The Cambridge Footlights has been responsible for creating and nurturing some of Britain’s best loved comedy stars. Everyone from Peter Cook to Stephen Fry owes a great deal to the oldest and most prestigious performing arts society in the world and its influence on the direction of comedy through the decades is evident to see. Writer and comedian Jimmy Mulville joined this elite group when he studied French and Classics at Jesus’ College. Failing to make an impression on the Footlights until his second year, Jimmy was finally accepted and began to play a dominant role in their output. It was here that he met fellow student Rory McGrath: a figure who would have an influential contribution on the direction of Mulville’s career in the coming years. In 1977 Mulville became president of The Footlights and together with McGrath wrote a revue which starred Cambridge Alumni Griff Rhys Jones which was a success and attracted the attention of the BBC following a triumphant Edinburgh show of the same year. Yet it would be several years before Mulville made waves in what was becoming an exciting and fresh comedy landscape. After receiving an encouraging letter from the legendary comedy writer Ian Davidson, Mulville was given an opportunity by the great producer David Hatch which placed him alongside Rory McGrath and Guy Jenkin.
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In 1983 Jimmy and Rory secured roles in the BBC Radio 4 series Injury Time alongside Julia Hills and Tony Robinson. This attracted attention from TV executives who saw their talent for comedy and expressed an interest. Yet Jimmy and Rory had alternative ideas and together with Jimmy’s then girlfriend Denise O’Donoghue, created their own production company. Both avid football fans, they named the company Hat-Trick productions and the rest is history. Having established the company, the trio quickly got to work attempting to transform Injury Time from a cult Radio 4 series into a television sketch show entitled Who Dares Wins. Unbeknown to all three founders of this relatively groundbreaking production house, the historical sitcom Chelmsford 123 became the first of many triumphs for Hat-Trick as it grew to become one of the biggest entertainment outlets in Britain.
Over the next decade, the company expanded and started working on a whole host of different formats. In January 1988 BBC Radio 4 broadcasted the first series of the panel show Whose Line Is It Anyway which gave Hat-Trick their first runaway success. Within just a few months, the BBC expressed an interest in transforming the radio series to television. Yet just as Jimmy and co were contemplating the corporation’s offer, Channel Four made a last minute plea for the show which was greatly accepted. Whose Line is it Anyway was first broadcast on Channel Four on the 23rd September 1988 and made overnight stars of Clive Anderson, Tony Slattery and Josie Laurence. Reigning supreme over the Channel Four schedule for over a decade Whose Line is it Anyway set the benchmark for all comedy panel shows hereafter and once again gave Hat-Trick a winning formula.
The success of Whose Line is it Anyway made Hat-Trick into a substantial force within the TV fraternity and when their next format was in the offering, the BBC weren’t going to make the same mistake. Based on Radio 4’s The News Quiz, Have I Got News For You revelled in the biggest current affairs stories of the day and pushed satire to the very extreme. Beginning life on BBC2, the series generated a cult following before a promotion to BBC1 in 2000 with the comedic trio of Angus Deayton, Paul Merton and Ian Hislop. Over thirty years later, Jimmy is extremely proud of the longevity of the series, making it one of Hat-Trick’s greatest achievements.
As a stand up comedian and performer, Jimmy played The Comedy Store alongside Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. During the mid eighties, Alternative Comedy was still on the fringes of entertainment and had still yet to enter the mainstream. Despite only playing the club just a handful of times, Mulville was able to have first hand experience of what it was like to perform to a room full of people and recognised that the comedy landscape was changing. No longer did their generation need to be forced to consume jokes about mother-in-laws or Irishmen because here was comedy which reflected the changing times which Jimmy and his peers were living through. Indeed by the dawn of the nineties, Alternative Comedy had established itself into the mainstream and the stars of this punk revolution in comedy were now part of the entertainment elite.
Continuing to pursue his acting career, in 1988 Jimmy was cast in the ITV sitcom Love Hurts alongside Tony Slattery and Liza Goddard. Running for two series between 1988 and 1992, Love Hurts centres on Jimmy’s hopeless romantic lawyer Donald who has an affair with his client Laurel, played by Liza Goddard while long time partner Patsy’s (played by Diana Hardcastle) loyalties are questioned when it’s revealed that she hasn’t been up front about her sexual history. On reflection Jimmy remains adamant that there were many comedic aspects to the show and is curious as to why it sadly isn’t as fondly remembered as many shows from this era. Yet it was invaluable experience for his career as a comedy writer and executive as he had experience both in front and behind the camera.
Such an invaluable experience helped to inform Jimmy’s selective eye as a television executive and by the dawn of the nineties Hat-Trick was one of the most exciting and influential production companies around. In 1990 it became responsible for creating a groundbreaking sitcom when Channel Four broadcasted the first series of Drop The Dead Donkey. Set in the television newsroom of Global Link which is bought out by media mogul Sir Royston Merchant who wants to create a more sensationalised outfit much to the dissatisfaction of news editor George Dent. Featuring real life news stories which made the headlines in the week of the episode transmission, it was the norm for scenes to be filmed just hours before the show aired. This improvisation aspect kept the show fresh and set the sitcom apart from any other which offered it an edge of reality over its contemporaries.
Entering its fourth decade, Hat-Trick shows no signs of slowing down and its roll call of television triumphs reads like the history of TV comedy of the last thirty years. For Jimmy Mulville, he remains as enchanted by the art of comedy as he did when he joined The Footlights. If people possess a passion for an idea and have the ability to communicate it then Jimmy wants to hear about it. Embracing new technologies, mediums and challenges, Jimmy remains excited about the future of Hat-Trick and still enjoys exploring new horizons and ventures for its content. It was a real privilege to get this unique insight into comedy from the great Jimmy Mulville and wish him the very best for the rest of his remarkable career.