Portsmouth isn’t exactly a hotbed for celebrities, so when one does come to town the city pays attention.
But move over Khloe Kardashian, because we have a household name that lives on our doorstep. He can be spotted at the Kings Theatre, where he is a patron, or completing the Great South Run. He could even be papped buying some ‘milky milky’.
People do still come up to me and say milky milkyHugh Dennis
Hugh Dennis, 53, is the longest-serving panellist on comedy show Mock The Week and plays the patriarch of one of Britian’s most famous television families in Outnumbered.
He lives in West Sussex, his children go to school in Portsmouth and his wife grew up in the city. Hugh has extended his commitment to the area by becoming a patron of The Kings Theatre on Albert Road – a position he has had since October last year.
Hugh says: The reason I was asked was because I am local, my kids go to school in Portsmouth and because I had done shows at The Kings.’
His first was five years ago with The Now Show on Radio 4, which he still performs on with his comedy partner Steve Punt.
‘The BBC sends us out into the regions so to speak to broadcast shows and The Kings was one of the venues. I had a really good night there, the crowds were very animated.
‘It is a very important community place and they’re doing a lot of admirable work to stay in the centre of the community so I am proud to be a patron.’
When people recognise him in the street, Hugh is always surprised by the age of the programmes he is remembered for. ‘I just think – you have a very long memory. Because I’m fairly visible through being on the telly quite a lot, I’m always expecting something to happen. But you never know which show people are going to remember you from.’
And Hugh has worked on a string of notable shows. One of his earliest appearances was alongside Steve and another comedy duo – David Baddiel and Rob Newman – on The Mary Whitehouse Experience.
‘Originally we did it as comedy on Radio 1 which they don’t really do now. In a year we did 45 radio shows.
‘Because that had done well it was sold to BBC2. We only did 13 episodes that you can’t get on DVD and are never repeated, but at the time they were really culty.
‘On The Mary Whitehouse Experience the sketch I was best known for was always milky milky. People do still come up to me and say milky milky.’
The show was completely unrelated to its namesake, who infamously campaigned against what she saw as slipping moral standards on television.
Hugh remembers receiving feedback from a viewer in true Mary Whitehouse style.
He says: ‘We never spoke to Mary Whitehouse but we got a letter of complaint from a kind of supporter of hers who said that she had turned on the telly expecting to see a documentary about the life and times of Mary Whitehouse and that she was, quote, shocked to the core by what she had seen. So, very entertaining.’
Hugh attended Cambridge University, which is where he met Steve, and he follows in the footsteps of other successful comedians who were involved in Footlights. Despite getting hooked on performing there, Hugh took a professional detour before starting his comedy career.
‘After university I got a normal job and just carried on doing comedy as a hobby,’ he says. ‘I did that for six or seven years before I went full time in it.’
He worked in marketing for Unilever, a huge multi-national company, where he was a brand manager for Lynx deodorant.
‘I was kind of lucky that comedy is an evening and weekend thing and marketing deodorant is generally a day time thing,’ says Hugh.
It was around this time that Jasper Carrott saw Hugh and Steve perform at The Comedy Store and invited them to appear on his television show. The rest is history – except Hugh doesn’t believe in getting a big break.
‘I think there is a talent threshold that you have to be above, but beyond that it is all right place, right time pretty much. ‘People always ask what my big break was but I think you have got to have one every five years. You don’t have one break and that is it – you have to keep going really.’
Hugh’s latest hit is Outnumbered, which concluded last year. Since debuting in 2007, the cast and co-creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin received acclaim for the semi-improvised script and portrayal of normal family life.
It was through an unlikely room-mate in Italy that Hugh got the gig as outmanned parent Pete Brockman.
‘I play a lot of social football,’ he says. ‘I was on a veterans’ football tournamnet to Rimini and Andy Hamilton was there was well. We had to share a room because we were the last two to arrive. Mysteriously, about six weeks later, I was asked if I wanted to go along and take part in this thing called Outnumbered and I said yes, obviously.
‘It is just luck.’
Hugh’s participation in the show is just one step towards more diverse roles.
‘I would love to do a big straight drama actually, because I have never done one,’ says Hugh. ‘One of the principles I have always worked on is that you shouldn’t do the things that make you comfortable, you should actually do the things that made you kind of uncomfortable.
‘When I started Outnumbered I had never done anything like that. I come from audience sit coms, what in telly you call a fourth wall sitcom which means that the fourth wall of the set doesn’t exist – that is where the cameras are.
‘You have got to push yourself constantly and what you can do.’
In contrast, Hugh has been a panellist on Mock The Week since its inception in 2005. When asked why he has remained on the programme for so long, Hugh’s answer is simple: ‘nobody has told me to go away’.
And neither would the people of Portsmouth if they bumped into him in the supermarket. So on that principle, here’s to many more years of Hugh Dennis being outnumbered by local fans.
Hugh Dennis is an avid runner, having run his first marathon in 1987. He has completed the Great South Run three times now, most recently in 2014. The relief of Portsmouth’s roads has always been a relief to Hugh by the end of the course.
‘I like it for various reasons,’ he says. ‘The first is because I have always run it for different charities, Alzheimer’s disease charities mainly.
‘Secondly, I like the fact that you do get support in Portsmouth. The streets are properly lined with onlookers – it’s an event.
‘But the thing I like most about the Great South Run is that it’s flat. If you do the Great North Run it goes up, down and everywhere – the course in Portsmouth has one hill, which effectively goes up Winston Churchill Avenue. It’s such a shallow hill you don’t really notice it, it’s fantastic.’
While the lack of tough terrain is a plus, the finishing stretch of the course means that running the race is not always a breeze.
Hugh says: ‘The only thing which gets in your way is when you get down to Eastney, you turn right and you have to come back up past Southsea along the front. Usually it is really windy. But apart from that, it is a good thing to do.’