“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
L.P. Hartley could have been writing about the 1980s.
In 1986, Roland and Claire Muldoon re-opened Edwardian music hall the Hackney Empire in London as the home of ‘New Variety’ where stand-up comedy intermingled with dance, music, panto, opera, Caribbean farce and much more. Their background was in political theatre. They aimed to be ‘an Alternative National Theatre’.
Nineteen years later – in 2005 – the Muldoons were squeezed out after local government politicking, a series of failed internal coups, being starved of subsidies, the imposition of bankers and bureaucrats on the management board and much else. It is quite a tale.
Now Roland Muldoon has written a book called Taking On The Empire: How We Saved The Hackney Empire For Popular Theatre. Presumably he has had the text checked by libel lawyers, just in case.
I went along to the book launch in Hackney yesterday afternoon.
“We once had a dream before the Hackney Empire,” Roland Muldoon said, “that we would take over a castle in the Midlands and run an alternative motorway cafe. Luckily, we moved on to the Empire instead. We had great ambitions in those days to take over the world. And we still have.”
One anecdote told in Roland’s book is of a fundraising event to keep the Empire going. Author and politician Jeffrey Archer donated an item for the auction: an Andy Warhol silkscreen print of Marilyn Monroe. Archer had recently declared he would run for Mayor of London, although the Tories were undecided whether this was a good idea for them, given Archer’s somewhat dodgy image. So he may have been as much attracted to the charitable-sounding self-publicity as to publicising the Hackney Empire.
Roland and Claire arranged a publicity photo shoot with Jeffrey Archer and Ken Livingstone (whom the Labour Party had already told not to apply for the Mayoral job) plus comedian Griff Rhys-Jones and the lead in the Empire’s forthcoming panto Dick Whittington.
In his book, Roland writes: “Controversy and accusations of telling porkies seemed to follow Jeffrey Archer around wherever he went. Out of the blue came the question Are you aware that the Marilyn isn’t a genuine Warhol print?”
It turned out that, after Warhol had run off his own limited edition silkscreen prints, his friends came along to his studio and ran off some more for themselves. The Archer print was not one of the Warhol originals.
Roland says: “A reporter from the Daily Telegraph pressed me hard: Did he lead you to believe he was donating a genuine Andy Warhol or not? – No, he never said it was, I lied, despite my total dislike of his politics. I couldn’t bring myself to slag off a benefactor and I was dubious about any benefit it would bring to our campaign if I did. Now I’ve done it. It’s out – I lied for Geoffrey Archer.”
Books are clearly a growth industry for people in the comedy business.
At the book launch, comedian Hattie Hayridge was telling me she had checked with Penguin Books and her fascinating 1997 autobiography Random Abstract Memory is out of print, so she is now able to re-publish it herself, though she finds the technology rather daunting.
He also told me about what he claims was the only time he ever performed naked.
“It was about 27 years ago,” he explained. “There was something called The Mastery, which was related to The Actors’ Centre, which was related to Esalen, which was a real hard core growth movement thing from California. The idea was it helped actors to break down.”
“Sounds quite dangerous,” I said, “to encourage people to break down emotionally, unless you really look after people.”
“What it didn’t do,” said Bob, “was to say that you should take the leap on stage and in rehearsal, but the rest of your life should be ordered.
“So they did this weekend called The Mastery and I was very cross, because they sort-of encouraged people to break down. If you survived, at the end of the weekend, you broke into little groups and did a little sketch. I was already enough of a practising stand-up to realise that sketches have to be something special to work.
“So I was in the middle of this grim sketch with these actors who all played drama students and I played the caretaker who was sweeping up after them and the only way to liven things up was, each time they finished a chorus, I’d come on with me broom and I’d shed an article of clothing… I was a lot slimmer then.”
“And you felt better for this?” I asked.
“Well, I got a shag that night,” replied Bob, smiling broadly.