Martin Soan, creator of highly original comic ideas…
When I was newly 18, I went voluntarily into a mental asylum as an in-patient because I tried to kill myself. The doctors thought it required treatment; I thought it was a sensible life-choice.
When performer Martin Soan was 17, he voluntarily went into a mental asylum as a member of staff: to work as a porter.
He has been staying with me for the last couple of days.
“When I was 15, my parents won the Football Pools,” he told me and my eternally-un-named friend last night over dinner. “We moved from the East End of London to a village called Earls Colne near Colchester in Essex and I went off the rails. I had been doing really well in the East End – I took pride in my schoolwork; I wasn’t top of the class, but I enjoyed endeavouring. Within months of moving out to Essex, I drifted into odd behaviour, taking drugs and getting into trouble with the police.”
“You left school at 16?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Martin, “but, by then, aged 15, I’d moved into a squat in Colchester and I’d got made a ward of court because I got caught stealing…”
“Stealing what?” I asked.
“Carpet from a doctor’s office.”
“Was it open?” I asked.
“It was night time,” said Martin. “I got made a ward of court, went home for a matter of weeks, got a night job working for Courtaulds for a few months – weaving things. Water jet looms. Then I got the job at the mental hospital – Severalls Hospital, just outside Colchester in Essex. It was a huge hospital – 300 acres – It was a couple of miles away from Turners Village, a children’s psychiatric hospital which eventually got done for child abuse, neglect, cruelty to patients, everything.”
“Why did you decide to work in a mental home?” I asked.
A recent photo of Severalls Hospital, which closed in 1997
“Because I had a fear of people with mental health problems,” he explained. “I grew up with my cousin who was mentally and physically handicapped; he was maybe two years older than me. He had a droopy mouth and a strange walk. He used to clomp along. He was lovely and we used to play together, but he used to get me in these strangleholds and embraces – it was out of love, I suppose. He used to terrify me; he used to half-strangle me. I was always terrified I was going to get really, really hurt by him.
“He was not doing it viciously or vindictively at all. He was just clumsy and didn’t know his own strength. He was incredibly strong.”
“When I was at college,” I said, “I went and interviewed a psychiatrist at the mental hospital where I had been a patient and, sitting in the corridor waiting to see him, I could tell which people passing me were patients and which were staff. The patients walked slower, because they had been drugged so heavily and had no life left in them.”
“Drugs are the straitjacket now,” said Martin. “They used to lock ‘em up and put ‘em in straitjackets because people were frightened of ’em. Now drugs do exactly the same thing. It stops them being a problem.”
“Were some people in there for life?” I asked.
“There was Albert,” replied Martin. “He had these huge, huge, Denis Healey type eyebrows and a huge belly. He was ancient and used to help me do the laundry and go round the wards with me on these electric vehicles.
“When he was younger, Albert had wounded someone in a field with a shotgun. Accidentally. He didn’t mean to shoot them; he had not intended to kill them and he just wounded them. It was a mistake.”
“Was he simple?” I asked.
“By the time I met him,” Martin explained, “he had a wonderful logic about him, but he had been completely institutionalised and drugged out of his head; he was a drugged, dribbling idiot, basically.
“There was another guy who had a limp. You just had to say the name of one football team to him. I would say West Ham and he would say West Ham 3 Chelsea 2 – Newcastle United 2 Hull City 2 and he would do the latest scores each week. He would walk down the corridors saying the football scores.
“My job being a porter was to do the laundry, take meals and drugs to the wards and all that. There was a morgue there and I had to label the bodies and put them on the things you slid them into the fridges on.”
“You did that by yourself?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.
Martin Soan with my eternally-un-named friend yesterday
“Most of them were thin and weighed less than a sack of potatoes,” explained Martin.
“How often did people die?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.
“Severalls Hospital was big. An average ward held about 40, so I would guess it had an absolute minimum of about 800 people in it… It had its own bank and shops. There were wards in the main hospital and then in the grounds were satellite wards like army barracks around this huge complex – secure wards and medical wards because there was a lot of self-mutilation and health problems.”
“So every week someone would die?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.
“Oh yeah,” Martin replied immediately. “There was a mixture of people there. A lot of ordinary Alzheimer’s cases. Just old people and some very ordinary people who shouldn’t have been there at all. Like Albert, who made a mistake and wounded someone with a shotgun and they put him in a mental hospital.
“But there were some characters who were completely bonkers. I was walking to one of the outside wards and suddenly this old woman comes out of the forest completely stark bonkers naked and just throws herself on me so I’m on the ground with her screaming something about me not bringing the ring to the wedding.”
“Things like that must have really done-in your 17 or 18 year-old brain,” I suggested.
“I think I just needed to confront my fears,” said Martin. “The problem was my physical fear of my cousin and I had mixed it up in my mind with being frightened of all mad people or very extrovert type people. But, very quickly, I realised it wasn’t them I was frightened of. It was my own mental state. As soon as I sussed that, I just ended up with another set of problems.”
“What mental state?” I asked.
“My mental state,” said Martin.
Martin Soan, accomplished surrealist
“Why?” I asked. “Because you were close to the brink yourself? I understand that feeling.”
“Yes, that,” he replied. “And Martin, just stop worrying about stuff. Stop worrying about your petty fears. There are people out there with far worse problems. It normalised what’s going on in your own head. At the time, I was taking lots of LSD. I used to take it at weekends. On the rota, you had almost four days off between your work, so you could take a load of drugs and sober up and go back in. But, one Sunday afternoon, when there was a skeleton staff and no authority figures in, I went in completely high on acid.”
“Were you hallucinating?” I asked.
“Some of the time, yeah. But I’d been taking so much it had become the norm. You acclimatise to it. So I knew I could go off into little reveries of surreal imagery by focussing on the minutiae of the world around me and then, if something happened, I could snap myself out of it.”
“But,” I said, “if you’d been high on acid when some naked woman had leapt out of the woods onto you, that would have REALLY done your head in.”
“I suppose so,” said Martin. “But it all becomes the norm. It’s just mundane in the end. I realised what I had to be careful of was my own brain, not other people’s.”
“Were you interested in performing comedy before you worked in the mental asylum?” I asked.
“I was doing Punch & Judy shows all the way through this,” said Martin, “but my comedy was always a bit weird. I used to do surreal puppetry when I was about 16.”
“People being mad and people being creative is very similar,” I said, “because their minds are going off at wild tangents. If you do surreal humour, you know you are being surreal, whereas mad people don’t know they’re being surreal. Maybe comedy performers are controlling their interesting lateral thinking and mad people are not.”
“With the surreal puppetry,” said Martin, “I thought I can’t do that sort of stuff, because no-one’s going to understand me. So I ended up doing Punch & Judy shows but, within that, I started bending, perverting the story of Punch & Judy.”
Martin’s Punch & Judy shows were called The Greatest Show On Legs.
“Did you always do adult Punch & Judy?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Martin, “but it wasn’t aimed at adults. “It was just my interpretation of Punch & Judy.”
“I thought it was rude?” I asked.
The Greatest Show on Legs in a later incarnation (from left) Malcolm Hardee, Steve Bowdidge, Martin Soan
“It did start getting rude,” agreed Martin, “and, when Malcolm Hardee joined The Greatest Show On Legs it was fully-fledged and took off as a rude Punch & Judy show.”
“And, at Severalls,” I prompted, “you did lots of different things as a porter…”
“We rotated all the jobs,” said Martin. “One of them was to escort patients up to the ECT ward.”
“I didn’t know they still did ECT – electro-convulsive therapy – in those days,” I said.
“I was disturbed they were still doing it,” replied Martin.
“Around which year was this?” I asked.
“1970. Even though it was the Seventies, it was very Victorian in all sorts of ways. They hadn’t moved on very much. When you dropped them off for ECT, even though they were troubled, they were animated – they had life. Even if they were paranoid. Paranoia takes up a lot of energy. But, after they had had ECT, they were lethargic, uncommunicative. It had just robbed them of the life, really. They couldn’t remember what they were upset about but they still had this Oh fuck, there’s something wrong with me feeling. From what I saw, it didn’t do any good.
“There was a girl patient I found attractive. She had dark hair and stunning eyes. I wasn’t being anything other than friendly. Nothing sexual. She was just a lovely person; very friendly. I had this motor bike and there was this rock concert nearby. I took her off to the concert; we had a couple of beers and might have smoked a joint, then I dropped her off back at the ward.
“The Unit Administrator had me up and told me: There’s no way you socialise with the patients and I thought Well, that’s a bit heavy. Yes, it was unprofessional, but I was only a porter, not a doctor. I wasn’t trying to take advantage of her. I was young and didn’t understand the consequences, the trouble I could be getting myself into.
“I don’t know if it was connected, but shortly afterwards I was sent to pick up the girl and take her to the ECT ward. And that was a killer because afterwards… to see this lovely girl with her soul ripped out of her basically. It was horrible.”
“Why did you leave Severalls Hospital?” I asked.
“After what happened to that girl,” said Martin, “I suppose I started turning psychotic myself so, in the end, I walked out. I didn’t want to work there any more. I was conscientious, I think I did my job well, but the Head Porter kept having a go at me.”
“How did your bosses react to you wanting to leave?” I asked.
“They were all worried and freaked out,” said Martin. “No-one had walked out before. All the porters were either young like me or had been there forever. Those jobs were for life. There had been a few incidents of staff becoming patients. I used to have my dinner and tea breaks in the patients’ canteen because I found the staff canteen very stuffy because they had behavioural norms. There was a formality about it and I got… not panic attacks as such, but… In the patients’ canteen, it was like the bar in Star Wars. I just sat down and they loved me and I liked being there; I could have a laugh with them because, like I said, a lot of them shouldn’t have been in there.”
“Anyone who thinks differently,” I said, “risks getting labelled as mad.”