Why I quit TV to sell mortgages: Nick Hancock on the fallout from being axed by They Think It’s All Over – and why he’s making a comeback
From quiz-show host to mortgage broker – it’s not the most obvious career change, but after more than a decade in the spotlight as the host of Room 101 and They Think It’s All Over, Nick Hancock announced he was taking a sabbatical.
He claimed he’d grown tired of show business after being dumped from They Think It’s All Over and wanted to give being normal a chance. He rented out the south London flat he used for work and moved full-time back to his home town of Stoke-on-Trent.
‘They Think It’s All Over was finished for me and I felt I’d outstayed my welcome,’ he says.
For the next month or so Nick will be back on our screens, hosting BBC2 daytime quiz show Breakaway
‘I felt like the child in the playground who was told he was out of the game. The show was on its last legs and Have I Got News For You had proved that a show could survive a change of presenter after Angus Deayton left. So the most obvious thing was to replace me – which they did with Lee Mack – but it still only lasted one more series.
‘Show business is brutal but I knew that. I could have stayed in London and kept my face out there. But my kids were young and I wasn’t sure it was fair on them to be in the spotlight because they had a father on TV.
'Some friends had a mortgage-broking company and they asked me to come and work with them. It felt like the TV work wasn’t really there for me, and I knew if I was going to commit to something, I had to do it properly. You can’t accept a job and then say, “I’ll be disappearing on Tuesday, because I’ve got a guest appearance on a panel show.”’
He worked there for about a year, at first thrilled to be a non-celebrity. ‘I was doing the drive to work in suits and putting my slippers on when I
got home – all those things everybody else did. As sales and marketing director I came into contact with the public a lot; at first people were surprised by what I was doing, but they got used to it.’
Nick with (From left) Phil Tufnell, Jonathan Ross, Beverley Turner, Rory McGrath, Ian Wright and Ronnie O'Sullivan on the set of They Think It's All Over
But he soon realised the everyday bump and grind of life in an office wasn’t as much fun as he’d thought. ‘I did enjoy it, but it made me realise that perhaps there’s a reason why I do the job I do – I’m not particularly good at anything else. I lasted there a long time, for me, but I missed working in television. I missed the collaborative process of working with people and creating something.’
That was six years ago, and since then Nick, 49, has spent a lot of time on the sofa of his 1.1 million Stoke home watching daytime soaps, interspersed with the occasional TV, radio or speaking gig. Married to Iranian-born Shari, a housewife, and father of Dolores, 12, and Harvey, ten, he has enjoyed being there for his children, who go to the same school he went to.
It’s been wonderful – I haven’t had to skip an episode of Neighbours for years. I’ve done all the shopping and cooking and haven’t missed a single football or netball match…
'My accountant has stopped talking to me but I don’t have any regrets,’
he insists. ‘It’s been wonderful – I haven’t had to skip an episode of Neighbours for years. I’ve done all the shopping and cooking and haven’t missed a single football or netball match.’
But for the next month or so he’ll be back on our screens, hosting BBC2 daytime quiz show Breakaway. Like The Weakest Link, it features both psychological warmongering and general knowledge. In the show, contestants decide whether to work together or go it alone in order to win about 7,000 in cash. They can steal ‘lives’ from each other and play tricks to get their hands on the money.
‘It’s nice to be working again – it’s stimulating,’ says Nick. ‘I now know you should be careful what you wish for – enjoy work when you’re getting lots of it and see things through when you’re not.’
He once admitted he’d worked on some ‘awful old tat’ as a game-show host after deciding to come back to TV, but he insists Breakaway is different. ‘There’s a soap-opera element to it because you never know how people are going to react, and there are so many different ways to play the game,’ he says. ‘Because I’ve done shows I’ve not enjoyed in the past, it was important to choose one I would enjoy. I think I’d die inside if I had to do 20 or 30 of these while not liking it.’
SO COULD YOU CUT IT ON BREAKAWAY
Test yourself with these sample questions from Nick’s new quiz show
In which forest was William II killed by an arrow while hunting
Who wrote All Along The Watchtower, famously covered by Jimi Hendrix in 1968
Which poet was university librarian at Hull from 1955 until his death in 1985
What is the budgerigar’s native country
For which film was Julia Roberts the first actress to be paid $20m
Which Eighties pop group took its name from the two detectives in the Tintin stories
Which was the first fullcolour film to win a Best Picture Oscar
In which country did the TV show Dragon’s Den originate
1 The New Forest 2 Bob Dylan 3 Philip Larkin 4 Australia 5 Erin Brockovich 6 The Thompson Twins 7 Gone With The Wind 8 Japan
Fans will be pleased to see Nick remains as genially funny as ever, though they’ll also be surprised to see the once-speckled hair is now very grey. But he’s not been tempted to dye it, despite the wishes of his children. ‘They’ve seen YouTube clips from when I wasn’t grey and they once bought me some Just For Men hair dye. But I’d get so much stick from my mates if I ever used it.’
Nick never set out to be a game-show host. The youngest of four from a middle-class family, he was drawn to the theatrical life when he joined Footlights drama club at Cambridge. When a friend needed a new comedy partner he became a regular on the stand-up circuit.
He helped create Room 101 for BBC Radio 5 – it was going to be a show quizzing celebrities on their musical hates but he widened it to include anything they disliked – but hesitated about taking it to TV as he wanted to concentrate on acting. He had small parts in Mr Bean and Punt And Dennis, but his only major role was as a football fan in the stage show of An Evening With Gary Lineker.
He was then convinced to take Room 101 to television. He worked on the show for five years but found it too much once he was also hosting They Think It’s All Over. ‘Room 101 is an intense experience because it’s just you and the guest; you can’t share the burden like you can when there are more of you,’ he recalls. ‘I wanted to push something aside and was delighted when Paul Merton [replaced by Frank Skinner for the most recent series] took it on. Because I helped devise it, I still get a little something from it.’
Becoming a TV presenter also ended his acting ambitions. ‘I used to enjoy acting but when you have a certain profile, doing something like Room 101, it’s quite difficult to subsume yourself into a different character. You just get cast as the bloke off the telly. Appearing in the West End also put me off. I know proper actors say it’s a different performance every night, but for amateurs like me it felt like packing boxes after three months.’
He would still like to do the odd stand-up night but admits the thought terrifies him. ‘I have books full of jokes I would tell but the idea of putting yourself on the line in a big way is quite frightening. I also feel I have a massive disconnection from the rest of the world because I don’t use a computer. I’m a terrible old fogey. If I have to email someone I ask my kids to sort it out for me.’
One easy way, of course, to get back a level of fame is to go on a show like Strictly Come Dancing or I’m A Celebrity. In 2010, he joined Richard Madeley on All At Sea, a documentary sailing around the UK, but he’d never put himself to the public vote.
‘Over the years I’ve been offered lots of those shows but I’ve never been tempted,’ he says. ‘I’m not sure I’m confident in myself that I’m that nice a person. I wouldn’t trust myself not to say something extremely controversial or upsetting.’
So he’s hoping Breakaway will be his big comeback, even if it does mean a bit of time commuting from Stoke and missing the odd episode of Neighbours Nick says, ‘I’d love it to be a success – not because I want to be back in the spotlight but because I rather like being back on television. And I’d like my accountant to talk to me again.’
Breakaway is on weekdays from Monday 5 March on BBC2 at 4.30pm.