Comedian, actor and TV presenter Hugh Dennis is musing on how he finds himself sitting on top of Hound Tor on Dartmoor with a fast-vanishing winter sun about to plunge us into a desolate darkness.
“I don’t think it’s an accident I’ve ended up doing what I now do,” he concludes.
The “now” alludes to a new departure for the TV funnyman, who hits 50 this week – a series for BBC1 on the geology and geography of Britain.
He was drawn to it, he says, not simply because of his background (he got a First at Cambridge in geography), but also because of a constant need to be busy.
“At university I did a lot of sport, I worked fairly hard, I did plays and I just did a whole mass of things. It’s what makes me happy. I used to think it was sort of wrong, that really you should just concentrate on one thing, but I’m pretty much incapable. It just would make me miserable. I need to do lots of things. I suspect it drives my family bonkers.”
His family – second wife Kate and children Freddie, 14, and Meg, 12 – aren’t around to confirm or deny this.
Dennis is in Devon filming the final part of The Great British Countryside, which he will co-present with Julia Bradbury. It’s a series, he promises, in which “you’ll find out stuff you didn’t know about a place that you live in. And you’ll feel good about living in it.
“Britain must be the most varied place on Earth,” he reasons. “Everything’s happened here. We think of Britain as being very benign, the green and pleasant land, all those things we sing about, but actually we’ve had all sorts of violent upheavals, volcanoes, the lot.”
The series has taken Dennis far away from the geography he studied. He admits slightly sheepishly, in the manner of all dissertation writers, that his was entitled, The Spatial Distribution of Elementary Education in 19th-century Wakefield.
“Historical geography, completely different.”
But on one level, the project has reconnected him with a basic passion in his life. “I just love being outside,” he smiles, surveying the surroundings that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles.
“If you ask me where I’m happiest, I would say, standing on top of a hill in the rain, wearing just a pair of shorts with my arms outstretched, going, ‘Aaaaaargh!’”
Dennis’s peripatetic upbringing as the son of a regularly relocated bishop has given him a solid working knowledge of the country. Unlike another bishop’s son, Tim Westwood, who reinvented himself as a rap DJ, Dennis has never seemed rebellious. Has he always been relaxed about his middle-class roots?
“I’ve always been fairly comfortable about that. But I think that’s probably because being a bishop isn’t quite what people imagine it to be. My parents are perfectly normal, sensible people. I’ve never felt the need to rebel and I’ve never felt particularly tortured.”
The way he fell into comedy, first as a hobby with the Cambridge Footlights, then as a career, reveals a truth, Dennis believes, about himself. “I know it sounds slightly mad, but I’ve never really had a plan,” he confesses.
“I never thought, ‘I’m going to do this and then I’ll be on the telly.’ So I wasn’t overawed by it, because it wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to do, certainly not as a career. I just turned up and did it.”
The same was true of another Cambridge rite of passage that Dennis recounts – being approached to work for the secret services. “I went down to Carlton House Terrace [in Westminster] for an interview,” he laughs. “I can’t remember very much about it other than thinking I’d make a terrible spy.
“They did the normal, ‘Are you homosexual?, Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?’ I recall this one man just stared at me silently for ages. And I thought, ‘I don’t think this is for me.’”
Instead, Dennis left university bound for a career in the somewhat safer surroundings of Unilever’s management programme. But he kept in contact with his Cambridge friend and comedy partner, Steve Punt.
In 1989, still keeping up his multinational management day job, Dennis, along with Punt, paired up with Rob Newman and David Baddiel to create the cult sketch show The Mary Whitehouse Experience. Only when the show moved from a late-night Radio 1 slot to BBC2 in 1990, and rehearsals switched from Saturday to Wednesday, did Dennis finally quit the day job.
Suddenly, the group’s popularity took off and Dennis found himself with his own proper catchphrase – “Milky Milky”, the regular refrain of the all too-lactose-tolerant, Mr Strange. “People still shout it at me. I think, ‘How do you remember that?’ And some of them look quite old and then I think, ‘Oh God, I must look that old too.’”
The group split up. Dennis insists there was no rift – “I still play football with Dave Baddiel. I try to kick him, obviously” – and his career has since taken off with Mock the Week and Outnumbered. He must, one imagines, enjoy the company of comedians.
“Comedians are very interested and interesting people. You’re sort of surrounded by people who are clever like Dara O Briain. You become a sponge, really, you can’t help it. We all have a seemingly impressive but really very shallow grasp of a wide variety of subjects. I was described the other day as dinner party-level bright.”
Although happily married to Kate since 1996, Dennis was shocked early in 2011 when a national paper ran a withering attack by his first wife, Miranda Carroll, whom he met as a sixth former and was divorced from in 1993. She painted him as unromantic, work-obsessed and boring. He was, she said, nicknamed “Desk” by university roommates because he was glued to it.
“That was completely out of the blue,” he acknowledges. “It was bizarre, but it doesn’t matter because it was so long ago: 25 years ago.”
Didn’t he find it even slightly upsetting to be labelled as boring? “That’s what they do to comedians, isn’t it? If they’re going to try to get you, that’s how they get you. You can believe it or not believe it.”
He seems, it must be said, a happy camper. If the Coalition government attempted to measure his happiness, how would he respond?
“Personally, I would say I’m very, very happy. I think I always have been. I’m a very lucky bloke. To the extent that if I ever feel even vaguely depressed, I have a biscuit and I feel better.
“I operate on the principle that this is ridiculous. I can’t quite believe that I’m doing this now. But that’s great. I’m incredibly lucky.
“How happy Britain is, I don’t know. It’s going to be a very difficult year. It feels pretty grim. It feels like everyone’s going to have to pull together a bit and change expectations. But I’m naturally positive. I’m glad I’m not living in Athens, for example. It’s all relative.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 7 February 2012.
The Great British Countryside starts on BBC1 tonight at 8pm