasionally something in between. Cardiac resuscitation is basically a series of steps, a flow diagram if you like. You try the first step, and if that doesn’t work, you go to the second one and so on.

The first one, when I was doing it anyway, was the ‘precordial thump’ — a punch to the chest. However, that punch only works at the exact moment that the heart stops beating. At any other time, it’s just assault. Next, it’s CPR or chest compressions. You’ve really got to lean on that chest, otherwise it doesn’t compress the heart enough for it to be effective.

My registrar at the time used to reckon that if you didn’t break a couple of the patient’s ribs, you weren’t doing it right.

Now for the fun bit. It’s time to break out the Kerdunker! You’ve all seen defibrillators on the telly — they look like a couple of electric irons connected to a tape deck. You shout: ‘Clear!’ Kerdunk!

I knew I wanted to be a comedy writer or possibly a comedian, but I couldn’t work out how on earth you became one

If I’m honest, I could count on the fingers of one foot the number of times the Kerdunker brought someone back. But now and then, much to my surprise, it did work — and it was a fantastic feeling, because it’s like magic! One minute your patient (and it’s nearly always a man and usually a smoker) is lying blue and gurgling with his eyes rolled up into the top of his head. Then — Kerdunk! — he’s sitting up asking for his cup of tea, completely oblivious to the peril he was in just moments before.

Most of the time they’d never even thank me. It was really only ever the nurses who got the thank-yous — and more importantly, the gifts: the boxes of Milk Tray and occasional bottles of sherry.

So whenever I successfully resuscitated someone, I would lean over them and as their eyes focused on my face I’d say: ‘My name is Doctor Matthew Hall — and I’ve just saved your life!’

And it worked. The first time I tried it, I got a big box of crystallised fruit. Result!

The main lesson I took home from my brief stint as a doctor was a simple one that everyone comes to realise eventually — but not usually until they are faced with death. At the tender age of 23, I realised that life is short.

After I qualified, I moved on to Ashford Hospital, in Surrey, which took patients from Heathrow’s Terminal 3 — and, yes, our love of gallows humour meant there were a lot of ‘terminal’ jokes.

The main lesson I took home from my brief stint as a doctor was a simple one that everyone comes to realise eventually — but not usually until they are faced with death. At the tender age of 23, I realised that life is short

One day, a man was brought in — mid-60s, probable heart attack. We tried to bring him back, but he wasn’t having it. There was some confusion as to his identity, so I looked through his wallet.

Sure enough I found his driving licence and name — but I also found a receipt for Knickerbox, the lingerie outlet. Someone tracked down his wife and we broke the news to her.

It turned out that they’d just come back from a holiday to celebrate his retirement. He’d clearly popped in to Knickerbox in the hope of livening things up. It was that detail that made it so heartbreaking for me.

‘He’d been planning it for so long,’ sobbed his wife. ‘We were so looking forward to his retirement, to spend some proper time together.’ A light-bulb moment. Life’s short. And I didn’t want to spend it being a doctor.

‘Probably what you need to do is get a GP practice in a village with a really strong amateur dramatics group,’ my mother said, vainly trying to look for a compromise.

No good. Dr Matthew Hall had left the building. I sat at my desk and attempted to write jokes.

I remember gigging with my old friend Sean Lock. He was going well, until out of the blue some bum up the back shouts: ‘You’re not funny!’ Sean stops and pauses just for a beat, just long enough to establish who’s boss, to let the guy know he’s not hurt by it in any way. ‘Not funny?’ he said. ‘So all these people laughing . . . that’s a coincidence, is it?’ Beautiful

Harry Hill’s first gig was on September 23, 1990, at the Aztec Comedy Club, a Mexican restaurant in South Norwood.

That’s not strictly true. I was Harry Hall back then. Michael Caine has a good line about why he changed his name: ‘There was already a famous actor called Maurice Micklewhite.’ In my case, there was a cement business called Matthew Hall. No one buys a ticket to see a cement business.

I changed it because I thought Harry Hall was more showbiz, and I liked the way it contained ‘Ha-Ha’, too. I also didn’t want any of my friends or family turning up to my gigs — and I certainly didn’t want to see any of my old patients in the front row.

But when I tried to join the actor’s union Equity, I was told there was already a female actor called Hari Hall. So I needed to ask her permission to use the name (with my spelling). She turned me down. I ummed and ahhed for a couple of weeks over alternatives — Harry Hole, Harry Hell and even Harry Carnegie were all front runners (Carnegie Hall, geddit?).

After finally settling on my stage name, I typed what I thought were my best gags onto pieces of A4 paper, joined them together and ended up with a scroll containing my five-minute act that was almost as tall as me.

You’ll be pleased to hear that I still have that scroll of paper. It appears that I started my set with ‘I’m not a lonely person but I’m the only person I know . . . (pause) I’m the only person I know.’

Handling hecklers 

Some comics are brilliant at dealing with hecklers.

I remember gigging with my old friend Sean Lock. He was going well, until out of the blue some bum up the back shouts: ‘You’re not funny!’ 

Sean stops and pauses just for a beat, just long enough to establish who’s boss, to let the guy know he’s not hurt by it in any way.

‘Not funny?’ he said. ‘So all these people laughing . . . that’s a coincidence, is it?’ Beautiful.

The thought of hecklers made me nervous. The public, the Press, civilians, if you will, love the idea of hecklers. ‘What’s the best heckle you’ve ever had? I bet you’ve got some great heckle put-down lines.’

The fact is, if the rest of the room is with you, it doesn’t matter what you say — you’ll get the laugh and the heckler will shut up. And if you’re dying the room hates you . . . it doesn’t matter what you say either, you’re toast.

What’s the worst heckle I’ve ever had? That’s probably being chased down the road next to the Hackney Empire by a bloke wielding a broken bottle, threatening to kill me. I was on stage and struggling, and this bloke heckled me. I came back at him with a four-letter word, and to my surprise, it worked — there was a bit of muttering, but he shut up.

As I was walking to the car, he charged at me from nowhere waving an empty beer bottle. He smashed the end off it on the kerb and staggered towards me, waving it in my face. I sprinted for my car and drove off. ‘I was right about you!’ I shouted out of the window: ‘You are a ****!’

Actually, I made that last bit up — it’s what I should have said, but honestly I was too scared to say anything. I’d never been threatened with physical violence. It just didn’t happen in my part of Kent.

My on-stage look was pretty distinctive from the beginning, with the collar and glasses. I always thought it was important to have a ‘look’. I was never the jeans and T-shirt type.

I’d picked the glasses because I thought they made me look like Buddy Holly — I can see now that really they made me look like a 1950s accountant. I bought a pair of brothel creepers in Carnaby Street —– just the sort of thing I’d never have been allowed to get away with on the wards. I look back on those early months of freedom as being the rebellious teenage years I never had.

For a few years in the Noughties, Hill’s hit show TV Burp was on ITV on Saturday evenings, just before The X Factor

A sparkly waistcoat from a charity shop joined my ensemble for a while —– until the stand-up comic Ian MacPherson took me to one side after a gig at the Red Rose. He congratulated me on my act —– which was a real thrill as I was such a fan of his —– and added with a wry smile: ‘But I can see you dropping the waistcoat . . . ’

I never wore it again.

So I pulled the collar up to make it look big. When people started commenting on the big collar, I had a couple made with genuinely huge collars — they were expensive and not the sort of thing I’d ever bought before, but I saw it as an investment in the act.

It paid off. I got more laughs. And I loved getting laughs.

I always have, ever since that Cub Scout panto. It’s only recently that I’ve worked out what it was I so enjoyed about the experience.

People were laughing because I was making them laugh. It gave me a feeling of power.

I’m a megalomaniac really. Bet you’re glad I’m not a doctor.

  •  Extracted from Fight! by Harry Hill, to be published by Hodder on November 11 at £20. © 2021 Harry Hill. To order a copy for £18 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until November 11.

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