Malcolm Hardee 10 years gone.

Malcolm Hardee 10 years gone. This is what I wrote about him in my memoir

anything you do not understand please regard as significant (Arnold Brown)

 

…..But the most striking example of the overlapping of venue and person was to be found down the rough end of Greenwich, the natural habitat of one of the most remarkable people I ever met.

 

The ironically-named Tunnel Palladium was situated in the Mitre pub at the southern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel, isolated in wasteland and flanked by a gas-holder. The Sunday shows were run and compèred by small-time legend, Malcolm Hardee, whom I had come across in Edinburgh when he was living in a tent and performing with The Greatest Show on Legs – an amateurish, knockabout outfit whose don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and surreal visuals were a refreshing antidote to some of the more austere and earnest acts on display at the Festival. That was the year when, in a dispute with the American comic Eric Bogossian, he had retaliated by driving naked through Bogossian’s show on a fork-lift truck trailing his audience behind him.

 

Malcolm, who resembled a debauched Eric Morecambe, was a one-man affront to sobriety, cleanliness and good order. He had been a pupil at Colfe’s Grammar School, a nearby rival of Roan, my old school in Greenwich, but had been expelled for blowing up the school organ. His true alma mater was Exeter prison where he spent several years at her Majesty’s pleasure, though it is hard to imagine anything Malcolm did that might have given the queen pleasure. His career as a car-thief and drug-dealer having stalled, he decided to go into showbiz with his friend, Martin Soan, who had created a pornographic Punch and Judy show to perform around South West England. This eventually became ‘the Legs,’ who scandalised the nation (and several others) with their nude cha cha cha balloon dance.

 

Phil and I played the opening night at the Tunnel, which, under Malcolm’s influence, became the arena where London’s top hecklers gathered every Sunday to slaughter open spots and established acts alike. Some punters even met up beforehand in a kind of heckling seminar and one night, when I was performing solo, a voice in the dark interrupted me with a Latin phrase that turned out to mean ‘show us your tits.’* The word ‘notorious’ soon attached itself to the Tunnel which is now remembered as Alternative Comedy’s equivalent to the previous generation’s Glasgow Empire – a place for confrontation, raucousness, multiple comedy pile-ups and deaths. It was not uncommon for the acts to be booed off with such efficiency that the whole show was over in twenty minutes, an occasion that was greeted by the regulars as a great success. Malcolm, instinctively anti-authoritarian from his thick black glasses, down his naked hairy body, to his piss-stained odd socks, liked to encourage the mayhem by the frequent exhibition of his titanic testicles, which he advertised as ‘the second biggest in the country – after Jenny Agutter’s father.’ (Apparently, they had once compared notes). If the mood took him he would urinate over the front row and, such was his charisma, the victims cheered rather than remonstrated.

 

 

* papillas tui nobis ostende.

 

 

The Tunnel’s uproarious air of unpredictability was encouraged by what seemed like a deranged booking policy. Possessing a natural affinity with the under-rehearsed shambles, Malcolm showcased acts others feared to; the sensational Chris Lynham who ended his set by removing his clothes, lighting a firework he wedged up his arse* and singing ‘There’s no business like show business;’ a tap dancing Swede (badly let down by the carpetted stage); Madame Poulet and her Singing Chickens (don’t ask); the Ice Man, whose whole act consisted of increasingly frantic attempts to melt a large block of ice; Sylvie Bottle-Knocker a busty lady able to open a bottle of beer using only her breasts and, once only, a transvestite dressed as Myra Hindley, who told the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Malcolm’s compèring style was fair but ruthless. He would warn the crowd, ‘The next act is liable to be shit,’ but then praise them if they entertained. If a performer has bombed badly there is always a laugh available to the MC afterwards and Malcolm would take it with glee. Remembering my own first try-out, I preferred not to compound the comic’s misery when I compered, but I hinted at their failure with a line borrowed from the novelist Anthony Powell; ‘Well, I think the best we can say about him is that he is a rich testimony to the infinite diversity of the human personality.’

 

Every week at the Tunnel Palladium, and then at its successor Up The Creek, the audience chanted joyfully along with Malcolm’s handful of old one-liners and clapped indulgently when he set off on his inevitable rambling harmonica solos. He had already created the phrases which defined him – where other people said ‘Hello’ or ‘Goodbye’, Malcolm dispensed a loud ‘Oy Oy!’ His philosophy of life was encapsulated in his other 2 catchphrases – ‘Knob out!’ and ‘Fuck it!’ both of which he enacted with little encouragement. His reckless appetite for adventure, his dislike of being on his own and his genetically programmed rejection of the sensible course of action meant that every comic had a Malcolm story. If Tony Allen was the theory of anarchic comedy, then Malcolm was its cock-eyed embodiment.

 

** Malcolm tried this trick himself and ended in hospital with a singed anus.

 

 

UPCOMING GIG

10 Years On: The Malcolm Show – Feb 2nd 2015 – Up the Creek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 28 Two deaths, a proposal and a birthday.

 

If, in some future time, the River Thames is drained, there will be a rich and fascinating haul of items revealed on the riverbed. Among the Roman coins, medieval weapons, unexploded bombs, bones and punctured yoghurt pots, there will be a large pair of thick black-rimmed glasses. Whoever finds them will not know that they once clung to the ears of Malcolm Hardee, who toppled into the river early one pissed, frozen morning and was pulled out 36 hours later by police frogmen, still clutching his final bottle of beer. It seems that our bet as to which of us would die first had been won. No doubt the cheque is in the post.

 

When the news broke that Malcolm had drowned, comedians and citizens of Greenwich immediately began to congregate at the last venue he ran, the aptly named Wibbley Wobbley, the pub/ boat moored on Surrey quays in which I had invested before, astonishingly, Malcolm paid me back (no profit obviously). People stood around in shocked clumps although, given his reckless nature and his known penchant for messing about on the river, no-one could really be surprised at what had happened. Most of those present had spent an afternoon or two drinking heavily with him on his boat, spluttering and chuntering uncertainly downriver to the Thames barrier at Woolwich (useless, according to Malcolm). I had put my time in on board this vessel, which seemed to me hardly more than a motorized bath tub although, following the benefit he had conned me into, it had been upgraded to motorized kitchen, Malcolm’s longest affair was with the River and his extinction in its murky green arms was tragic but entirely appropriate. His father had been a Thames lighterman who, Malcolm had boasted proudly, towed the Cutty Sark into dry dock. Malcolm lived on a boat across from the Wibbly Wobbly and had fallen in while rowing between the two – standing up as he rowed because that’s what men of the river did. It was not the first time he had tumbled into the water, though it was, of course and alas, the last.

 

Mister Hardee, as he liked to call himself, had been at the Comedy Store at the beginning and, in the Tunnel Palladium, he founded, and personified, a club that was the most distinctive of all the early London comedy venues. He booked, managed, and slept with acts that others wouldn’t, was a stalwart of the Glastonbury and Edinburgh festivals as well as a consistent disappointment to the Police, the Inland Revenue and the big-money agencies who had moved into comedy. He represented the anarchic, ramshackle early days of the circuit when there was little cash but a wealth of vitality, creativity and laughable experimentation. Erica Jong remarked recently that the backlash against feminism has lasted far longer than feminism itself and I feel the same about alternative comedy, whatever it was. The scene now is slicker, more professional and less politicized – you can see material which would have been deemed reprehensible in the mid-eighties but is accepted because it comes in a sharp suit and hides behind a half-baked notion of irony. * This has ushered in a revival of misogyny masquerading as exprimentation among male comedians that disappoints we old lefties. Och, look at me on my prehistoric high horse

 

It was twenty-five years since the birth of ‘alternative cabaret’ and while the name was long gone, the circuit it gave birth to thrives all over Britain and in numerous foreign outposts. You can now study ‘the theory and practice of stand-up comedy’ as part of your drama degree at the University of Kent.** It is, arguably, London, not New York or LA, that is the funniest city in the English-speaking world although the big money is over there. Comedians in Britain have infiltrated all aspects of the media – as actors, TV presenters, radio stars, novelists, playwrights, filmmakers and internet-ticklers, while some – like Dave Gorman and double-act Noble and Silver – are closer to conceptual art than comedy

 

Malcolm, who had lived his life as an undeclared work of conceptual art, provided, as his final scenario, the conditions for the perfect funeral and Alex, his younger brother, paid him the compliment of creating it. Alex works in the popular music business now but I had come across him when he put on some comedy gigs in Edinburgh one year. At the one I played, in a boozer for the depraved and degraded, a man poured a pint of his piss over me during my set – which was a kind of inversion of Alex’s brother’s trick. The ‘heckler’ explained to me that he had done it because he liked my routine, which made me wonder how he would have reacted if he had hated it.

 

In keeping with the grandeur of the church to which it was heading, Malcolm’s funeral cortège was formed of a sumptuous line of shiny old black cars and, in keeping with the body it was transporting, the flowers bedecking the hearse spelt out, ‘Oy Oy,’ Knob out’ and ‘Fuck it.’ This novelty vehicle led the procession slowly past the Wibbly Wobbly, the Cutty Sark (soon to go up in flames itself), past Up The Creek – where the pavement was lined with respectful locals – and round the corner to Saint Alfeges Church, where hundreds more mourners were waiting. He was never famous himself, but Malcolm was known to many who are. Among the congregation joining his family in Saint Alfeges were enough well-known comics that if a bomb had exploded, all TV panel games and talking heads/clip shows would have been postponed for months to come. And there were young comics, ex-comics, failed comics, soon-to-be comics, strippers, musicians, techies, betting shop boys, a range of Malcolm;s lovers and the assembled demi-monde of all Greenwich, overflowing from the church into the courtyard outside. People who had not met for years shook hands and embraced. The atmosphere in the stern dome was charged with emotion and anticipation of whatever was about to happen – maybe, in his greatest stunt yet, the lid would fall from the coffin and Malcolm would sit up, adjust his glasses and say, ‘Oy oy!. What’s all the fuss about?’

 

* Here is a line of Jimmy Carr’s: ‘The male gypsy moth can spell the female gypsy moth at up to seven miles. And that’s still true if you remove the word ‘moth.’’

 

** A course taught by Oliver Double – and rightly so.

 

Ever alert to the increased comic possibilities offered by a formal setting, Malcolm had married the redoubtable and fabulous Jane at Saint Alfeges on April Fools day ten years earlier. He had asked me to read something from the Bible.

‘All right, which bit? ‘

‘Oh, you choose – anything as long as it’s from the Bible.’

I had selected a fire-and-brimstone passage from the Old Testament raging against the misuse of one’s rod, an invocation I suspect he ignored. That ceremony was recalled now as his funeral got underway and Martin Soan, his old partner in the Greatest Show on Legs, recited Malcolm’s traditional opening line, tailored to whichever venue he was playing, and blatantly stolen from Ian MacPherson; “They say you only play Saint Alfeges twice in your life once on the way up and once on the way down. Great to be back.”

 

The coffin, an L-plate fixed to its front, was carried in by six, soberly attired pall-bearers, to the accompaniment of the cheesy balloon-dance cha cha cha, and placed gently on a platform in front of the altar. The vicar leading the service introduced the sweetly naïve hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful,’‘because Malcolm was bright and he was beautiful.’ The organ struck up and the singing was loud for all the verses. As co-host, the secular compère, I stepped up alongside the coffin:

“The Lord God, if you do exist, you did indeed make the little flowers that open, you did make the little birds that sing…and then you had a couple of pints and you made Malcolm Hardee.

‘Everything about Malcolm, apart from his stand-up material, was original. He was the one-offs one-off.’

‘But before we start, let’s release a little tension and give a big round of applause to one of the most remarkable people any of us….” but I didn’t finish the sentence because everyone had already started clapping.

 

Other than in the artificial glare of industry dos, comedians very rarely come together in large numbers but here, in this sublimely incongruous setting, audibly united in our good-bye to one man, there was a feeling of communality, a shared comprehension of the deprivations and glories of the stand-up life and this most colourful of its exponents. All those who could, rose to their feet, cheering and whistling in a heart-stopping ovation. The first among us to die – and what a death. He was a stand-up comic. I am a stand-up comic. And so are you, my friend. Who would not wish to be such a creature?

Eventually the applause subsided and the funniest, and the most moving gig I ever attended or ever played, continued with brilliant speeches, poignant musical interludes and outrageous spontaneities until, finally, the coffin was borne from the church by the pall-bearers, trying hard not to laugh as Elvis Presley’s Return to Sender played Malcolm Hardee out of the church and on to the crematorium.

 

Beth, who supported me most beautifully that day, observed that I had been born to play this funeral. Malcolm and I were of a similar age and had been around comedy for the same amount of time. Like him, I was a South London grammar school boy who had spent too many nights marauding around the pubs and streets of Greenwich; I had performed at most of the sundry venues Malcolm opened, written a short story ( ‘The Man With two Penis’’) in the book he had compiled called Sit-Down Comedy, and he and I had frequently participated in each other’s Fringe escapades – it was only when his autobiography was published that I had learned he had, as a matter of course, rung and complained to the police at the start of all my tours of the Royal Mile. Malcolm was the supreme Mister Greenwich but his funeral cortège had passed several milestones in my own early life. Surrey Quays is where the insurmountable fences (even by Raymond) of Surrey docks once stood – I had grown up next to them fighting in the bombsite wars. A few years later, as a gauche, carbuncular schoolboy, I sat in Saint Alfeges church looking in awe at the girls across the aisle and, as a young man, I had made my first, failed bid for stardom at the Cutty Sark boat with Gary, Dennis and hot Miriâme from France. It was all a long time ago. Or a blink of the eye. So passes life, alas how swift. It’s a game-and-a half where you are Ron, it’s a game-and-a half where we all are Brian.

 

That it was the end of an era in comedy, or at least in the lives of a bunch of comics, seemed to be confirmed by another death a year after Malcolm’s epic departure. Brilliant, radical, erudite, principled and less starry than it is possible to imagine a gifted, famous person could be, Linda Smith’s premature death at 48 was more shocking than Malcolm’s – which had been on the cards ever since he had dangled from a railway bridge, aged nine. Where Malcolm was an example of what Tom Elsasser had called me at UEA, an ‘eventist’, Linda was a sculptress in hilarious words and a radical thinker who had started her career playing Miners Welfare Clubs during the strike of 84/85. I had met her many times on the comedy circuit, laughed with her on sundry radio shows, introduced her in the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition and on TV in First Exposure. As a political female stand-up there was no-one to compare with her – and there still isn’t.

 

Rape Jokes

Originally published in The Stage

Nov 2014

 

There has been much discussion in comedy circles recently about the rise of sexist material peddled by young male stand ups and especially the rape ‘jokes’ that have become increasingly common. Enter comic Dapper Laughs with his profoundly misogynistic ITV 2 show ‘On the Pull.’ He was caught on camera at a live gig defending it thus: ‘If it was a guide to rape, I would have done one five-minute episode, come on and go, “Oi oi, I’m Dapper Laughs, go down the shops, get some rope, bit of duct tape, rape the bitch, well done, see you later”.’

 

To add further glory to his repertoire Mr Laughs was then heard telling a female audience member she was ‘gagging for a rape’ before adding ‘do you want to come backstage after, yeah? Bring two of your mates, you’ll need them’.

 

I find this all rather depressing and I blame the gateway drug that is comedians like Jimmy Carr, whose material includes the lines – “What do nine out of 10 people enjoy? Gang rape…..” Or “What’s the difference between football and rape? Women don’t like football” And so on and so on.

Whilst I agree that comedy should sometimes be transgressive and I am not in favour of censorship, I find these routines pathetic and lamentable, making brutality a joke, at a time when British police fail to record one in four sex crimes.

Sexual assault is the only kind of violent assault for which the victim — not the assailant — feels guilty and is routinely blamed, overtly or by implication. These  Carr/Dapper style jokes risk normalizing the idea of violence against women in the minds of some of their audience.

Elsewhere on the net the comedian Andrew Lawrence wrote an apologia for UKIP and went on to criticise “panel shows like Mock The Week where aging, balding, fat men, ethnic comedians and women-posing-as-comedians, sit congratulating themselves on how enlightened they are about the fact that UKIP are ridiculous and pathetic.” Following complaints from other comedians he observed that “Increasingly the print media in this country is being dominated by militant pseudo-feminists.” (maybe he has a point here –Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond, the Barclay brothers and Paul Dacre are feminazi bra-burners to a man).

I noticed that one of the more than 1500 people (nearly all men) who ‘liked’ Lawrence’s original blog was a comic I have known for 30 years – one of the original batch of ‘alternative’ comedians who reacted against the sexist old school comics. I emailed to him to ask if he meant to ‘like’ Lawrence’s piece and his reply was “Yes. I just LOVE being naughty!” And he then sent me an old Benny Hill routine…

So  I am cast as the grim-faced naysayer who frowns at the boys having their innocent fun. Well then so be it. Once again I feel like making an apology to all the women of the world on behalf of my dismal gender. And a merry Christmas to you too vicar.

 

 

Ask Dr Smith

(Orig published in Balance Magazine)

 

Your question answered.

This month a letter has flooded in to me from Mr Ralph Wilson….

“Dear Arthur,

My two greatest pleasures in life have been making money and drinking treacle. Alas, now I have type 2 diabetes I am barred from the treacle, so my question to you is, ‘how can I make money out of diabetes?’”

Dear Ralph,

There are many experts on diabetes and much has been written about the condition but no-one has really addressed this question. So let me be the first. I have 3 proposals:

  1. Open a restaurant.

I have mentioned this idea before and am amazed no-one has tried it (although the fact it would be illegal may have put some investors off). The unique selling point is that on arrival, diners are injected with a small amount of insulin – not enough to do them any harm but enough to ensure that whatever they eat is delicious in a way that, thus far, only a diabetic with low blood sugar can understand.

You will find that your customers will enjoy the thrill of the injection (to be administered by attractive staff dressed in sexy outfits) and shortly afterwards will feel so ravenous that you need make no effort in the kitchen. In fact you won’t need a chef – just some supplies from Morrisons – because, frankly, if you are feeling a bit hypo a cheese sandwich and a banana is a match for any madness dreamed up by Heston Bloomen-silly.

It would soon become the grooviest diner in town and, provided you place your profits off shore, you will have a big wodge to look forward to you when you are released from prison.

  1. Betting on blood sugar readings.

Come on, this is a brilliant idea. You get 6 people with diabetes in a small crowded room and, one after the other, test their blood sugar. The closer the punters are to predicting the result successfully, the more money they make. Also you could bet on a follow up reading after the person eats a bar of chocolate. Imagine the tension in the room during the moments before the reading lights up on a big screen and the cheering and groaning that would greet it. Top entertainment.

3.  Find a cure for it.

I am guessing, Ralph, that you are not a medical man and have no connection with the hard-working scientists who are trying to achieve this goal, but don’t fret – it is the PR that counts. Start a rumour on twitter that you have found a cure, send out a press release (the Express will definitely put it on the front page) then set up a website where you can buy the medicine that does the trick (a few old chopped up leaves). Make sure you have an actor in a bow tie with a stethoscope who endorses the stuff then you need only sit back and count the money.

Ralph, see you in the Cayman Islands and enjoy spring, Arthur

————-

Arthur Smith, At Your Service – 2014 Tour & More – Over Here

Oh Hazel

Originally Published here:

http://www.dementiablog.org/oh-hazel/

Oh Hazel

By  on 24 February 2014
http://www.dementiablog.org/oh-hazel/

http://www.dementiablog.org/oh-hazel/

 About 20 minutes into Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen (Volume 2) I speak a poem I have written that drastically shifts the mood of the show.

Tonbridge, Kent

Pulling up late
after the party,
they see her,
their neighbour,
standing in the street.

She is looking, she says,
for a lift to London.
She needs to get home.
‘Hazel,’ they tell her,
‘This is your home –
‘you live here, in this house.
London is 30 miles away.’

The door is open.
They take her in
and see she has packed a bag
(if a jumper and a packet of biscuits count as packing).

Oh Hazel,
It is 35 years since you left London
to live, as you liked to say, ‘in the shires’.

But there she still is
that grammar school girl
from Camberwell Green
kissing sailors and dancing
In Trafalgar Square.
It is VE day
and the rest of the century
Is yours.

Hazel Smith is my mother and the incident above was described to me by her neighbours, Paul and Lucy. When I started writing this Leonard Cohen show I had not intended to talk about her but I came to realise that one of my themes was loss and that my ma was struggling with her own losses.

Hazel bravely entered widowhood 10 years ago and did her best to embrace living alone for the first time in her life (she resisted moving in with us), but I knew how much she missed my father. Over several years she began to lose some of the things that had sustained and defined her – she stopped doing the garden, reading novels, making cakes, sending cards and letters. She began to repeat herself and mislay things and she began to drink alcohol in alarming quantities.

arthur-smith© Steve Ullathorne

I was uncertain at first about discussing her decline into dementia publicly – was it disrespectful? Too personal or too sad for what was essentially a comic enterprise? My brothers encouraged me and I did a try out in front of a small audience. I found that the sections in the show about Hazel affected the audience; afterwards several of them shared stories of their own parents and grandparents.

I won’t tell you any more about Hazel – you will have to come to the show for that – but, suffice it to say, she is now in a care home and her situation is miles better than it was last year; in some ways she is happier than she has been for years even though her short term memory is no more. My brothers and I visit her often and are always impressed by how diligent and understanding the carers are.

People say ‘live in the moment’ and I see that you can do this very easily if you can’t remember the last moment and have no idea what the next will be. On a recent visit Hazel and I watched the news headlines on TV together – famine and flooding. I remarked, “What a terrible world we live in”

“Yes,” said my mother, “I would hate it.” We laughed long and loud together.

  • Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen (Volume 2) The Extended Remix at the UK Jewish Comedy Festival – Thurs 3rd Dec – Tickets & Info

Just before Christmas

Just before Christmas, as the gales and the sirens blew wildly outside, I heard the sad news of the death of comedy’s number one mover-and-shaker, Addison Creswell. Ruthless, abrasive and extravagant, Addison was beloved by (most of) those who knew and worked with him and he engendered almost as many outlandish stories as his old mucker/rival, Malcolm Hardee.

Yes, he was an arch capitalist with a taste for cigars and smart members clubs but I met him first when he was organizing benefits for the miners during the strike of 1984. He was only in his early twenties then but his character was already fully formed – the gushing energy, the East End gangster persona, the designer suits, the head-locks…..

Addison had an acute eye for new talent and how best to promote it. He offered his clients total loyalty but demanded they take his advice on what to wear, which gigs to do, which parties to attend and the best people to schmooze at them. If you had become a comic in order to get rich and famous (and, as far as Addison was concerned, you surely must have) and you had the talent then he was the man who could make it happen. And he was right. You need only Google the list of comedians he represented to see what a crucial role he played in the growth of comedy in the last 30 years

Most comedy agents and TV producers are not extravert; they stand back and make it possible for the big, show-off comedian to shine. Not Addison, who, despite having no desire himself to caper in the limelight, was more charismatic than many of his acts. You did not forget encounters with Mister Cresswell…..

I used to see him in my Soho days , gleaming and glinting in the Groucho club or hustling in the Atlantic bar near Piccadilly Circus. He was always warmly welcoming and would soon be recounting his latest adventures with producers, commissioning editors, lawyers, PR girls and film stars. His speech, delivered in a sort of cockney geezer twang that belied his middle class upbringing, was exhilarating but exhausting; he didn’t talk to you, he beat you up with words and gesticulations.

Every sentence contained words which would be banned on Radio 4 and was accompanied by a repertoire of shrugs, cuts in the air, indignant waves and punches. The features on his face leapt around such that several expressions passed across it every second. Yet he delivered all his speech from one side of the mouth, – the other side clamped shut as though appalled at what its partner was up to. The overall effect was to lend everything he said an air of drama and breathless significance.

Addison was popular with media moguls because he possessed a kind of street-wise glamour that they envied. Even those who found him repellent detected occasional flashes of self-parody that redeemed him and made possible all the deals he cut.

There are those who might suggest that Addison coarsened comedy, making it all about money and status, that he lacked any finer artistic instincts and undermined the comedians who were not in his stable, but I knew him from the off and I can tell you we are saying goodbye to a man with a huge vigorous spirit, a bloke who gripped life by the throat and delighted his friends, a man who added to the gaiety of the nation, a man whose life and work will be remembered and celebrated for a while to come. Seeya Addison.

 

UAE

 

The end of summer and the sun is flowing across the concrete campus of the University of East Anglia where I was a student from 1973-77. It’s late September and I really am back at school – to take part in the celebrations for the University’s 50th birthday.

 

There are loads of activities – a big top featuring Kid Creole and the Coconuts on a bill with former student Nina Conti, a fun fair, some serious academic lectures and discussions, an invasion of zombies, a firework volcano and umpteen eclectic performances.

 

Grizzled old alumnae like me get to hang out with legions of dimly-remembered contemporaries and to gaze in wistful wonder at the current crop of undergrads resplendent in their youthful zeal.

 

My duties at the University Theatre (a patch of grass in my day) were to perform a 50-minute comedy set and, far more taxing, to play the main character in an extract from Samuel Becket’s play Fin de Partie.

 

The director, Prof Emeritus Ralph Yarrow, and fellow (bi-lingual) actor, Erwann Limon, helped me through a rehearsal the night before. My French is probably better than yours but I have hardly spoken it in recent years; I went to sleep drenched in apprehension and spent the day studying the text of the play.

 

It had been agreed I could read my part – a hunched, sickly man in a wheelchair – from a script. When the time came, I was wheeled on stage. Erwann and I charged off and he got several laughs; we were doing well until I turned over too many pages and lost my place…

 

The audience could see I was in trouble so I ad-libbed in a way I felt appropriate to Beckett (in French bien sûr, but I translate for you): ”I have arrived at the wrong page. This page means nothing to me now. Where is the right page? I look and look for the right page but it has gone. It is lost. I am lost.

No, wait, the right page is found!”

 

The audience laughed and we made it triumphantly through to the end. I was thrilled to have got away with it and reminded that doing something unfamiliar provides a bigger buzz than doing what you know.

 

By now I was beginning to remember the French flourishes I had adopted during the year I spent in Paris as part of my degree. The corners of my mouth began to droop and my shoulders arched into that gallic shape. Alors, quoi?

 

And then I bumped into Eddie Izzard. Eddie has an honorary degree from UEA and was performing his French stand-up show in half an hour’s time.  We reminisced in French together before Eddie invited me to do a spot to introduce him. And so, as I once did in Paris 20 years ago, I cracked gags in French and, still fired up by my debut as a French actor, je me suis bien amusé

 

Afterwards I took my place among the throng of students past and present who were draped on the steps overlooking the square at the centre of the campus. I smoked a fag and reflected that I had first sat here 40 years ago – an excited fresher, newly-departed from the nest, hungry for fresh ideas and experiences.

 

My self-importance was confirmed by the arrival of 2 attractive undergrad women who flirted with me for as long as it took to cadge 2 cigarettes, at which point they immediately got up and set off to the bar.

 

How little really I have learned.

 

Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Volume Too) – Feb & March 2014  Soho Theatre, London – Tickets & Info

Edinburgh 2013

As I write I am in London in my warm garden. As you read I am in Edinburgh in a cold flat. Soon I will pack my bags, forgetting, as is traditional, to stuff in any socks at all. The Fringe is beckoning me back into its bony arms and I have been having my loins girded by 2 top-notch girders.

Here are some shows that I recommend whole-heartedly despite not having seen any of them.

1. Christian O’Connell

Like many fellow stand ups I am suspicious of DJs who like to think they are funny and get paid more than us (yes, you, Chris Moyles); we know that if they actually had to do a 20-minute set in a comedy club they would burble themselves  straight down the pan. Sometimes you see them trying to entertain a live audience, but the only way they ever get away with it is because some members of the audience know them from the radio.

Christian O’Connell, the morning DJ on Absolute Radio, has bravely decided to have a bash at doing a show in Edinburgh in the proper way. He has written it, tried it out and is going to do the full Edinburgh run. Furthermore his idea is simple and fascinating: he came across a list he had written when he was 13 of the things he hoped to achieve by the age of 40 – the age he was about to be. Could he do them in time?

I know all this because I interviewed him about it on Radio 4 Extra, which, admittedly, wouldn’t have happened to a regular rookie comedian. Nevertheless I was impressed by his approach and reckon he may well be very funny.

2.  Tumi Morake in Her Story.

I know nothing of Tumi or her show but I like the sound of her; she is, so she says, ‘the female comedian who has turned South African comedy upside down and inside out’ which cannot have been easy. Go see.

3. Carey Marx – Intensive Carey

Carey is a terrific comedian who last year joined me in the comics-who-have spent-time-in-Intensive-Care club. He survived his heart attack (obviously – Jeez I am stupid sometimes) but you may not survive his show; the bit of it I have seen is so funny I nearly suffocated laughing.

4, Sally-Anne Hayward – Hey follower!

I have seen a few young new female comedians recently and been disappointed by the number of them whose entire set is made up of hard core sex gags. It’s not that I am prissy (although I do disapprove of sex before marriage) – some of their routines are very funny. It is just so uninteresting. Anyway…. Sally Anne Hayward has a more original and beguiling take on the world. She is also one of those comics who is so delightfully likable that even the most hardened cynic wants to be her friend.

5. Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen (volume too).

Although I haven’t seen this show either I have been in it. The best bits are provided by the Smithereens, my fabulous trio of backing singers.

6. Simon Munnery Fylm

Simon Munnery has not stopped experimenting with the forms of comedy for 25 years – he is the most original funnyman in Britain. He is  though, I suspect, useless at cricket.

So very soon I shall once again be emerging from Waverely station into the exhilarating turmoil of creativity that fills this heart-stoppingly beautiful city.

 

And you never know, it might not even be raining.

Glasto

Apart from a marathon compering session, I did 2 solo performances at Glastonbury last week, both of which were utterly different from any other gig I have ever done. I arrive at the first in the backstage bar of one of the bigger arenas to find a band rocking away and dancing going on. Oh dear – when people are grooving they do not wish to sit down and listen to stand-up comedy. There is an audience to the side of the stage but facing it only seven punters, 3 of whom are, damnit, children.

I start with a couple of ancient gags which go down tolerably well but I can see the children are already bored. Scanning through it swiftly, I realize that nearly all my material will either be incomprehensible or too rude for them. So I take a chance and offer 50p for one of the kids to come up on stage and talk to me. 10-year old Olivia is soon standing next to me answering my questions. ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you like your tent?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you only answer questions with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’? ‘ ‘Yes’ She has a rather stern delivery and gets a laugh with each monosyllable. Soon her best friend Isabel has joined us and proves to have an extremely charming and infectious laugh. Olivia and Isabel are enjoying themselves and so is everyone else.

‘Who does your mum look like?’ I ask Olivia.

‘Beyonce,’ she says. Her mum whoops and comes up to wave.

‘And who do I look like?’

Olivia scrutinizes me intently.

‘Robbie Williams,’ she says.

 

Never work with children and animals but, if you do, step back and let them get the laughs.

 

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2 nights later and I have a half-hour spot in the Cabaret tent, a duty I have discharged successfully in the past. On warm  afternoons you sometimes find the audience is sparse or still recovering from the previous night ,so I am pleased to find I am due on at 9.45. Unfortunately, at the same time, in some larger venue on the other side of the site, a band called the Rolling Stones are playing.

You may be surprised to learn that many more festival-goers attend the Stones gig than mine –  or you may not be surprised. There are about 20 people in the very large Cabaret tent, several of whom are hopelessly pissed. Carl Donnelly, most excellent MC, proposes that he jolly some of the audience onto the stage before I come on. Why not? When I stride up to the microphone I find 6 people sitting at my feet, and so I decide to declare myself the new Messiah and the 6 as my apostles.

I can’t remember a great deal about the next 25 minutes except that I soon ceded the Messiahship to Dave, whose message was that we should all be drunk and enjoy Glastonbury. Later I got 2 of my followers to have a gladiatorial sword fight using 2 rolled-up copies of the Daily Mail. I seem to recall that Dave was killed in this combat so I am not sure who is the Messiah now. Was it Alice the stoned astrophysicist, or Blue, the self-possessed boy I took to be a girl? It’s all a bit blurry now – as Glastonbury immediately becomes once you have returned from the mayhem and had that oh so fabulous bath.

Thank you Glastonbury for another crazed time with old friends and new. And thanks to Olivia and Isabel, the best new double act around.

Happyness

“Happiness….”, sang John Lennon in 1968, “is a warm gun.” But what Lennon didn’t know was that, in fact, Happyness is a new comedy festival that takes place in Inverness over the May bank holiday. I have just returned from its golden shores and am brushing the heather from my hair as I type (Auld Heather was quite a gal)

Happyness (the name was suggested I gather by Bill Bailey) is the brainchild of that formidable Femme de Comedie Karen Koren, mother of the Gilded Balloon, one of the Edinburgh Fringe’s great venues. Looking no doubt at the Kilkenny and the Machynlleth comedy festivals she has decided that Inverness could make a great addition to the comedy buff’s calendar – like those 2 areas of outstanding natural beauty Inverness is a handsome old town full of historical incident, surrounded by sumptuous mountains and lakes, with a canny, urbane populace.

It is true that the audiences were small but those people that did turn up to the dozens of shows on offer were appreciative and pleasingly vocal. I have no doubt that there will be larger numbers next year and that in five years time the town will be teeming with comedy lovers keen to laugh and to enjoy the fabulous landscapes.

My own sojourn began badly with a brutal dawn flight from Luton airport where I realised I had left my mobile phone at home. On arrival in Scotland however the sun was out and I was warmly welcomed by Karen’s tireless team of  attractive henchwomen so it was not long before I was feelin da happyness.

I was billeted at a hotel in the centre of town on the banks of the River Ness with all the other comedians, which gave a great opportunity to catch up with old muckers (big hellos to Jenni Éclair, Fred Macaulay, Janey Godley and Michael Redmond) and to take a look at some of the younger comics doing their stuff – I was especially impressed by Bec Hill, an Australian who draws her act as she does it, Daniel Simonsen a Norwegian master of Nordic gloom and Cornish comedy rap dudes Hedlov and Passman. As at the Machynlleth festival I was reminded of my early days at the Edinburgh fringe when all the performers would congregate at the Gilded Balloon after their shows, comparing notes and bitching about other comedians.

I MC-ed a couple of shows, did a turn at another and took over the Inverness open top bus tour for the afternoon. Some of the passengers were evidently expecting a more conventional tour and looked surprised when I talked about the laird of Poundland, revealed that the Loch Ness monster had been a double agent during the war and did a spot of Highland dancing on a roundabout.

Between gigs I pulled on my walking boots and took to the hills clutching my new OS map, stumbling through bogs, clambering up crags and gazing across at the dreamy horizon of not-so-distant mountains with their silvery highlights of snow. No mobile meant I was not distracted from the view by the need to take a photo of it or ring someone up to describe it.

As I passed a bush 2 deer stumbled out looking rather, er, sheepish. Inspired by the warm Scottish air, the prospect of summer and the certainty of the guffaws in the town far below me, I leapt onto one of the deer and rode it magnificently across the glens.  Hey you can’t say I didn’t – you weren’t there. But be there next year if you dare.

http://happy-ness.co.uk/ 

6 ways to stave off misery

6 ways to stave off misery

Do you ever feel utterly miserable? If you answer ‘no’ to this question then you are either lying, or you are a children’s TV presenter. Feeling down is a part of life as surely as is breathing or finding Piers Morgan a pompous, smarmy idiot. But worry not, sad reader, because here come…Arthur Smith’s Top 6 Things You Can Do to Stave off Misery. Unlike similar regimes dreamed up by doctors and therapists, this one requires very little effort (no jogging!) and can be knocked off during the course of a morning, at the end of which I GUARANTEE* you will be feeling far better than you were:

 

  1. Start gently by congratulating yourself that you have managed to get up, clean your teeth and put your clothes not only in the correct order but also the right way round. Well done!
  2. Think of a good friend you haven’t seen for a while, and then send them a postcard. Yes, a proper postcard – with a nice picture on one side and a fond message, an address and a stamp on the other. As you post it imagine your pal receiving it, their pleased face, that smile you have seen so often…. pop into a shop and buy yourself a little edible (or drinkable) luxury eg a slab of your favourite chocolate. Put this to one side….
  3. Have a clear out. Come on, gather up those shoes you know you will never actually wear, the old DVDs, tapes and videos, the chipped teapot etc and squash them into that suitcase with the broken wheels. Deposit the whole damn lot in your local charity shop. (NB if your despair is really extreme you could, additionally, throw out a member of your family). You and your house will feel lighter. And, hey, while you’re in the shop, take a quick shufti at the clothes racks – it may be your lucky day ….
  4. Remember that song you used to love but haven’t heard for a while? Yes, that one. Go and stick it on really loud – even if it is Lady in Red. Shut your eyes and, if necessary, dance! As Katie Price once remarked, “music hath charms to soothe the glum lady.”
  5. Make a cup of tea. We British know this better than anyone; if in doubt, make a cup of tea.
  6. Turn on the TV, sip your tea, and, for five minutes, watch any reality TV show; savour the beautiful fact that you are not one of the poor saps taking part in it. Then switch the TV off. You have now successfully completed the 6 activities. It remains only for you to sit quietly and tuck in to that little treat you bought after you went to the post box earlier. Oh yes and – why not? –make another cup of tea and, go on with you, take the afternoon off.

 

* This guarantee is meaningless