There is a report in The Scotsman today which starts: “Theatres across Scotland have had their best winter for years as families flock back to the panto to raise morale and spread Christmas cheer during a time of economic crisis.”
Who knows whether a Recession is good or bad for showbiz in general and comedy in particular? Hollywood movies and Busby Berkeley escapism prospered in the 1930s.
I was chatting to performer Martin Soan recently.
With his wife Vivienne, he currently runs the Pull The Other One comedy clubs whose format is, basically, to book several bizarre variety acts and one token Big Name stand-up comic. It is an unusual formula and always interestingly different.
But Martin is also renowned for his Greatest Show on Legs comedy troupe, which included British comedy godfather Malcolm Hardee. Their main claim to fame was the naked Balloon Dance which they performed on Chris Tarrant’s OTT TV show in 1982. Once seen, never forgotten.
The Greatest Show on Legs’ surreal and anarchic comedy survived the last big Recession and also the rise of straight-faced political comedy in the 1980s. I asked Martin how The Greatest Show on Legs prospered and survived changing comedy tastes until Malcolm Hardee’s death in 2005.
This is what he told me:
What happened in the 1980s with Thatcher was that just everybody jumped on the political bandwagon. Even with The Greatest Show on Legs, we used Margaret Thatcher posters instead of balloons at one point. If you ripped the mouth out, you could just stick your knob though it and get a big laugh. It was hardly political satire: it was a visual knob gag.
In the 1980s, a lot of comics were derisory – to say the least – about The Greatest Show on Legs. But the good guys found us funny. The bad guys said things like: “Your style of comedy is dead. It’s now all about stand-up gags and politics. You look so silly. Stupid. Why are you doing this?”
It was depressing for a bit because people coming up to you and saying those things can knock your confidence a little bit. But we had no capability or talent to change in any way whatsoever, so we stuck to our guns. We had no choice.
How did it turn round? Well, I don’t think you can keep stuff down, so we did start getting a little more complex in our ideas. We did start experimenting a bit more.
We had a Hands piece where we used Johann Strauss’s Radetzky March
We had a very ordinary, black proscenium arch with eight holes in it and black curtains so you couldn’t see the holes and then we choreographed a routine with white gloves. So, at the beginning of the show, the music starts and eight gloved hands appear and open and close and create this pattern. Doesn’t sound much but, for us, it felt like Oh God! We’re really going out on a comedy limb here.
Malcolm pushed it forward in terms of business and I was forever trying to push it forward in terms of the creative side. But, of course, Malcolm was a genius. He’d just say one phrase and then I would go away, envisage it all and choreograph it all.
The classic example of that was the Red Sparrows routine. He said:
“Oy Oy. Instead of the Red Arrows, we do the Red Sparrows.”
Just from that one phrase – the Red Sparrows – I go away, make all the sparrows on sticks, choreograph it, get the music, turn up and try to do a bit of rehearsal.
“I ain’t fucking doing a rehearsal,” Malcolm says.
“Oh, come on, look Malcolm,” I say, “I’ve made all this fucking gear. At least put five minutes in before we go on stage.”
“Well,” he says, “I wasn’t expecting this. Having to rehearse!”
With some other ideas I suggested to Malcolm, he said: “Nah. It’s too artistic.”
Once, I said: “I’ve got a great one about voodoo, Malcolm. You come on and you talk about voodoo and you say I’ve got a voodoo doll here this evening and you hold this doll up and it’s got a very specific costume and, as soon as you bring it up in front of the microphone, I pop out from downstage in this same very specific costume that’s on this voodoo doll. You lift the arm up; I do exactly the same. I just mirror whatever you do with this doll. And then you say Voodoo? It’s a load of old bollocks! throw the doll over your shoulder and I do a back flip.
“That,” he said, “is much too poncey and artistic.”
I suppose a combination of Malcolm and the Balloon Dance created a whole image that we were just a load of old Joe Soaps going around.
I was always a little disappointed, because I wanted to work harder. Malcolm was always content with being a bit of a minor celebrity, owning a club and going around doing our Balloon Dance and Michael Jackson’s Thriller routines. I wanted to push it forward. But we got the reputation of just being a load of drinking men getting up and taking our clothes off.
There was an element of that, of course.
But, if you ‘do’ surreal and anarchic, you have to be disciplined if you want to reproduce that on stage time-and-time-and-time again. You have to think things through, work out how ridiculous props can be fitted-into small spaces and all the rest of it. It’s discipline.
If you get more than one person doing the same thing at the same time to a bit of music, it’s always impressive.
I would say I am a performance artist with a sense of humour.
It’s well-on-the-cards now that we are probably going from Recession into Depression. Even the optimistic forecast says it’s going to be five years before we get proper growth again.
So I reckon the way through for people like me is to do the cabaret/German type surreal comedy of the inter-War years where you are reflecting how people feel.