London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer is nothing if not quotable.
In my blog yesterday, I quoted his views about racial and racist jokes. In the same conversation, we also talked about Malcolm Hardee, the late godfather of British alternative comedy who was known for random outbreaks of nudity onstage and renowned for having “the biggest bollocks in showbusiness”.
I met Malcolm around 1985 or 1986 and wrote his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake in 1995. He drowned in 2005.
Also present when Lewis and I talked was a friend of mine who knew Malcolm far longer than I did.
“I never met Malcolm,” Lewis said, “but I would say he is he is someone who is ‘best remembered’… I never experienced what Malcolm Hardee was. The impression I get for the guy is that he didn’t really have much respect for other people. He was always messing with people. In a way, he brought people on stage at his clubs just to humiliate them.”
“No,” I answered. “They humiliated themselves.They knew how tough Malcolm’s audiences could be. They knew if they could survive the Sunday night audience at Up The Creek and, even more so at The Tunnel, then they had a good act. I always thought the Tunnel audience was firm but fair. If you had a good act, they would listen and applaud. If the act was not so good, they would shout out razor-sharp heckles. If your act was shit, they would throw beer glasses at you. Firm but fair. And, if you died on stage with good reason, when you went off, Malcolm would say: Well, he was shit, wasn’t he? or That was shit, wasn’t it, but I’d fuck her.”
“He let the acts do what they did,” my friend said. “He was secure in his own world, because he lived and worked in the area he came from, so he was very secure. He was amongst people he had grown up with.”
“He half-joked he didn’t like going north of the River Thames,” I said. “and that was partly true because, when he opened a comedy club at Harlesden in north west London, he didn’t really have very much interest in it because it took a bit of time to travel up there and people didn’t know who he was.
“He said to me once that he liked being in Greenwich because he was a big fish in a small pond. He liked being recognised in the street. I once asked him why he was so attractive to women and he said: Because, to them, I’m a celebrity here. No-one knows who I am in Huddersfield but, in Greenwich, I’m a local showbiz celebrity.”
“But,” Lewis asked me, “what was he thinking when he peed at the back of the stage when someone was performing and the audience saw him and laughed but the act did not see him? That’s so disrespectful to an act.”
“It was like he was at home,” my friend said. “He felt at home. He felt so comfortable, he could say and do anything. He was…”
“But he urinated on the wall…” Lewis interrupted.
“He probably just thought,” I suggested, “I need a piss and it’s going to get a laugh. It’s as simple as that.”
The definitive Malcolm story, I think, is this one which Australian comic Matthew Hardy posted on the web page I set up after Malcolm died.
He took my visiting elderly parents out in his boat. Goes up the Thames and on the right was some kind of rusted ship, pumping a powerful arc of bilgewater out of its hull, through a kind of high porthole, which saw the water arc across the river over fifty foot.
I’m on the front of the boat as Malcolm veers toward the arc and I assume he’s gonna go under it, between the ship and where the arc curves downward toward the river itself. For a laugh.
Just as I turn back to say “Lookout, we’re gonna get hit by the filthy fucking water” – the filthy fucking water almost knocked my head off my shoulders and me off the boat. I looked back to see it hit Malcolm as he steered, then my Mum and then Dad.
I wanted to hit him, and my Dad said afterwards that he did too, but we were both unable to comprehend or calculate what had actually happened. Malcolm’s decision was beyond any previously known social conduct. He must have simply had the idea and acted upon it. Anarchy.
We laugh… NOW!”.
“Malcolm could have killed them and himself,” I told Lewis Schaffer. “The only reason he did it was because he knew it would get a laugh when it was told as a story later. He would do something because he thought, Oy Oy. That’ll get a laugh; I’ll do it, and just not care about the consequences.”
“People can’t help but admire that sort of thing,” my friend said. “They wish they could do it themselves.”
“They admired Malcolm’s balls,” I said.
“Literally and figuratively,” my friend said.
What I wrote about Malcolm at the time of his death was:
Malcolm successfully turned himself into a South London Jack The Lad but the real Malcolm was and remained entirely different – a highly intelligent, rather shy, gentle and – despite his borrowing habits and forgetfulness – an enormously generous man.
People ask why women were so astonishingly attracted to him. I think it was because they discovered that, underneath the “Fuck it! Don’t give a shit!” exterior, he was a gentle schoolboy who just had a love of pranks, wheezes and escapades.
He was much loved by everyone who knew him well.
I remember being in his living room one afternoon. For no reason, he suddenly pulled a real goldfish from its bowl and put it in his mouth so its little orange tail was flip-flopping between his lips. Not a piece of carrot. A real goldfish. He looked at me for approval through his spectacles with wide-open, innocent eyes.
At this point, coincidentally, his wife Jane came into the room, looked at his mouth and said casually, “Oh no,” then, more reprovingly, “Not again, Malcolm.”
He looked rather embarrassed, as if caught with his trousers down.
The irony, of course, is that with his trousers down he was never embarrassed.