Diagnosis laughter: comedy doctor Dr Phil Hammond will see you now in Norfolk
- Credit: christopher jones
The doctor turned comedian knows his way to the funny bone. As he bring his new show about saving the NHS to Diss Corn Hall, he tells us about swapping a stethoscope for stand-up.
Doctor to stand-up comedian isn't an obvious move — unless you like laughing in the face of adversity. Proving he knows his way to the funny bone, Phil Hammond was a doctor when he found the funny side of ailments, patients and NHS red tape.
Brought up in Australia, he became a GP in 1991 but first came into the public spotlight writing a column for The Independent and as half of Struck Off and Die, who had five sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and were twice selected for the Perrier Pick of the Fringe.
He has been Private Eye's medical correspondent for many years and broke the story of the Bristol heart scandal. While he still works part-time as a GP and lecturer, he is best known for his TV work, including Trust Me, I'm A Doctor on BBC2, and comedy shows including one about the awkward questions people daren't ask.
His latest show, Dr Phil's Health Revolution, which he is bringing to the region, combines his two 2016 sell-out Edinburgh fringe shows. It promises laughs, sorting your life out, staying sane, planning your death and his plan for saving the NHS.
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What inspired you to create the show?
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Approaching the 70th anniversary of the NHS has made me reflect on what's happening to our health service and what politicians have done to it, and I'm always trying to discover where all the money's gone. We need to join up the NHS rather than fragment it by putting every service out to tender. There's also a lot of material about self-help in the new show, and a very personal account of mental illness and death in my family. Most of us spend our lives trying to balance pleasure and harm, and ignore the toxic rucksack of disappointment, harm and grief we carry around every day. Everyone needs to know how to be kind to their mind and to pleasure themselves sensibly. Do you?
For those who haven't you on stage before what can they expect?
Access to a doctor. It's hard getting in to see a doctor these days, so I always bring my black bag, prescription pad and sick notes. I tend to get problems from the audience, rather than heckles, and my changing room is open for swabs during the interval. Most of the material has a medical theme but it's accessible to everyone. I aim for funny, therapeutic comedy with a message.
You have a reputation for being out-spoken and explicit. Is this show rude?
It depends what you mean by explicit. I occasionally swear, and I'm a firm believer in demystifying medicine and destigmatising illness. I talk about all the things British people struggle with – mental illness, sexual health, death and properly funding our NHS.
How does it feel being the only doctor/comedian still practising medicine?
Sadly I'm not. Dr Hilary gave his finest comic performance ever on ITV's Dancing on Ice and continues to amuse more than I could ever dream of.
What was the key factor in your move from medicine to comedy?
Going to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1990 with Tony Gardner in Struck Off and Die. The most fun I've ever had with a rancid rice pudding and the door-opener for everything I've done since. After six years, Tony gave up medicine to be a comedy actor, and now has a BAFTA for Last Tango in Halifax. Not that I'm at all jealous.
What was the worst mistake in your career?
Flushing a woman's venflon with potassium instead of saline. The bottles were identical, and it was an easy mistake to make. Fortunately, I was so incompetent, the venflon had punctured the vein so her heart remained beating but her arm really hurt. I was tired, it was 2am, I wasn't properly supervised – but I was responsible for nearly killing someone and it taught me to be much more safety conscious.
Do you still have personal ambitions in the NHS?
I'd like to be Director of Comedy at NHS England. For 90% of symptoms, you're better off with a dog than a doctor. It's time people were told the truth.
You once stood for Parliament. Any plans for a return to politics?
I stood for the Struck Off and Die Junior Doctors Alliance (SODJDA) in 1992 against health secretary William Waldegrave, to blow the whistle on our dangerous working conditions. We got loads of publicity, but only 87 votes. In truth, I hate adversarial party politics. There should be no left and right, just right and wrong. Politics needs a more scientific approach where we pilot new ideas before implementing them, and we're not frightened to admit something didn't work.
What's your new book Alive - How to Get the Best from the NHS, about?
It's more serious than the others, and I hope more useful. In it I argue that most lives need living not medicalising. There are also lots of very inspiring and moving stories from NHS carers and patients who offer their experience and advice on how to survive and thrive in a service that's creaking at the seams.
Have you got any regrets about becoming a doctor-comic/journalist/ campaigner/ broadcaster?
I have five fascinating jobs so I'm never bored. But I'm too busy and I regret not keeping in touch with old friends and being too distracted to engage properly with new ones.
PATIENT NOTES — QUICK QUESTIONS
What was your earliest ambition?
To be a geologist. I was brought up in Australia, and loved the colour of opal and iron pyrites. Years later, I discovered people were even more interesting than rocks and switched to medicine.
Where are/were you happiest?
When I was mis-introduced at a conference as the Patron Saint of Herpes. I'm a Patron of the Herpes Viruses Association. And I once did the perfect poo according to the Bristol Stool Chart.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
I lie for laughs — when I'm a comedian, not a doctor.
What are your most treasured possessions?
My normally-sized prostate and non-hurting teeth.
What is your pet hate?
Fear. It's the cancer at the heart of the NHS that feeds bullying and anxiety, and kills compassion and transparency.
Do you believe in doctor-assisted suicide?
Yes. As soon as I start putting CDs in the toaster, I'll be popping Dr Phil's Go Quickly Pills.
You're a regular on Countdown and a Scrabble enthusiast. What's your favourite word?
Blissom. A blissful state of sexual heat. Although I might have made that up.
What song would you like played at your funeral?
The Jimi Hendrix cover of Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower. As incomprehensible as the Health Bill but had it passed in its place, the NHS would be a lot funkier.
• Dr Phil Hammond is at Diss Corn Hall on July 1, 8pm, £15 (£12 cons), 01379 652241, www.disscornhall.co.uk• His fifth book, Staying Alive - How to Get the Best out of the NHS, is out now