‘I made stink bombs and sold them at school!’ says Professor Branestawm star Harry Hill

TV Burp star Harry Hill will be playing madcap inventor Professor Branestawm in the BBC1 film adaptation of Norman Hunter’s well-loved series of short stories this Christmas. 

Written by The Fast Show creator Charlie Higson and starring a host of comedy actors such as Simon Day, David Mitchell and Ben Miller, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm is a guaranteed family pleaser. 

We spoke to Harry about playing the mad inventor, creating his own explosives as a child and working with Simon Cowell on the X Factor musical…

Did you read the Professor Branestawm books as a child?

“Yes I did, because I loved that stuff. Me and a couple of friends set up a little ‘chemical industry’ in Kent when I was about 11. We made smoke bombs, stink bombs and fireworks and sold them to the kids at school. We were quite good at it but one of our friends resigned because he couldn’t cope with demand. The other thing he was doing was giving people the produce on credit and not taking any money … so he had to go!”

Did your products work?

“Yeah they did! A friend of mine’s mum banned him from buying anything from us ever again because he set off one of these smoke bombs in his house! They were really good those smoke bombs. But we never really succeeded in a proper explosion, which is what we were aiming for.”

How do you feel about playing a mad professor?

“It was only a matter of time!”

Do you think this film might introduce the character to a new generation of children?

“Hopefully, although to be honest not everyone of my age has heard of Professor Branestawm so he’s not massively well-known. I’m a big fan of the books and when they approached me about it I had the feeling that it wasn’t a million miles away from Harry Hill. I’d never done any proper acting or anything where I wasn’t being me, but I thought this was something I could do. I got a bit possessive about it in the end – I would have been heartbroken if they’d given it to someone else!”

How have you found the acting?

“I really struggle to learn lines. I never had to learn them for TV Burp because they were always on the autocue. My wife refused to go through the lines with me, because it was boring and I complained about her delivery! She delivers it in a monotone and I end up giving her lessons, which she didn’t appreciate – as you can imagine!”

What’s the story then? How are we introduced to the professor?

“Charlie’s framed it around a young girl called Connie, who’s the niece of Professor Branestawm’s housekeeper, Mrs Fittersnoop. She’s at school and she’s been told she doesn’t need to worry about science or anything like that – she just needs to look pretty and find a husband. So it’s quite a neat feminist tract! The professor teaches her some science and she sort of helps the professor out as well.”

Is this the start of a glorious acting career?

“Well, I’m just doing this for fun. I don’t know… I never had any ambition to do anything other then Harry Hill to be honest, but when this came along I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss – especially with this great cast.”

What would Harry Hill make of the programme?

“Good question. He never used to get much out of comedies, he only used to get stuff out of programmes that took themselves seriously… EastEnders mainly!”

Is it a relief not doing TV Burp any more or do you miss it at all?

“It’s really nice to be doing someone else’s lines for a change and not be thinking: ‘Oh that line didn’t do very well, I’ll have to change that!’ You have no other responsibility, but to do the best with what you’re given. I gave Charlie a whole load of notes and he ignored them all…”

Have you bumped into anyone from EastEnders recently?

“The only place I used to bump into them was at the National TV Awards. They were always fine to be honest, even though we were quite rude about them. I always felt a bit bad about Heather. We did take the mickey out of her a bit, but [Cheryl Fergison is] not like that at all really. I thought what was funny about it was the way the character was given such awful plot lines. But she ended up coming on the last show and she was great!”

Do you miss doing TV Burp?

“I have a lot of fond memories of doing the show, but in honesty I don’t miss it at all. Every Saturday when I wake up it’s a relief that I don’t have to write another show.”

You wrote The X Factor musical ‘I Can’t Sing!’ How much involvement did Simon Cowell have in it?

“I had the idea so I went to him and told him it would be a bit like TV Burp where we celebrate things and take the p*** out of them. He said; ‘Yeah we’re up for it, come up with some ideas…’ So I went away with Steve and wrote up some storyboards to explain the basic premise. 

“I told him it would be a basic outline of the story and wouldn’t have any jokes so it wouldn’t be that funny, but as we started going through it he was laughing his head off! I was looking at Steve thinking; ‘This is going to well!’ 

“He was very happy with it all the way through and then when it was on the stage during the final preparations he came twice to that and gave me a whole load of notes which I largely ignored. Then we got a funny email two weeks before we opened – bearing in mind this whole process has taken a couple of years – saying ‘I feel that my character is made to look a bit ridiculous’… which we were like – yeah! We thought: ‘Oh god he’s worked it out!'”

What was he like to work with?

“He’s very funny actually. He can be difficult to make out, but a lot of people said we would have trouble with him and he would try and control it, but to be honest he didn’t. When he did have notes a lot of them were about production and the lighting, which were really good. The few that he had about the storyline – some were good and some were bad – and the good ones we used and the bad ones we ignored. So he wasn’t the boss from hell, which he could have been considering he put a lot of money into it.”

The musical closed after just six weeks, did you speak to him afterwards?

“I got a message from him saying that he was gutted after it closed, but from his point of view he’s always got a million things going on!”

The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm will screen on BBC1 at 8.30pm on Christmas Eve

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