(This was also published by the Huffington Post and on Indian news site WSN)
Today is the eighth anniversary of the death by drowning of comedian Malcolm Hardee. His autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake begins:
I was born the first son of Frank and Joan Hardee in the Tuberculosis Ward of Lewisham Hospital in South East London. Immediately after my birth, I was taken from my mother and moved to an orphanage in a place aptly named Ware in Hertfordshire. We were not to meet again for nearly two years…
When I was one day old my dad bought me a train set. But I didn’t see it until I was almost two years old. It was a steam train and ran on methylated spirits held in a little container underneath the engine. 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. When I first saw the train, he wouldn’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 the burning meths set light to the carpet. Nearly burnt the whole house down. A lot of people have said I came off the rails myself later on and my mother wonders if this incident may also account for my early interest in setting fire to things.
Yesterday, I was talking to my friend Louise about Malcolm.
“The way his mother told me,” Louise said, “I’m not sure he actually went into an orphanage. His mother told me his granny brought him up while she was in the TB hospital and, when she came out of hospital and was re-united with him, he was cold to her – his mother. That sounds kinda crucial. The mother figure left him and a small kid will transfer his affections to another person and a lot of mothers can be quite angry with a child who does that, even if they try not to show it. You’re talking about a toddler and that confusion between two people… when you’ve gone and attached yourself emotionally to one and they’re whisked off… It’s the very foundation subconsciously. I wonder if that was why he was damaged. You’re always telling me that a lot of the best comedians are damaged.
“With Malcolm, it could have been an anger at the world, you know, because of the mother that left, the one that came back and was maybe a bit annoyed he was attached to the grandmother. Whatever. There would be an anger in that little kid. Sitting back watching if a car catches fire or if someone trips over and falls.
“That anger develops into Oh – I’ll see how everyone’s going to react to THIS! Malcolm with his We’re going to steer the boat under this water… We’re going to set this car on fire.”
“Or cinema,” I said. “He set fire to two cinemas and a Sunday School piano.”
“Desperate to shock other people,” said Louise. “A desperate need for attention. And that can turn into cruelty. You worked with Jonathan Ross early on and told me what a nice person he was. But then there’s the cruelty of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand phoning up Andrew Sachs just to say Brand had fucked his grand-daughter. That’s just plain cruelty. They were having a laugh but it’s not funny and, in a decade’s time, people will look back and think How could anyone ever have thought that was acceptable? These are grown men. Jonathan Ross has a daughter of his own. How can they not be thinking that’s disrespectful and downright vicious to the girl and to the grandfather? The girl and the grandfather are human beings, not just comedy props.”
“But Malcolm wasn’t actually malicious,” I said to Louise, “Steve Bowditch said something at Malcolm’s funeral which I had never thought about. He said that he had never heard Malcolm talk maliciously about anyone behind their back. He didn’t do that bitchy comedian thing of slagging people off behind their backs. Malcolm wasn’t malicious. He was just irresponsible in a general way.”
“But,” said Louise, “almost as a matter of principle, he tried to con people on the money he’d agreed to pay them at his clubs. He didn’t pay people he’d agreed to pay and, to some people, that £50 or £100 he conned them out of might have been crucial. There was that thoughtlessness.”
“Well,” I said, “Aaaaa Bbbbb told me Malcolm tried to pay him less than he’d agreed on three consecutive appearances and thought Oh – It’s just Malcolm at his games again. But Aaaaa Bbbbb was screwed over money in much the same way by another promoter 20 years ago and he is still venomous about that promoter. He doesn’t forgive that promoter for that one occasion, but he does forgive and laugh about the three times with Malcolm because, somehow, he knows there was no malice with Malcolm. It was just some sort of game for him.”
“You told me,” said Louise, “that, when you were writing his autobiography, you’d arrange to meet up and sometimes he wouldn’t be there.”
“Well yes,” I said. “Because I knew he was flakey, I’d phone him late morning and check he would be there when we’d agreed to meet. Then sometimes two hours later, after getting stuck in bad traffic but arriving at the time and place we’d agreed to meet… he would have forgotten and gone off somewhere and I had to find him. Even then, he could sometimes only keep up his concentration for 15 minutes. Once, he was in another county.”
“Why did you not mind that?” asked Louise.
“I knew what he was like,” I said. “It was just Malcolm being irresponsible. He could get away with it. An indefinable charm. Schoolboyish irresponsibility.”
“But,” said Louise, “he did some terrible things.”
“It’s not thinking about consequences,” I said. “If you’re evil, you are fully aware of the consequences, but you still do it. If you’re irresponsible, you don’t calculate the consequences. Malcolm was irresponsible. Although he was consciously irresponsible, which is unusual. He knew he had the charm to get away with it. He was actually quite considerate at heart and, if he’d thought about the consequences of some of the things he did, he wouldn’t have done them, but he simply didn’t think about the consequences. And he never analysed what he did. He just did.”
“There was something about Malcolm,” said Louise, “Something about his personality that was like his son Frank… Frank is a good, upstanding, caring citizen and there’s something about Malcolm that would have been that but for some little… something… Maybe the needy thing of the early separation from his mother. It’s like cooking. If you add or remove one tiny ingredient, it can ruin the taste.”
“And Malcolm did enjoy bad taste,” I said.