Hugh Dennis on Mock the Week ending and his hopes for an Outnumbered revival
The comedian on outliving the current prime minister, what he'll miss most about the panel show, and how he would "very happily" return to Outnumbered.
It's hard to believe that after 17 years, Mock the Week airs its final regular episode tonight (20th October). The panel show quickly became a treasured part of the BBC Two furniture after first airing in 2005, and during its run has seen two recessions, four US presidents, two monarchs and six prime ministers.
Of course, it now won't be long before the UK ushers in a seventh prime minister since the show's debut. Speaking to RadioTimes.com before Liz Truss announced her resignation yesterday, Hugh Dennis – who has appeared as a regular panellist for all 21 seasons – was already anticipating that something might happen by the time the episode aired.
"Somebody had said at the beginning of the series, we knew Mock the Week was being taken off air, but I don't think we realised that we might out-survive the new prime minister," he explained.
"I don't think we can claim any role in that..."
It's 9:30am on a Tuesday morning when I speak to the comedian over the phone. After launching into typically British small-talk about the recent drop in temperature ("It's gone very winter-ish"), we move on to chat about the Mock the Week finale – which seems to have come at a perfect time thanks to the utter chaos playing out in Westminster this week.
"When we knew we were going into the last series, I always thought that surely the news won't really matter by the time that we get to the last one," he says. "But actually – it's fantastic because there's an enormous amount of news."
From Kwasi Kwarteng's recent ousting from his Exchequer post ("You can be Chancellor for 38 days, so lasting 17 years doing something is really remarkable"), to exiting Home Secretary Suella Braverman's comments on the "tofu-eating wokerati", the panel certainly had a lot to work with ahead of their taping on Wednesday – but the show's permanent departure from the BBC Two schedules is still a gloomy occasion.
"I've actually felt remarkably normal," Dennis says. "But I mean, it's kind of sad, isn't it? In all of these things, I always kind of become positive and in one way, television shows never really die now.
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"I quite often get stopped in the street by people saying they saw Mock the Week last night at a time when it's not on and I go, 'Hang on, how did you see it? You must have seen it on Dave?' and they say, 'Well, no I think it was this week's.'
"'Well, what news were we discussing?', and they said, 'I think it was about the Gulf War?'," he chuckles, before noting there is an upside – at least he'll be "absolutely frozen in age" thanks to the many Dave repeats to come.
When the BBC announced in August that Mock the Week was to end, the cancellation didn't come as a huge surprise to Dennis. "You're always expecting things to end, aren't you? You can't possibly after 17 years go, 'Oh, nobody's given us a chance.'"
As for why he stuck around for over 196 recordings and 240 shows (including the compilation episodes), the BBC just kept asking. "It's just good fun. It's a really good, funny bunch of people and just a nice thing to do."
When confirming the cancellation news to The Mirror at the time, host Dara Ó Briain pointed to headlines "getting crazier and crazier" on the current affairs front, adding: "We just couldn't be more silly than the news was already." However, Dennis thinks that's already been disproven – mainly due to this current run of Mock the Week.
"It's kind of an interesting age where you seem to be able to say anything, you know, that sort of fake news-y stuff is kind of interesting, but I don't think [the news today] is more difficult to satirise at all," he says. "I think if you look back over the 17 years, it's all been pretty silly."
In fact, Dennis thinks that comedy has become "a much bigger thing" since Mock the Week first began. "There are far more clubs and people are much more used to going out for a night of comedy in a way that they would have gone out to see a band or something. But it's become a much more normal thing."
There may be more bums in seats in comedy clubs, however there's no denying that the death of Mock the Week will make it harder for newer comedians to move across to TV. Over the years, the series has championed up-and-comers, from Zoe Lyons, Russell Howard, Josh Widdicombe and Sara Pascoe, to more recently the likes of Sophie Duker, Maisie Adam, Alasdair Beckett-King and Ahir Shah.
Is Mock the Week just the beginning of the panel show decline? "There have always been things saying, 'This is the end of the sitcom,' or 'This is the end of the sketch show' or whatever. And that might be true briefly, but they always come back again."
He adds: "The panel show is a really good, funny format – getting funny people together. That's all it is, isn't it? I've always found it interesting actually that panel shows don't really exist in America. It's a very sort of British thing, because we've never quite known what to do with stand-ups.
"In America, a stand-up would get a sitcom, and that does happen a bit here, but mainly with stand-ups, you put them into panel shows. I've always felt a bit like a fraud actually because I'm not a stand-up. I do a slightly different thing. But I think panel shows will survive."
When I ask what his favourite joke was or whether there were any of his gags that didn't make it to air, Dennis admits that his memory on those points isn't great – and you can't really blame him after spending 17 years writing "reams and reams" of jokes. However, one of his highlights has been working with Milton Jones – the colourful shirt-wearing, wild-haired comic known for his scene-stealing one-liners.
"I've always really loved Milton. Just watching Milton's one-liners. He's an amazing comic," he says. "I've really enjoyed working with Frankie [Boyle]. I mean all of them – I feel rather glad I was there."
While Mock the Week has had a good innings, Dennis doesn't rule out returning to the panel show if it found a new life on another channel, but says: "It depends who it was picked up by.
"For now, you just have to go, 'Wow, what a great run.' You're supposed to mourn it for a bit and then just kind of get on with the next bit of your career."
On the topic of returning to shows, Dennis is more enthusiastic about revisiting Outnumbered – the BBC One semi-improvised comedy in which he played London dad Pete Brockman trying to raise his unruly three children with wife Sue (played by Claire Skinner, who is reportedly now his partner).
"I would love to do Outumbered in whatever form," he says. "In my head, I think we could do it the other way around and [the children] have to look after us.
"But we're not quite old enough yet. I really loved doing that show, indeed I've enjoyed doing almost everything I've done, but no, I'd very happily do more Outnumbered."
As we say our goodbyes, Dennis is expecting a call from Mock the Week to reveal the topics up for ridicule in the upcoming episode, and as for what fans can expect from the finale, he's in the dark about the details. However he can promise one thing: "What I will tell you is it will mention Liz Truss."
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