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Harry Hill: 'Simon Cowell is the modern-day Barnum'

An X Factor musical was just one of a number of ideas comedian Harry Hill generated in the wake of his hit ITV show TV Burp. But, as he explains to WhatsOnStage, it was the surprise backing of Simon Cowell that made it a reality.

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Nigel Harman, Simon Cowell and Harry Hill at the launch of I Can't Sing!

Harry Hill: I have lots of ideas, can't help myself. Starlight Express with Hamsters, for example. I write them down and run them past my wife, and most of the time I don't follow them up. But in the case of a musical based around The X Factor I thought 'I need to get this to Simon Cowell', which is a bit like saying 'I need to get this to the Pope'.

My only contact with him was Peter Fincham, the controller of ITV, so I phoned him up and he said he was meeting Simon the next day and would run it past him. I wasn't expecting to hear anything but the next day Peter rang and said "Simon's up for it". So I quickly wrote the storyline and persuaded Steve Brown to write some songs. And then we had this extraordinary meeting to pitch the idea.

I thought it would be sensible to put together a storyboard of the show and demo a couple of songs. But a few days before the meeting Steve phoned me up and said "do you really need these songs?" and I replied "yes, it's a musical, we need songs."

So he was literally writing them up until the last minute, almost in the cab on the way! Then we got to the meeting and waited nervously for Simon, who approached like a ship on radar.

When he arrived I said, "please bear in mind this is just the story, not including the jokes that will be in the show". So I started telling the story, involving a hunchback who comes to audition, and he started laughing straightaway. Then we played a song and he started singing along. I thought 'this is too easy', but he just said "I love it, it's a green light".

'There's a lot going on behind Simon's sunglasses'

The next step was a workshop performance for a load of industry people - so you could hardly pick a more jaded crowd! But everybody rose to the challenge brilliantly. At the interval Andrew Lloyd Webber's right hand man came over and offered us the Palladium, then at the end we got a standing ovation. Unbelievable. And to top it all, Simon got up on stage and said "people have asked me if I'm backing this show; well I can say that I'm backing it 110 percent."

People might assume he's trying to make a quick buck out of this, but I think it was brave of Simon to back the show. There were more obvious candidates to write this, and they could have done a jukebox thing. So I think it's very bold of them to go with me and Steve on an original musical - it's not the obvious route. I know they were thinking about doing an X Factor musical anyway, but I doubt they'd have come to us.

There's a lot going on behind Simon's sunglasses. It's been very impressive seeing him in action doing press for this; he always knows exactly what to say. He's an interesting phenomenon. He's like the modern-day P.T. Barnum; he's a ring-master, asking punters to roll up, roll up. There's also something very un-British about him, he's a completely unique export for this country.

In 100 years time when we're all dead and buried, there'll still be a trace of Simon Cowell. And that's not another joke about his child, incidentally.

Harry Hill was speaking to WhatsOnStage at the launch of I Can't Sing! on 2 September 2013

See Also: Our Brief Encounter with Simon Cowell