The Edinburgh Freestival comedian whose relative pulled cunning stunts involving Virginia Woolf and bottoms

Al Cowie, not aristocrat, but part of hydra-headed Freestival

Al Cowie, not aristocrat, but part of hydra-headed Freestival

Yesterday, my blog was about the new Freestival events at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Comedian Dan Adams was one of the four-headed hydra who explained to me what was planned but seemed to take a lot of interest in the highly coveted annual Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

It is for the best cunning stunt publicising a show or act at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Before we chatted, fellow Freestival hydra-head Sean Brightman had talked with me about the Cunning Stunt award too – and how funny it would be if the whole long genesis of the Freestival with its well-publicised bust-ups with the Free Fringe were simply the most complicated ever publicity stunt for a clutch of shows in an attempt to win the highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

Of course, the Freestival is not a cunning stunt.

It is real…

I think.

On the other hand, if I were trying to get a cheap blog out of this, I might bring up the interesting background of another of the Freestival’s hydra-heads, comedian Al Cowie.

“So you’re an aristocrat,” I said to him after my blog chat with the Freestival Four.

“No,” said Al. “I’m the smell left behind after the aristocrats have left the room. I have the accent but none of the cash.

Horace Cole was my grandmother’s cousin. He was the ultimate Cunning Stunter. He was peripheral to the Bloomsbury Set and he did the Dreadnought hoax. He hired a train to go down to HMS Dreadnought in Weymouth. He said he was a member of the Foreign Office and went there with other members of the Bloomsbury Set, all dressed up as Abyssinian royalty. Virginia Woolf was the Crown Prince of Abyssinia.”

The Abyssinians  - Virginia Woolf is on extreme left in beard

The Abyssinians – Virginia Woolf is on extreme left in a beard and Horace de Vere Cole is on the extreme right in a top hat

Cole went to Paddington station in London, claimed that he was ‘Herbert Cholmondeley’ of the Foreign Office and demanded a special train to Weymouth.

The stationmaster arranged a VIP coach.

In Weymouth, the Navy welcomed the Abyssinian princes with an honour guard but could not find an Abyssinian flag. So they flew the flag of Zanzibar and played Zanzibar’s national anthem.

The group inspected the fleet, had their own translator and talked in gibberish drawn from Latin and Greek.

“When the Navy found out…” said Al.

“How did they find out?” I asked.

“Because Horace Cole went and reported it to The Times, who would not print a photo, and the Daily Mirror, who did… When the Navy found out, they sent two young subalterns up to Cambridge to give him a good caning…”

“Literally?” I asked.

“Yeah. But they didn’t catch him. There’s been a book written about it: The Sultan of Zanzibar.”

The book about Horace Cole’s hoaxes

The book about Horace Cole’s hoaxes

“Did he do the party stunt with the bottoms?” I asked.

“Yes,” said. Al. “He organised a white-tie party and invited lots of people whose only connection with each other was that they had the word ‘bottom’ in their name and he had a man at the top of the stairs at the party announcing the arrivals as they walked down the stairs:

Mr and Mrs Bottomley… Mrs & Mrs Ramsbottom… and, because he didn’t have ‘bottom’ in his surname, he didn’t turn up.”

“Oh,” I said, “I hadn’t heard the bit about the announcing of the names. I read that all these people, none of whom knew each other, were invited to this party without any explanation of why and it was only after everyone started talking to each other that they eventually worked out it was a vast practical joke and why they had all been invited.”

“All of these stories.” said Al, “have been told to me and I don’t know which the accurate ones are. One of the best is that he bought out the entire first night – every seat – of a stage show in the West End of London and then gave the tickets out to various people with carefully allocated seating so that, when the lights went up, if you were looking down on the stalls from the circle, all the bald heads in the audience read out a rude word. But I’m not sure what the word was.”

“It must have cost a fortune,” I said.

“Yes,” said Al. “He wasted his entire fortune on practical jokes… He dug up Piccadilly. He got his mates dressed up in workmens’ clothing and they went and dug a trench all the way across Piccadilly. There was a policeman there, so they hauled him in to divert the traffic while they did it.

“When they had dug a trench all the way across Piccadilly, they went into The Ritz and just watched the chaos which ensued. It took London about four days to work out what on earth had gone wrong.

“Then, a few weeks later, he went up to a bunch of real workmen who were digging up the road and said: Look, I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but a group of my friends have dressed up as policemen and they’re going to try to stop you digging up the road.

“He then went up to a group of policemen and said: Look, I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but a group of my friends have dressed up as workmen and they’re digging up the road.

“And then he left them to it.

“He was a fascinating character,” said Al. “Winston Churchill described him as a man who was dangerous to have as a friend. His sister married Neville Chamberlain. But, when he died, no-one turned up to his funeral because they thought it was a practical joke.”

Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936) died in poverty in France.

So it goes.

The winner of the highly coveted 2014 Cunning Stunt Award will be announced during the Highly Coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show on 22nd August in Edinburgh.

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Eccentrics, Hoaxes, Humor, Humour

2 responses to “The Edinburgh Freestival comedian whose relative pulled cunning stunts involving Virginia Woolf and bottoms

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