In a blog a couple of weeks ago, the So It Goes blog’s occasional correspondent Anna Smith wondered what had happened to her acquaintance, an exotic dancer from Winnipeg called Karen, who was last heard-of in London.
Unfortunately, I can tell her.
I had a drink this week with Philip Herbert, best-known to me as fire-eating comedy act Randolph The Remarkable.
“Sadly Karen passed away,” Philip told me. “She got knocked off her bike in London. She was overtaking a lorry and a bus came towards her.”
“When was this? I asked.
“About 15 years ago,” Philip told me.
“The last time I saw her, she was on her bike and I shouted: Careful on that bike!
“That was the last thing I said to her. And, about a fortnight after that, she was dead.
“At the time, I was on a 12-week tour, doing A Tale of Two Cities at the Oxford Playhouse. So I couldn’t get to the funeral. Her parents thought she was working as an au pair and teaching; they had no idea she was working on the strip circuit. All her friends were freaks, were punks, were entertainers. Apparently the wake was weird because everyone was pretending they knew Karen through her teaching.
“She was going into comedy. She was beginning to speak and tell stories and do poetry.
“In the old days, there was a cross-over between stripping and comedy. 69 Dean Street was the Nell Gwynne strip club until about 11 o’clock and then it suddenly turned into The Comedy Store. When it got successful, they stopped doing the stripping on Friday and Saturday and they did two comedy shows – an 8 o’clock and a midnight.
“If you were on the circuit then, you’d do first act in the first house at the Comedy Store, then go off and do a pub in Stoke Newington or wherever, then rush back and do second or third on the bill in the second show at the Comedy Store. If you were good, you were working in more than one place. Everyone worked round each other and there was a cross-over between street acts and alternative acts”
“I must have first seen you in the 1980s,” I said, “when you were Randolph The Remarkable.”
“I still do Randolph The Remarkable: Fire-Eater Extraordinaire. Feats of Skill Involving Fire and a Blue Bowl of Lukewarm Water. The only trouble is now, because of Health & Safety, you have to have a Risk Assessment and Public Indemnity Insurance and a fireman standing in the wings who holds a bucket of sand. If you can do all that, then they’re prepared to book you. In the old days at the Comedy Store, you’d get £5 and a drink token and I used to work under a sprinkler and there couldn’t be anything more dangerous than that. I don’t suppose they’d allow that now.”
“Back in the 1980s, it was much more risky and exciting and there was that cross-over from people who worked as street performers – I started off as Randolph at Covent Garden and Camden Lock… and people saw the act and said Oh, you must do the Comedy Store. Then people would see you at the Comedy Store above the Nell Gwynne strip club and say Oh, you must do the new variety Cast circuit.”
“How did you get into fire-eating?” I asked.
“I was an actor in a community company,” explained Philip, “and we were asked if we wanted to learn how to fire-eat for a historical tour. We did Southampton and Portsmouth. We took people round different historical sites and pubs and re-enacted history – it was a pub crawl, really – and then, as the light faded, we stood on the city wall and did fire-eating and fire-blowing.
“Then I was out of work for months and I thought This is ridiculous. I’ve got this skill. So I did it at Covent Garden and, back then in the early 1980s, you could just turn up and do it. You didn’t need a licence; you didn’t need to audition. Now you have to go through this whole rigmarole and they don’t allow fire there any more because there was a silly accident where somebody spilled paraffin into the crowd.
“I still do Randolph at the Punch & Judy Festival at Covent Garden every year.
“And I did Gay Pride last year and I also do a drag act now called Nora Bone. I was a finalist in last year’s Drag Idol. I was in the last four out of 200-odd acts. I wear a red wig; I’ve been described as a bloated Geri Halliwell, because I wear a Union Jack dress. Not a mini – just below the knee. And white tights and very low heels, because I used to be on a higher heel and I fell. A lower heel is much more sensible for a lady of my age.”
“Are you an attractive woman?” I asked.
“Beautiful. I make the boys’ heads turn. I’m trying to do songs that other people don’t do. Not Life’s a Cabaret or I Did It My Way. I do I’m Too Sexy For My Skirt, Save All Your Kisses For Me, Madonna’s Holiday. The idea is that I’m an ex-recording artist that people don’t remember; an ex-supersize model; that I did a lot of ‘before’ photographs in diet magazines; and I’m a stand-in for Adele.”
“Do you regret not being a full-time actor?”
“Well, Nora is all acting. And doing circus, doing panto… a lot of straight actors knock panto. But I tell them To do panto well is as difficult as doing Shakespeare well - because it’s a set piece. You’ve got all the set stuff with the audience, the interaction. And you’ve got men playing women and women playing men.”
“You’re a character actor, really,” I suggested.
“Last year,” said Philip, “I was in a play about music hall legend Dan Leno – The Hard Boiled Egg and The Wasp. When he was committed to what his wife thought was a care home but turned out to be an asylum, I played the warder.
“I also do a character called Philip The Poet. I’ve always written poetry. I met John Hegley on a bus on National Poetry Day and he said to me Why don’t you do a couple of poems? because he runs a regular night at the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon. He knew I wrote poems but I didn’t perform them. So I performed at John Hegley’s venue and I really enjoyed it, so I’m doing more and more of that.”
“Would you like to be a straight poet?” I asked.
“Straight-ish,” replied Philip. “With a comical kick at the end. I like my poetry. I comment on things I see. I can write a poem that isn’t a funny poem – that doesn’t need a smile at the end – but I think if you can say something that gets a sharp intake of breath that leads to a laugh… That’s as rewarding as a big guffaw. If you say something that’s quite shocking or meaningful and people gasp and then you undercut it with something that’s funny, then the gasp changes into a laugh and there’s a relief in the laughter. I do like my poetry, but there’s no money in it.
“I sometimes compere gigs as a character called Sebastian Cloy. He comes on in a big frilly shirt – old school compere but not gay – he tells jokes and does the odd song, if required.
“You’re always doing characters,” I said.
“If you create a character then you, in a way, hide behind that character. It’s like a mask. A clown nose. Basically, you put on the clown nose and that allows you to behave in a foolish way. I think it takes a lot of courage just to stand in front of people and say I’m now going to attempt to make you laugh or I’m now going to attempt to sing you a song which I hope will move you.”
“Do you ever actually perform as yourself?” I asked.
“Hardly ever,” said Philip. “though I’ve been doing a one-man show on-and-off for about three or four years. It’s called Naked Splendour. I’ve done life modelling for artists for as long as I’ve been an actor. When I started, the pay was £1.94p clothed and £1.98p naked – 4p difference.
“I’ve performed Naked Splendour at the Hackney Empire, the Edinburgh Fringe, Soho Theatre and The Rosemary Branch.
“In it, I sit and pose. People can draw – they’re given materials as they come in. I start dressed, then I undress and I sit and pose and tell true stories. Funny stories. Not all funny. Stories like falling asleep. When you’re in a long pose lying down, you do nod off sometimes. And then, at the end, I get dressed and invite people to bring their work down. They put it on the floor and we have a mini-exhibition like a show-and-tell.
“The trouble is, being on your own, you end up doing four months promoting via the computer. For me to do it again, I’d need someone to take it on.”
“So in Naked Splendour,” I said, “you are yourself.”
“But,” came the reply, “I always cringe slightly if I’m introduced as Philip Herbert, because I’m not used to it. When people say Philip Herbert’s here, I look round and say Who? Whereas, if someone says Randolph The Remarkable or Hugh Jelly from Julian Clary’s show… then I know that’s me.”
YouTube has a video of Philip in bed with Julian Clary: