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.
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.