Dr Phil Hammond, part-time GP, Private Eye columnist and funnyman tells Steve Pratt why he’s not laughing about the planned NHS shake-up
AUDIENCE participation can take many forms in stage shows, but Dr Phil Hammond must be the only performer to have a urine specimen thrown at him.
An unusual form of heckling certainly, but there was a serious point being made by the urine-flinger, who was protesting about the service he was receiving from his doctor.
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Dr Phil took the specimen, tested it with a dipstick and declared the man had a urinary infection.
He didn’t have his prescription pad with him, but a member of the audience – another doctor – did and duly issued a prescription.
If only solving all NHS problems was as easy.
The Government’s health reforms continue to be a source of much debate and dissension – and material for a man like Dr Phil who makes a living, both as a GP and a comedian, out of medicine.
He brings Dr Phil’s Rude Health Show to Darlington Arts Centre on Thursday, as the NHS reform bill continues to stagger its way through the legislative process like a drunk making his way home.The doctor has played his part in the discussion, even if his clash with the Health Secretary on BBC’s Question Time proved unsatisfactory.
“I had a ding-dong with Andrew Lansley. It got very heated and I almost lost it. I almost jabbed my pen into his thigh. So I had a really bad experience,” he recalls.
He regrets not heeding the advice given to him beforehand by Ian Hislop, editor of satirical magazine Private Eye, for which Dr Phil is medical correspondent. “He said, ‘Don’t get angry, if you get angry you look mad’,” he says.
Alas, the Health Secretary’s attitude along the lines of “I understand your concerns, but I’m right” didn’t appease the medical funny man.
Dr Phil’s Darlington date is part of what he says fellow comedian and broadcaster Arthur Smith calls a “gentleman’s tour” in that it’s a few dates here and there rather than one long tour. “I’m a GP on Monday, do investigations for Private Eye Tuesday, and try to get progressively funnier during the week,” he says.
There’s a fine showbiz tradition of doctors as comedians, but he’s slightly different. “Most of the doctors who go into comedy give up the day job, like Graham Chapman, from Monty Python, and Harry Hill. I am slightly unusual in that I’ve carried on,” he says.
As well as regular appearances at the Edinburgh fringe festival and touring his show around the country, he’s fronted TV shows like Trust Me I’m A Doctor and guested on Have I Got News For You. He’s also billed as possibly the only comic to have appeared at a public inquiry (he was reported to the General Medical Council by William Hague’s press secretary in 1999).
The continuing NHS story is something that no comedy writer could ever dream up. A constant source of amusement maybe, but “beyond satire” in some ways. The subject can’t be avoided when he’s on stage. He thinks most people, even the experts, are confused by a bill that’s three times the size of the one that founded the service. “Puerile Punch and Judy debates in the Commons” don’t help matters either.
He’s not convinced such a bill is what the NHS needs, thinks GPs work hard enough already without extra responsibilities, and admits he has no idea what’s going to happen. His theory is that if you get your top and tail sorted – your emotional and sexual needs – then the rest, such as the pancreas, liver and kidneys, will sort themselves out.
DR Phil became a doctor not because there were doctors in the family (although his dad was an academic chemist), but more because of something said by the founder of the hospice movement – that the joy of being human is to be humane.
That was probably the most significant reason, he says. Plus,` he thought being a doctor would improve his chances with girls. “When you have ginger hair, freckles and glasses, your chance of getting a girlfriend are quite low,” he says.
“As a kid, I used to cope by laughing. With medicine, if you don’t have a sense of humour, you go down. You can’t work 120 hours a week if you don’t have a sense of humour.”
The comedy began as a double act with fellow medic Tony Gardner in 1990. “We were angry junior doctors and telling our stories was catharsis. It captured the mood back then and really it was a parallel career.”
He went solo when Gardner gave up medicine for acting, appearing in TV shows including Fresh Meat and My Parents Are Aliens. Dr Phil has a resuscitation dummy as part of his act that “looks uncannily like Tony”.
He’s aware that as a comedian if you don’t make enough people laugh, you’re out of a job – “but I could have been a mediocre or even dangerous doctor and still have had a waiting room of patients,” he says.
Inevitably the conversation returns to the NHS – about doctors being taught how to talk to patients and nurses being give classes in compassion. All very well, he feels, but you need the space to do it, something not always available to hard-pressed staff.
What worries him most is that David Cameron, as Tony Blair before him, has staked his professional reputation on turning the NHS around, which means reforms could be pushed through come what may.
Trying to remove bureaucracy is a good thing, but the method chosen is the wrong one.
“The diagnosis was right, but the treatment is completely wrong,” he concludes.
• Dr Phil’s Rude Health Show: Darlington Arts Centre, Thursday. Box office 01325- 486555 and online at darlingtonarts.co.uk