Tomorrow is the eighth anniversary of the death of comedian Malcolm Hardee – he drowned in a dock in London’s Rotherhithe in 2005.
When he died, Time Out wrote that he was “one of the great characters in the comedy business…his scams, scrapes and escapades will be talked about for years to come.” And they have been. The many stories about him have become legendary, sometimes confused and embellished upon. As the saying goes When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
In his many newspaper obituaries and since then, many stories were re-hashed from his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, which I wrote with him. So I know that a few of these re-hashed true stories, even though they were taken from an original, first-hand source, were mangled and embellished upon in the re-telling. And now, because the embellished versions were printed in reputable newspapers, they have become fact. History is whatever is written down.
Malcolm was part of Martin Soan’s Greatest Show on Legs troupe. Martin and his wife Vivienne Soan knew Malcolm well and one or both of them were around when many of the stories actually happened. I was round at their home a few days ago and Martin was telling me the full ‘Service Station’ story which does not appear in Malcolm’s autobiography. I had heard the story before – first from Malcolm – but never in detail before.
It all happened after a comedy gig at Cheltenham Town Hall when The Greatest Show on Legs – Malcolm Hardee, Martin Soan and Steve Bowditch – were travelling back to London in Malcolm’s dodgy car of the time… a second-hand London black taxi cab with a noisy engine.
“So we left the gig in Cheltenham,” Martin told me. “It was a taxi, so the back half was a sectioned-off compartment for the passengers. Malcolm was driving, Bowditch was in the front with Malcolm… and I was lying down in the back, trying to get some sleep.
“After a roundabout on an ‘A’ road just before Oxford, we pulled in to a small service station. I got up and said to Malcolm: I’m going for a piss, which I did – in a building separated from the main building. Meanwhile, Malcolm got out, filled the cab up with diesel, paid for it and I heard the throb of the taxi starting up.
“I thought, No… and it did flash through my mind… all those times that we threatened to leave each other at motorway services… I’d left my jacket, my money, everything in the taxi cab… and then I heard it move off.”
“This was in the day before mobile phones?” I asked.
“No,” said Martin, “There were mobile phones. Malcolm had his very first mobile phone. But I didn’t have one.
“When Malcolm and Steve shot off, I was running after them, waving my arms in the air. Then I heard them going round the roundabout and I saw Malcolm’s face only about a metre from me as I waved my arms. I was shouting Malcolm! Malcolm! Malcolm!, but he didn’t see or hear me.
“I couldn’t believe it. They shot off. I was in a shirt and it was mid-winter, around one o’clock in the morning. So I went back into the Services – it was just one of these small A-road ones – and said Is there a phone? Is there a phone!
“I got on the phone, rang Malcolm’s mobile and he told me later it had rung, but the battery went dead. So I rang up Vivienne, explained what had happened and she said Oh God-God-God-God! So then I was cold and I didn’t know what to do, so I started hitching.
“Later, Vivienne told me she was sitting at home (in Nunhead/Peckham in South East London) when the taxi cab pulled up outside our house. Malcolm got out of the cab, opened the back door and realised I wasn’t in there. Apparently he said to Steve in a calm voice: Martin’s not there.
“So Malcolm closed the door and Vivienne presumed he was going to knock on the door and say: We haven’t got Martin. But he gets back into the taxi and starts shooting off. Vivienne then runs downstairs and runs along the road after the cab shouting Stop! Stop! Stop! – This is now about three o’clock in the morning.
“She said: Where’s Martin?
“Malcolm mumbled: Dunno.
“Coincidentally, at this point, I ring up our house’s landline, Vivienne hears it, rushes back in and I say I’m cold! I’m cold! I’m very cold! How am I going to get back to London? and she says It’s alright, I’ve got Malcolm here.
“I’d got no money, no coat; I was just in my shirt and trousers. And Malcolm says on the phone to me: It’s alright. I won’t charge you for half the petrol.
“He was speaking to me from inside my house, where I should have been!
“I got home about 9.00am or 9.30am in the morning. I got to Oxford Circus in the West End, then walked home to Peckham.”
At this point, Martin’s wife Vivienne came into the room where we were talking and realised which Malcolm incident we had been talking about.
“I always thought,” I said to her, “that they’d driven maybe ten minutes down the road, realised Martin wasn’t there in the cab, turned round and gone back to collect him. I didn’t realise he’d had to make his own way home.”
“I heard the taxi pull up outside the house,” Vivienne told me. “I saw Malcolm open the taxi’s door, so I came downstairs to open the front door of our house for Martin and left the door on the latch for him, then went back upstairs and, through the window, saw the taxi drive off and thought Where’s Martin? I went downstairs again. Nothing. Nobody. Malcolm had just driven off.”
“No,” said Martin, “I remember I spoke to Malcolm when he was inside the house.”
“I think he just went off,” said Vivienne.
“Oh no,” said Martin. “Is this me inventing part of a Malcolm story? Jesus!”
“I don’t,” said Vivienne, “I don’t think he even bothered to…”
“But he did turn up here,” interrupted Malcolm.
“He did turn up here,” confirmed Vivienne. “He thought you were in the back of the taxi.”
“But,” said Martin, “I talked to Malcolm on the phone in this house. On my life. I could not write a punchline like that. He said, It’s alright. I won’t charge you for half the petrol. That’s what Malcolm said to me.”
“Wow!” said Vivienne. “All I remember is that you weren’t in the taxi. How did we get you home? Because Malcolm didn’t go back.”
“I got myself back by hitching,” said Martin.
“You were picked up by a maniac,” remembered Vivienne.
“Yes,” said Martin. “He was going so fast. He was coming back to London from Wales and he was tired and had been drinking. He was driving so fast like a lunatic and drifting off, dozing off, that I was actually holding the wheel for him as we were overtaking lorries. I was thinking At this rate, I’ll overtake Malcolm! He dropped me off at the start of a slip road onto the M25 motorway.
“And the top act at Cheltenham Town Hall that night had been?” Martin asked me.
“Jo Brand,” I guessed.
“Lee Evans,” said Martin.
“When he was a relative unknown?” I asked.
“No, it wasn’t Lee Evans, actually,” said Martin, correcting himself. “No, it definitely wasn’t Lee Evans because, the time we did Lee Evans, he gave us a lift there, so,” he laughed, “It was probably us!”
Even with vivid, ‘unforgettable’ stories, people do forget and, over time, memories differ.
I can barely – and often don’t – remember what I did yesterday.
In this story, it is only a final detail that is uncertain. The agreed near-unbelievable story itself is true. But with Malcolm Hardee, even more than most, the rule-of-thumb should always be: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
It is what Malcolm would have wanted.