When good TV goes bad: How Harry Hill’s TV Burp got greedy

If comedians were sandwich spreads (which they should be), then Harry Hill would indubitably be Marmite. To the lovers, he’s a comic genius who can have you guffawing out your Saturday teatime sausages just by turning to side camera, shrugging his shoulders and pulling a funny face. To the haters, he’s a grown man in an oversized shirt with an unhealthy badger obsession, who threw away a respected medical vocation to act like a primetime berk.

The TV Burp format was simple. Harry, sitting behind a desk, reviewed clips from the week’s telly, but entirely interactively. The stars and bit-part actors from the shows could turn up in the TV Burp studio. Harry could insert himself into the clips through ingenious re-filming. Someone would sing the show to a close. Harry repeatedly got covered in water/flour/flying sheep/pigswill. Millions tuned in every week to relish all the in-jokes. What was your favourite bit? Apprentice in a Nutshell? Freaky Eaters? (“Chippy chips!”) Any time another bald bloke in glasses appeared? Ear cataracts? The Knitted Character? Maybe you even entered The K Factor, TV Burp’s knitting competition, won by Peter the Duck. Well, you get the idea with that.

In its prime, TV Burp was a masterclass in scriptwriting, clip-editing, delivery, physical comedy, celebrity-booking, prop-buying, set-building, costume-making, jingle-writing, stuntwork, puppetry and (ahem) sexual innuendo. The workload on Harry and his “programme associates” was intense, requiring them to watch hours of soaps, reality shows, quizshows, dramas and documentaries to extract a single joke. Harry was also narrating You’ve Been Framed!, shown on ITV immediately before, which he did so brilliantly effortlessly that it sounded as if he made it all up in real time on the way to the TV Burp studio. It was no surprise that TV Burp could only run between six and 12 episodes before everyone needed an intense lie down and an eight-month holiday.

However, with success came greed. By the time TV Burp scooped its third Bafta in 2009, ITV had upped the Burps to whopping 21-week runs. By the 10th series you could see it, through the thick-rimmed specs, in Harry’s eyes: TV Burp was flagging. Harry and co just couldn’t keep up with the workload. The comedy was suffering. The jokes were repeating. The catchphrases were becoming tedious. Harry allegedly refused to do his “Chippy Chips” any more because he thought it was too childish. (A BBC producer has said that Freaky Eaters was only recommissioned because it was featured so heavily on TV Burp.) And then there was Wagbo, the unlovable lovechild of Mary Byrne and Wagner from The X Factor, seemingly created to do Harry’s dirty work for him, and insert himself into sketches so Harry could go home and have a rest. And so TV Burp jumped the Shark Infested Custard (Harry’s short-lived CITV kids’ show). After one more series (which certainly picked up, and ended on a spectacularly emotional finale), Harry pulled the plug forever. I liked TV Burp. I also liked its mainstream success. It’s just a shame they had to fight.