I saw Harry Hill perform at Monkey Business last night.
Martin Besserman’s Monkey Business comedy club has been running in London since 2002. At the moment, it runs Thursdays and Saturdays in Kentish Town with other occasional forays – this week, they staged the special Harry Hill show at Camden Lock. It is not the first time Harry Hill has appeared for Monkey Business.
“You get big names,” I said to Martin Besserman.
“We have a relationship,” he told me. “I have known Harry for many, many years. When I used to work in the market, he was always inquisitive about that. He is a decent, genuine guy. I think performing at Monkey Business takes him back to his roots. I’ve got Bill Oddie coming to Monkey Business on 20th May, because it’s for a charity he believes in – Angels For The Innocent. He’s going to host the show.
“Bill and I come from very different backgrounds, but what we share in common, incredibly enough, is that many many years ago, we had the same girlfriend – not at the same time. It wasn’t a threesome. I was eighteen. I was her next boyfriend after Bill Oddie. Some things stick in your mind.”
“You were telling me,” I said, “that you thought you might have had a reputation for being sexist as a comedy club MC, but that you have reformed yourself.”
“I don’t think it’s a matter of reforming myself,” Martin replied, “because I don’t believe I was ever sexist. People love to gossip, often to disguise issues they are dealing with themselves – and the easiest way of doing that is to criticise other people. It’s very unfair because I think that, over the years, I’ve been very supportive of some of the individuals who are now troublemakers and manipulative gossipers. There’s no credibility whatever in anything they’ve said. I can be clumsy on stage – I admit that – but I have addressed it and I think I am getting better. People are telling me I am getting funnier.”
“What,” I asked, “does ‘clumsy’ mean in this context?”
“Well,” said Martin, “maybe not being aware of the consequences of being spontaneous. But, for some people, there’s a certain charm in that. Obviously, some people will get hurt when you make business decisions that are not in their favour.”
“You mean,” I asked, “if you see their act then don’t book them a second time?”
“Yes and they have their own interpretation. At the end of the day, everybody likes to feel that they are special and their contribution to comedy is appreciated. So, if a promoter gives them the elbow or doesn’t give them the welcoming warmth they feel they deserve, then sometimes some of them get bitter. That can happen. But the amount of female acts that perform at my club is greater than at most other clubs. I try to be fair, both with the sexes and also I try to make it multi-cultural.
“There are a lot of good, funny female acts and there are a lot of good, for example, Asian acts. There’s a new-ish act called Hari Sriskantha who was so impressive that I put him on with Harry Hill this week and I’ve also got him on at the Amnesty gig.”
“That,” I said, “is The Secret Policeman’s Ball gig you are programming on 6th June.”
“Yes. I think it’s the first time Durham University have done it. Interestingly, there were some people who criticised me for getting involved with Amnesty. Some Jewish people who said: Mmmm… Amnesty doesn’t like the Jews.
“I am sympathetic to the Palestinian people but, as a Jewish person, I’m equally sympathetic to the Jews. My father was a Holocaust survivor. I don’t think it matters what side of the fence you are on – the objectives are identical. You want peace. You want people to love each other. Both sides have done wrong things and it would be hypocritical to not be aware of that.
“All I know is my father was 14 or 15 years old and he saw his father being led to the gas chambers in 1945. About three weeks ago, I saw a photograph I’d never seen before of my father, just as he came out of the camp with his name: Maurice Besserman. The idea was that newspapers would have photographs in case any of the relatives would recognise any of the people who had survived.”
“What did he do after the War?” I asked.
“He was a very good auctioneer in the market.”
“And you helped him?”
“Yeah. I never really knew what my vocation was going to be. I was very confused. We were poor, so I never had an academic education, but I was inquisitive and intelligent and quite wise to the world.”
“And you said Harry Hill was interested in your work at the market?”
“Well, he always used to ask me about it.”
“This was when he was a doctor?”
“No. When he had become a performer. He used to ask me about the market where I worked, in East Street, near Elephant and Castle.”
“He knew you before you went into comedy?”
“No. The market was subsidising comedy up to about six years ago. I was there for years. It was a fantastic business. I made a lot more money out of the market than I did out of comedy, though eventually comedy was subsidising the market because that market – like all the markets in London – got competition from the pound shops and changing cultures and bureaucracy from local councils and went into decline.”
“What were you selling?” I asked.
“Initially jewellery,” said Martin. “Then I incorporated vibrators.”
“Do they have the same buyers?” I asked.
“I was younger then,” said Martin, “I was selling loads of vibrators until the market inspector closed me down. He said: You cannot sell sex tools in a market. I told him: It’s not a sex tool. It’s a massager. He said: No, my wife’s got one of those. Those were his exact words. I don’t think that would happen today.”
“Are you still speaking at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park?” I asked. He has been speaking there since 1978.
“It’s not as good as it used to be,” he replied. “The great characters and the great speakers have been replaced with a lot of religious fanaticism. I used to go there as a poet. I’ve been speaking since I was 16. My message now is Make Love Not War. In itself, it’s not controversial but, then, everybody else is talking about segregation, about how great their religion is. There tells to be a little bit of an aggressive theme there now.”
“What was it like before?” I asked.
“There were a lot of eccentrics. Years ago, even the religious speakers were loveable eccentrics. They put on a show. That, unfortunately, is not the atmosphere now. But it’s still a place where you can get up on a platform and express whatever you think is fundamentally right or wrong with the world and nothing will happen to you. Of course, there have been isolated fights there, but you won’t be arrested for speaking against the monarchy or whatever. That’s a freedom that should never be trivialised. This Sunday, a film crew want to include me in some filming there.”
“What’s it about?”
“I don’t know. It’s definitely about comedy and it’s written by a Danish guy. They sent me a script. I don’t think I have to say too much, but they tell me it’s very important… and they’re going to have the Monkey Business logo in the background…”
On YouTube, there is a 2-minute news report of young Martin Besserman at Speaker’s Corner in 1985.