'We can make a difference'

Pics © ActionAid

When comedian Hugh Dennis received his first ever pay cheque, there was one thing he was determined to do – start sponsoring a child. “Mum and dad sponsored an African child when I was young so I think that really had an impact on me,” he says.

And years later he is still committed to helping. In fact he has just returned from Myanmar, in South East Asia, to visit the child he sponsors through the internatonal charity ActionAid.

“Of course, the child I originally sponsored all those years ago is no longer a child, which is how I came to sponsor Lae Yi Soe. I jumped at the opportunity to meet her and went out to Myanmar’s Dry Zone just last month,” he continues. “Aptly named, due to its long periods of drought. Donations will be put to good use there. The locals come up with plans for any funding, to install taps and water pipes and
so on.”

Hugh believes the community will be self-sufficient in time. “Myanmar’s borders have only re-opened quite recently. Charities have been working there quietly for a while, but now it’s time to show our support.”

The children were pleased to meet Hugh, and he them. Though, “I was so British that I solemnly offered my hand to Lae Yi Soe in greeting,” he laughs.
“I was quite amused at how reserved I was.”

It’s precisely that reserve that came in useful in handy for playing one of his most famous roles, standoffish dad Pete in the hit TV comedy Outnumbered. But despite regular appearances on BBC2’s Mock The Week, and a recent role in Lee Mack’s popular sitcom Not Going Out, comedy wasn’t always Hugh’s first choice.

 “My comedy partner Steve and I began our double act, Punt and Dennis, at university,” he explains. But while Steve wanted to make a living out of comedy – and does, on Radio 4’s The Now Show, with Hugh – that was never Hugh’s plan.

“It never occurred to me that I could get paid for being funny,” he says. “I just enjoyed it! Our early gigs were at weekends so I fitted them around my marketing job.

“Everything came to a head when I was on the brink of getting a company car and going on business trips. It was a good position to be in. Then Steve and I were offered recording time during the working week, so I asked my bosses what they thought I should do.” Luckily, the company bigwigs were fans of Punt and Dennis, and granted Hugh a sabbatical. He took to the industry like a duck to water.

“I still can’t quite believe it happened,” muses Hugh. “I was a really naïve youth, quitting a stable, paying job and assuming that everything would work out.”

It was a challenging time, but nothing in comparison to what he found out about his own family in a moving episode of Who Do You Think You Are last year. Hugh finally discovered what his grandfathers endured in wartime and got some much-needed answers to questions not asked while they were alive. “How humbling to think that many of my generation remember their university years as the best of their lives – no responsibilities, and lots of opportunities – our grandfathers spent theirs fighting in terrible conditions. A tremendous sacrifice.”

While he doesn’t regret not asking them about the war he does feel sad that they didn’t feel free to express themselves. “Though neither I nor my parents ever asked any questions, neither grandfather volunteered any information. Whether that was through fear of appearing weak, I don’t know. But it is sad that they couldn’t say what was on their mind.”

Hugh, who is married and has two teenage children, has fond memories of his mother’s father. “He used to bike around in his Deerstalker hat and had a big bushy beard. He was a lovely guy. It was only once he had dementia that the odd war tale came out. And I’d think, ‘good grief, no wonder they didn’t talk about it.’ ”

It was seeing his grandfather deteriorate that highlighted the dementia issue for Hugh, who is a keen supporter of the Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Friends initiative. “I’ve learnt that sometimes it’s simple gestures that make the biggest difference to people with the condition; even a simple hug. They might not remember tomorrow, but a hug will affect them positively in that moment.”

So what’s next for Hugh and is there any chance of a new series of Outnumbered returning?  “Well, Steve and I have a new series of the The Now Show on Radio 4 now. I’d love to bring Outnumbered back but we’d need a significant event to kick-start life with the Brockman family again... Pete’s retirement, maybe? The children will have aged noticeably, but everyone will say how great Claire (who plays Pete’s wife Sue) and I look for our age!”

And does he prefer radio or TV? “I love radio because it’s so immediate. I can write a script on a Tuesday and have it broadcast on a Friday. And I can dress like a scruff!”

So is that the story behind the beard? “There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” Hugh shrugs. “I just haven’t shaved these last few weeks, though I’ve been quite surprised at the colours in the thing! Just goes to show, you’re always learning something new about yourself.”

  • The Now Show is on Fridays on Radio 4, from 6.30-7pm, until mid-Feb 2015.
  • The international charity ActionAid runs is appealing to find sponsors for children across the developing world. To find out more call 01460 238000 or visit www.actionaid.org.uk/child

There's more star chat in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday