Adam Hills and the rowdy return of ABC’s Spicks and Specks for Season 11

Adam Hills

Two decades after it launched, Hills remembers the highs and speaks about his UK career.

Adam Hills is a familiar ABC face who is rarely out of the channels’ TV guide. Between his hosting of Spicks and Specks and The Last Leg, there are at least a few outings most weeks of the year.

Spicks and Specks episodes recently have been repeats. But wait, there’s a new season of 14 x 30-minute episodes of the rowdy musical quiz show dropping from Sunday 8 June.

Spicks and Specks started life in the old Elsternwick ABC studios. A location infamous for the weekly recordings of Countdown.

“That’s probably partly what gave Spicks and Specks some of its character,” Hills told Mediaweek. “We had people like Wilbur Wilde and Brian Mannix come in and go, ‘I remember these shows. And they’d look around the floor and go, I remember these cameramen.’”

As a tribute to the Elsternwick studios, Hills initially called his ABC tonight-style chat show In Gordon Street Tonight. It was later branded Adam Hills Tonight. Featured on that show was an exciting talent starting out in the business – Hannah Gadsby – and a seasoned older hand, even in his younger days – Dave O’Neil.

The new series of Spicks and Specks has the same host, same team captains (Myf Warhurst and Alan Brough), and same executive producer (Anthony Watt).

“He’s been in charge of the show since day one. He was the brains behind Spicks and Specks and he’s still here,” said Hills about Watt.

“Our talent booker, Sancia Robinson, is back. There were a few years where it wasn’t her, but she was there for the formative years. We’ve also got one of our music producers back from that first series.

“There has been change though. We’ve refreshed the researchers and the writers.

Our first ever season was loose as. We were the loudest part of the office. We had to shut the doors to our office in the old ABC, because we kept annoying ABC Kids. Over the years we became a proper TV show.” [Laughs]

The home of the format these days is in the ABC Melbourne South Bank studios.

Adam Hills

Alan Brough, Myf Warhurst and Adam Hills

Making loads of TV

Spicks and Specks has a library of over 300 episodes. “We always seem to be on through the great reruns,” said Hills.

He remembered back to when the team first realised they were onto something. “I vividly recall our first episode going to air. I was on a flight to Aspen to perform at the Aspen Comedy Festival.

“Then I remember coming back and our second episode went to air. To be honest, I think it wasn’t until the third episode I got feedback. I didn’t know you got ratings the next day!

“I had no idea how all of that stuff worked. It was after about episode three, our producer said, ‘We’ve had a lift in the ratings.’ I was like, ‘what?’ [Laughs]

“Gradually, we started to realise a growing number of people were watching.

“To be honest, for the first year we didn’t even think about being recommissioned. All we wanted out of that first year was to be able to make a Christmas special.

“I remember Wilbur Wilde saying at the end-of-year wrap party that we were now carrying the torch for Countdown. It felt like a real honour and a responsibility. We were more than just a fun music quiz show. We were a chance for younger people to celebrate older performers. To celebrate the history of Australian music, and also to show off younger performers as well.

“People like Sarah Blasko and Megan Washington would sing Substitute and then their album sales would go up the next day just because they sang out of a Toyota Corolla handbook.” [Laughs]

Several seasons of the show saw production of 40 episodes a year.

“We started off pretty much doing two episodes in a day. We would do two on a Thursday, two on a Friday. And that was killing us. So, we spaced that out, giving us a day in between.

“We got slicker at putting the show together. Eventually, we just became a really well-oiled machine.”

Favourite moments: The Elvis sandwich

I realised as we went along, that creating a TV moment is more valuable sometimes than writing a joke. I remember the moment we were talking about the sandwiches that Elvis used to eat. Virtually a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of raspberry jam, and a pound of bacon or something like that.

“We were trying to come up with a joke about it and then someone said, ‘Why don’t we just give Alan and Myf, like an Elvis sandwich to try?’

“Other favourite moments would include The Rocky Horror Show ending where we had Richard O’Brien singing Time Warp and I ended up dressed like Frank N Furter. Or when Frank Woodley tried to recreate a Little Nell Campbell’s accidental boob slipping out on television and he ended up with a testicle.”

The Last Leg: Adam Hills with Josh Widdicombe (left) and Alex Brooker

UK TV beckons

After a remarkable seven seasons, Spicks and Specks took a break and Hills got his own ABC series that lasted three seasons. It was during that time Hills’ TV career took off in the UK.

“I’d been on the ABC and covered the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. When London 2012 came around, Channel 4 got the coverage for the Paralympics and they were looking for people with a disability who could present on TV – a very niche market. At that point, I had presented about 250-odd episodes of Spicks and Specks.

“The only difference was The Last Leg at the Paralympics was live. I thought to myself, ‘I can do this’. The feedback I was getting was like, ‘Oh my God, who’s this new guy who knows how to host TV?’

“Sometimes new people are quite green and a bit uncooked on television. But I kind of knew what I was doing.

“We just thought it was going to be 10 nights of covering the Paralympics. At the end of it, Channel 4 asked if I wanted to come back and do a weekly satirical comedy show.”

Hills has calculated he’s now hosted more episodes of The Last Leg than he has of Spicks and Specks. Combined, he’s fronted over 600 episodes of those two shows.

Hills works closely with the writers and production team on the scripts for both series.

See also: Why Adam Hills says Spicks and Specks 2022 was “the hardest season” to make

Taking on board learnings from the best

Helping Hills into the art of comedy TV was the great Peter Faiman. The TV director helped guide the careers of Graham Kennedy, Don Lane, and Bert Newton among others. He also worked closely with Paul Hogan and directed Crocodile Dundee.

“I was lucky in that Peter was brought in to teach me how to host a TV show. He said, among other things, ‘there can’t be any words in the script that you didn’t put there. Because when they come up on the autocue, you’re not going to know what you’re about to say. You need to know every single word that’s in that script and you need to underline the important words and you need to put the rules in bold.’

“He taught me how to host a TV show. Because of him, I don’t like to turn up and just read whatever jokes have been thrown at me.”

At its most prolific, Channel 4 was commissioning 40 episodes of The Last Leg a year. They are currently making 20 a year and later this year, the show will be covering the Paris Paralympics.

Hills is missing being away from the UK in June this year. “The problem with a show like ours is it is so topical. Rishi Sunak’s recently called a general election and we’re on a break. It’s devastating that we’re not going to be there. I’m hoping they might call us back for an election special.”

Adam Hills: Author

“I’ve got my third children’s book that’s coming out in July. We’ve set it at the Paralympics. The books all started with my daughter saying she didn’t know when she grew up whether she wanted to be a rock star or a detective. I went, well, you could do both. You could be a rock star by night and solve crimes by day.

“As it happened, a few weeks later, I was called into a publisher to see if I had any ideas for a kid’s book. And I went, rock star detective. That’s what my daughter wanted to be.”

Finding time for live comedy has been a challenge. “I’m writing kids’ books and making documentaries,” he said. There are plans for a major live tour… when Hills finds the time.

Aussie and UK management

In addition to wisdom from Peter Faiman, Hills has been lucky with his choice of management. At home in Australia, he is still with Kevin Whyte at Token Artists. In the UK he has a long-term relationship with manager Joe Norris.

“They have been invaluable. The role of a good manager is not just someone who puts work in your diary and takes a commission. It’s someone that, when an offer comes in, will sit down with you and have a good discussion and go, right, well, where do you want to be in your career?

“Both of them are fantastic to bounce ideas off.

“Joe is a West Ham season ticket holder, so we’ll go and watch West Ham play in London and we’ll have a business meeting at the same time.

“I reckon I would probably make some pretty rash and stupid decisions were I not able to bounce opinions off both of them.”

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