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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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Edinburgh Fringe publicity stunts: the planned drowning of Malcolm Hardee

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards – there are currently three of them – are being given every August until the year 2017. This is because that’s the number of physical awards I got mad inventor John Ward to make.

Of these three prestigious annual prizes, the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award (won last year by Stewart Lee) honours the best publicity stunt for any act or show at the Edinburgh Fringe that year.

There are no rules for the Malcolm Hardee Awards. If there were, Malcolm’s ashes would turn in their urn. But one rule-of-thumb for the Cunning Stunt Award is that people do not have to apply to be considered. Because, if you have to tell the judges you have done a publicity stunt then, by definition, the stunt has failed.

I started the Cunning Stunt Awards because it seemed to me that the marketing and publicising of comedy shows on the Fringe had become too serious and what was lacking was a bit of mindless irresponsibility. The Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award aims to encourage this.

The late lamented Malcolm was a comedian, club owner, compere, manager and sometimes agent, but it was often and correctly claimed that his real comedy act was his life off-stage and, at the Fringe, he was known for his stunts – writing a review of his own show and conning The Scotsman into printing it under the byline of their own comedy critic; driving a tractor naked through American performance artist Eric Bogosian’s show; announcing at a press conference that Glenda Jackson had died then eventually adding, “No, not that Glenda Jackson.”

If it had not been his mother who phoned me up in 2005 and told me Malcolm had drowned, I would probably have thought it was a publicity stunt.

Especially as, a few years before, I had tried to persuade Malcolm to fake his own death by drowning, as a publicity stunt.

The Assembly Rooms venue (now re-branded as simply Assembly) were paying him that year to do a show for the duration of the Edinburgh Fringe but he had also somehow managed to double-book himself on a mini-tour of South Africa.

“My kids have never been to South Africa,” he told me dolefully. This was after he had already started his Fringe run at the Assembly Rooms. “I think I’ll just do a runner.”

“How will the Assembly Rooms react?” I asked.

Malcolm shrugged his shoulders, blinked a bit and mumbled something inaudible, as he often did.

“Rather than pissing-off the Assembly,” I suggested, “why don’t you fake your own death?”

Malcolm had once been in prison with disgraced MP John Stonehouse, who had faked his own death by drowning then been found living with his mistress in Australia.

“You could hire a car in Edinburgh,” I suggested, “and drive it to North Berwick. Leave it near the beach with your clothes in a bundle nearby and something in the clothes which has your identity on it – a letter addressed to you, maybe. Then piss off to South Africa.”

“Mmmmm…” Malcolm mumbled.

“You go off to South Africa for two weeks,” I continued, “When you come back, you can read your own obituaries, with luck you can go to your own funeral and everyone including the Assembly will think it’s a great joke that’s in character. It’s a triple whammy. You get to go to South Africa for two weeks, you get publicity and you don’t piss-off the Assembly too much.”

Malcolm thought about it for a bit.

“I can’t do it,” he eventually said to me. “The only way it would work is if I didn’t tell Jane (his then wife) or my mum.”

Malcolm was a surprisingly sensitive man:

“They’d get hurt,” he said. “It wouldn’t work unless I didn’t tell them and I couldn’t not tell them.”

So that particular publicity stunt was never pulled.

One day, he just never turned up for his show at the Assembly Rooms. He had gone to South Africa. I don’t think, under the circumstances, the Assembly Rooms took it too badly.

I guess they just shrugged their shoulders and thought:

“Fuck it! It’s just Malcolm.”

(This year’s Malcolm Hardee Awards, including the Cunning Stunt Award, will be announced on the evening of Friday 26th August during a two-hour comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe.)

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