This extract from the late Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake gives his views of some comedians in 1995…
I was attacked at Glastonbury by a bloke called Bone, part of the anarchist lot Class War. He was going on about how we were all rich. I must have been wearing a suit at the time. He had a daughter called Jenny Bone, who was a brilliant 16 year-old comic, the female equivalent of Jerry Sadowitz. I only ever saw her do about five or six gigs and never heard of her again. She must have given up, which is a great pity.
Some great comedians have given up when they might have gone on to greater things. Others have gone on to gain that success.
Vic Reeves went on to gain success. He should have given up.
Vic was a very clever man. He used to perform in South East London starting at The Goldsmith’s Tavern, next to Goldsmith’s University in New Cross.
Vic called his stage show Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out and performed it with a local alcoholic called Alan King. It was Alan King who was a lot of the brains behind it, but he wasn’t very good as a performer. He admits that he isn’t. He used to just get up on stage and tell a load of old Tommy Cooper jokes very badly while he was ironing.
Because the show included Vic Reeves’ name, Vic got the cult following. He used to spin a fan round and the audience all knew his catchphrases like Give it a spin! and What’s on the end of the stick, Vic? Now and again, though, he’d come into the alternative cabaret circuit and he did the Open Spot a few times at The Tunnel.
Most times he died.
After Alan King left him, Vic teamed up with Bob Mortimer and, as a favour, I got them a booking at Bracknell Arts Centre. It was an easy place to play, about 90 in the audience in a little cellar. A nice audience.
But, after Reeves & Mortimer played there, people actually signed a petition. They said they never wanted to see Vic Reeves or Bob Mortimer in the building ever again. The whole audience. A year later, the bloke who ran the place was ringing me up offering about £8,000 for them to perform in the big theatre next door.
After a time in the Goldsmith’s Tavern, Vic moved his show down the road to the Albany Empire. Michael Grade of Channel 4 was in the audience one night and that’s how Vic got his first TV series.
Alan King is still about. He’s a little bit resentful about the success that has eluded him. He recently organised a weekly Quiz Night at Up The Creek, which was really just an excuse for him to get up with his band and play. It finished after two weeks to a serious lack of audience.
I was at a club he was tempted to run in Camberwell. He’d had so much to drink he was sick into the empty beer glass and then a little later on he proceeded to drink his own vomit.
As for Vic Reeves, success hasn’t really changed him. He was arrogant before he was successful. I get on OK with him, but he’s difficult to get on with because the surreal nature of the show is actually what he is like. You can have a conversation with him that’s straight out of his show:
“I saw two cabbages walking down the road…..”
It’s a bit like schoolboy jokes where only he and his mates are in on the joke. I didn’t understand it or think it was funny when I first saw it but, if you’re told it’s funny long enough, then it becomes funny.
I now do find Reeves & Mortimer funny, though not hilariously funny. There are some comic moments there. I certainly find it funnier than most mainstream comedy.
I think Michael Barrymore is the best of the current mainstream comics. He’s a South East London boy from Bermondsey. I saw him years and years ago when his act involved standing on his head doing impersonations of an Australian John Cleese. Early in his career, he was heavily backed by the Daily Mirror. They did a story in which they followed an unknown comic and they were going to report on his progress at yearly intervals, which they did. I think that helped him along. He is extremely good at what he does, including interviewing ordinary people. He has just that right tone of cynicism but, like me, he genuinely likes ‘naff’ acts, end-of-the-pier acts. He’s encouraging yet, at the same time it’s rather tongue-in-cheek.
I have sometimes been asked who is the most talented ‘alternative’ comedian who never made it.
The most talented performer who never made it is probably Jerry Sadowitz, because he is a genuinely gifted magician-comedian. I recently read Alexei Sayle quoted as saying he thought Jerry was the only current comic genius.
But I don’t think any of the alternative comedy circuit comedians have actually really ‘made it’. Certainly not Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. They’re not on the Michael Barrymore/Bruce Forsyth/Cilla Black level. Living in big houses. People like Reeves & Mortimer are about five rungs down that ladder, still slightly fringe comedians. Possibly Lee Evans has done best. In his feature film Funny Bones, he had equal billing with Jerry Lewis.
But Lee Evans started as a mainstream comic and he linked up with the alternative acts probably mainly due to his youth. He was doing the Butlin’s Holiday Camp circuit before he latched onto the Alternative circuit. Lee always gets compared to Norman Wisdom and there are similarities: both were boxers, both became fitness fanatics and they’re both very physical comedians. But Lee was never particularly ‘alternative’.
There are three types of comedy. There’s Mainstream – your bow tie and frilly shirt Jim Davidson show. There’s Alternative – which has some sort of intellectual or even Art content. And there’s just plain Weird.
Some of the Alternative acts latch on to the public consciousness and gain some Mainstream success by changing slightly. None of the really alternative comedians have made it. The very nature of ‘alternative’ means there is a limited audience. The mainstream audience is the people who watch BBC1 at 8.30pm on a weekday. So Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson have drifted across from alternative into the mainstream. So have French & Saunders, who started off in the Comic Strip club.
Charlie Chuck is a Weird act who should theoretically never make it. But he might if he goes the Freddie Starr route and tones down his act – which he has already started doing to try to appeal to a wider audience since his appearances as ‘Uncle Peter’ on The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer.
Weird is funny, but the general public generally aren’t ready for it. About the nearest you can get to a Weird Mainstream act is Freddie Starr or Spike Milligan.
Some acts, of course, are just too weird to ever make it. Like Ian Hinchliffe.
I heard about him years and years ago, even before I started with The Greatest Show on Legs. Someone asked me:
“Do you want to go and see this bloke called Ian Hinchliffe who eats glass?”
I never went to see him but, years later, I bumped into him when he was in his fifties and saw him in various pub shows where he threw bits of liver around. He was, he said, a performance artist and in one part of his act he pretended to disembowel himself. He had liver and bits of offal in a bag that he pretended was coming out of his stomach. Then he started throwing it at the audience.
One show I saw was in an East End pub with a particularly rough landlord. The liver and offal flew right over the audience’s head, hit the landlord and knocked the optics off behind the bar. The landlord came over to beat him up and Ian Hinchliffe jumped out of the first floor window. He landed on the landlord’s car, putting a big dent in the bonnet. He didn’t perform at that pub again.
At another gig in Birmingham, a member of the audience got up halfway through and left. Ian Hinchliffe stopped the show and followed him home. Quite what the audience felt, I don’t know.