The annual Malcolm Hardee Awards are given to individuals.
At the Edinburgh Fringe last month, Michael Brunström won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality. His show was titled The Golden Age of Steam and, this week, he performed it at the Museum of Comedy in London – which was arranged after he won the award.
“So,” I said to him, “since you won the Malcolm Hardee Award, your life has just been one long round of parties, champagne and job offers?”
“It’s more of an ego boost, really,” he told me. “It’s very hard to measure success. It seems like I’ve got a few interesting gigs gravitating towards me.”
“Where,” I asked, “do you keep your award?”
“On my bookshelf.”
“Do you think you can build on it?” I asked. “The award, not the bookshelf.”
“It’s all ballyhoo. It’s all nonsense,” said Michael. “But enough of it builds up a certain presence. The important thing, while still taking yourself seriously, is not to believe the ballyhoo. People have come out of the blue with unusual offers, but I can’t discuss them.”
“Because,” he laughed, “they’re the kinds of things that fall through.”
“I was sad,” I told him, “that your 1960s-clothes-desiger-Mary-Quant-on-a-whaling-expedition-to-Antarctica routine didn’t end up in your Golden Age of Steam.”
“It might end up in something else,” he told me.
“Was she really speaking in a slight German accent,” I asked, “or did I hallucinate that?”
“I can’t do accents,” Michael told me. “I’m doing Noel Edmonds on Monday at Cabarera. I ordered myself a beard today. I can’t grow one by Monday.”
“You’re quite shy,” I said, “so it’s surprising you do audience involvement as much as you did in Edinburgh.”
“Well,” explained Michael, “it’s good to do things you’re afraid of. It’s good to stretch yourself. I am not a natural showman. Maybe that’s what makes it funny. I don’t regard myself as a natural chatty, confident compere type – so that’s why I want to do more of that.”
“What do you want to be doing in three years time?” I asked. “At the Edinburgh Fringe, people tend to succeed well with autobiographical theme shows: My ten years of heroin hell or whatever.”
“Perhaps in three years time I will do an autobiographical show. I don’t have the guts to do that yet.”
“Where were you brought up?”
“Oh dear,” I said. “That’s dull. And I suppose you had a happy childhood? That’s death for comedy.”
“I don’t think I did have a happy childhood,” said Michael. “But I think it was unhappy in a rather dull and complex and un-theatrical way. I had a difficult, unhappy, Liverpudlian father who used sarcasm as a defence mechanism.”
“Sarcasm is never good in a father,” I said. “It was sarcasm, not irony?”
“I think the distinction was not something he would be prepared to pick apart.”
“What was his job?”
“He was a management consultant.”
“Oh dear,” I said, “That’s dull. What was your mother?”
“A laboratory assistant. She worked in a hospital, but spent most of her time looking after her four boys. I’m the youngest of four.”
“What are the others now?”
“One is a doctor of English Literature at St Patrick’s College in Dublin. One is a social worker in Brighton. And the other one is a professor of Psychology at Bristol University. I am the least accomplished of the four.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” I disagreed. “You’re an editor at a serious publisher…You should surely be writing books yourself.”
“I don’t find writing easy.”
“You think of yourself more as a performer than a writer?”
“I’ve never been a writer.”
It was at this point I remembered Ken Campbell. I have a shit memory. I had forgotten that, in my first blog chat with Michael in May last year, he mentioned working with Ken Campbell, the éminence grise of UK alternative comedy. Michael recently wrote a blog about Ken’s influence on him.
“What’s the attraction of surrealism?” I asked Michael.
“I think” he replied, “that audiences like to be bemused, surprised and shocked. In live performance, the audience doesn’t want to be experiencing it inside their heads. They want to experience the thing that’s happening immediately there in front of them.
“The way I like to explain it is that, if you go to a chess match, you don’t go there to watch what’s happening, you go there to think in your own head what could happen and experience your own understanding of what’s going on.
“In a live performance, it’s not that. The audience is there to watch what is happening. I don’t think my stuff would work on radio. It’s very visual. But, in the same way I try to do lots of audience interaction because I’m not very naturally good at it, I want to do audio stuff because…”
“Well,” I foolishly interrupted, “any sensible producer goes for the person then develops the most suitable material. It’s the person that’s important.”
“I want,” continued Michael, “to make some little podcasty audio things to put out there.”
“Have you played around with sound?” I asked.
“I used to when I was a kid,” he told me. “Me and my mate Robert used to make spoof radio shows together on an old cassette player. Introduce songs and interviews. That sort of thing. I haven’t done it in the last 30 years. Doing it in audio is the constraint.”
“You like constraints?” I asked.
“Yes. The constraint for The Golden Age of Steam was that I wanted to do a show without any food in it.”
“Is that a constraint?” I asked. “Surely lots of shows have no food in them. Macbeth, for example… Oh, no! There’s the banquet!”
“It’s the go-to thing with alternative comics,” explained Michael. “They always mention or have food in their shows. It’s not easy to do a show with no food. I didn’t even succeed. It had two cans of Lilt in it.”
“Strictly speaking,” I said, “a can of Lilt is not food. Maybe next year you should do a show with no mention or presence of liquids.”
“That’s very difficult,” said Michael. “because liquids are comedy gold.
“Mmmm…” I contemplated. “No pissing jokes. No sweating jokes.”
“How,” asked Michael, “Can you do a show without sweating?”
“No sneezing,” I said.
“Audiences love liquids,” said Michael. “It’s like when there’s a gun on stage. They pay attention when there is liquid on stage.”
“You should maybe do a show with a gun but no liquids,” I suggested.
“It’s on my list,” admitted Michael. “My current plan is to write a one-hour show with the theme of an art history lecture. Maybe take a painting and extrapolate from that like Peter Greenaway does.”
“Why art?” I asked.
“I think you need a strong visual image. Maybe The Garden of Earthly Delights or something like that.”