(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)
So, yesterday I was sitting in South Mimms service station on the M25 motorway talking to comedian and actor Ricky Grover about Malcolm Hardee, ‘the godfather of British alternative comedy’.
“Every day I spent out with Malcolm,” said Ricky, “there were always two or three near-death experiences. And that’s not an exaggeration.”
“I know,” I laughed. “I went out on the Thames with him on his boat twice. We could have died both times.”
“That was just part and parcel of Malcolm,” laughed Ricky. “Do you know we once broke into a zoo?”
“Years ago,” Ricky said, “I bought a new car. I was really pleased. It was the first brand-new car I’d ever bought. A Toyota RAV4. I drove round and showed Malcolm and he said: Oy Oy That’s alright, innit? My mum wants to learn to drive. Would you teach her to drive?
“So I said: Course I will. When do you wanna go?
“Now, he said. So this first day of getting my car, we drove to Deal on the Kent coast, where Malcolm’s mum lived.
“When he’d said ‘learn to drive’ I’d thought he’d meant she’d had a few lessons. But she was brand spanking new to it – like she went to get into the passenger side.
“This was a new car. You know what it’s like when you get a new car? You’re worried it’s gonna scratch and all that. All that went out the window. I didn’t care. I thought Oh. It’s Malcolm. I’ll just go with the flow. By the end, we was missing things by inches, going down weird alleys and things.
“So I drop his mum back home and, on the way back to London from Deal, Malcolm asked: Do you wanna go to the zoo? Right out of the blue, as Malcolm did.
“I said: Yeah, alright.
“He says: It’s not a normal zoo. This bloke let’s all the animals walk about free and you can stroke them…”
“John Aspinall?” I asked. “He had an animal park near Canterbury.”
“I dunno,” replied Ricky, “but we go to the zoo and it’s closed, so I said: Oh, that’s a shame! And Malcolm says: Don’t matter. It’s alright. He took his coat off, threw it over the barbed wire at the top, climbed over and let me in through the turnstiles. He said: It’ll be alright, I know the bloke who owns the place. He didn’t – obviously.
“So we start walking through the middle of this zoo and, after a few minutes, it hit me again what he’d said: It’s not a normal zoo. It’s a zoo where the animals just walk about. And Malcolm had that ridiculous walk. He looked like an animal himself, didn’t he? He was like a smaller version of a Bigfoot. You remember he had that weird walk?
“So I thought: If them animals see us, he’ll be alright. Because Malcolm didn’t give a fuck about anything. I thought: If an animal sees us, Malcolm’s gonna be alright and the animal’s gonna be on me.”
“Because,” I said, “Malcolm wouldn’t be scared but you would be?”
“Not only that,” said Ricky, “but because I’m the lumpy one. More flesh. More meat. I’m a better deal. They’ll get a good couple of days of eating out of me. They’d only get a half hour out of Malcolm.
“I’m walking through there and me arsehole went a little bit and then Malcolm shouted Oy! Oy! – I jumped out of me skin but I’m trying to act brave. And Malcolm’s seen a silverback gorilla, hasn’t he? A great big silverback. And he says Oy Oy to it, calls it over and shook hands with the silverback and the gorilla’s hand must have been five times bigger that Malcolm’s. It only had to give a jerk and it’d pull Malcolm’s arm right off his body.
“Oy Oy… Oy Oy goes Malcolm, like he’s saying Hello to it and he says Come over! Come over! to me.
“So I go over and I think I don’t really fancy shaking hands with a silverback gorilla. You can’t reason with a silverback – it ain’t gonna make no difference.
“So I say: No, it’s alright, Malcolm. I’m alright for a minute.
“And I look round and I think: What the fuck am I doing? I’m in the middle of a zoo almost shaking hands with a silverback gorilla. And I started stepping out, trying to walk towards the exit. And I could hear all these growls in the bushes.
“Anyway, I got out and we managed to get home. But that was just an average day with Malcolm. When I got my car home, it looked like it had been to Afghanistan, because Malcolm’s mum had been driving it. It was splattered with mud and scratches. Typical Malcolm. It was a white car.
“My wife Maria looked at it and went: What’s happened?
“I’ve just been out with Malcolm, I told her.
“Oh, she said.
“What I loved about Malcolm was he had funny bones. There are gonna be so many people at the Edinburgh Fringe this year – like always – really working at becoming funny. With Malcolm, he started off funny and ended up being on the stage rather than getting on the stage and trying to be funny.”
“As soon as I met him,” Ricky told me, “I clicked with him and the reason was he wasn’t like a normal person. Normal people drive me fucking mad. Not many people got much out of Malcolm except Oy Oy. But I think Malcolm opened up to me a bit. He told me things I’d never say that were quite deep. He had a really lovely genuineness about him.”
“Everybody,” I said, “tended to say Malcolm’s act was his life.”
“His act was shit, wasn’t it?” said Ricky. “His actual act was shit, but he was SO funny.”
“Well,” I said, “he only had about six jokes which he told for about twenty years.”
“I went to the Edinburgh Fringe with him,” said Ricky, “when I’d been doing comedy about six months and the shows were really badly organised – obviously. No advertising. Just giving out flyers to anyone in the street, so most of our audience was foreign. They didn’t have a clue what we was talking about. They were just sitting there staring at us.
“It must have been the worst show on the Fringe. It was Malcolm, me and The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper and the show climaxed with the Dam Busters theme music playing and us standing there in black bin-liners, back-to-back, going round in circles holding little wooden planes on sticks. The planes were painted with ultra violet paint, but it wasn’t totally dark and the audience could see us: just sixteen foreigners who didn’t speak English staring at us performing with ultra violet planes not in the dark.
“It was just shit and, after we’d done about three shows, I told him: Malcolm, I don’t think I want to do comedy. I’ve tried it and I think I’ll go back to doing what I was doing before, just messing about. I can nick a living. This alternative comedy thing isn’t really for me.
“Malcolm said: Listen to me. I’ve spotted some of the biggest talent in this country. And he rolled off all these names. Jo Brand, Lee Evans, Paul Merton… all the names. He said: I was the one who spotted them. I was the one who found them. I was the one who told people about them.
“And he said to me: You’ve got something a lot more special. You’ve got a lot more layers. You’ve got a lot more gears. You are going to be absolutely massive.
“So I was really enthralled in the moment. Can you imagine? A young comic, six months in. And I said Do you really mean that? and he said No. Of course I don’t.
“And I pissed myself for about twenty minutes. I couldn’t stop laughing and I still laugh about it now. And whenever I start taking myself seriously, I always think of that because it brings it all down to earth.
“I remember telling Jo Brand about it and she really laughed. Because what happens is you can get so wrapped-up in the importance of it all and what you think you can achieve but no-one knows. No-one knows what will happen.
“You know and I know there are shit people who make it massive and there’s people we both know who should have their own series on telly who never get the chance. Like everything else in this world, most of it is all corrupt. It’s not how it should be. So I think you’ve got to just enjoy the journey. Enjoy what you’re doing the best way you can – and that’s what Malcolm did. It was such a laugh being with Malcolm.
“When you said he only had half a dozen jokes, when we went to Edinburgh, he was already twenty years into doing them. There was a group of firemen used to come and watch him in Edinburgh – and, every year, they used to piss themselves like it was the first time they’d ever heard the jokes.
“It wasn’t about the jokes. The Number One thing you need to be funny is insecurity. As soon as you think you’ve got something, you’re in trouble. And Malcolm was full of all of that. I’ve seen him have a pop at someone in the audience with cancer and bring the house down and make the geezer with cancer piss himself laughing and feel like a person again instead of an object who’s dying.
“Malcolm had a real good connection with people.
“One thing I’m sad about, though,” said Ricky, “is that I gave Malcolm a wide berth the last couple of years of his life. I still saw him, but I didn’t spend time with him like I used to, because I’ve got an addictive nature, so if…”
“He was on cocaine…” I said.
“Exactly,” said Ricky. “So, if I’d ended up on gear, I wouldn’t have been able to function. It’s hard enough living with the addiction of over-eating, let alone getting into all that as well. Because he went that next step. He didn’t want to make old bones. I think Malcolm went pretty much when he… He knew he was going to go over early…”
Malcolm drowned, drunk, in January 2005.
So it goes.