Occasionally, I go to see Lewis Schaffer’s twice-weekly Soho show Free Until Famous - the longest-running solo comedy show in London - it’s different every night and last night was a particularly good night.
Afterwards, I had a meal with Lewis and his chum Jeff Stevenson, a man who has, as they say, been around – he has been in showbiz for 37 years, starting as a child actor in the original Bugsy Malone movie. He was a mainstream comic, became an alternate comic, had his own ITV shows in the 1980s, was an LWT warm-up man in the 1980s and 1990s – he and I must have bumped into each other at LWT because we seem to have known the same people – but we don’t remember. Well, I barely remember anything about anything. Now Jeff performs 35 weeks a year on cruise ships around the world and gets his own UK work 15 weeks a year.
“I like to keep a few plates spinning at the same time,” he told me last night.
I would say it’s more like the entire crockery department at Harrods.
Last night, he was going off to sleep in a cruise liner docked at Greenwich, which was setting sail today with him performing the cabaret.
Inevitably, when Greenwich was mentioned, the subject of comedy godfather Malcolm Hardee came up.
When Jeff switched from mainstream to alternative comedy, he used the name Harvey Oliver on the alternative circuit and started by doing free ‘open spots’ at alternative comedy clubs like Malcolm’s Up The Creek in Greenwich.
“So I turn up as Harvey Oliver to do my first 5-minute open spot at Up The Creek,” Jeff told me last night, “Malcolm sees me and he must have also seen me perform as Jeff Stevenson, because he immediately says Can you be the closing act tonight? I presume the main act had not turned up. So I was the headliner at Up The Creek that night for my open spot.”
“And obviously he didn’t pay you…” I said.
“He did,” said Jeff. “He gave me some money but, after the show, we went next door to the Lord Hood pub and he asked if I would loan it to him…
“The other one when I was performing as Harvey Oliver was when Malcolm booked me into Murphy’s Laughter Lounge in Dublin. I’ve just realised, he said, it’s St Patrick’s Night so they’re gonna expect Irish performers. So you’ve got two choices, Either we elbow the Dublin gig and you do Up The Creek for me here in London. Or you can go to Dublin, but we’ll re-bill you as Harvey O’Liver so you sound Irish.
“So I gigged at Up The Creek.”
“I watched Tommy die live on TV,” Jeff told me. “The curtains closed and Jimmy Tarbuck, who was the compere, had to stand on stage in front of the curtains filling-in to the audience. He told me later that, as he was talking, he could hear them hitting Tommy’s chest behind the curtain, trying to revive him – and Tommy was one of Jimmy’s heroes. Terrible, terrible.
“I was playing a club later that night. So I walk in and Graham, the manager, says to me: You’re late, and I said I know. Did you see what happened on TV? Did you see Tommy Cooper tonight? He said No.
“He died on Live From Her Majesty’s, I said.
“Well, Graham said, he didn’t do too fucking well here last week either.
“That’s what he said. That’s absolutely true.”