Tag Archives: Greatest Show on Legs

“I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake” by Malcolm Hardee – an extract

Following on from the last five days of blogs, which quoted what people’s reactions were when legendary comedian Malcolm Hardee died in 2005, here is an extract from his out-of-print 1996 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake

All you need to know as background is that, before he entered the show business, Malcolm was not the comedy Messiah.

He was a very naughty boy…


I came out of Exeter three days after Jubilee Day 1977. Unless you’re young enough to be a footballer, there are only two things you can do when you come out of prison and you want immediate employment. You can either be a minicab driver or you can go into showbusiness. I did both. 

Alan Curry, who later joined The Greatest Show on Legs, had been looking for a flat and had just gone knocking on doors. He’d found a massive Victorian house in Micheldever Road in Lee Green, half a mile from Lewisham. A woman called Sally Niblett lived there. Her husband was disabled and was quite a famous doctor and he’d taken himself, his wheelchair and their five boys off to Papua New Guinea. She was left in this massive house on her own. So Alan Curry moved in. 

Alan told Wizo about the house, Wizo told me and I moved in. At this point, Wizo was a lifeguard at a local swimming pool despite the fact he couldn’t swim. Not what you would call swimming in the traditional sense. 

After that, my mate Martin Potter moved in and, over the years, Sally had maybe 70-odd different tenants in that house. My sister lived there for a time. Nearly everyone I know has lived there.

The house next door was owned by a man called Michael, who was clinically mad. He used to come along in the morning, cut the hedge and then stick the leaves back on with glue and Sellotape.

There were the maddest goings-on in the world at Sally Niblett’s house. There was a bloke called Vic, who thought he was practical but he wasn’t. He constantly had a car engine in his bedroom that he was repairing but it never worked. Once I was in bed with a girlfriend and he tried to come into the room, but there was a wooden beam across the door and he hit his head on it. He went running downstairs, got a chainsaw out, ran back up and started sawing through the wood.

Another bloke who lived there was Dave. He bought an old taxi, took the body off it and decided to make a car completely out of wood, because he was a bit of a chippie. Eventually, after about two years making this car, he decided to take it for a test run. He came out of the drive where he’d been making it, turned left and, after about 100 yards, got stopped by the police. They said: 

“You can’t have this. It’s illegal. You’ve got no M.O.T. certificate”. 

So he put it back in the drive and it stayed there for fifteen years until it rotted away.

Sally Niblett used to be a nurse and she had a series of affairs and eventually ended up moving into the basement because there were so many people in this house. Everyone paid her £5 per week. Didn’t matter which room: £5 per week. It was just the maddest house you could ever imagine. It made the house in BBC TV’s The Young Ones look like a palace. 

Once, I wanted to have a chicken-run in the garden, so I came back with two chickens and didn’t have anywhere to put them, so I put them in the oven while I built the chicken-run. Sally Niblett came home and switched the oven on. She never noticed.

Another time, we moved a sofa from a house round the corner. We didn’t have any van to put it in, but I had an old Austin Cambridge car. So I towed it behind the car, with Vic sitting on the sofa as we towed it round the streets. I came round a corner, the rope snapped and he just carried on sitting on the sofa as it hurtled straight into the Manor Lane Cafe. 

It was at this house in Micheldever Road that I became a minicab-driver when I met this bloke called ‘Alec The Greek’, who wasn’t a Greek. He lent me £65 to buy a car and I bought the cheapest possible four-door car I could: a Renault 4 saloon.

At the same time, I saw a notice in the local paper saying: 

WANTED FOR THEATRE GROUP

ACTORS

I thought I’ll have a go at that! 

This was the 1970s so, basically, being in a Theatre Group meant somebody gave you a Grant and you went round and scared kids for about an hour. 

I went to this audition and they were all standing in a circle going: 

“Taaaaall as a tree!……Smaaaall as a mouse!” 

Then they went: 

“Ooooooooh!……Eeeeeeeh!” 

And I thought What the fuck’s going on here? 

But I thought I’d have a go at it. 

I had a boxer dog I was looking after at the time and as I tried doing Taaaall as a tree! the boxer dog was trying to shag my leg. They were all taking it seriously but, over the other side of the room, was a bloke called Martin Soan and he looked at me and he looked at the boxer dog and I looked at him and we knew, from that moment, we were going to get on. And we did.

I was also minicabbing with the boxer dog in the car. There was a girl in this Theatre Group who was very big. Well, let’s be honest, she was fat. 

She fancied me. I don’t know why, but she did.

I went to the minicab office one night at 1.00am and this girl was there, waiting for me. She said: 

“Can you take me home to Peckham, Malcolm?” 

“Alright,” I said. 

Just as she was getting in the car, the minicab boss shouted out: 

“Oy! I’ve got another fare for Peckham, round the corner! Can you take him?” 

“Yes,” I said. “No problem.”

So I drove round the corner to the address and the fare was on the 14th floor of a tower block. 

I went in. The lift didn’t work. I ran up the stairs. Knocked on the door. Shouted out: 

“Anyone cab for Peckham?” 

This bloke came to the door a bit drunk and said: 

“Can you take five?” 

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think I can take five. I’ve got a dog in the car”. I didn’t mention the fat girl. 

So this bloke called out: 

“Mavis! Oi, Mavis! We like dogs, don’t we?” 

“Yeah,” she called back: “We love dogs!”  

So I capitulated because he said he’d pay double.

 “Alright,” I said, “I’ll take five”. 

I ran all the way down the stairs and shouted to the fat girl: 

“Get in the boot!” 

Full credit to her, she did. 

The boot in my Renault was at the front. So she got into the boot and the family came down. They were luckily quite small people. I put three of them in the back with the dog over their laps and the bloke and his wife in the front. I started the engine up and the fat girl must have panicked because the boot lid came slowly up and her face rose in front of the windscreen. The bloke asked the not unreasonable question: 

“Who’s that?” 

“Dunno,” I said.

The lid of the boot went down and we drove off to Peckham. The bloke never mentioned it again. Nor did I. 

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My Comedy Taste. Part 2: Eccentrics, anarchy and performers’ mad minds

In 2017, oft-times comedy festival judge and linguistics expert Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy.

I posted Part 1 of this chat yesterday.

Here is Part 2…


LOUISETTE: So you don’t like actors trying to be stand-up comics…

JOHN: To an extent. I am also allergic to a lot of character comedy. I don’t like character acts in general, though I do like some. I think the closer the ‘character’ is to reality – to being like a real person – the less I like it. But, if it’s a cartoon character – Charlie Chuck is a perfect example –  I like it.

I adore Simon Munnery; he can be very surreal, but I didn’t like his early Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character – It was too close to reality for me.

LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.

JOHN: Yes. I have met people who really are pretty-much like that. When I was a researcher for TV shows, I got typed for finding eccentrics and bizarre acts. I would find genuinely different-thinking people who did odd things and usually lived in provincial suburbia, bored out of their skulls with the mundanity of their lives, unable to unleash their inner originality and unconventionality.

So, if I watch a performer pretending to be eccentric, I think: Why am I watching someone faking a ‘performance’ when I could be watching the real thing? You can see in their eyes that these performers are not the real thing. They are sane people trying to be, to varying extents, oddballs they are not.

Well, all good comedians are, of course, mad to an extent.

LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.

JOHN: They are all unconventional thinkers or they have some personality disorder. The good ones. And I think one of the reasons I like watching comedy is I like watching some of the bizarre characters which a lot of comedians genuinely are. I don’t like people pretending to be odd characters, but I like watching people who ARE… well, a bit odd. They are the good comics for me.

There is maybe a difference with pure gag-delivery acts like Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine.

LOUISETTE: But, getting back to character acts…

JOHN: If someone does a character act, they are pretending to be someone else, which is what an actor does… rather than being themselves or some version of themselves, which is what a modern comedian does. So, if I can watch a comedian – let us not mention Lewis Schaffer – with bizarre character traits, I am happy. If I watch an actor pretending to be a bizarre character but not being themselves, I am not really that interested because I can go out and find the real nutter.

LOUISETTE: So what you are saying is you want the person to be the person and you want that person to be nuts. Is that because there is no danger in playing a character, no risk except that the audience might not like it? Whereas, if the person is being themselves and they get it wrong or they go off the rails, there is a risk?

JOHN: I suppose so – like watching a motor race because there is always the danger of a disastrous crash.

I may be like a Miss World contestant. 

LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.

JOHN: But you know how contestants in old-fashioned beauty contests were always asked their interests and they would say, “Oh! I’m interested in people”? 

Well, I AM interested in people and how their minds work.

Most of my blogs are not objective blogs. They have very little of me in them. That is not because I am hiding me. It is because I’m interested in finding out how the other person’s mind works and – because they are usually creative in some way – how their creative juices shape their performance pieces or their life – how their mind creates original end-results. Or – because I sometimes mention crime – how their slightly non-mainstream thoughts work. And, of course, if there are quirky anecdotes in it, that’s great. I am interested in the people and I am a sucker for quirky anecdotes.

LOUISETTE: You say you are interested in the creative process – the thing that makes that person tick both on and off stage – But how do you analyse that? How do you figure out from somebody’s performance – even if it’s very close to the real person – what that real person’s process is?

JOHN: I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I keep watching people perform. If I knew everything, there would be no point seeing any other act.

LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?

JOHN: I dunno. I’m just interested in how everyone is different. Everyone is different; everyone is unique. There is no end to it, missus.

At a distance, people are similar but, up close, they are, like Charlie Chuck, unique

LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.

JOHN: Yes. It sounds wanky to say it out loud, but people are infinitely interesting, yes. At a distance, people are just a mass of similar heads but, in China, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian all have individual faces. 

LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?

JOHN: I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go along. But, if you read about identical twins, they are usually a bit the same but a lot different. I’m interested in individuality. It’s not nature OR nurture. It’s BOTH that creates infinite uniqueness.

LOUISETTE: I’m still interested in getting at this elementary, basic thing that you are looking for. You do not want things to be off-pat. You don’t want an act to be overly polished. But what about someone like Spencer Jones who has a very well-formed act.

JOHN: Yes, he is interesting because he IS an actor and he IS doing character comedy… so I should not like him, but I do… But, then, he is doing a cartoon character. In no way are you going to find that character working in Barclays Bank or walking along the high street. So I like him, I think, because he is a cartoon character. I think it is mostly tightly-scripted…

LOUISETTE: Yes, that’s why I am asking you…

JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different. 

LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?

JOHN: I dunno. Martin Soan created The Naked Balloon Dance for The Greatest Show on Legs… The Balloon Dance has to be done exactly as it is choreographed.

The whole point is that you never see any naughty bits and therefore the balloons have to be… It looks chaotic, but, if it were actually done willy-nilly – if that’s an appropriate phrase – it would fall apart and would not be as funny.

LOUISETTE: You said it LOOKS chaotic. Do you enjoy that? What you are saying is that, if it looks chaotic but it actually isn’t…

JOHN: Maybe prop comedy and physical comedy are different to stand-up. I suppose with Spencer Jones, you are shocked by the use of the props; the… unexpectedness… This… this falls apart as an argument, doesn’t it? There must be something different…

I like pun comedy: Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Darren Walsh, Leo Kearse to an extent. They are very tightly pre-scripted or, at least, prepared. With puns, if they have a vast number of puns, they can move the order around but the flow, the pacing, the momentum has to be kept going so they need to be highly pre-prepared.

So that’s where my thing falls down. Verbally, pun shows and short gag-short gag-short gag shows like Milton Jones’ have to be very tightly choreographed and the prop comedy shows have to be very tightly choreographed physically.

I know from being involved in Tiswas – the ancient slapstick kids’ show – that, if you do something that appears to be anarchy, you have to organise it really, really well. You can’t perform anarchy in an anarchic way; you have to organise it in advance.

LOUISETTE: Like Phil EllisFunz & Gamez.

JOHN: Indeed. And I remember one Tiswas production meeting, after the show had been going for years, where the producer said: “We have to figure out some way to make things go wrong during the show.” Because they had been going for so many years, all likelihoods were covered-for in pre-production meetings. Everyone was very experienced, very professional and nothing really went wrong that threw everything off course. You could script-in things to go wrong, but nothing ever went genuinely disastrously wrong of its own accord.

LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…

JOHN: I do like anarchy. I don’t especially want to see a Michael McIntyre show because it will be too smoothly professional. I do prefer shows that are up-and-down like a roller-coaster in an anarchic way. Though, if it involves immense detail like props or puns, then you can’t have real anarchy. The only way to have apparent anarchy with props and puns and tight gag-gag-gag routines is to prepare it all very carefully.

So I am… I am getting schizophrenic here, aren’t I…?

LOUISETTE: You are. But that’s good. I was discussing it with Frankie (Louisette’s son Frankie Brickman) and he asked me if it was unpredictability you like or feigned unpredictability.

JOHN: Maybe if they feign the unpredictability in a very professional way and I don’t spot the fact it’s feigned…

It’s not even unpredictability I like. It’s the cleverness. If it’s clever and a rollercoaster, I will forgive them the bits that don’t work for the bits that do work. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Martin Soan sells bits of comedy history – and The Greatest Show on Legs’ origin

The poster for the latest Pull The Other One

Martin Soan’s comedy club Pull The Other One has been running for eleven years in South East London but is closing in June this year. Currently, there are shows twice a month. Recent acts have included Alan Davies, Omid Djalili, Boothby Graffoe, Robin Ince, Tony Law and Stewart Lee. The next one is this Friday with top-of-the-bill Nina Conti. After that, there are only five more shows including one headlining Simon Munnery. The final Pull The Other One is on Friday 29th June with Oram & Meeten. 

Martin Soan is also a prolific prop maker both for himself and others. Almost every Edinburgh Fringe, it seems, he gets asked to make a giant vagina by different acts: on one occasion, a singing one.

I did not ask him about the giant vaginas when we met.


Martin – legendary performance artist with a sense of humour

JOHN: So you are selling your props… Why?

MARTIN: To get a bit of cash and fund me doing something else. And I don’t have a van any more and some of these props are quite large. That’s the main reason.

JOHN: Doing something else? 

MARTIN: I’m reinventing myself, John.

JOHN: As what? A woman?

MARTIN: A performance artist with a sense of humour.

JOHN: But you’ve always been a performance artist.

MARTIN: I haven’t done a show for ages.

JOHN: You’re doing a show every two weeks!

MARTIN: Well, with that, I’m a comedy producer or a gig owner or whatever. But there’s another show inside me.

JOHN: Which is?

MARTIN: I don’t know yet. It won’t be themed. It won’t be like…

JOHN: Hamlet?

MARTIN: No.

JOHN: So?

MARTIN: Stupid, surreal.

JOHN: What are you going to do with this show? Take it up to the Edinburgh Fringe next year?

MARTIN: No. 

JOHN: Why?”

MARTIN: Because Edinburgh is a black hole of financial… deadlines and… Edinburgh is rich enough now. The breweries, the University. They’re rich enough. Move on… To another city. A depressed city.

JOHN: Where?

Could Scarborough be the new Edinburgh for Fringe comedy?

MARTIN: Scarborough. Let’s create a Fringe at Scarborough.

JOHN: Why?

MARTIN: The last time I went to Scarborough, it looked a bit like Brighton – a gorgeous town – but it was completely and utterly depressed.

JOHN: Isn’t it where Alan Ayckbourn does his plays?

MARTIN: I’m not sure. I’m saying Scarborough, but it could be any town. Scarborough is ideal because it has all these large premises. Loads and loads of rooms out the back of pubs.

JOHN: How about Leipzig? You have staged Pull The Other One shows there.

MARTIN: Well, yeah, but it’s getting popular now. Probably moving out of Leipzig is the thing to do. Grünau is probably the place. I’m desperate to go somewhere like Leipzig.

JOHN: You mean move there?

MARTIN: Yeah, for a time. That’s the desire. I’ve gotta get some funding. Pull The Other One in Nunhead was fantastic, but I don’t make money. I cover my expenses. It’s an enormous amount of work. I dress the room, which takes a day and then another day taking it down. I would carry on, but it does occupy all my time, really, and it’s tense leading up to the gigs. If I don’t sell tickets, I’m losing big-time because I have to pay everyone. The Nun’s Head pub are very, very good to me, but I want to do two or three pop-up shows a year.

JOHN: So what props are you selling?

MARTIN: The Gates of Hell.

JOHN: Eh?

MARTIN: That rack of 24 singing Billy The Bass fish… And  I have an anvil made out of foam… I’m selling The Red Sparrows with written choreography…

…and I’m selling Mr Punch, who is 49 years old. 

JOHN: And the relevance of Mr Punch is…?

MARTIN: He was the very first member of The Greatest Show on Legs. I was the second. Basically, the Greatest Show on Legs started out as a Punch & Judy show and it was me and Malcolm Hardee. That was where me and Malcolm met. He became my ‘interpreter’.

JOHN: Why is it called The Greatest Show on Legs?

MARTIN: Because, rather than being a free-standing booth, the booth cloth came down halfway and was all strapped to my back so my legs came out the bottom and I could walk around with it. In fact, the original one had four legs coming out of it, because I did the old Rolf Harris Jake The Peg thing.

JOHN: Malcolm told me the other reason for building it that way was that, if the show went badly, you could just do a runner…

MARTIN: Well…

JOHN: …or was that just one of Malcolm’s fantasies?

MARTIN: Well, yeah, Malcolm just made that up. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to see where I was running, would I? There was one time at the Ferry Inn at Salcolme when I had had rather too much to drink and, inside the booth you have no horizon so I was falling over and didn’t even know it. Suddenly, it was like a sledgehammer coming up and hitting me on the back of the head and I was knocked out. Malcolm looked at the audience and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, there will now be an interval of fifteen minutes.”

JOHN: But you had done the Greatest Show on Legs on your own before you met Malcolm.

MARTIN: Oh yeah. I was 16 when I started. I think me and Malcolm met when we were about 24 or 25. When I first started at 16, obviously, I was shit. I had no formal training in any performing art or anything. I didn’t know what I was doing. I always remember the first show I gave where I thought: Aaah! I think I might have the hang of this! It was at University College, London. Outside one of their buildings, at some event. Something clicked on that one.

JOHN: You got around a bit.

MARTIN: I used to do Portobello Road and only two people used to come and see me regularly. This large black lady and a little boy. They came and saw me every time; I don’t know why. I  used to shit bricks before I got into the booth and started.

JOHN: Why did you start doing it if you had no natural aptitude at 16?

MARTIN: When you’re young, you are desperate to make friends and at least be recognised in some sort of way. Plus it fed my creative ‘making’ side – making props and things. I used to like all the problem solving. 

JOHN: Such as?

MARTIN: Thinking it would be brilliant if Mr Punch got so angry that smoke would come out of his ears. So he has two tubes to blow smoke out.

JOHN: And this is the one you are auctioning off?

MARTIN: Yeah. He is 49 years of age.

JOHN: That must be a bit of an emotional trauma for you.

Martin Soan’s 24 Billy The Bass which will sing in unison

MARTIN: Well, so far, people have not taken it seriously. Boothby Graffoe started mucking around and saying he would bid half a monkey. Otiz Cannelloni bid £500 for the crate of Billy The Bass singing fish which I think… Well, they are £25-£35 each and you could flog ‘em for £25 each so, in singing fish alone it’s worth £500. But it’s a concept and they’re all wired up to one button so they all sing together.

JOHN: How do you know when the auction has ended? 

MARTIN: I will decide when it gets to the reserve price or more.

JOHN: Have you got reserve prices in mind?

Martin says: “Mr Punch is 49 years of age and his skin is really good to look at”

MARTIN: No. Mr Punch is 49 years of age and his skin is really good to look at. He looks aged. He looks 49, but not in a bad way.

JOHN: What does “Not in a bad way” mean?

MARTIN: Look, I’m talking bollocks now. You have tricked me into talking bollocks.

JOHN: It’s a natural aptitude.

MARTIN: I obviously would not let Mr Punch go for for £25.

JOHN: If people want to bid or buy or ask questions, what is the ‘handle’ as I think young people say or used to say.

MARTIN: @PTOOcomedy on Twitter and Facebook is Pull The Other One.

JOHN: Not Martin Soan?

MARTIN: Well, you could. And I have other interesting stuff.

JOHN: Such as?

MARTIN: Miss Haversham.

JOHN: From Great Expectations.

Martin Soan on stage as Miss Haversham

MARTIN: She’s sitting down in an armchair and she has arms and legs – which are false. 

JOHN: And Miss Haversham IS the armchair.

MARTIN: Yeah. You put it on like a costume. You can be dressed normally, You go in from the back and come up and, as you come up, you are putting on the whole costume; there’s even a wig built-in. It’s like a quick-change thing.

JOHN: I seem to remember it involved a 3-minute build-up for one visual gag.

MARTIN: Well, you’ve never seen the whole sketch. It was all about alliteration. There’s Pip and Miss Haversham is doing embroidery and she gives the needle to Pip then she moves away from him to create the tautness of the thread and comes back. Instead of him moving, she moves.

JOHN: You should do a show demonstrating all the props you’re selling ‘as originally used’.

MARTIN: I suppose so. They’re lovely props, but they are big props for a big show. You need a van. To get even the fish in AND Miss Haversham, you need a big van.

JOHN: You’re not going to retire.

MARTIN: No.

JOHN: That’s a relief.

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Mike Raffone on street performance, Dada and his cabaret club for misfits

Mike Raffone bills himself as an “Eccentric Entertainer”.

I saw his Brain Rinse show at the Edinburgh Fringe last year – it was billed as ‘Puppetry of The Audience’ – and I went to his monthly Cabaret Rinse club at the Elephant & Castle in London last month. It is wonderfully unpredictable. The next one is this coming Friday.

“Why,” I asked, “was your Fringe show called Brain Rinse and your London club is called Cabaret Rinse?”

“Because, hopefully it rinses your brain. Not a brainwash. Just a mild rinse.”

“How would you describe Cabaret Rinse?”

“A club for misfits. We did a similar thing about five years ago in Peckham for about six months – The Royal National Theatre of Fools. I just decided we needed a National Theatre for idiots, but it proved quite an expensive hobby.”

Cabaret Rinse is all variety acts,” I said. “Not stand-up comedy…”

The ringmaster of anarchic entertainment – Mike Raffone

“Well,” Mike responded, “what is stand-up? Cabaret Rinse is comedy definitely. Funny definitely. Out there for sure. Interesting I hope. Entertaining I hope.

“When we did Theatre of Fools, we did have a secret non-stand-up policy. We don’t have that with Cabaret Rinse. Last month we had Candy Gigi. You could say she’s a stand-up, but… she’s one in a million, really. There’s bits of stand-up but bits of brilliant clowning. I see that in all the people I like.”

“Candy Gigi is wonderful,” I said, “but I’m a bit wary of the way people use the word ‘clowning’ nowadays.”

“I hate the way the word is used,” said Mike.

“Why?”

“It’s the connotation. The art aesthetic. I think great clowning tends to be anarchistic. I would say The Greatest Show on Legs is great clowning. Or Ken Campbell’s Roadshow.”

“I agree with you,” I said, “that The Greatest Show on Legs ARE clowns, but I’m not quite sure why.”

“I think it’s well rehearsed,” said Mike, “but it looks like it’s thrown together.”

Greatest Show on Legs’ balloon dance in 2012

“Well,” I said, “with the Balloon Dance, the exact choreography is complicated and vital because it builds and it’s all about narrowly missing seeing the bits.”

“Ragged but in a great way,” agreed Mike. “It was by far the most hysterical thing that whole Fringe when I saw them in 2012.”

“Well,” I said, “they feel a bit like street performers but are not, though Martin Soan did start The Greatest Show on Legs as an adult Punch & Judy act. You, though, are basically a street performer at heart.”

“I dunno about ‘at heart’,” Mike replied. “I’m a performer at heart. But I’ve certainly done a lot of street performing. With Cabaret Rinse and Brain Rinse the idea is to take the energy and instantaneous edginess of street performing – of What the fuck is going to happen? – but NOT just do a street show indoors.

“Street theatre is so specific to where it is. There’s load of people there shopping and I’m gonna grab their attention. It’s the big trick. It’s grabbing the attention. If it’s a joke, it cannot be a subtle one. Everything’s big.  So I want to bring that kind of bigness and edginess and freshness into a – not an arty but a – theatrical setting.”

“You trained as an actor,” I said.

“…a misfit theatre course…”

“I remember, when I was a kid, around 16, ushering for my local theatre and seeing the Cardiff Lab and thinking This is weird. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on. This guy is scary but I love it. Wow! This is incredible! 

“Then I did a theatre degree at Leicester Polytechnic which was a bit of a misfit theatre course. It was run by this guy – a little bit of a maverick – who wanted to make his own theatre school – a bit like Jacques Lecoq – and he didn’t want it to be conventional. But he also realised the only way he could get funding at that time – in the mid-1980s – was to hide behind the auspices of an academic institution.

“His philosophy was that he was going to run the course but try and have as little as possible to do with the bureaucratic workings of the polytechnic. I got to see things like Footsbarn. It was a very practical, creative course and I think I got a taste there for theatre that was out of the ordinary.”

“So you got a taste for the bizarre.”

“Yes. I got into street theatre 30 years ago. I remember going down to Covent Garden and seeing street shows – it was all quite new then – and thinking: I don’t have the balls to do that. But, within a month, I was doing it. Covent Garden was quite interesting at that time in the late 1980s. It was sort of mixing with New Variety.”

Mike Raffone, street entertainer, performing at the Covent Garden Piazza in London

“So you thought you could not do it but then started doing it?”

“There was a guy who dragged me into it because he wanted to do it. He was like a dancer and acrobat. So we put this terrible show together, did it for about three shows and then he fucked off. But, by then, I had my street performer’s licence.

“We did go to Paris and see this man called Bananaman, who was this mad bloke who collected junk and then played music with it outside the Pompidou Centre. It was all in French. And then he hit this real banana and smashed it and everyone just thought he was mad. Apparently he was seen in Paris as the world’s worst street performer, but I thought: Wow! That’s alternative!”

Mike has learned to conduct himself well in performance

“What did he hit the banana with?”

“A stick. To me it was an act of Dada.

“I thought it was brilliant. So we went back to Covent Garden and decided we were going to create a police car out of rubbish. We got all this rubbish and two half-arsed costumes together and the idea was it would look terrible. Other street performers came up to us and said: Right, here’s a bit of advice – Get yourself some proper costumes because, frankly, it just looks like rubbish at the moment. And we said: No! That’s the POINT!

“The word anarchy,” I said, “might put some people off. But, if you say Dada, it sounds arty and acceptable and respectable. What does Dada mean?”

“Meaningless… I suppose I like it when you take it to the max, If you are truly going to be Dada, I suppose you have to be anti-everything. Anti-script. Anti-comedy. Anti-anti-comedy.”

His autobiography – Hitting The Cobbles

“Being a street performer, though,” I suggested, “is quite disciplined. You have to be half performer and half barrowboy/street market trader. You have to grab the punters’ attention at  the start and tout for money at the end, with a performance bunged in the middle. So, in theory, you could transfer the actual performance indoors if you remove the ‘selling’ element.”

“I would agree with that.”

“Except that the selling,” I said, “is an integral part of the street performance.”

“Well,” replied Mike, “they say you ‘sell’ a joke and I’m very aware of how I am going to set up any part of the performance. I am quite analytical about selling the material. I don’t know if it’s my inbuilt insecurity as a performer, but I so see myself as a writer. I think: This has got to work on paper or it won’t work in performance. That’s probably not the case, but it’s how I see it. I write everything down, even if it is just: We will be improvising at this point. It’s some weird fear.”

“So you are not a Dadaist really,” I said, “because you want everything written-down and organised in advance.”

“No, I don’t think I’m a Dadaist.”

“An absurdist?” I asked.

“I don’t know. To me, if it’s funny, it’s funny. I remember years ago I was called a post-modernist street performer. I didn’t quite know what it meant.”

“That’s it, then,” I said. We’re done. Where are you going now?”

“I’m going to a museum. It’s putting on a Dada cabaret… All I want is a bicycle hooked up to a whoopee cushion and, when people ride fast enough, it makes the whoopee cushion fart. That’s all I want.”

But what about his name – Mike Raffone?

Is it his stage name or his real name?

Say it out loud.

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The Comedy Store, Saturday Night Live and being a stripper in 1980s Finland

The current Comedy Store entrance in London

Kim Kinnie died last weekend. The Chortle comedy website described him as a “Svengali of alternative comedy… the long-serving gatekeeper of the Comedy Store (in London) and a ‘spiritual godfather’ to many stand-ups in the early days of alternative comedy… Kinnie started out as a choreographer and stage manager of the Gargoyle Club, the Soho strip club where The Comedy Store began in 1979”.

This blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith used to work at the Gargoyle Club – she now lives on a boat in Vancouver – so I asked her if she remembered him. This was her reply:


Anna retouched her nose in this.

Yes. He (and Don Ward) hired me on the spot when I auditioned there as a stripper.

I have had a bad cold for a couple of weeks and lost my internet at home, so I have been reading for a bit, about the Irish in Montreal, and maybe a Margaret Cho bio next.

Recently, I have felt like trying standup again after this almost 40 year interval. I was telling some stories I call my “God Guy” stories to a crazy lady at work – a client – She thinks she has a snake living in her ankle and wears a TRUMP supporter badge,

Anyhow, she loved my stories and was having me repeat them to everybody.

I say I did stand-up comedy almost 40 years ago. Maybe I should have call it Pop Out Comedy, as I would pop out of my costume when the audience was too rambunctious.

A poster for the Gargoyle/Nell Gwynne clubs

I wasn’t doing stand up among the dancers. The Gargoyle/Nell Gwynne club had a theatre, where the strip shows were done and The Comedy Store was in a separate room (and floor actually) which was set up more like a supper club, with round tables and a stage barely a foot above floor level. There is a picture in the book by William Cook showing a punter sitting at a table in front of the stage, resting his feet ON the stage!

For some reason I remembered the theatre as upstairs and the comedy club downstairs but, from the memoirs of other comics, it was the reverse. The club was upstairs and the theatre downstairs. The comics sometimes used to come in and watch us do our shows before they went on.

When I went there I auditioned first as a dancer, but then I also used to do stand up at the open mike (which was in a gong show format) at The Comedy Store. It was in the very early days of the Store. It had only been open about a year and the compères were Tony Allen and Jim Barclay.

Tony Green, aka Sir Gideon Vein. Photo circa 1983/1884

Jim Barclay used to wear the arrow-through-his-head thing at the time. I saw Sir Gideon Vein doing his horror show, in his hundred year frock coat. He always started his act by saying: “This looks like the place to be-eeeeeee…” and then he told a ridiculous ‘Tale of Terror’ about The Gamboli Trilplets, Tina, Lina and Gina… John Hegley was a hit right off the bat there. Others took longer to find their feet.

Most of the comics were ultra politically correct and some were really boring. The audience has been rightly described as a bear pit – very drunk, mostly young people who had too much money. They thought nothing of throwing objects at us. One time the chef, newly arrived from Bangaldesh, rushed out to offer first aid to Sir Gideon Vein, who had a stream of fake blood pouring over his face – because comics were known to suffer injuries from the audience throwing their designer boots at them.

The Greatest Show on Legs – (L-R) Malcolm Hardee, Chris Lynam and Martin Soan (Photo: Steven Taylor)

The Greatest Show on Legs were there one night and the first time I saw them I couldn’t believe it – they were so hilarious – so I ran down to our (strippers) dressing room and made the other dancers run up the stairs so they wouldn’t miss it. We watched them through a glass window in a door at the back of the club. Malcolm Hardee was, of course, glad to have a bunch of strippers admiring his act and greeted us after the show with a genial “Hello LADIES”.

I had started doing stand up in Toronto as I loved comedy already, before I went to London. In Toronto my strip shows had become sillier as I went along. Once I learned the rudiments of striptease, I found it impossible to take seriously. How could I take seriously taking off my clothes in public for a bunch of old men? When I did my nurse show I dressed in a real nurse outfit with flat shoes.

The audience really loved my silly character and act. I used to start it with a song called I Think I’m Losing My Marbles. I would come out with my first aid kit and whip out a notebook and, looking really bitchy, I would pretend to take notes on the audience and would put on a surgical mask.

It was pretty complicated but I realised that if you are a young woman dressed as a nurse you can get away with just about anything.

The original 1975 cast of Saturday Night Live (Left-Right) Laraine Newman, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase.

Another time, when I was about 22 years old and still living in Toronto, I went to New York and, dressed as a nurse, showed up at the offices of Saturday Night Live and I just walked in looking for Lorne Michaels, the producer.

At the time, I wasn’t looking for comedy work. I went there (without an appointment) because I wanted to ask if they could give my musician boyfriend a spot on  the show.  It sounds like a long shot, but my boyfriend had been at the University of Toronto with Lorne Michaels and the show’s musical director Paul Shaffer, who are both Canadian.

It took me a couple of days but eventually I got a meeting with Paul Shaffer. He was very nice and I sat there in his office as he explained to me that, sadly, even though he was the musical director, he didn’t actually have much say in which acts were chosen for the show because John Belushi held the balance of power there, so all the musical acts chosen to be premiered on Saturday Night Live were friends of John.

Life was never boring.

When I was dancing on the Belgian porno cinema circuit, there was a particularly dedicated licence inspector in Liege whom I managed to avoid by hiding on the roof of the cinema (probably half dressed in costume, after my shows). Eventually, he caught me and so I had to visit the Harley Street physician dictated by the Belgian Embassy and got a certificate to prove that I was physically and mentally fit to strip for Belgians.

I may be coming back to Amsterdam this year or next. If I do, I will try to find some other shows or work like playing a double bass half naked or some such nonsense. Is there much work for that type of thing do you think? Or maybe I will go to a burlesque festival in Finland.

The ever interesting Anna Smith

I danced in Finland in February around 1985 and it was exceptionally cold that year. But not indoors.

I was billed as Lumoojatar, which means an enchantress. I took trains all over the country for one month and then did a week at a cinema on the waterfront of Helsinki called La Scala.

In my CV, I say that I stripped at La Scala.

When I did my show at La Scala, all the men were wearing wolf skin hats. All I saw was a sea of wolf skin hats. One time, when I was passing through the lobby, a tiny man wearing a wolf skin hat – who appeared to be about 85 or so – told me in halting English: “You very good show. Very good. Very good, I know. I am connoisseur!”

The worst thing that happened to me was in the industrial town of Tampere where the policemen wore earmuffs. I was dancing on the floor of a cavernous bar (it seemed more like an arena than a bar). I could barely hear my music – theme songs from James Bond movies. The audience of paper mill workers on their afternoon break seemed thrilled anyway. A rough-looking lone old woman in the audience stuck her tongue out at me.

After my show, I was getting dressed in a toilet and an enormous drunk man suddenly threw the door open, advanced towards me and then dropped to his knees bellowing in Finnish.

Before I could figure out what to do next, four more men crashed in and grabbed the first man.

“He wants to marry you,” they explained, laughing and apologetic as they dragged him out.

My phone’s battery is about to die now. I am going for a swim.

Anna Smith took this selfie in Antwerp

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Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! stage show and the more prestigious Aaaaaaah! movie

I dreamt of partying with these chaps

A midsummer day’s dream

I am old, bald and fat. It is very hot. Today I had a siesta.

As I have mentioned in this blog before, I seldom remember my dreams – only when I get woken up during one. That happened during my siesta. For some reason, I was dreaming that comic performer Martin Soan was trying to persuade me to go to a party organised by the band Radiohead.

I got woken up by a text from Martin Soan. When I told him what I had been dreaming, he said: “I have been to a Radiohead party. Years ago. A small one. Intimate. The drummer had a cottage next to a friend of mine.”

Martin had actually texted me to ask: “What date is the Malcolm Awards? I have a red carpet invitation in London on 28th August for Steve Oram’s new movie.”

Actually, the real, billed title of the Malcolm Awards show is Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! It’s the Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show – and It’s Free!

“Inevitably,” I texted back, “the Malcolm show is on 28th August in Edinburgh.”

This year is the tenth anniversary of the death by drowning of comedian Malcolm Hardee and the increasingly prestigious annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show is being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe on that very evening – Friday 28th August.

So something special, sophisticated and highly organised had to be arranged for this special anniversary show, didn’t it?

No! Of course not. That would smack of carefully-arranged professionalism and it would not be honouring Malcolm’s memory.

The bare image promoting the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

Malcolm Hardee: a shadow of his former self

But, for the show, I had booked The Greatest Show on Legs, the troupe of occasionally naked men Malcolm performed with. We had not talked about what they were going to do, of course. Professionalism can be taken too far.

Anyway… so… this morning, I got this text from Martin Soan – the head Leg.

“I don’t know what I should do,” he said when I phoned him.

“Well, obviously,” I said, “you have to go to the film thing. What is the film called?”

“It is called Aaaaaaah!

“Not Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh!?”

“No, Aaaaaaah!”

“Do you have a running role?”

“I have a cameo.”

“How did they fit the broach into the plot?” I asked.

“I play a fading rock star,” he told me. “There is a trailer for it on YouTube.”

“I got the part after I did something for one of Oram & Meeten’s Club Fantastico stage shows. I won the title Miss Club Fantastico 2014.”

This is what Martin did to get the part.

The world premiere of Aaaaaaah! is on Friday 28th August in the Vue, Leicester Square, in London.

The annual Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! is on Friday 28th August at The Counting House in Edinburgh.

 

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Adam Taffler produces comedy that is, this weekend, literally underground

Adam Taffler, underground entrepreneur (Photograph by Kirsty Burge)

Adam Taffler, underground entrepreneur (Photograph by Kirsty Burge)

So, yesterday I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get access to the underground chamber where performer Martin Soan and showman Adam Taffler are constructing a one-off venue for this Saturday. It is in Zone 2 of London.

“People who buy tickets  will get texted the location on the day, just like our last event,” Adam Taffler told me.

Last month Martin and Adam staged a Soirée in a Cemetery with comedian Stewart Lee headlining. I could not attend.

“How did it go?” I asked.

“Phenomenal,” said Adam. “Completely sold out. It was in Tower Hamlets Cemetery. We did a walk among the gravestones lit by candles. We had fire breathers and an accordionist and people walked through the whole experience which immersed them in the fabric of the location and the history and then they sat down for the show. Because they were immersed in the location, I liked to think that affected how they received the performance. Certainly Stewart Lee said it was his favourite gig of the last three years.

“This time – this Saturday with Soirée Subterranea – we’re going to take people into the Hellfire Club of Sir Francis Dashwood.

Adam (left) with Martin Soan yesterday, preparing the secret subterranean venue

Adam (left) with Martin Soan yesterday, preparing the secret subterranean venue

“It’s in a secret underground chamber. It’s a historical location, so some of the acts will have a historical twist. At one time, it was the biggest tourist attraction in the world. On the first day it opened, 50,000 people came through.

“Sir Francis Dashwood is played by Phil Kay with twelve monks and artists – everything from Lucy Ridley and classical dance through to comics Ed Aczel and Nick Revell doing monk and nun based humour and there’s absinthe cocktails and it’ll be a giggle.”

“So,” I said, “a mixture of comedy, cabaret and music but without the Satanic sacrifice of goats and virgins. What’s the capacity?”

“About 120. They turn up at different times. We have this process of immersing people into the experience. They turn up in groups of about ten. When the audience is ready for a show, then we will go further with it than before. I’m going for this idea of immersive comedy. I don’t want people just to laugh. I want them to have a bit of a cry as well.”

Some underground laughs + some underground tears

Underground laughs. Underground tears

“What will they cry at?” I asked. “Will they get tortured by the monks of Medmenham Abbey?”

“Lucy is going to do this beautiful dance to Dido’s Lament,” said Adam. “And then the comedy will flip the energy right back up.”

“Who was Dido?” I asked. “Was she the one with the Minotaur?”

“I dunno,” said Adam. “But it’s a bit sad. She’s lamenting and there’s a harpsichord and a lady singing.”

“Are you going to put on these Soirée shows regularly?” I asked.

“I think we would like to do the shows every three months, maybe on an increasingly bigger scale.”

“And are you,” I asked, “still picking up random women in parks?”

Adam’s grandfather was a lady lifter – a strongman who, painted in gold, lifted women in the air.

Adam runs a company called Adamotions. The company slogan is: BEWARE YE GODS OF MUNDANITY, WE ARE ALREADY AT YOUR GATES!

“I have a new intern called Gabby,” he told me. “She’s great. We go round lifting up women together. I do the lifting. She does the photography.”

“You were in Vice recently,” I said.

Speed dating where you can’t say anything

Speed dating events where you can’t say anything

“Yes,” said Adam, “they came and reviewed my Shhh silent speed-dating event the other month – it’s on twice a month in Clapham and Islington. Good places for single professional people.”

“So are Iraq and Syria,” I said.

“So,” said Adam, ignoring this, “Vice came and were very complimentary, which was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a positive article by them about anything. Although the girl who wrote it did call Clapham “a kind of fuckwit caliphate run by Time Out” – But that’s a beautiful turn of phrase.”

“What else are you doing?” I asked.

“I’ll be doing more Clowning in Nature with Doctor Brown in 2015. The idea is we go to Burning Man and then we do a Clowning in Nature in California.”

“Where’s Burning Man?” I asked. “Nevada?”

“Yes. It’s the festival of festivals. You should go there.”

“They would burn me like Edward Woodward,” I said.

“We could arrange that,” said Adam. “My mate builds the structure.”

Oh Christ! Oh Christ!” I said in the best Western Isles accent I could muster. “And you are now managing the Greatest Show On Legs and occasionally performing with them.”

Adam with Matt Roper (left)  and Martin Soan (right) in The Greatest Show On Legs (Photograph by Kirsty Burge)

Adam (centre) with Matt Roper (left) and Martin Soan (right) in The Greatest Show On Legs (Photograph by Kirsty Burge)

“Yes. We did this lovely gig down in Totnes last weekend. What was really exciting was that lots of new gags and sketches came together. We’re planning to take the Legs back to the Edinburgh Fringe next year.”

“Are you involved with Pull The Other One in Leipzig?”

“No. Martin and Vivienne Soan do that, but I’m helping Martin with the planned festival in Leipzig, either in 2015 or 2016. It will be a week long or maybe a long weekend to start with. Start small and casual, but it’s such fertile ground over there.”

“So,” I said, “lots of fingers in lots of pies. Is there anything that links them all?”

“I’m excited by taking an audience further than they would expect to go,” said Adam. “I think if you ask people if they want to go somewhere new, they may say no. But, if you gently take them there and push them, they will love it.”

“That sounds like Apple under Steve Jobs,” I said. “He never did market research to see what the public wanted; they just made the product – like an iPad – and sold it. Supposedly because Henry Ford said: If I had asked the public what they wanted, they wouldn’t have said they wanted a motor car – they would have said they wanted a better horse.

“I think the same thing about the public,” said Adam. “They don’t really know what new thing they want but, when they turn up and are shown it, they can think: Yeah! That’s bloody brilliant! If you give them a name they recognise or something they recognise to entice them in, then you can give them more than they expect.”

As I left, Adam was talking to someone on his mobile phone. All I heard was:

“We have to speak to the friar. We need him to supply us with 120.”

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