Outnumbered creator Andy Hamilton: from my fictional family to a real-life impersonator

The Outnumbered cast
The Outnumbered cast

The man behind ‘Outnumbered’, Andy Hamilton, tells Jasper Rees how an impostor planted the seed for his first novel

Andy Hamilton has been making us laugh for 40 years. He wrote his first joke on the radio in his early twenties, has regularly been satirical on The News Quiz and observational on QI. For 20 years, he has played the Devil in his Radio 4 philosophical comedy Old Harry’s Game. And, with Guy Jenkin, he has twice taken the sitcom into a wholly original territory. The Nineties series Drop the Dead Donkey featured up-to-the-minute gags from the news headlines that were parachuted into the script. And then there was Outnumbered, the much-loved, semi-improvised BBC sitcom about the chaos of parenting.

Andy Hamilton

One episode features a wonderfully downbeat measure of child-rearing success: “If they get to 18 and they’re still alive and not in prison, then you’ve probably done a decent job.” When Outnumbered makes a welcome one-off return this Christmas, nearly three years on from when viewers last clapped eyes on them, neither Jake, Ben nor Karen will be dead or in prison.

“The first reaction will probably be, ‘My God, the kids are huge now!’” says Hamilton. The second reaction will be the one the writers have been getting since the series started in 2007: “I reckon you must have cameras in our house.” (In truth, the show is based on the writers’ own experiences of parenthood.)

“I remember writing a scene with Guy where Karen had been knocked down. The two parents start reminiscing about the number of times they’ve managed to maim their children. Me and Guy pooled our experiences – I left our eldest behind on an island, and put that in.”

Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis with their Outnumbered children

The hope is to turn the show into a kind of family sitcom version of Boyhood, the garlanded feature film that Richard Linklater shot over 10 years. “Our plan is to pop in every couple of years and see how the family is getting on. You learn not to think too far ahead, but who knows? Many years down the line there’ll be an episode where Karen becomes a grandmother.”

Hamilton’s comedy has always commuted between television and radio, script-writing and performing. He’s an occasional stand-up, too, whose latest show is out on tour this autumn. But this month he also joins the long line of comics who have turned to fiction.

The Outnumbered cast with Hamilton

The Star Witness is a thoughtful, page-turning entertainment that reads like a cautionary parable for our times. It tells of Kevin Carver, a half-decent fiftysomething actor who is coasting along in a soap. After an altercation with his decades-younger girlfriend, he watches his life crumple on impact with the law, the tabloids and a delusional stalker, before he embarks on a tortuous path of moral redemption.

Though chiefly fiction, the book has its roots in reality: its germ was Hamilton’s discovery in the early Nineties that someone was borrowing his identity.

“We’d done a Drop the Dead Donkey recording,” he remembers. “I hadn’t had a chance to talk to my wife in the bar afterwards. She said, ‘That’s fine – I was chatting to your agent, who was telling me all about this bloke who is pretending to be you.’ ” Hamilton soon learnt that the impostor was “primarily pretending to be me in order to impress people. Women mostly. And to inveigle money out of people.”

The sums he extracted were relatively insignificant. “He was quite careful to stay below the small-claims limit. At one point much, much later, he did have a bogus film going with six people employed who haven’t been paid yet.”

The Outnumnbered family

The real Andy Hamilton never met the fake Andy Hamilton. “But I do know what he looks like and what he sounds like, which is nothing like me.” Of course, no one who knew of Hamilton would have been taken in. He’s unmistakably short (5ft 3in) and untrendily bearded, and his dry drawl is sui generis, too. In fact, it was partly to make it difficult for his would‑be doppelgänger to operate that Hamilton started appearing on panel shows.

The two Andy Hamiltons had one phone conversation, the contents of which the real Hamilton refuses to divulge: his impersonator went to ground in 2001, and Hamilton is reluctant to stimulate a reappearance.

If that seems unlikely, it is exactly the sort of behaviour Hamilton would expect of Derek, the attention-seeking antagonist who elbows his way into Kevin Carver’s life and ends up acting in the very same soap. Derek is less a direct portrait of Hamilton’s impersonator than a fictionalised response.

“One of the defences I had was to tell everybody,” he explains. “What was interesting was that the more I shared the problem, the more I encountered people who had had similar experiences. I became intrigued by the extent to which modern society provides quite a good adventure playground for fantasists.”

Andy Hamilton  Credit: Rex Features

We meet at Hat Trick Productions in north London, where Hamilton shares an office with Guy Jenkin. Off-air, he has a more watchful, lo-fi presence than his public persona, and it’s possible to believe his claim that, growing up in Fulham, he has no memory of being a stand-out joker.

“I didn’t have a perception of myself as being funny,” he says. “I was lippy and cocky, but I wouldn’t say I was funnier than anyone else.”

He studied English at Downing College, Cambridge, drawn there by the celebrated don F R Leavis. “When I got there, there’d been a terrible bust-up and he’d been given the boot.”

He fell into performing sketches. Unlike contemporaries such as Griff Rhys Jones, Jimmy Mulville, John Lloyd, Rory McGrath and Clive Anderson, he had nothing to do with the Footlights. Instead, he was part of a troupe touring prisons, which turned out to be useful research for Kevin Carver’s spiralling odyssey. In 1976, the troupe took a show to Edinburgh that rebooted The Odyssey as The Idiocy. Geoffrey Perkins, then a young radio producer, caught it and offered him an opening writing for the BBC Radio 4 show Week Ending.

“I started off being paid £2 a minute,” he says, “and I was on a minimum of two minutes a show.

“Often, even after things started to go quite well for me, as I was leaving the house my dad would say to me, ‘You all right for money?’ For that generation, being a freelancer was quite a weird thing.” (His father was a building manager for a bank for 50 years. His son has inherited his lifelong habit of taking The Daily Telegraph. At crucial points in the novel, it makes a cameo appearance.)

After 40 years of writing or performing anti-Establishment jokes for Week Ending and many other outlets, is he convinced that satire can make a difference? “I wrote thousands of jokes about Margaret Thatcher,” he says. “All they did was pay for my bathroom.”

People have predicted for a while that the public would lose interest in celebrities. It hasn’t happened yet

Even if writers who want to change the world face an uphill task, perhaps The Star Witness will persuade readers to think in a more measured way about the hysteria surrounding celebrity. Hamilton is unconvinced.

“People have been predicting for quite a while that there will be a backlash and that the public would tire of frivolous flim-flam,” he says. “It hasn’t happened yet. One of the mass delusions that Twitter has helped foster is that everyone’s opinion is important. And that includes celebrities. That echo chamber has got ludicrously out of control. The over-communication worries me and depresses me.

Homo sapiens probably stole an evolutionary advantage because he could speak and say, ‘Quick, if you go round there we’ll head off the sabre-toothed tiger.’ But it now feels like we’re just jabbering ourselves stupid.”

The Star Witness is published by Unbound. Andy Hamilton’s tour begins at the Severn Theatre in Shrewsbury on Sept 30.