Punchlines: comics getting beaten up

Comedy critics face fragile egos and non-comedic reaction

Yesterday, someone drew my attention to a copy of The Stage dated 26th April 1990. One article was headlined:

ARTISTS FEAR HECKLERS’ REVENGE

and started:

“Alarmed entertainers fear violence from rowdy club audiences may be on the increase after a series of ugly scenes which have put artists at risk on stage.”

Apparently comedian Paul Ramone had got a black eye and swollen nose after being head-butted by a member of his audience during a gig in Twickenham.

Manchester hypnotist Paul Nyles claimed he had had to abandon his act after 15 minutes when an audience member bit through his microphone cable. There were no details of what happened to the heckler when he did this.

Comedians getting beaten-up seems to be a non-uncommon phenomenon although biting through the microphone cable to stop an act is uncommon.

Off the top of my head, I remember three Edinburgh Fringe stories. One is told in Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake:


Ian Cognito - nothing is unexpected

Cognito maybe forgot Ricky Grover is an ex-boxer

An excellent performer called Ian Cognito was there and he was very drunk, as is his wont. When he’s drunk, he gets aggressive. Part of his Italian upbringing, I think. 

Ricky Grover had worked with him before, so said hello to him and Cognito grabbed him by his collar and said: 

“You’re a fat cunt!” 

Ricky doesn’t mind that sort of thing at all. He’s used to it.

So, not getting a reaction, Cognito continued: 

“You’re a fat cunt and you’re not funny!” 

Ricky still didn’t react, so Cognito added: 

“And your wife’s a fat cunt as well!”

This upset Ricky, because he’s one of those traditional people.

“Did you mean that?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Ian Cognito said.

“Can you repeat it?” Ricky asked.

Cognito said: “Your wife’s a fat cunt”. 

And, with one blow, Ricky just knocked him out. Unconscious. Displaced his jaw a bit. The lot. Ricky’s a professional, so he knows exactly where to hit someone.

Standing three or four yards away was Jon Thoday, who runs the Avalon agency. I looked over at Jon and said: 

“Oh, have you go that £500 you owe me?”

Funnily enough, the cheque arrived in the post about two days later.


Police said Ian Fox suffered “a small cut to his nose”

In 2012, comedian Ian Fox was randomly attacked in the street during the Edinburgh Fringe. The local police, who allegedly knew quite a lot about beating people up, told the Edinburgh Evening News: “The victim suffered a small cut to his nose during the incident,” but Ian’s face looked more like he had had an argument with a rhinoceros.

And, of course, most infamously, in 2013, comedy performer Gareth Ellis got beaten up in an Edinburgh street by an irate member of the public who was annoyed by Ellis & Rose’s appearance in Jimmy Savile: The Punch & Judy Show.

Gareth Ellis suffers for his art (photo by Lewis Schaffer)

Gareth Ellis claimed he suffered for his art (Photograph by Lewis Schaffer)

Except it never happened. In fact, Gareth had repeatedly hit himself in the face with the blunt end of a milk whisk so he could tell the being-beaten-up story to get publicity for Ellis & Rose’s Fringe show. When the blunt end of a milk whisk did not have the required effect, his comedy partner Richard ‘Rich’ Rose punched him four times in the face to give him the required black eye. For this, they won a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award.

To me, the most bizarre part of the 1990 Stage article, though, was a paragraph towards the end which said:

“Alternative comedian Malcolm Hardee, who was knocked unconscious by a heckler at a Glasgow club, claims attacks are on the increase because comedy has become more aggressive.”

That this had happened to Malcolm seemed very unlikely – although admittedly Malcolm’s Tunnel Club had to become membership only after beer glasses were thrown at Clarence & Joy Pickles (Adam Wide & Babs Sutton) during their act.

Throwing beer glasses at acts was not uncommon at the Tunnel but, on this occasion (when Malcolm was NOT the compere) a glass hit Babs Sutton in the face and drew blood, after which several acts refused to play the Tunnel unless Malcolm reined-in his audience a bit.

MalcolmHardee_Diners

Malcolm Hardee – a comedian not unacquainted with alcohol

Anyway… Malcolm Hardee being knocked unconscious by a heckler at a Glasgow club sounded unlikely, so, yesterday, I asked Malcolm’s chum Martin Soan.

“This sounds unlikely,” I said. “Have you heard this story? Did he make it up?”

Malcolm making-up stories was not unheard-of, but Martin said surprisingly:

“Yes I do remember this. It is true after a fashion. The heckler sort-of pushed Malcolm in a friendly sort of way. Malcolm had drunk 13 pints of beer and some buckets of rum-and-coke and sort-of fell asleep for a bit… Talking of which, I had a knife pulled on me… twice. Once at the Old Tiger’s Head in Lee and once on the Glastonbury stage.”

Comedy can be a dangerous business.

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What it was like to work in a Canadian strip club in the 1980s.

Yesterday, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, Anna Smith, mentioned working in a club called Le Strip in Toronto. Today she expands on that:


Le Strip in its heyday

“I was afraid to ask for work there at first. It looked so sleazy.”

Le Strip no longer exists. It was my favourite place in the world to work. It called itself a ‘Private Gentleman’s Club’. Membership was $5 a year and the entrance fee was $10 or $8 for seniors. It was not a bar, but actually a theater.

I had been afraid to ask for work there at first. It looked so sleazy. There was a blurry television monitor on the street which displayed the vague outlines of whoever was on stage at the time and a flight of stairs, covered in worn red carpet.

The guys could arrive at noon and stay all day if they wanted, without being hustled to buy drinks.

We had a proper dressing room with lightbulbs around the mirrors. We used the lightbulbs to dry our panties on. The owner was never there, so the strippers essentially ran the place, assisted by two men who worked the door and the DJ booth.

The ever interesting Anna Smith

Anna Smith in 1980s (or 1880s?)

We had total artistic freedom and were always finding ways to improve our shows. We would dare each other to do ridiculous things on stage. The place was like a second home to us. We could leave costumes there for weeks and they never got stolen and we were almost constantly laughing, exchanging stories about our adventures.

The customers – or ‘perverts’, as we fondly called them – kept asking “What are you girls always laughing about back there?”

It was a daily six hour party, interrupted only by the fact that every hour-and-a-half we’d have to run out on stage and take our clothes off. Then we’d dash down the steps back into the dressing room and demand of our friends, “What happened? What happened?” to find out what we’d missed.

It paid less than most of the clubs, but had advantages.

The other clubs booked us for one week at a time but, at Le Strip, it was a two week booking. It was downtown, close to the record stores, banks, law courts and other conveniences.

As it was not a bar, we were even allowed to rush our children through the back of the theater into the safety of the dressing room.

One time, an extremely elegant dancer named Zelda Scorch was on stage, sitting on a chair, playing with her bra straps. Her gaunt face had been scarred by acne, but it didn’t show because of the lighting. The audience was suddenly startled by the clear voice of a very young girl, who was being ushered through. She had shouted in astonishment:  “Mommy! You’re Beautiful!”

We knew many of the the ‘perverts’ by name.

Anna Smith in the Vancouver bookshop

Anna Smith at peace in Vancouver this year

There was a pair of them who appeared every year with a trophy, like a sports trophy. It was for ‘The Stripper of the Year’.

They would find out who was the newest, shyest young dancer on the roster, have her name inscribed on it and present it to her. I never got one of those, but it was really fun to see happen. The dancer would return from stage in amazement, almost crying, and say: “Look! Look! I can’t believe it! I just got an award! I’m the Stripper of the Year!…”

When I returned to Canada, after an absence of six years, I stopped in at Le Strip, on the way to Vancouver. I thought everyone I knew would be gone, but the minute I stepped through the door I was surrounded by the girls, and the perverts turned round in their seats and called out: “Nurse Annie! Where have you been!”

One of the dancers, Maxine (real name Janet Feindel) wrote a play based on the dressing room conversations at Le Strip. It’s called A Particular Class of Women and it a very good play.

There is a promo for a 2013 production of A Particular Class of Woman on Vimeo.

A Particular Class of Women last year

If A Particular Class of Woman is being produced nearby I usually offer to help with the details. Things that normal people might not get. For example, the fact that we always brought a towel from home to put on our chairs, so as not to develop a rash from sitting bare-assed on vinyl.

Also, if somebody tries to produce the play without Janet’s permission I contact her immediately. She teaches theater now at a university on the east coast. I’m a copyright spy for her.

There was a real spy scandal associated with Le Strip. Not involving the dancers, but one of the DJs.  It’s one of the most preposterous stories I’ve ever heard. It was very, very frightening, even though I wasn’t there when it happened. It involved among other things, a trip to Libya, Neo-Nazis in Toronto, the South African Embassy, the Brandenburg Gate and a leather jacket.


Obviously, I am encouraging Anna to tell me more.

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Canadian strippers, Carole Pope, Dusty Springfield and Lesbians in the Forest

Regular readers will know of Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent. She tells me about quirky happenings over there, mostly in Vancouver, which seems to be a hotbed of the bizarre.

A couple of days ago, Anna sent me a link to a YouTube video – someone called Carole Pope singing – after a fashion – Lesbians in The Forest.

I have led a sheltered life and had never heard of Carole Pope.

“The mighty Pope?” reacted Anna, aghast. “Do you not know of her work?”

“Nope,” I told her. Never heard of her or seen her. I think maybe you had to be there.”

Anna replied: “You had to be at The Colonial Tavern, 201 Yonge Street, in 1977.”

No, I had no idea either.

I usually describe Anna as working in a bookshop in Vancouver, which she does. But she has a back-story.

This is a tiny part of it, in Anna’s own words:


In the dressing room at Le Strip, whenever we heard Carole Pope being interviewed on the CBC, the strippers would shout:

“SHUT UP, SHUT UP! It’s The POPE! The POPE! THE MIGHTY POPE!”.

We all knew her from The Colonial Tavern in Toronto. It was the first bar to open in the city after World War II. It broke the ‘colour bar’ and became a famous jazz dance venue.

By 1977, the jazz had evaporated. Newspaper ads promised: ROCK BANDS AND EXOTIC BLACK BOTTOM SERVING MAIDENS. I was one of the serving maidens, dressed in lingerie and heels, but my bottom was not black. The serving maidens also danced on stage.

The  ‘house dancer’ was Hot Tamale, a robust and temperamental older Jamaican woman, who did a fire act called HOT TAMALE AND HER FLAMING BATONS .

We tried to stay out of her path because she was often in a foul mood running off the stage, sickened by the kerosene.

Carole Pope sang with Rough Trade

A shockingly sexy slender young woman with short black hair

One quiet afternoon, I was serving beer. I could not fail to notice the band Rough Trade. It consisted of a male bass player and a shockingly sexy slender young woman with short black hair. Carole Pope. She was the first female punk singer I had ever seen, and she was a hell of a lot sexier than any of the serving maidens – whatever colour their bottoms were.

Thick with youthful ignorance, I wondered: Wait a minute – What is going on here? I am supposed to be the sexy one, She’s only a musician.

When I tell someone that I was a striptease dancer they often ask: “So, you did that thing with the pole?” And they wave their arms a bit. It is like telling people you live on a boat. They always ask: “Doesn’t the…(and then they make a rocking movement with their hands)… bother you?”

When they ask about the pole, I have to explain: “I am from before the pole. (It sounds like Beyond the Pale.) I am from before the cassette tape was invented. We had to dance to real live musicians, except in some places where we had to dance to juke boxes, which was a whole other nightmare.

The ever interesting Anna Smith

The ever interesting Anna Smith

One of the worst places I ever danced was a country music bar in Toronto. It was not on street level – You had to go up a flight of stairs. Everyone there looked like they had been drunk for weeks, so it was not really dangerous because they could barely stand up. They were all old people, dressed like country music fans, and – of course – smoking

I panicked a bit, trying to pick up the songs, which I didn’t know. People were lurching past me. The first song to play was Ghost Riders in the Sky, which was tolerable, I made an effort but, at some point, I ended up slowly, slowly, very slowly removing my red bra to It’s a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille and the old people started singing to it.

It seemed like the song would never end. I felt like I wanted to die. There wasn’t even a stage in that place, I was dancing on a small parquet dance floor.

I never went back there.

But that’s why I’m fearless on stage now, having gone through that experience.

Now we jump to The Emerald Supper Club in Vancouver on 18th October 2014 – last Saturday.

Carole Pope at The Emerald Supper Club in Vancouver, Oct. 18, 2014 . (Photograph by Anna Smith)

Carole Pope – last Saturday. (Photograph by Anna Smith)

I was sitting in the front row making a fuss.

Carole Pope looked a bit shaken when I yelled out: ”All the strippers in Toronto call you The Mighty Pope!!!”

I settled down eventually, after Carole started to look slightly alarmed. She has enough crazed stalker fans as it is.

So I did my best to sit quietly and leaned against the comfy shoulder of the agreeable slightly plump agoraphobic man sitting beside me whom I had never met before. His name was André.

André was eccentrically dressed, wearing a fedora, a nice navy blue woollen jacket,  a steel cell phone watch and, next to that, another slender gold-lamé watch decorated with diamonds. His other hand was bandaged with tape and he was carrying a very fancy knapsack.

He said that he had met Carole Pope before – they had a photographer friend in common. He was not sure that she would remember him. He knew all the words to all her songs and sang along.

I don’t know her work that well. I just did not want to miss her performance and it certainly was not a disappointment. I laughed all the way through her satiric song Lesbians in the Forest and, halfway through her set, I applauded too hard and burst a blood vessel on my left palm. On my walk home I encountered a happily drunk sixty year old native man who was out looking for his nephew.

“What are you doing down here?” he asked me.

“Do you know Carole Pope?” I asked him.

“Of course,” he answered. “High School Confidential. Everybody knows that.”

“I saw her tonight ” I said.

“You’re kidding!” he said. “Where?”

“She gave a concert in a little club,” I said. “I clapped so hard I busted a vein in my hand.”

High School Confidential was the first song about a lesbian crush to become a mainstream hit in Canada.

That was last Saturday.

A friend just messaged me that he saw her tour bus leaving town and had been worried that I might be on it.


There is a video of High School Confidential on YouTube.

Yesterday, I sent Anna an e-mail.

“Hold on!” I said. “You wrote: That’s why I’m fearless on stage now… NOW????”

I got a reply this morning:


Anna in the dressing room at The Flamingo Motor Inn on August 3 2014 Ian Breslin generously allowed me to dance to his music in order to raise money for children of dancers orphaned by cancer

August 3rd 2014: Anna waiting in the dressing room of The Flamingo Motor Inn, Vancouver.

Did I not mention that hearing The Outbursts’ song Dead To Me compelled me to perform a striptease this August at The Flamingo Motor Inn, a place that I normally would cross four lanes of highway to avoid? It was to raise money for the children of dancers orphaned by cancer. I worked my full shift at the bookstore, took the train to Surrey (in Greater Vancouver), and had one hour to prepare for my show. I told the compere, a lady named Charlie, that I felt a bit nervous and she said: “Oh, don’t worry, you’re not on for an hour.”

Yes, I thought, but I haven’t been ON for 25 years.

Oh – Carole Pope… She was born in Manchester, England. Dusty Springfield was her partner.


In 2000, Carole Pope’s autobiography Anti-Diva included the fact that, in the early 1980s, she had been in a relationship with British singer Dusty Springfield.

There is a clip on YouTube of Carole Pope introducing Dusty Springfield singing Pope’s Softcore.

Also on YouTube, there is a cracker of a video of Carole Pope singing Lou Reed’s I’m Waiting For The Man. Not relevant, but I like it.

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Ariane Sherine on why she gave up comedy and turned to Beautiful Filth

Ariane Sherine yesterday

Ariane Sherine was at Soho Theatre yesterday

Yesterday, the Guardian ran an online piece by Ariane Sherine, one of their regular writers. It was headlined:

I’D BEEN UNEMPLOYED FOR A YEAR… SO I FORMED A BAND, OF COURSE

and the subtitle was:

What’s a 34-year-old single mum on benefits meant to do when all else fails? Pursue the most unrealistic career path imaginable!

So, of course, yesterday I had a chat with Ariane.

“I did nine months on the comedy circuit in 2002/2003,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s just the most amazing thing to make a crowd of people laugh,” she told me. “I always think comedy is the truest art form because people can’t fake laughter. Anybody can clap after a performance out of politeness, but people don’t tend to laugh out of politeness. Not real, proper belly laughs. It feels wonderful and it feels like a validation of your own personality. If you think something’s funny and other people think it’s funny too, then they identify with you and it’s amazing, it’s wonderful and I loved it.”

“It’s like being hugged on stage?” I asked.

“I don’t know about a hug. It’s certainly warm.”

“But you stopped,” I said.

Arine Sheine was worried by a website

Ariane Sherine: worried by website

“I stopped comedy because I was so scared Steve Bennett might give me a terrible review on his Chortle website. I gave it up because I was scriptwriting and thought I don’t want producers to Google me, find this hypothetical Chortle review and think: Oh, she’s not funny.

“I still wanted that validation through my writing. I started writing for sitcoms. I wrote for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and My Family and material for Countdown. But you don’t really get credit for that: it’s never really your own because, on sitcoms, you have script editors who may ask you to do eight re-writes based on their notes and, by the end of it, it’s not your script any more. I have no particular wish to go back into scriptwriting, but I do really miss comedy.”

“So why not go back to it again?”

“Because the circuit is a harsh, cruel place,” Ariane laughed.

“So you’ve been sitting around doing nothing…” I said.

Beautiful Filth by The Lovely Electric - do not try this at home

Beautiful Filth by The Lovely Electric – smutty, maybe nutty

“I’m looking after my three-year-old daughter half the time,” replied Ariane, “and, the rest of the time, I’m always working on projects. I’ve been working on this album since January.

“Ah yes!” I said. “It’s you and a friend, you call yourself The Lovely Electric and the album is called Beautiful Filth. Out today.”

“And it’s available on iTunes and from Spotify,” said Ariane. “I wanted to do comedy songs because I missed doing stand-up.”

Tracks on her Beautiful Filth album include:

Don’t Have Sex With a Goat
Thank You For Not Smelling of Fish
I Think His Penis Died

The opening lyrics to the track Cum Face are:

You are so beautiful
I’d watch you at the IMAX
I love the way you look
Except for when you climax
You flare your nostrils out
And, for what it’s worth
You scrunch your cheeks up
Like a hamster giving birth

I don’t want to see your cum face
I don’t want to watch you come
I don’t want to see your cum face
So let’s do it up the bum
I don’t want to see your cum face
I’d rather watch my mum
I don’t want to see your cum face
So let’s do it up the bum

There is a video for the song Hitler Moustache on YouTube.

“My politics are very left-leaning,” Ariane told me, “and I think a lot of people I like might not like the album, because it’s very smutty.”

“So,” I said, “you decided to record a pop album whose lyrics are untransmittable on radio. Why? That’s no way to make money.”

“Well, you never know,” said Ariane. “Tim Minchin is pretty successful. But it is true Beautiful Filth is an album about sex. We don’t have any clean songs on it.”

“But why,” I asked,” write an album about sex in such a way that it can’t be widely disseminated?”

“Because it’s funny and the humour I enjoy is really rude. Think of Monty Python – The Penis Song. (There is a version on YouTube.)

Charlie Brooker reacts to Ariane’s Hitler Moustache

Charlie Brooker reacts to the Hitler Moustache

“How come Charlie Brooker is in your Hitler Moustache music video?” I asked.

“I met him when I was working in telly,” explained Ariane, “He’s the loveliest bloke. He has just helped me so much. He gave me my start in journalism because the Guardian asked him: Do you know any good comedy writers who could add a bit of levity to the comment pages? and he suggested me. So he’s basically responsible for my whole journalistic career. Then he gave me a quote for my last book, he gave me a quote for this album, he wrote for The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, which was a book I edited, got me a job on Big Brother – writing the website stuff.”

“So why do you want to be a singer-songwriter now?”

“Because it’s fun and because I did a music degree. It culminated in work experience at the NME.”

“And you started writing at the NME?”

“Yes. Then I was runner-up in the BBC New Sitcom Writers Award. I started writing for Children’s BBC and other places. I’ve always been a writer in one form or another. But then I had a nervous breakdown in 2010.”

Ariane wrote about her feelings

The Guardian piece

“That,” I said, “was well before your daughter – who is now three – was born.”

“Yeah. I wrote a Guardian piece about it. Basically a load of really horrible things happened. I had had a very violent, disturbed childhood, so I got depressed in my teens – started cutting myself and became anorexic – and was put on a load of anti-depressants that didn’t help.

“I was pregnant when I was 24 and my boyfriend turned violent and hit me in the face and caused by ear to bleed and then he suffocated me and it was horrible. So that happened and then I kind of picked myself up from that after about a year but was still very depressed. I was 24.”

“You’re 34 now.”

Ariane at Atheist Bus Campaign launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

Ariane at Atheist Bus Campaign launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

“Yes. I was 24 and carried on writing for telly and then the Atheist Bus Campaign came out of a piece I had written for the Guardian. I got lots of threats when I did that. Random strangers. Religious people who didn’t like the campaign. I really, genuinely felt a bit… and I couldn’t work for… I didn’t feel able to do anything in public for over three years. My Guardian pieces stopped in August 2010 and it was only in December 2013 that I started writing again. It was a big chunk of time to lose, but…”

“What made you start again?” I asked.

“I was put on some anti-depressants that were Tricyclics, so they were different from the SSRIs that I was taking before.”

“SSRIs?” I asked.

“Things like Prozac and Seroxat. But now I’m on this amazing one. It’s amazing and it has just made life worth living again.”

“There was,” I said, “an act I knew called the Amazing Mr Smith who was given Seroxat. Last year, he took it for two nights and then killed himself by jumping off a cliff.”

“Sometimes they can make you a lot worse before they make you better,” said Ariane. “When you read the leaflet and you read This medication might induce suicidal thoughts you think Well why am I taking it?”

“But you’re OK now?” I asked.

“Well, I’m on three different medications now: anti-psychotic ones, anti-convulsant and anti-depressant.”

“Anti-psychotic is different from anti-depressant,” I said.

“It’s a horrible thing,” said Ariane. “I was convinced people were trying to kill me. I was convinced the government and MI5 were out to kill me.”

“As you were working for the Guardian,” I said, “maybe they were.”

“I remember the caretaker in my block of flats,” said Ariane, “was scrubbing the walls outside and I was convinced he was doing it to spy on me. When you get to that state that you’re convinced everybody’s out to get you, you can’t walk down the road because you’re scared and I desperately needed help and I got put on these anti-psychotics, but they alone didn’t make everything better.

“Then I got pregnant and I couldn’t be put on anything else. So I spent my pregnancy planning my suicide.”

“How were you going to kill yourself?”

“Helium.”

“You were going to laugh yourself to death?” I asked.

“I’m glad I can laugh about it now,” said Ariane.

“I’m interested in comedians,” I said, “because they’re all mad as hatters.”

“Well,” said Ariane, “for years I was so terrified of letting people know I was struggling with mental illness but, as soon as I did, there were all these journalists and comedians who told me: I’ve had the same thing. It was amazing,

“I think these pills I’m on have actually given me courage I would not have had ordinarily. So I don’t see it as brave to come out as mentally ill – it’s just these pills I’m on. There’s no way I would ever have been able to do it without the pills.”

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Memories of Tiswas, Frankie Howerd’s wandering hands and Norman Collier

Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson and associate producer David McKellar

Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson and David McKellar

So yesterday I drove up to Birmingham for a reunion of people who worked on the children’s TV series Tiswas. It turned out there were 100 fans there too.

Everyone I knew years ago seem to have grown white hair and beards or both apart from presenter Sally James and you can never be too sure of anything nowadays.

I got chatting with David McKellar, who was Associate Producer/Script Associate on Tiswas when I was there. He was a wildly experienced gag writer. I remember being impressed when I realised he had written one of the few jokes I ever remembered, a fake news headline:

“Bad news for three-foot dwarfs… four feet snow drifts.”

I think David Frost delivered the gag in one of his TV series, probably The Frost Report.

David McKellar remembered Tiswas yesterday

David at the Tiswas gathering in Birmingham yesterday

David McKellar wrote for various David Frost shows as well as Ken Dodd, Frankie Howard, Tommy Cooper, Dave Allen, Jimmy Tarbuck, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, The Two Ronnies, Celebrity Squares… you name it…

He told me that, taking a look at Lenny Henry’s website recently, he noticed that Lenny had credited him with changing his career path.

“I had no idea,” David told me.

“How did you change his career?” I asked.

“He used to do gags as himself and I suggested he did characters. When he went on This Is Your Life, he mentioned my name. It’s good to be remembered.”

“It is nice,” I said, “to change someone’s life when you didn’t even realise it. Who did you write your first joke for?”

Max Miller

Max Miller paid David £1 in the street

Max Miller. He lived in Brighton. I lived in Brighton. I met him in the street, told him this joke and he gave me £1.”

“What was the joke?” I asked.

“I wish I could remember,” laughed David. “The thing about him was he never used  a dirty word on stage and he was the dirtiest comedian. It was the audience who were thinking the dirt in the act. Comics nowadays will say ‘wanking’ for no reason.”

“You wrote for Frankie Howerd, didn’t you?” I asked. “That was all innuendo.”

“You never went into a room alone with him,” said David.

“Jonathan Ross,” I said, “advised me never to get in a lift alone with Frankie Howerd.”

“He’s remembered,” I said, but people like Norman Collier are not and he was a great comedian.”

Norman Collier

The great Norman Collier – gone but not forgotten by some

“I remember,” said David, “he took me into a restaurant one night in Birmingham – on the Friday night before the Tiswas show (which was on Saturday morning) and he came in with a ten-foot ventriloquist’s dummy. He put it on the chair next to me and the waiter came along and gave us three menus. The dummy ordered a whole meal, then Norman got hold of a popadom, held it under the table and there was a Woof! Woof! sound. They threw him out because they didn’t allow dogs in the restaurant. But he had no dog. He left me sitting in there with a ten foot dummy.

“I was with him in Toronto and he had two dolls and vented them singing I’ll Be Loving You.… Two people bought singing dolls off him and they weren’t singing dolls.

“I was with him in Gibraltar… Barbary apes… He goes over and feeds them so their lips start moving and he starts talking to them and venting them talking to him. An hour and a half we were there. There was this couple from Alabama and they left thinking the apes talked. Norman stayed there until they were convinced and had left. They would have been telling everyone back in Alabama about the talking apes in Gibraltar.”

There is a clip of Norman Collier’s act on YouTube.

Den Hegarty had shaving foam problems

Den Hegarty had shaving foam problems

At this point, Tiswas presenter and ex Darts performer Den Hegarty came over, with two paper plates covered in ‘custard pie’ (actually white shaving foam) sticking to his face.

“Just like the old days,” said David.

“It’s not the stuff we used to use,” said Den. “We always used Erasmic. But this stuff stings the eyes. Though I didn’t used to get pies. I tended to get baked beans poured over me. Then people wrote in and complained we were wasting food and all the starving people in Africa could be fed with out baked beans. So then we had to make fake baked beans and they were poured over me.”

“The glamour of television.” I said.

The ending of the final episode of Tiswas is on YouTube.

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Life on the periphery of the godfather of alternative comedy Malcolm Hardee

Malcolm with distressed shoulder in Up The Creek office

Malcolm in the office at Up The Creek (note torn shoulder) (Photograph by M-E-U-F)

It is a Sunday today.

Now-dead Malcolm Hardee used to stage his comedy shows at his Up The Creek club on a Sunday. That was, of course, before he was dead.

There was one Sunday, fourteen years ago, in October 2000.

I went to Up The Creek to see Johnny Vegas perform.

Malcolm’s estranged wife Jane was there, looking very happy and younger, with all her teenage children. Just before the show started, Malcolm came in with his (female) friend Xxxx – whom I had not seen for years.

In the interval, I said hello to Malcolm who took me aside in the bar to tell me that present in the club were FMH the Former Mrs Hardee (Jane), FMH the Future Mrs Hardee, TMH the Temporary Mrs Hardee and OMH the one-time Mrs Hardee.

It transpired that a woman with a rather masculine face looking like Sixties softcore porn star Fiona Richmond was the object of his lust and they intended to spend the night together if they could get round the problem that FMH the Former Mrs Hardee was there.

I went to chat to Xxxx.

“I haven’t seen you for years,” I said.

“I just got out of the loony bin,” she explained.

It transpired she had actually come out two or three years ago, was living in a flat opposite Up The Creek found for her by the hospital but seldom went out. Malcolm had tried to get her a job with the three Brothers who owned Up The Creek, but one vetoed the idea saying: “She’s mad”.

There was some incident involving her setting fire to Malcolm’s tie, which I did not fully understand. She told me she always associated me with a performing snake. I could only think this was connected with an excellent act I had liked when Malcolm and I worked together at Noel Gay Television. The act was called Dolores & The Snake but did not involve any snake.

Johnny Vegas at a tribute gig after Malcolm died

Johnny Vegas at a tribute gig to Malcolm Hardee in 2006

Johnny Vegas, with no apparent script, did a roughly 90 minute act simply talking at various members of the audience and ending, shirt off, his ample figure bouncing, arm-wrestling a member of the audience on stage – He won.

Martin Potter, the sound man at Up The Creek, played Fat Boy Slim’s Funk Soul Brother full volume. Johnny danced to it, stomach and rolls of fat bouncing, and the audience rose, roaring in applause.

Afterwards, I talked to comedian Boothby Graffoe, Malcolm’s current flatmate, who said he (Boothby) was keeping a diary. I said this was a good idea because, over time, you forget details.

“Not with Malcolm,” Boothby said, “Everything’s vividly engrained in your mind.”

Boothby had not heard until this week that female ventriloquist Terri Rogers had died the previous year. He remembered staying with her, Malcolm, Charlie Chuck and another performer at the Edinburgh Fringe and, each night, the other performer would return with a new way of killing Terri, whom he vehemently disliked.

This surprised me, as she/he had always seemed very amiable. I say she/he because it was uncertain if Terri had, at one time, been a man. Or not.

After she died, it turned out she/he had been. A man. Before she became a woman. Her name had been Ivan Southgate.

There is a video on YouTube of Terri Rogers paying tribute to Malcolm for a long-forgotten one-off TV show I produced for Noel Gay/BSB called Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbusiness.

Terri Rogers (left) pays tribute to Malcolm Hardee

Terri Rogers (left) recording a tribute for Malcolm Hardee: 25 Years in Showbusiness in 1990.

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I have no subject for my blog today but, in East London last night, I saw a very successful comedy show with no jokes.

(From left) Trevor Lock, Devvo & Chris Dangerfield at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012

(From left) Trevor Lock, Devvo and Chris Dangerfield outside their Hive venue at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012

In general, I do not review shows – I preview them – because, in my experience, reviewing shows just results in a performer calling you a cunt when they bump into you five years later. I also prefer to blog about performers and their lives rather than shows. In general, this blog is about people, people, people.

But that is not what today’s blog is about.

Every year I go to the Edinburgh Fringe and I have a problem.

I know a fair number of comedians to varying degrees and each of them expects me to go to his or her new hour-long show which they have sweated blood to create. Some get a bit miffed if I do not see their shows but, frankly, I do not want to see their shows.

As comedians, I know they are good. I know their schtick. I do not want to see acts I have seen before, however good. And I can, by and large, see them any time in London.

At the Edinburgh Fringe, I want to see bizarre new acts who may get nominated for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award. And, for my own enjoyment, I want to see acts I have never seen before – ideally comedians and performers I have never even heard of.

To quote the late Malcolm Hardee, they “might be shit, might be good. Dunno.” That is the risk you take but it is worth it.

This year, I did not see comedian Trevor Lock’s show. But I should have done. He usually does what I might call “intelligent surreal verbal comedy”. Last night he was performing a show called Not Joking which had, on the poster:

WARNING: THIS SHOW DOES NOT CONTAIN JOKES, ROUTINES, STAND UP COMEDY OR BANANAS

The poster for last night’s show promoted by Poppy Hillstead

The poster for last night’s unusual show

People go to comedy clubs to laugh and to be given happiness.

A joke is a constructed sentence or two designed to elicit one major burst of laughter at the end and, with luck, maybe some minor titter-making points along the way. The problem a comic has in a one hour show is that each traditionally constructed joke with punchline will only last, at heart, perhaps one minute. In the hands of a highly-experienced and talented performer, this can be stretched to several minutes. But the show is an hour long.

A joke is structured Set-Up / Detail / Climactic Laughter.

As comic Lewis Schaffer might – and possibly will – say, a joke is a bit like sex.

It is:

Foreplay / Build-up / Climax.

After the climax of the joke, a comedian, however skilled, has to start at ground zero again to build-up the next joke to its climax. To make this constant stopping and re-starting invisibly smooth takes both talent and a lot of experience but, at heart, it is arguably not as smooth as the warm-up to a show.

Most comedians start their gag-based shows with a series of Hello. Where are you from? What do you do? questions to individuals sitting in different parts of the audience to try to warm-up little sections and, by warming-up these isolated little sections, to warm up the audience over-all. They try to make the audience feel warm, cuddly, happy and, most of all, involved in the show.

Then the show proper starts – a series of (hopefully disguised) joke-based stops and starts. The best Edinburgh Fringe shows now often avoid telling traditionally-structured stop-start jokes by using one unifying story and the audience’s enjoyment comes as much from the well-told story as from the laugh points.

This idea of telling stories rather than gags has now filtered down to comedy club level where, often, the best comics are telling longer stories with laughs rather than just a series of unrelated shorter gags strung together. And this has begat pure storytelling shows and clubs, as I blogged about four days ago in piece rather niftily titled: If alternative comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll, is storytelling the new comedy?

Trevor Lock’s show last night was slightly different.

Trevor Lock performed in front of a blank white wall

Trevor performed in front of a blank white wall to a full house

My heart sank when I heard it was intentionally going to have no jokes.

This is usually something inexperienced comics say when they (a) cannot tell jokes (b) have no performance skills and (c) are either bullshitting desperately or have possibly cocaine-induced delusions of their own genius.

Trevor Lock fits none of these three categories. He is funny, talented and as level-headed as any comedian (given that all comedians are, in their heart and soul, barking mad).

The nearest I can describe last night’s show was that it was a one-hour warm-up of the audience by a skilled performer who made something very difficult look very easy.

That makes it sound less than it was.

Basically, Trevor bonded the three-sided audience at the start in a very clever way (involving eye-contact) which I won’t describe. He then involved members of the audience in a basically non-structured show. (I noticed a couple of set-ups.)

Usually picking on audience members is awkward, even from a skilled performer – you are either going to get people who do not want to be picked-on and who have to be coaxed, which takes care and time unrelated to the basic show, or you get barely-controllable people who want to be the centre of attention and who have to be controlled and dampened-down.

Trevor avoided this by turning the show into what I think seemed to the audience to be something akin to a chat show with Trevor actually controlling what happened without seeming to be dominating. The consequence was a very very happy, constantly-bubbling-with-various-levels-of-laughter audience.

Remember that the object of going to see a comedy show is to laugh and to be given  happiness. Not necessarily to laugh in a near-mathematically-structured way at a pre-structured series of prepared jokes told in an order decided before the performer has actually encountered that specific audience.

Last night Trevor was, in effect, riding and guiding the emotions of the audience, rather than performing a pre-ordained show.

That is not easy for over an hour.

He managed it and, at the end, when they show was over, there was a loud, rising WHOOOOSHH! of clapping and cheers from a totally satisfied audience. Lots of smiling and chatter on the way out.

A highly intelligent, highly talented comedy performer at the top of his game.

If you can perform comedy without jokes and create an hour’s worth of constant laughter and happiness, then you must be doing something right.

Trevor Lock (left) & Chris Dangerfield, by Poppy Hillstead

Trevor Lock (left) and Chris Dangerfield – artwork courtesy of Poppy Hillstead, the promoter of Trevor’s show last night

This has not been a review, it has been an observation.

I would mostly be happy talking to performers about themselves and not seeing their shows. Last night was different. And it was interesting that, in the audience, were (I suppose I would describe them as) highly original performers Chris Dangerfield and Karl Schultz and rising promoter of the unusual Adam Taffler.

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