Harry Hill on getting Simon Cowell's blessing for the X Factor musical

"If it's a huge flop I'll get it in the neck, but it's been great fun to write," says Hill

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Harry Hill on getting Simon Cowell's blessing for the X Factor musical
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The word “mansion” might be pushing it, but Simon Cowell’s house in Holland Park is – not just by the standards of one of London’s most desirable enclaves, but by the standards of anywhere – a spacious property. This Sunday afternoon, it needs to be.

No baby Eric yet – this interview takes place a few days before his birth, and Cowell is waiting on a call to fly to New York. But besides myself and Cowell, I tot up two maids, plus two publicity chaps, plus the ubiquitous Sinitta, plus her two children, plus an older lady who is, I think, possibly related to Sinitta.

Everything changes two weeks later when his girlfriend Lauren Silverman gives birth to his son – but apparently not with earth-shattering consequences. “I’ve adapted really quickly. Eric is really sweet and he’s changed my life. You realise that you have a responsibility. It definitely calms you down and makes you realise what your priorities are.”

Like changing nappies? “No, we have a really, really good baby nurse. But I have got up in the middle of the night to feed him with Lauren. I really like doing that.”

But rewind to Holland Park and baby Eric’s future home. Beyond the living room I have glimpsed a formal dining room. This living room is fairly grand, too, but saved from feeling like the lobby of an expensive hotel by the biggest telly I’ve ever seen. It is tuned to a channel called Horror+1, showing a campy B-movie involving caves and shoddily constructed monsters. The atmosphere is friendly, the hospitality fault- less. Coffee is served. The relevant introductions are made. My attention is drawn to the proximity of a plate of crumpets.

Cowell is in an armchair. He’s wearing a T-shirt and jeans, back straight, bare feet drawn up under his body, telephone, fags and intermittently yappy Yorkshire terrier puppies – two of them – within easy reach. He doesn’t attempt to dominate the gathering, but then he doesn’t need to. When he speaks, others fall silent. His expression holds that familiar mix of boredom, wry amusement at the follies of the world, and a hint – improbable but not impossible – that approval might be bestowed. My impression is of a king in his court. A benevolent king, willing to grant a hearing, yet nonetheless not a king troubled by self- doubt or ever caught off-duty or off-guard. He is a surprisingly easy man to like and to want to be liked by – partly because of his charm and good manners, partly because you are aware he could dismember you far more efficiently than any of the creatures currently wreaking havoc on his TV screen. Which is a long-winded way of explaining why I start by talking to Harry Hill, who is on a sofa opposite me in Simon Cowell’s front room because he’s co-written a musical based on The X Factor. It’s called I Can’t Sing! and previews start at the London Palladium at the beginning of March. Hill started out watching The X Factor as research for his Saturday teatime hit TV Burp and quickly become a fan. He had the idea for a musical while watching the 2010 series – the one with One Direction, Cher Lloyd and the infamous Wagner, and also the last in which Cowell was a judge (he is to return for the 2014 series). “It was a golden era,” recalls Hill, “Simon, Louis, Cheryl – and who else?” “Sharon,” says Cowell. “No, Dannii.” “Yes, I’m sorry, it was Dannii,” admits Cowell. “We had Katy Waissel that year, too,” he chuckles. “Her grandmother turned out to be Britain’s oldest working prostitute. She was about 82. A vintage year.”

Hill knew he needed to meet Cowell to take his project much further. Did he need Simon’s permission to go ahead? “Yeah,” says Hill. Legally? “Pretty much so, yeah,” says Cowell. “I didn’t want it to be about a generic talent show,” says Hill. “I wanted it to be branded.” The two men didn’t know each other but Cowell knew and liked Hill’s work. “It was always a badge of honour if you got one of your acts on TV Burp. They were taking the p*** out of us but they made us laugh.”

So Cowell agreed to meet Hill, but even so, he started out thinking, “There’s no way we want to do this.” Then Hill played him a song written by his friend and collaborator Steve Brown. “It made me laugh,” says Cowell. “That year, we’d banned the words ‘journey’ and ‘dream’ from any shows, I was sick of hearing them. Harry’s song was called Dreaming of a Journey on My Journey to a Dream. It was a big p***- take of us, but not in a cynical way. We gave it our blessing.”

Many months passed. “And then,” says Cowell, “I was told I’d got to go and see a run-through in a little theatre. I said, ‘What, it’s actually happening?’ I thought, ‘Oh Christ, what if I hate it?’ So I said to my PA, ‘Get me a seat at the back near the exit.’” “You brought an entourage,” says Hill. “I had Sinitta and a couple of others,” Cowell pouts. “It felt very entouragey,” says Hill.

By then Hill had a script, 15 songs, and a cast who’d rehearsed for two weeks. “It was in some sort of shape, then we got the message, ‘Simon’s coming,’ and everyone got really nervous. It was like being on The X Factor.” “You looked nervous,” says Cowell. “I was nervous!” Besides Cowell, says Hill, the audience was “industry types, investors, theatre owners. The worst audience you’d ever want.”

Cowell recently saw Beautiful, the Carole King musical, in New York. He liked Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia! and he thought Jerry Springer:

The Opera was smart. But his opinion of the genre was straightforward: “I hate musicals. But these were great songs and within five minutes I was in hysterics. There’s a contestant in a caravan with her grandfather who has an iron lung. I thought: ‘Good back story!’ It was obviously written by someone who likes the show. We all get it in the neck, particularly me, but we didn’t want to make something pompous or earnest.”

Cowell decided there and then to back the show. “Everything happened within minutes. I could see how into the show the co-investors were. I thought, ‘I’ve never done this before, I always said I wouldn’t but why not, let’s take a punt.’” Does he have a veto over the script? “No,” says Cowell. “I think you do,” says Hill. “I do,” admits Cowell, “but I have not changed a word and I wouldn’t. If it feels like it’s got my hands over it, people won’t enjoy it so much. I’ve got thick enough skin.”

Did he worry the musical might undermine the show? “If I thought it was damaging to the brand, we wouldn’t have done it.”

Besides, he argues, “any show that has Wagner competing against One Direction or that can turn John and Edward [aka Jedward] into multimillionaires is a bit wacky. It’s a bonkers show in a way way. I mean, Louis on the panel? It’s nuts.” The musical, Cowell implies, merely takes the farcical elements of the TV show a little further.

“Sometimes you’ve got to feel a little uncomfortable. It’s like when we brought David Walliams onto Britain’s Got Talent. David is as dark a comedian and a human being as is possible. Very sinister. Uncontrollable. In the first season he really had started it just too far and Philip Green said to me, ‘I’ll tell you what, Simon, we’ll take him out for dinner and I’ll have a word with him.’ So David turns up and says, ‘You want to tell me to be well behaved in the final,’ and I said, ‘Well, sort of. Philip does.’ Of course two days later he was absolutely horrendous, which made me laugh all the more.”

Cowell’s attention is distracted by the puppies barking. “You two are being really annoying,” he says in a tone enough to suggest to me he will prove a rather indulgent father. Then his eye is caught by my tobacco. “Could you roll me one of those, please?” Hill looks disapproving.

“Harry trained as a doctor, he doesn’t like my theory that although I smoke and drink I take supplements so I’ll be all right.” “Nothing is bad for you like smoking,” says Hill. “If I tried to cut out cigarettes completely,” says Cowell, “I would have a real problem: too boring. It’s the same with drinking. I’m pretty good at cutting back when I need to.” I say he looked in decent nick in the traditional Christmas paparazzi photos in Barbados. “Yeah, not too shabby, eh?” he beams.

He leans forward. “I have this expression, ‘You never eat Indian food for breakfast’.” Where’s this leading, I wonder. “I always think there is a time in your day when you can be creative. For me, one or two in the morning, couple of vodka and limes, couple of cigarettes, I’m in a calm place: I can think. I always say, ‘One good idea a year can pay for your next ten years.’ And that’s all you need to do.” Those hours will change when the baby arrives, I tell him. He makes no comment.

Hill cheerfully admits he is not seeking to make any cultural or social comment. He has no message. He does not think The X Factor is ruining pop music. (“Destroying it,” corrects Cowell, sotto voce.) Nor does he think the series needs subverting or satirising – it does that to itself as it goes along, just as old-school variety shows, or Benny Hill, used to do. “A journalist asked me, ‘Why do we need X Factor the Musical?’” Hill says. “I said: ‘We don’t.’ But why do we need anything? Except we’ve got to have stuff and we’ve got to have new stuff. It’s an extraordinarily risky business; why would anyone do it? That’s the fun of it. If it’s a huge flop, I’ll get it in the neck but it’s been fun to write.”

Unlike Hill, Cowell does have money invested in the musical. “It’s bloody risky, but so is making the TV show. Every new season you go in with the highest hpes, and sometimes you get a bum year. You wait for those numbers to come in, oh my God it’s stressful, and it’s a delicious thrill.” I mention the Spice Girls musical, Viva Forever!, which ran for seven months and was considered a flop. What would count as success for I Can’t Sing!? “Seven months and a day,” cackles Cowell. “I’m not au fait with the numbers,” he concedes. “From day one there was a cloud over that musical. The critics had a field day.” Will the critics be gunning for this one as well? “Oh, for sure, but you’ve got to be confident in what you do, otherwise you’d be paralysed. I’ve always thought if I like something then other people will like it.” Cowell gestures at the kitsch mayhem being played out on his TV. “Like this movie now, people aren’t watching the football, they’re watching what I’m watching!” I’m pretty sure he’s joking.

For your chance to win one of five family passes to see the new West End musical this April/May*, enter at radiotimes.com/icantsing and answer: What was Nigel Harman’s character in Downton Abbey?