(A version of this was also published in the Huffington Post)
In my quest for a third Christmas with Malcolm Hardee story to titillate potential blog-readers, I spent yesterday afternoon at comedian Martin Soan’s home.
Martin was in The Greatest Show on Legs comedy troupe with Malcolm. They were best-known for their naked balloon dance on Chris Tarrant’s OTT TV show but, in fact, The Greatest Show on Legs was originally Martin’s solo act: a Punch & Judy show.
“I had a booth that went on my shoulders, hence the name Greatest Show on Legs,” he explains.
He started the act when he was 18 and it was not until he was 26 that he met Malcolm Hardee, at which point they teamed-up for two or three years with Martin continuing to perform the Punch & Judy show and Malcolm being the ‘interpreter’ outside the booth. It was when Malcolm came out of prison after his second ‘stretch’ that they decided to expand the act into more sketch-based comedy.
Yesterday, I got somewhat distracted in my search for a Christmas with Malcolm Hardee anecdote, because Martin Soan is a walking (or, yesterday, sitting) encyclopaedia of fascinating facts, with a daughter who is a big fan of the TV show QI.
Once you have been told that eating jelly will strengthen your finger nails and hard rock guitarists have been known to eat a lot of jelly to harden the nails on their plucking fingers, you tend to forget other things because you start to imagine leather-clad Heavy Metal hard-nuts gorging on wobbly desserts. It is not a comforting image.
And then the West Country Punch & Judy tours came up in conversation.
The Greatest Show on Legs used to perform in streets, on beaches and in pubs.
“Me and Malcolm were doing a show on Plymouth Hoe,” Martin told me, “and it was memorable for two things. One – an egg was thrown at us… and two – after the show where the egg was thrown at us – this rather attractive young lady came up to us and said: A friend of mine is doing a show at the Theatre Royal and has invited you along and here’s some tickets.
For anyone of a certain age, Harry Worth and the iconic opening title sequence of his TV show was the stuff of legend.
“At the end of the play,” Martin told me, “he came back on stage and did a little routine as his Harry Worth character – his TV show leg-lifting thing and everything.
“And, after that, the same rather attractive young lady comes up to us and asks, Would you like to join Harry Worth backstage? So Malcolm and I went and had a chat with him and he was a lovely, lovely gentleman.
“Would you like to come for a meal? he asked us.
“So we went to a local Indian restaurant and had a meal with Harry Worth. All polite conversation. It turned out the girl was his P.A. who went round with him. He had been at the show where the egg had been thrown at us and I guess he just felt sorry for us, so he sent his P.A. over to invite us to the theatre.”
Frankly, that is a meal I would have paid to see: the future kings of nude alternative comedy chatting with Harry Worth over a meal in an Indian restaurant in Plymouth
If you get an egg thrown at you in Plymouth, though, it does tend to mean you may have annoyed or outraged a section of the local populace. Which brings me to another odd fact Martin brought up yesterday afternoon.
“What’s the one thing that distinguishes Punch & Judy from every other type of light entertainment in Britain?” he asked.
“No idea.” I eventually replied.
“It has never been banned,” he said.
And this is true if you take the overview.
But Martin’s Greatest Show on Legs was specifically banned – from performing anywhere in the county of Cornwall.
The way Martin tells it, local street traders and retailers had complained about the GSOL show adversely affecting their business by distracting potential shoppers. “I think maybe they were jealous because of the attention we were getting,” he says.
And indeed, The Times ran a semi-outraged half-page article about Cornwall County Council banning a Punch & Judy show. Were councils, the article asked, getting too draconian and conservative?
The Greatest Show on Legs were banned from performing anywhere in the whole county of Cornwall. “But of course,” says Martin, “we still used to set up and do shows, because they couldn’t police the ban.”
And I have a sneaking suspicion the nature of the show might have influenced the Council’s decision as much as the jealousy of local traders. For one thing, it was not a children’s but an adult version of Punch & Judy which The Greatest Show on Legs performed – sometimes to local Hells Angels, more usually to the general adult public in streets, on beaches and in pubs.
“In the show,” admits Martin, “there were two innovative things that we developed. The first was that Albert Edward Harry, our crocodile, used to eat 25ft of sausages. The inside of the booth on my shoulders was stuffed full of sausages and I couldn’t wait to get the routine out-of-the-way so I could move. Malcolm used to go out into the audience and give the end of the sausages to any rather attractive girl, then Albert Edward would start eating the sausages and the woman would start getting nearer and nearer until I got her in the booth.
“The second innovation was that Malcolm used to sit in front of the booth reading a pornographic magazine and Mr Punch would read it over his shoulder and slowly get an erection and then get more and more excited – I used to build it up as long as I could – and eventually he would come over the audience and I would use my Swazzle for sound effects – the Swazzle is ideal for faking the sound of an orgasm – Oh ooh ooooh ooohaah oohhhhhhh! – and I’d up end by yelling out That’s the way to do it!”
Ah! Innocent days.
Innocent golden days.