Tag Archives: autobiography

David McGillivray’s autobiography: if you are in it, be afraid… be very afraid

David McGillivray has been described as “the Truffaut of smut” and (by Jonathan Ross) as “a comedy legend”.

He has appeared in this blog at various times – in 2015 touting Trouser Bar, his film of an allegedly hard-core alleged script by the late Sir John Gielgud… alleged, that is, by everyone except the worried guardians of the estate of Sir John Gielgud.

Lawyers’ letters, threats and phrases ensued.

In 2017, he was in this blog touting Doing Rude Things, a reissue of his book on dodgy soft-core porn films.

He has a bit of previous in touting.

When not anguished, people enjoyed the book launch party

When I arrived for this week’s launch of his autobiography Little Did You Know: The Confessions of David McGillivray, people who had already bought copies were feverishly skimming through the index to see if they were mentioned. 

“A huge amount of those people,” David told me, “will have wanted to check for libel. Some sighing with relief when they found they weren’t included.”

Comedian Julian Clary’s approved cover quote for the book is that it is “a meticulous account of a life so sordid I think each copy should come with a complimentary sanitary wipe”.

The book’s press-release says David McG’s autobiography was “eagerly-awaited”. I think it might equally be said its publication was “desperately feared”. I can do no better than quote from the possibly understated PR blurb:

McGillivray (left) and Clary in Chase Me Up Farndale Avenue, s’il vous plait in 1982 (Photograph from Little Did You Know)

“The grandson of an acrobat and briefly the UK’s youngest film critic, McGillivray wrote his first film when he was 23, then moved on to a succession of cheap shockers and skin flicks. After Prime Minister Thatcher dealt killer blows to the UK’s independent film industry, McGillivray found alternative employment in radio, TV and theatre, becoming Julian Clary’s long-serving scriptwriter. Around the year 2000 he put these careers temporarily on hold to dabble in another form of exploitation, but one closely associated with the more secretive side of show business.

“In this sensational memoir, McGillivray takes us through the cocaine-lined world of London’s media industry, the tragic heights of the AIDS epidemic and the sinful celluloid backstreets of Soho… McGillivray hosted London’s wildest parties at his home. They were attended by some of the biggest names of stage, screen, music and fashion. The revelations of what went on under the figurative noses of law enforcement agencies and the literal noses of McG and his high-flying guests are not for the faint-hearted.”

Julian Clary introduced David at the book launch thus:

“It makes my love life seem like an afternoon at the W.I…”

“I thought I put it about a bit in my youth, but this makes my love life seem like an afternoon at the Women’s Institute… McG has said on several occasions that he will never work again once this book has been published, but I don’t think we should get our hopes up. I suspect some seedy project will catch his eye soon…. (maybe) a long-lost lesbian porn script allegedly written by Mother Teresa… You will know and understand David better after you have read this book, but you may cross the road when you see him coming.”

The next day, David and I had a chat in the sinful celluloid backstreets of Soho – well, in the pleasant environs of the Soho Theatre Bar in Dean Street.


McGillivray talked in the sinful celluloid backstreets of Soho

JOHN: You had trouble getting this book published.

DAVID: Oh yes. 

JOHN: When did you start it?

DAVID: 2000. So many re-writes; so many lawyers. Libel was a huge problem in the early editions. It was very stressful. I got very fed up with the process and put the idea on the shelf in 2015, but then I met the publisher Harvey Fenton of FAB Press and I thought maybe it was his cup of tea, because he is the man who gave us Cinema Sewer and Satanic Panic.

It has taken another 2 or 3 years. Now the book comes out officially in the shops on 1st August but, if you pre-order, you will get signed copies sent to you from 1st June. After so many versions and God knows how many lawyers, apparently it will now leave me legally in the clear. There is a disclaimer at the front to tidy up any loose ends:

DISCLAIMER

The inclusion of a person’s name or likeness in this book does not imply that the person has at any time bought, traded or accepted as a gift an illegal drug from the author or has used an illegal drug from any source. Some names and identifying features have been changed.

“It will leave me legally in the clear…”

JOHN: People in the film business? The theatrical business?

DAVID: (LAUGHS) Oh yes… all media. It’s been a colourful life and I’ve indulged in all manner of things in my 71 years.

JOHN: Knowing a lot of it was unrepeatable for legal reasons, why did you start it?

DAVID: I thought there was a story about what was going on at the turn of the century and, while everyone seemed almost supernaturally obsessed with the end of 1000 years and convinced that planes were going to fall out of the sky, I thought there was something else going on. I knew there was something else going on, because it was going on in my living room every Friday night for five years. So I wrote about my own life, particularly around that period, 1998-2003. But the lifestyle I was indulging in those five years stretched back to my teenage years, so I thought I might as well write about my entire life.

JOHN: You said: “…going on in my living room”.

DAVID: That is the essence of what the book is about.

JOHN: Your living room?

DAVID: Yes… Well, it was mostly in my basement. It was a four-storey house in a very charming crescent in Kings Cross.

JOHN: At the time when it was gentrifying…

McGillivray: a life of unbridled glamour

DAVID: When I moved there in 1995, it was still very rough indeed. By the time I left two years ago, it was completely unrecognisable. The old community I knew had completely gone and the rest of the street was virtually rented out for Airbnb. I didn’t like that.

JOHN: So, parties in your basement on Friday nights for five years… Details?

DAVID: I don’t know where to begin… I was a party animal and all that that entails.

JOHN: What does it entail?

DAVID: An enormous amount of activity every Friday night.

JOHN: Activity? Only Fridays? What happened on Thursdays in your basement?

DAVID: Nothing.

JOHN: You are a tease.

DAVID: I’m a wicked tease. Well, I used to be in the exploitation movie business. I want people to buy the book and be surprised.

JOHN: “Used to be”?

DAVID: Well, I haven’t done any of those sort of films since 1977.

David McGillivray & Nigel Havers at the Trouser Bar location

JOHN: What about Trouser Bar – the one allegedly – ooh, err – definitely not written by John Gielgud?

DAVID: I think it is a work of ar…

JOHN: Arse?

DAVID: Art. It’s not an exploitation film.

JOHN: What happened in your house on Saturday mornings?

DAVID: Hangovers and Oh God! Why did I do it? conversations.

JOHN: You are being reticent, but the book is over the top.

DAVID: It’s excessive, yes.

JOHN: But detailed and true. You kept diaries.

DAVID: From the age of 12. I have diaries from 1960 to today and haven’t missed a day.

JOHN: Can worried participants in your life expect a sequel?

DAVID: Almost certainly, yes, because a lot has happened since 2015 and you have blogged about some of those incidents. 

“…and the film WILL be made.”

JOHN: Regrets?

DAVID: I don’t regret anything I’ve done at all. One should only regret the things one hasn’t done.

JOHN: Any other films on the horizon?

DAVID: I’m still trying to find a director for The Wrong People – based on the novel by Robin Maugham. It’s a quite expensive feature film; one I can’t finance myself. I bought the film rights. More controversy: “It’s unfilmable” and all that. At the moment, nobody will touch it with a bargepole. But I WILL get a director for it and the film WILL be made.

JOHN: That sounds like a threat.

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Comedy legend John Dowie: changed by Spike Milligan’s Bed-Sitting Room

John Dowie talked to me near Euston, London

John Dowie talked to me near Euston, London

John Dowie is difficult to describe. Wikipedia’s current attempt is: “a British comedian, musician and writer. He began performing stand-up comedy in 1969.”

His own website describes him as: “Not working. Not writing. Not performing. Not Twittering. Not on Facebook. Not on Radio. Not on TV. Not doing game shows, chat shows, list shows, grumpy-old whatever shows. Not doing quiz shows. Not doing adverts. Not doing voice-overs for insurance companies/banks/supermarkets/dodgy yogurts.”

The synopsis of his up-coming autobiography starts: “If you’re thinking of becoming a stand-up comedian (and who isn’t?) then here’s some advice: don’t start doing it in 1972. I did, and it was a mistake.”

I know John Dowie because he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, the 2003 anthology of comedians’ (often dark) short stories which I edited with the late Malcolm Hardee.

The book that was not suspended

A foul mouth, a foul mind and a bomb

John’s was the story of a Northern comedian who has a foul mouth, a foul mind and a bomb. The Daily Mirror called it: “a wrist-slashingly brutal account of a Bernard Manning-esque comic who plans blood-thirsty revenge. Disturbing? Very.” The Chortle website called it a “breathlessly entertaining yarn”.

Now he is crowdfunding his new book The Freewheeling John Dowie.

“How long are you crowdfunding for?” I asked him.

“They reckon the average book takes about six weeks or two months.”

“Have you started writing it?”

“I’ve already written it!”

“So the crowdfunding is just for the physical creation of it?”

“Yes, you have to reach a funding target for the printing process to begin.”

“So what have you been doing,” I asked, “since the triumph that was Sit-Down Comedy?”

“I have been riding my bicycle.”

“Where?”

“France, Holland, Spain, Italy, Ireland which is horrible, Wales, up and down England.”

“I like Ireland,” I said.

“Bad roads,” said John Dowie.

“And you are publishing your autobiography by crowdfunding…?”

The Freewheeling John Dowie, crowdfunder

The Freewheeling John Dowie, crowdfunding and bicycling

“Well, it’s not actually an autobiography,” John corrected me. “It’s like an autobiography, but with the boring bits cut out. There is no stuff like Birmingham is an industrial town in the heart of the Midlands. It’s got autobiographical elements. But, if you are a nobody such as I, then the only way you can tell a story about yourself is if it is a story that stands in its own right.”

“So how do you want The Freewheeling John Dowie described?” I asked. “A bicycling autobiography?”

“Yeah,” said John. “Well, if you ride a bike and you’re in a quiet piece of the world, what do you do? Your mind is free to wander and, as it wanders, you find yourself going from place to place in your mind that you were not expecting to go.”

“So why,” I asked, “did you decide to write your autobiography now?”

“I’m 65 and I’ve been retired for 15 years,” explained John. “And, if you’re 65, you’re fucked. So I thought: If I’m fucked, I’d better spend my time working because I’m of more use as a fucked-up performer than I am as a fucked-up retiree.”

“You were born in 1950?” I asked.

“Yes. Just in time to miss Elvis Presley and just in time to get the Beatles.”

“Did you approach a ‘proper’ publisher for the book?” I asked.

“No… Well, I think Unbound are more proper than publishers, because they care about the things they make. A friend of mine has a client who’s a comedian who went to a voice-over studio to record her book and was regaled by the engineers with all the comedians who came in to read the books they ‘wrote’ but had never even read yet – and finding mistakes in their own books – Ooh! My mother isn’t called Dorothy! Those are books done by ‘proper’ publishers.”

John Dowie - a living legend from the early alternate days

John Dowie – a living legend from the early alternate days

“Is there what they call a ‘narrative arc’ in your cycling autobiography?” I asked.

“Well, it begins and ends with a Spike Milligan story.”

“I met him once,” I said. “I think he must have got out of the wrong side of the bed that day.”

“I think,” John said, “that he got more crotchety as he got older. When I met him, he was very decent to me. I was hanging around backstage after one of his shows. He was touring a play which he wrote with John AntrobusThe Bed-Sitting Room. People talk about taking LSD for the first time and how it changed their life. Watching The Bed-Sitting Room changed my life. It was like a door had opened.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I had not experienced anything like it before. Live comedy. I was 15 or 16.”

“So you didn’t know what you wanted to be?”

“No.”

“And you decided to be Spike Milligan?”

“Yeah. That’s more or less it, yeah. I became Spike Milligan for a period. Apart from the talented bits, obviously.”

“What happened when you stopped being Spike Milligan?”

“I got my friends back.”

“Why? Because you were rude as Spike Milligan?”

“No. Just not funny.”

An early John Dowie album by the young tearaway

Naked Noolies and I Don’t Want To Be Your Amputee

“And then, I said, “you became one of the living legends of the original Alternative Comedy circuit.”

“Well,” said John, “I’m living. That’s halfway there.”

“But you are,” I said, “one of the originators of Alternative Comedy.”

“I don’t think so,” said John. “I don’t think I’m one of them and it’s not as if it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been there. I was coincidental more than anything. It wasn’t as if anybody saw me and thought: Oh, let’s start a movement. I considered myself to be in the same field as Ivor Cutler and Ron Geesin.”

“Wow!” I said. “Ron Geesin! I had forgotten him!”

“Yes,” said John. “He was great. He was a John Peel discovery. Ron played Mother’s Club in Birmingham where John Peel’s Birmingham audience used to go religiously to see the acts John Peel played on the radio. Ron Geesin came on and did his first number on the piano and the place went fucking barmy and Ron Geesin said to the audience: Listen, nobody is THAT good.”

Factory Records’ first release: FAC-2

AOK Factory Records’ first release: FAC-2

At this point, farteur Mr Methane, who was sitting with us, piped up: “Weren’t you involved with Tony Wilson years ago?” he asked. “On Factory Records.”

“Yeah,” said John. “The first one. The first Factory Records release. FAC- 2… FAC- 1 was the poster. I was on the same record as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire and the Durutti Column. It was a double EP.”

“Ah!” I said.

Then he said to me: “It’s all very good if you know everything about comedy, John, but, if you don’t know about pop music…”

“Why should people crowdfund your autobiography?” I asked.

“Because I’m fuckin’ fantastic,” he replied.

I tend to agree.

If you want to crowd fund the book: https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-freewheeling-john-dowie

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Malcolm Hardee, The Tunnel Club, the tap-dancing Swede and Madame Poulet

GrouchyClub11With co-host Kate Copstick’s internet links in Kenya still problematic, this week’s Grouchy Club podcast is an 8-minute audio clip of me talking in 1995 to the late comedian Malcolm Hardee.

At the time, we were writing his 1996 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake by recording our chats.

This one was about how he started his legendary – some might say infamous – comedy club The Tunnel. The full 8-minute audio extract is online. This is a short extract from that audio extract.


Malcolm Hardee on stage at The Tunnel (Photograph by Bill Alford)

Malcolm Hardee on stage at The Tunnel Club in the 1980s (Photograph by Bill Alford)

Malcolm
The Tunnel became known – but I don’t know why – for its hard audience. It was like the Glasgow Empire of the South. I think possibly for where it was in South East London – who don’t suffer fools gladly to say the least. It got known for its heckling. At which point I can just put down my heckling stories, which we can just mention on the tape as Jim Tavare, Noel James, Jo Brand, tropical fish…

John
Tropical fish?

Malcolm
Tropical fish. That was a good heckle.

John
What’s tropical fish?

Malcolm
This double act whose names have got lost in the mists of time. Part of their act was wearing Red Indian headdresses. They started up and put their headdresses on and were about to beat the bongos and then one of the regular hecklers in the audience shouted out: Oy, Malcolm! You’ve got a couple of tropical fish on stage!

John
There’s a quote on one of the posters at Up The Creek – HOW LONG WOULD HITLER SURVIVE THE TUNNEL? (RADIO 4) – Is that true?

Malcolm
It was. That was on some Kaleidoscope nonsense.

John
So what did they say?

Malcolm
They’d been to this famous Open Spot. It was where people were trying out material or perhaps had not been on stage before. It always amazed me how many people were keen to do this. I still get – to this day – at least ten calls a week from people. There was Madame Poulet. I’ll just say that and it’ll all link up (in the book).

I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake

Malcolm Hardee’s 1996 autobiography

John
What was the best Open Spot at The Tunnel?

Malcolm
Best or worst?

John
Both.

Malcolm
The best Open Spot was Phil Cool.

John
That was his first time?

Malcolm
He must have done the clubs, but that was his first ‘alternative’ London gig and it was from there that he got discovered and got his TV series and went on to where he is today. The worst, I think was the tap-dancing Swede.

John
What was that act?

Malcolm
He was Swedish and he had the most piercing blue eyes I’ve ever seen. He decided he had a tap-dancing act but, unfortunately, the stage at The Tunnel was fully carpeted; it was about the only place that was.

So he’s come on and he has the tails on and the whole thing and he’s immaculate and he’s got this backing tape and he started tap-dancing but, of course, no-one could hear him and he’s doing all the smiling things and, in the end, they just shouted out Cab for the Swede! and he went off.

And, to this day, people shout out – when another act is going down particularly badly – Bring back the Swede!


Malcolm Hardee at The Tunnel Club

Malcolm Hardee at The Tunnel Club in the 1980s… (Photograph by Steve Taylor)

Malcolm expanded on his reference to the open spot Madame Poulet and Her Singing Chicken in his book I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. He says:


I booked Madame Poulet over the phone and, when she arrived, she tried to convince me she was Madame Edith and that Madame Poulet would arrive later. She left the ‘chicken’ under a cloth in my office. I lifted the cloth when Madame Edith wasn’t there and it was a fake chicken made out of chicken feathers, some of which were painted pink for no apparent reason. It was like the Barbara Cartland of the Chicken World.

When she did her act, she had a little triangular screen about waist height on stage, so she could kneel down behind it.

That night, I announced:

“Ladies and gentlemen. Will you please welcome Madame Poulet and her Singing Chicken……”

And Madame Edith walked on having disguised herself as Madame Poulet by wearing a hat with a black veil over her face. She went and knelt behind the screen, the chicken appeared over the top and Madame Poulet started singing Je Ne Regret Rien completely straight in her own voice with the chicken miming to it.

This went on for about five minutes and then about ten blokes at the back of the audience, as one, all went:

“Cluck-Cluck…..Cluck-Cluck…..Cluck off!”

Madame Poulet got up, almost flew off the stage, left the club without saying a word, and I’ve never seen her since.

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Comedian Malcolm Hardee’s first ever appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe

A6MalcolmHardeeAwards2014

I woke up at 5.20am this morning to a text message from comedian Janey Godley at the Edinburgh Fringe. It read:

“I got a loan of a bike. It was too big and I banged my fanny on it – In Edinburgh 10 minutes and I cracked my vag.”

Fringe fever has started early this year.

The joys of modern life near Stafford

Joys of modern life at motorway service station near Stafford

I am driving up from London to Edinburgh today, so I am writing this blog at the Costa cafe in Stafford service station on the M6 motorway.

This year’s two-hour Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show is being held on Friday 22nd August. The three awards are in memory of ‘the godfather of British alternative comedy’ who drowned in 2005. So it goes.

Below is an extract from his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, published in 1996. Amazon.co.uk’s current listing retains their own humorous and extensive balls-up in which it describes the book as an aid to classroom teaching.

In this edited extract from the book itself, Malcolm talks about the first time he appeared with The Greatest Show On Legs at the Fringe.


Malcolm Hardee's autobiography

Not a standard aid to class teaching

We did our first Edinburgh Fringe in August 1982, before it became so commercial.

That year, we were playing in a venue called The Hole in The Ground which literally was just that: a hole in the ground.  An ‘organisation’ called Circuit had erected a 700-seat marquee on this piece of derelict wasteland.

Also performing in The Hole in The Ground was The Egg Man, who was Icelandic years before Björk. His show consisted of a two-hour monologue performed, completely in Icelandic, to an audience of one in cave which was one of the ‘natural features’ of The Hole in The Ground. He used to auction the ticket for each show and a reviewer from the Scotsman actually had to pay over £50 to watch a performance of this two-hour Icelandic monologue. He couldn’t understand a word but, in a way, it was Art.

Today, this just wouldn’t happen as the big Agencies use Edinburgh to hype-up future short-lived TV ‘stars’.

That first year, the Circuit tent in Edinburgh held about 700 people.

I had stupidly agreed we’d do it for a ‘wage’ of £500 a week. In the meantime, we’d been on (the TV show) OTT, we were popular and we were selling the tickets out at about £5 a ticket. So they were making about £3,500 a night and we were getting £500 per week between the three of us. So I felt bitter again.

There was another lot performing at The Hole in The Ground: a group of feminists. They were called Monstrous Regiment. They were doing a play about prisoners. About how it’s not the prisoners’ fault they’re in prison. It’s Society’s fault. It’s all of our faults. All of that nonsense.

We were really poor that first year. We were performing in The Tent in The Hole in The Ground and we were living in tents next to The Tent. Edinburgh is always cold and it was even colder that year: it snowed.

Also that year, a German opera show had a pig in it and I had my tent next to the place where they kept the pig.

So, I was feeling bitter and feeling bitter cold.

At, the end of the week, Circuit decided to have a Press Conference and they put another tent up. They loved a tent. A big marquee. Commissionaire outside. Posh. We turned up and they wouldn’t let us in even though we’d been there a week and sold out our shows and everything. Well, we were naked, which might have had something to do with it. And not entirely wholesome. So we went and got dressed and eventually they let us in. But I was still bitter.

We went to this restaurant in the marquee and it was a bit of a posh do. Wine and all that stuff going on. Monstrous Regiment were there but their feminist dungarees were off and their public school cocktail dresses were on.

Then one of the Monstrous Regiment women – one I particularly didn’t like – got her handbag nicked. And she went berserk.

“Catch him!” she yelled. “Get the police! I want that man put in prison!”

So I said to her:

“It’s not his fault. It’s Society’s fault. It’s all our faults”.

At the end of all this, they asked one person from each show to get up on the bar and give a speech to the assembled Press.

By now, the Monstrous Regiment woman had calmed down. She got up on the bar and said:

“We’re doing a play. It’s about prisoners. It’s all Society’s fault and it’s a scathing indictment of Society”.

Then she jumped off the bar and the German with the pig got up.

“We’re doing an opera with a pig,” he said.

So we were next and I stood up on the bar, having told Martin to tug my trousers at the appropriate moment.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen of the Press,” I started saying: “We’re The Greatest Show on Legs and we have a bit of a comedy show in that tent over there, but this is no night for comedy because I’ve just read in the paper that the great Glenda Jackson has passed away and, in the spirit of the Fringe,” – I had a real tear came out of my eye at this point – “I’d like to ask for one minute’s silence for a great actress.”

And they did.

Silence.

A whole minute.

I looked at my watch and the whole minute went by.

A long time.

Then Martin tugged my trousers and handed up my newspaper to me. I looked at it:

“Oh!” I said. “Not Glenda Jackson. Wendy Jackson. A pensioner from Sydenham….. Doesn’t matter then, does it?”

The tent fell even more silent than during the Minute’s Silence.

After a pause, a thespian in the front just looked up at me and theatrically projected the words:

“Bad taste!”

The ironic thing was that he was wearing a pink and green shirt at the time.

This was the beginning – 1982 – of a beautiful, long-running relationship between the Edinburgh Fringe and me.

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Comic Malcolm Hardee was persuaded to change the start of his autobiography

I Stole Freddie Mercy’sBirthday Cake

One day, the original version of this book may or may not be published

When Malcolm Hardee and I wrote his autobiography in 1996, the editor at Fourth Estate publishers persuaded Malcolm to change the opening of the book to one which I thought and still think was a much less interesting opening. This is the way Malcolm’s book – I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake – originally started:

___________________________

I stole Freddie Mercury’s birthday cake. He was one of the most famous pop stars in the world and I was booked to perform nude at his 40th birthday party.

The Kray Twins seemed to split their lives into 95% criminal activity and 5% Showbiz. I’ve tried to go for 95% Showbiz intermingled with 5% criminal activity, but I only had about 3% of the success the Krays had.

Apart from me there’s no showbiz in the family, as far as I know, but my grandfather was born behind Greenwich Music Hall, which is now Greenwich Theatre. And when I was in Ford Open Prison I read a music hall book which mentioned an act 200 years ago called ‘The Great Hardeen’. A magic act. He was Greenwich-based like me, so I wonder if there was any link-up there.

When I was one day old, my Dad bought me a train set. It was a steam train and ran on methylated spirits in a little container underneath the train. It was bigger than your normal train set with a big circular track. What you did was set light to the methylated spirits and this started the piston. My Dad set it up in the hall. He didn’t let me play with it. You know what fathers are like. He set it off and it went so fast centrifugal force took the train off the rails and it set light to the carpet. (Nearly burnt the house down.)

My mother wonders if this may account for my early interest in setting fire to things.

I was born in Lewisham Hospital on 5th January 1950. But after I was born I was almost immediately whisked off to an orphanage in Ware, Hertfordshire. My Mother was in a sanatorium with tuberculosis and they didn’t allow fathers to keep their babies then. My father was working all hours on the River Thames as a lighterman.

My mother came out of the sanatorium when I was 2 years old. She quite reasonably wanted to go out and have a good time. So I was brought up by my two doting grandmothers really. They were poles apart.

My mother’s mother was the down-to-Earth, down-the-Bingo type. She’d worked in Service when she was younger – as a maid or something.

My father’s mother put on big airs and graces. She was a docker’s wife, but thought she was sort of royalty and she used to take me up to the Cafe Royal where we’d sit around and have a cup of tea. Another treat she used to give me was to go and see various relatives laid out after they died. She loved a funeral. The biggest news she ever gave my mother was that she had worked it out with funeral directors that my mother could go in the Hardee family burial plot – as long as she got cremated.

When my mother came out of hospital, we moved into Grover Court, a 1930s block of flats with flat roofs. We were in No 20 and there were about 100 flats. It was almost like a village in itself just because of where it was – set off the road.

I’ve almost always lived near someone famous. In Grover Court, I grew up next to Val Doonican. When we moved from there, Michael Leggo lived next door to me. He later invented Mr Blobby. After that, I had a flat in Lee Green and three doors up was Mark Knopfler from  Dire Straits. (I never talked to him.) Later there was Jools Holland – he lived over the road from me in Blackheath. (I did talk to him.) And now I live about five doors away from Miss Whiplash. Dire Straits played in local pubs in Deptford. There was a definite Deptford sound in music. It’s been covered in a book called South East London Rock and Roll. There was Squeeze, Dire Straits, The Flying Pickets. They all came from Deptford. They all sound different, but that’s not my fault.

At Grover Court, we lived in No.20 and Val Doonican lived at the back of the block with his mum. He wasn’t famous then. He used to sit in an armchair on an old porch, playing a guitar. He must have been in his mid-twenties. He taught me the mouth organ when I was about ten or eleven. There used to be an apple tree outside and we used to nick apples. Not him. Me and some other boys.

He came over here from Ireland with  a group called The Four Ramblers and three of the Four Ramblers lived in Grover Court. The others were a bloke called Pat Sherlock and a bloke called Pat Campbell.

Pat Campbell went on to be a Radio Luxemburg disc jockey and Pat Sherlock produced a Sunday night telly show called The Showbiz Eleven. based on football teams. They used to have The TV All Stars on one side and The Showbiz Eleven on the other. The Showbiz Eleven were the sort of people you didn’t normally get on telly – like Norman Wisdom. Pat Sherlock had a son called Barry Sherlock who was a couple of years younger than me and Barry was my mate. People in these ‘football teams’ used to come round to visit Pat Sherlock, so I used to see Tommy Steele and people like that.

In November 1957, when I was seven, I remember the Lewisham train crash happening behind my house. ‘The Great Lewisham Train Crash’ they called it in the papers. It was caused by the very thick fog which you used to get in those days. I remember foggy winters and very hot summers. I suppose it was foggier because they hadn’t passed that smoke law and we all used to have coal fires. (All that’s gone now.)

Several railway lines cross on two levels at Lewisham. There are three at the bottom and one that goes over the top. On a foggy day in November, two trains collided in the middle. Shot up in the air and knocked a whole train off the top. About 117 people died. My Dad’s garage was next to the line and afterwards there were railway wheels in it. A brick wall at the back had to be rebuilt after it was hit by a fire engine coming to rescue people.

I remember my Aunt Rosemary was in the house with her husband, Uncle Doug (though he wasn’t  my real one). He was meant to have travelled on the very train that crashed. They heard it on the radio.

I didn’t hear anything and I think I was sort of hidden away afterwards. A woman called Mrs Fantos was the hero of the crash and she went out to the main road and commandeered cars and blankets and stuff. The injured were brought into the car park space probably suffering from post-traumatic shock although, of course, they didn’t ‘have’ that in those days.

The next day I think the showbiz bug got into me. I climbed onto the flat roofs. The TV cameras were there to film it and I was up on the roof waving while they were carting dead bodies about. I felt excited because suddenly these little flats in South East London were the centre of almost world attention.

We used to play on bomb sites in Lewisham. I found old gas masks and all that sort of stuff. There were lots of bomb shelters we used to play in and there were still people who had gardens with the Anderson shelters in.

It was the Fifties, so it was still a bit bleak after the war. Rationing never affected us too much because my Dad worked on the river. They used to have all the cargo coming in, so we got bananas and things. Legally. My dad never stole anything – he was a very honest man. People who worked on the River tended to get more goods than other people. I know he didn’t steal anything because he was known as ‘Honest Frank’ Hardee.

My dad was a lighterman on the River Thames. A lighter is a barge. A lighterman pulls the barges along. He did that all his life. And his Dad before him and his Dad before him. A big family thing. It was a job for life really.

The family assumed I would do that too, but I turned out quite bright – in fact I got the highest grade in the Eleven Plus at my school. So I ended up going to grammar school. Lucky I didn’t go on the River, as it happened.

My dad was a bit eccentric. We used to go on holidays on boats. He used to work on boats then he used to take us up the River on a boat for a holiday.

He used to do impressions – Maurice Chevalier. Every time he got drunk he sang: Thank ‘eaven for leetle girls. That was the only one he could do. He sounded like Maurice Chevalier a bit. (Except he wasn’t French and couldn’t sing.)

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Malcolm Hardee outside Grover Court in 1995

Malcolm Hardee photographed outside Grover Court in 1995

Malcolm Hardee drowned in 2005.

There are currently three annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in his memory.

This year, they will be presented during a two hour variety show – The Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show – at the Edinburgh Fringe on Friday 23rd August.

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Pam Ayes on getting published, her TV talent show and early performing fears

Pam Ayres had the necessary aptitude

The Oldie magazine’s Soho Literary Festival continued at Soho Theatre yesterday with Pam Ayres plugging her autobiography The Necessary Aptitude and explaining how she first got her poetry published.

She was brought up in rural Oxfordshire and made the interesting point that, when she first started, there was a more thriving folk club circuit around the UK.

“Poetry has got a reputation for not selling,” she said yesterday, “What I did was go around the local folk clubs at the time Billy Connolly was working round the folk clubs in Scotland and Jasper Carrott was working round the folk clubs in the Midlands and I got some experience – they were like comedy clubs are today, I suppose.

“Also I went on the local radio and I produced a little book of my own – a little pamphlet, really – that’s all it was – and I drew the drawings and I typed the manuscript and I took it to the Church Army Press in Oxford and I got sixty run off .

“I took them round the local bookshops and it was, without a doubt, the most difficult and excruciatingly humiliating experience of me life. I had to stand in a bookshop surrounded by expensive, well-produced volumes and say: Please will you stock my book? It looked so paltry and they had used the wrong paper and if you touched it, the fingerprints stuck on it. So it looked really awful…

“But not a single person said No. Everybody took some. I always thought that was a great credit to the local booksellers.”

Her breakthrough came in 1975, when she won the Opportunity Knocks talent show on ITV.

“In an instant,” she said yesterday, “I went from folk clubs, where a few beer-sodden friends would cheer you on… to being thrust out in front of an enormous paying audience. One of the first professional gigs I had was at the Winter Gardens in Margate with thousands and thousands of people and I had an act of about 20 minutes.

“I was utterly mortified. I was terrified for years because, if you win a TV talent competition, you go from performing in a small way to going into a massive arena. It was terrifying. For years, I was terrified of performing and I always thought the audience was hostile. A lot of performers feel that. It’s not true, of course, otherwise they wouldn’t buy a ticket.

“When people say to me I’d like to be a performer I tell them the only way to do it is to do it. Even if you fail the first few times, you learn from it and you become more relaxed.

“Now that I’m a woman of a certain age I think, Well, I’ve got me marbles and I’ve got me health. But I don’t know how long I’m going to keep those for, so I just enjoy it now and all that fear has lifted off. I just write the funniest things I can and go out and put them over as best I can and enjoy it and love it in a way I wasn’t able to earlier.”

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Writing someone else’s autobiography: The World Trade Center comparison

Unknown numbers of unknown unknowns

I was talking to someone last night about writing their autobiography. It will probably never happen, because the publishing industry is in decline, is running scared and does not really know what is happening with eBooks, self-publishing, print-on-demand and all the other new imponderables.

Back in December 2011, I wrote a blog about How to write someone else’s biography or your own autobiography 

That did not go into the mechanics of the thing.

Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

– There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know.

– There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know.

– But there are also unknown unknowns – There are things we do not know we don’t know

He got a tremendous amount of unfair criticism claiming this was gibberish when, in fact, it is entirely clear and entirely correct. Especially when you are writing a book about someone else’s life.

You do not know how much – let alone what – you do not know about the other person’s life. And, if you do not know what you do not know, you may not know the right questions to ask to find out what you do not know and what the other person has forgotten or does not realise is illuminating.

By-and-large, I think the best thing is to chat to and record the person talking about their life. This might take 30 hours – or much more.

With my non-typing skills, I take three times as long to transcribe a chat as the chat takes itself. You cannot get someone else to transcribe it, because they may miss something vital in the intonation or the syntax or in the umming and ahhing and meandering which everyone does in ordinary everyday speech.

So that means, in this case, 30 hours of chats would take 90 hours to transcribe – so a total of 120 hours. If you work a solid seven-hour day, that means just over 17 days. If you take weekends off, that means three weeks and two days in total, working solidly every weekday from 9.30am to 5.30pm with a single one-hour lunch break.

After all that, you are at ground zero. You have the material with which to write the book, but you have not yet started to write the book.

If you have conducted the chats well, you will have got the basics and managed to stop the person diverging too much onto sidetrack dead ends – although you have to allow a lot of genuinely irrelevant, pointless sidetracking because you are faced with unknown numbers of unknown unknowns – and one apparent sidetrack may lead to you striking pure gold.

Even if the person has excellent recall of details (which is rare) and has been able to tell their story in some rough form of chronological order (which is even rarer), what you have now is a meandering, waffly mess, from which you have to create some sort of structure with threads running through which will intrigue and ‘hook’ the reader.

What you exclude is arguably more important than what you include.

Telling a life story is not a matter of telling the reader everything that happened. Facts are not necessarily interesting. You have to find specific incidents which will illuminate and explain certain periods in the person’s life. No point describing in detail what happened as 153 events slowly developed in one six month period of a whole life; you have to find one key event which illuminates the period, develops a thread and cut it back so it becomes vivid and insightful.

Part of that you have to sort-out when you are chatting to the person. But a lot is in the later writing, which is like putting together a jigsaw wading through syrup in concrete boots while carrying an octopus on your back.

The important choice is what you do NOT include.

It is like telling the story of how one person died in the World Trade Center. Going through the ruins of both collapsed buildings with a sieve and a toothbrush will not help. There is too much information. Too much rubble.

People know too much about their own lives. A ghost writer has to find the key vivid facts, incidents, thoughts and feelings which condense decades of incidents into 90,000-120,000 words.

And, trust me, 90,000 words is less than superficial.

So pity the poor person trying to write someone else’s autobiography.

You don’t know what my life is like.

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