Tag Archives: Jenny Eclair

RIP Ian Cognito, dangerous comedian and great opera singer

“Even when I walked on stage and touched his arm I was expecting him to say Boo!”

Comedian Ian Cognito died on stage on Thursday night at the Lone Wolf Comedy Club in Bicester, Oxfordshire.

So it goes.

He reportedly “sat down on a stool while breathing heavily, before falling silent for five minutes during his show” and the audience thought it was part of his routine. He had earlier joked: “Imagine if I died in front of you lot here”.

In the US, Variety quoted audience member Ryan Mold: “He sat down, put his head and arms back; his shoulders were twitching… His behavior didn’t come off as unusual to those used to his flamboyant character.”

Compere Andrew Bird told the BBC: “Everyone in the crowd, me included, thought he was joking. Even when I walked on stage and touched his arm I was expecting him to say Boo!” 

The BBC quoted audience member John Ostojak as saying: “Only ten minutes before he sat down, he joked about having a stroke. He said: Imagine having a stroke and waking up speaking Welsh… We came out feeling really sick, we just sat there for five minutes watching him, laughing at him.”

Andrew Bird said dying on stage would have been the way Cognito “would have wanted to go… except he’d want more money and a bigger venue.”

The comedy website Chortle rather understated the case when it wrote he was “known for his outrageous and unpredictable stage act and would often boast of the number of clubs he was banned from”.

At one time, he used to start his act by walking on stage with a hammer, banging a nail into the wall and then hanging up his hat. “This lets you know two things about me,” he would shout. “Firstly, I really don’t give a shit. Secondly, I’ve got a hammer.”

Over the course of a 30-year career, no British TV company ever took the risk of putting him on screen. Yet today The Times, reported his death and called him a “cult comedian”. The Daily Mail today called him “a proper comic”.

The lesson to other comics seeking media coverage is clear: literally die on stage.

In comedian Malcolm Hardee’s 1996 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, there is an anecdote which starts: “An excellent performer called Ian Cognito was there and he was very drunk, as is his wont. When he’s drunk, he gets aggressive.”

I always found him very amiable and intelligent though with a slightly insecure glint in his eye. Well, he WAS a comedian.

In 2005, I shared a funeral car with him and Jenny Eclair at Malcolm Hardee’s funeral in Greenwich. Malcolm had drowned by falling in a dock while drunk… So it goes. 

Ian Cognito and Pam Ford at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013

In a 2013 blog from the Edinburgh Fringe, I wrote: “Last night, Cognito told comic Pam Ford and me a very funny series of stories about his own dad’s funeral and what happened to the ashes afterwards. Alas, I don’t think I can repeat them, because I was harassing Cognito that he should do death stories as an Edinburgh Fringe show in 2014.”

He didn’t, but no matter.

And, alas, I have now forgotten the stories.

I also wrote in that blog: “He was wearing a hat. He said he had a song about the late Malcolm Hardee. I invited him to perform it at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show on the final Friday of the Fringe. He said Yes.”

He didn’t.

But no matter.

Today his son, Will Barbieri, shared a quote from his father: “I hope when I am gone, that you will remember me for all the things I didn’t do, but could have done so easily.”

In 2014, I quoted the comedian Matt Price in a blog. He said:

“I mentioned to Ian Cognito: There’s a rumour going round you used to be an opera singer and he said: Oooh! Keep that one going, dahlin’ I do like that one!

So I will remember Ian Cognito as an interesting human being, a fascinatingly dangerous performer and a great opera singer.

But I did not really know Ian Cognito.

Malcolm Hardee Award winner Becky Fury did know him better. She sent me what follows under trying circumstances this morning.

She wrote: “I am a bit distracted by a total freak show in the kitchen and a man naked in the kitchen. Just a standard day in Deptford.”

Here is what she sent me…

‘Cogs’… in one of his quieter, more reflective moments…

I’m sad about – but also keep laughing hysterically about – Cogs.  

He actually died on stage, the mad bastard, and people thought he was pretending but he was actually dead. The compere came on and went to prod him as he thought he was joking but he was actually dead. Fuck me, that’s hilarious.

The man was a crazy, beautiful diamond and, like all diamonds, it’s the darkness that give them their brilliance.

Last night I went on stage and told the story of Cognito’s last prank. I’m still hoping he jumps out of the coffin at the funeral and shouts: “Gotcha, you cunts!” and then dies again – because that will be really funny.

It is interesting giving people permission to laugh at death.

It’s a taboo and Cogs liked smashing those. 

It’s the essence of liberation. 

It is nice to be given permission to continue to erode those taboos and it is an honour to explain to an audience your friend died like Tommy Cooper but he did it better. Dying on stage is a very naughty thing to do and the person was very naughty to do that but you can and should laugh because the person was a great comedian and it’s what he would have wanted.

I also explained I would be doing my Ian Cognito tribute act later and I had already taken the capsules of cyanide which was the grand finale after the crowd surfing just to put my own spin on it.

I’d known Cogs since I was 19. He ‘pulled’ me after a gig I was running with my we’ll call him ‘ex’ boyfriend as he was after that happened and who also happened to be the promoter. 

My relationship status with the promoter was unknown to Cogsy but was in hindsight a classic Cogsy as he had an almost supernatural knack of pissing off promoters

We were friends after that. Me and Cogs.

Me and the ex-boyfriend never recovered.

The Cogs I knew was a lovely, fascinating guy and I had a load of really interesting times with him, like a lot of people did. 

After our initial encounter, we met again in the backstage area of Reading Festival and spent the weekend getting drunk and talking and not seeing any bands. Why would you go and see Blur when you have Ian Cognito to talk to?

He even surfaced a few months after that and helped me get rid of another unsuitable ex-boyfriend and helped end another relationship for me. Like a sexy, crazy, cool dad that you can shag.

He had an uncanny knack of appearing when he was needed like a swaggering Cockney genie that lived in a bottle of Jameson’s.

And then a few more times after that.

When I started comedy, I did a few gigs with him at the Edinburgh Fringe where he was kind enough to offer me to share a spot he had in a show at the Pleasance. I was unfortunately too pissed to take him up on the offer. I could blame the fact I was keeping up with his drinking habits but that wouldn’t be true and truth was something that was very important to Cogsy in his life and his art – not that he would have said anything that pretentious.

I never knew him to be anything other than a lovely, wise, bright, shiny, gem of a person. An authentic soul and genius comic. 

There are very few of those and now one less. 

I’m still kinda hoping he kicks his way out of the coffin, does that song about his dog farting and then makes use of some of PR his death generated. But it was never about that.

It’s about living your truth to the full and making your life and death a work of art.

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Comedian Jenny Eclair, born in Kuala Lumpur, gets annoyed about Christians

Jenny Eclair, as she wants to be seen on her website

Jenny Eclair, as she wants to be seen, on her website www.jennyeclair.com

I chatted to Jenny Eclair at her home last week. In the first blog that came out of that, she talked about parts of her very varied career. In the second blog, she talked about iconic comedian Malcolm Hardee and that led on, obviously and easily, to his drinking.

“Towards the end, the last couple of years before he died,” I said, “I thought all those years of drinking were taking their toll and were showing.”

“But,” said Jenny, “brains do dry out as well. I have a friend who basically flooded his brain with alcohol but, because he now doesn’t live in London, he’s drying out. It’s like an old carpet. It’s gone a bit but it is repairing.”

“I have a smoker’s cough, but I don’t smoke,” I said. “I have a beer gut but I don’t drink. Sometimes I think I would be in better condition if I had taken heroin. Keith Richards can fall out of a tree with no problem and Dennis Hopper was perfectly lucid in his latter years.”

“Heroin’s better for your skin and it doesn’t make you fat,” suggested Jenny. “But the trouble with coming off heroin is you normally go to something else. Once an addict, always an addict.”

“I suppose someone could come off heroin and get addicted to the Salvation Army or something worse,” I mused.

“They’re just at the bottom of the road,” said Jenny. “The most beautiful building.”

“Yes,” I said, “I saw it coming out of Denmark Hill station.”

The Salvation Army building at Denmark Hill, South London

The Salvation Army building at Denmark Hill, South London

“The Salvation Army are actually quite good,” Jenny added, “because once Geoff (Jenny’s partner) was choking – he had been greedy over a sausage – and I was trying to give him the Heimlich manoeuvre but, because he was too fat, I couldn’t get both my arms round him. I was really struggling and he was about to die and there were two Salvation Army people walking past and they came in and they Heimliched him between them and saved his life. They also come and play Christmas carols round the corner, which is nice.”

“Well,” I said, “Christians, by and large, are OK.”

“They get a lot of stick these days,” said Jenny. “You’re not allowed to slag off any other religion. But you can slag off Christians. That pisses me off. There are too many smart-alecky people around in the media who wouldn’t dare slag off Moslems, who wouldn’t dream of slagging off Jews, but they give Christians a right old kicking and you just think: Hold on! Hold on here!

“I can’t bear the hypocrisy. It really does piss me off. Those people who do all the science stuff and find Christianity an easy target. They show an intolerance about Christians that isn’t allowed about anything else.”

“There’s nothing wrong with religion,” I suggested. “Just organised religion.”

“Or people talking about it to you,” said Jenny. “On the bus.”

“That’s people trying to convert you,” I said.

Jenny with her back to bad weather last week

Jenny with her back to bad weather last week

“No. That’s because I live too close to the Maudsley Hospital. Nutters. A lot of religious nutters… Ooh, look at the weather. It’s horrible…” The rain had started battering on her back windows.

“I’ve got to go to Greenwich to deliver some Ladybird books to my eternally-un-named friend,” I said.

“I love Ladybird books,” said Jenny.

“My eternally-un-named friend,” I said, “was brought up in the RAF and you were an Army child, so you have that in common. You were in…?”

“Kuala Lumpur and Berlin and then Barnard Castle in County Durham,” Jenny replied. “Barnard Castle was tough. I went to a very tough school there.”

“People whose parents wear uniforms – police or armed forces or whatever – sometimes rebel, don’t they?” I asked. “You became a punk poet and comedian. Was that rebelling?”

Jenny Eclair performing at The Tunnel club, London, in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

Jenny performing at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

“No. My dad was an Army major, but he wasn’t ‘an army major’, if you see what I mean. He’s very funny. And my mum didn’t work – she was an Army wife – but she was very, very clever. In fact, she should have worked. She was a wasted opportunity.”

“I suppose,” I said, “all that generation of women were wasted.”

“Yeah,” said Jenny. “also, she was a cripple in an old-fashioned sense of the word. She had polio.”

“My mother was born without a left hand,” I said.

“Did she have a hook?” asked Jenny, perking up.

“Just a rounded stump at the end,” I said. “Why did you perk up at the thought of a hook?”

“I do love a hook,” said Jenny. “A hook and a glass eye.”

“You could get them if you wanted,” I suggested, “through the wonders of modern surgery.”

“I don’t want my own,” said Jenny, “but I am very drawn to that sort of thing.”

“Have you done Peter Pan in panto?” I asked.

Robb Harwood as Captain Hook in Peter Pan c 1906

Robb Harwood as Captain Hook in a production of  Peter Pan c 1906

“No,” Jenny replied, “but I do like the look of a pirate.”

“What’s the glass eye got to do with it?” I asked.

“Anything that’s a bit wrong,” Jenny explained, “I’m quite attracted to anything that’s a bit wrong.”

“Was your mother in a wheelchair?” I asked.

“No, Full-length calliper. It’s only one leg. She is really magnificent.”

“My mother only had one hand,” I said, “but she didn’t let it affect her. She seemed to be knitting all the time in my childhood. She used to play tennis when she was younger, which is actually quite difficult – You have to hold the racquet in one hand and have to throw the ball up in the air.”

“My mother was a tennis player,” said Jenny.

“My mother,” I said, “mostly hid the end of her left arm – because her parents had told her she shouldn’t show it.”

“Yes,” said Jenny. “It was slightly shameful. My mother told me that, after she got polio, her father assumed she would never marry.”

“I don’t think my mother expected to marry,” I said, “because she thought Who would marry a one-handed woman?

“And with my mother,” said Jenny, “it was Who would marry somebody with a great big leg iron?

“A pirate, perhaps?” I suggested.

“My dad,” said Jenny. “It was the only romantic thing he ever did. He was abroad when he heard it had happened. He got Compassionate Leave and hitch-hiked his way back from Aden or somewhere like that. She had been his girlfriend and then they’d fallen out. He was in the Army and went off to Aden. She went to a cinema in Blackpool and caught polio there. He heard about it and made his way back to Britain and to Blackpool Infirmary.

“My grandmother was there and said: Derek, you can’t go in and he said Yes, I must and he saw my mother. She said I’ll never walk again and he said Yes you will – when you walk down the aisle to marry me.

“Aaaaaahhhhh…..” I said.

An example of a modern egg poacher

Example of a modern egg poacher, seldom seen as romantic

“I know,” said Jenny. “But he’d used all his romance up in that one sentence. In terms of romance, never anything again. He once bought her an egg-poaching pan for her birthday and said: Go on, June. I’d love some eggs…” They’re both very gung-ho and Northern and good fun. Both from Blackpool.”

“So you feel Blackpudlian?” I asked.

“Not really,” said Jenny.

“The place I feel most at home,” I said, “is Edinburgh, but I’ve never had a home there. I always had relatives there until recently, so I was visiting there every year as a child, probably since I was an embryo.”

“I feel Northern,” said Jenny, “I think it’s more to do with the sense of humour than anything else, I understand that quite graphic, broad, seaside postcardy humour.”

“Blackpool is seasidey,” I said. “Not like Manchester.”

“No,” agreed Jenny. “I went to drama school in Manchester. And Liverpool’s different again. But I wouldn’t leave London now.”

“I met your daughter with you,” I said, “at Glastonbury about… It must have been…”

“Nine years ago,” Jenny told me. “When she was 15. She’s 24 now. She’s a playwright. She’s got the writing gene. She’s working at the Royal Court Theatre at the moment. Then she’s got a play on at Theatre 503 on Monday (that’s tomorrow if you read this blog on the day it’s posted) in a thing of new writing, then she’s got a residency at the old BBC building in Maida Vale… or it might be in Marylebone. It starts with an M anyway.”

“And you?” I asked.

Jenny helped develop the concept of Grumpy Old Women

Grumpy Old Women – touring the UK April to June 2014

Grumpy Old Women on stage,” said Jenny. “We go into rehearsal in March; we tour in April, May, June. And I’m writing a Radio 4 series at the moment for broadcast later this year: six 15-minute monologues. They’re all set in real time.”

“Will you be starring?”

“No. The producer thought we should get better actresses and she’s right, because I’m quite limited and I always sound like me.”

“That’s the sign of star,” I said.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere other than London now” Jenny said again.

“It’s where everything happens,” I said.

“It is,” said Jenny. “I like it when things happen.”

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The loud elephant noises legendary Malcolm Hardee made when he spent the night with comedian Jenny Eclair

Malcolm Hardee outside Grover Court in 1995

Malcolm Hardee in 1995 while writing his autobiography

A couple of days ago in this blog, Jenny Eclair was reminiscing about her early days as a poet and comedian in the 1980s.

It is worth bearing in mind when you read today’s blog that both Jenny and I have a fear of heights or, in my case, a fear of over-balancing.

Iconic comedian Malcolm Hardee says in his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake:


It all started at the Elephant Fayre...

There was this grass with kids and Angels…

Another example of a good act with the wrong audience was Jenny Eclair. In the early 1980s, she was on at The Elephant Fayre, one of the hippy fairs in Cornwall. There was supposed to be an act performing called The Vicious Boys who, at the time, were quite popular as children’s TV presenters. So the audience was 14 year olds who had come to see The Vicious Boys plus all the normal casually-dressed hippies and leather-clad Hell’s Angels.

I was compering but The Vicious Boys hadn’t arrived and, at 11.00am, the organisers decided to put Jenny Eclair on instead. All these children, hippies and Hell’s Angels were sitting on the grass, disappointed that The Vicious Boys hadn’t turned up. So I went on and said:

“We’ve got someone to replace The Vicious Boys. Will you please welcome Miss Jenny Eclair….”

She came out in an evening dress and her opening line was:

“You know what it’s like when you’ve been invited to a dinner-party….”

And they didn’t like her.


Jenny Eclair

Jenny Eclair stood in for Vicious Boys

“The Vicious Boys were really big at the time,” Jenny told me when we chatted this week, “and the audience was actually made up of something like 800 bikers.

“I made a mistake with my first poem. It did start off about dinner parties but, in the end, it was actually about cunnilingus or shit or whatever. All my poems were always about poo or fucking.

“It turned rude later on, but it started posh. It was like a character thing and they didn’t give me the chance to get to the rude bit, because they just thought I was a middle-class wanker. So I was unceremoniously booed off the stage.”

“It was probably good for your soul,” I sympathised.

“Well, no, it wasn’t,” said Jenny. “I just remember being in a tent thinking Fucking hell! Why can’t I ever get away from these places? I didn’t drive at the time, didn’t have a car, so I could never escape until someone would give me a lift.”

“Malcolm’s London club at around that time,” I said, “was Sunday Night at The Tunnel Palladium at the south end of the Blackwall Tunnel under the Thames.”

“Oh,” said Jenny, “I hated the Tunnel because it had that combined thing of fear of heights and the fucking appalling gig it sometimes was. Geoff (Jenny’s partner) used to drop me on the west side of the dual carriageway and there was a narrow footbridge over the road.

“It was Sunday nights and I’d think Everybody else who is normal in this world has had a great big Sunday roast and is lying in front of the fire or watching telly and I am walking on this footbridge over a motorway into the mouth of Hell.

“I would sometimes look down at the traffic below and think I could end it now. You know that fear of heights which also gives you the tendency to throw yourself off? I would sometimes think it was an option. If the Tunnel was really bad, it was an option.

“The Tunnel club was just grim, fantastically grim. It was crunchy on the carpet, which was also kind of sticky. Your feet would stick to the floor and then you’d hear someone like Harry Enfield, who used to be very nervous before gigs, puking up.”

Harry Enfield (right) and Bryan Alsley as Dusty & Dick at the Tunnel

Harry Enfield (right) & Bryan Elsley: Dusty & Dick (Photograph by Bill Alford)

“This would have been when he was a double act?” I asked.

“Yes. Dusty and Dick, when he was with Bryan, who went on to write the TV series Skins.

“The Tunnel was a rough club. The stage was diagonally in a corner and I can’t remember there being a dressing room. I don’t remember there being anywhere for the acts to go. I just remember standing on a sticky carpet, waiting by a toilet.”

“The audiences,” I said, “were famous for throwing beer glasses at acts they didn’t like.”

“I didn’t have things thrown at me,” said Jenny. “I would occasionally go down really well and occasionally really die on my arse. You couldn’t rely on the audience.”

“We were in the same car at Malcolm’s funeral in 2005,” I reminded her, “and you told me a story about when he was your manager in the 1980s…”

“He wasn’t my manager at all,” protested Jenny. “I was never represented by Malcolm. I’m not that daft. But sometimes he used to get me gigs: I don’t know how. I’m sure he must have got them accidentally.

Jenny centre-stage in Malcolm’s Tunnel Arts brochure

Jenny centre-stage in Hardee brochure (original photo images by Bill Alford)

“But we did go off to do some gig quite a long way from London. We had to stay overnight and, when we got to this B&B place, of course, it transpired Malcolm had booked us into one room. At least he had booked a twin room with two beds. I didn’t actually have to feel his naked flesh next to mine.

“So I got into one bed and I think I kept most of my… I kept my pants on, certainly,… and he offered me sex…”

“What did he actually say?” I asked.

Do you fancy a shag, then, Jenny? or How about one? Something casual but intended. I very politely turned him down by saying: No thankyou very much, Malcolm. 

“I got into my bed and closed my eyes and he added, almost as an afterthought, Well, you won’t mind if I have a wank, then? and so I fell asleep to Malcolm masturbating furiously and very very noisily in the twin bed not more than two feet away from mine. He was grunting loudly. It was a bit like an elephant masturbating in the same room.”

“We’ve all been there,” I said. “But it’s strange, because people tell those sort of stories about Malcolm almost fondly. I can’t imagine him ever trying to subtly seduce anyone or saying Oh, I’ll give everything up for you, my love, and we will wed.

“Oh, it was very perfunctory,” agreed Jenny. “Sort of take it or leave it and I was definitely always going to leave it.”

“He wasn’t a man you could recommend to any woman,” I said. “He was incapable of being faithful and yet, at his funeral, the church was awash with weeping women. Also he had a tendency to be unreliable about money.”

“You could never trust him,” agreed Jenny. “You would get a brown envelope that was supposed to have £35 or £40 in it and you’d get home and open the envelope and it would always be a tenner short. Always. Nobody else would try to rip you off.”

“So why did acts keep going back to him?” I asked.

“You learned, basically,” said Jenny, “to count your money out in front of him and, if it was short, you would just say firmly: Malcolm. It’s short!

Funeral wreaths at Malcolm Hardee’s funeral

Some of the wreaths on display at Malcolm’s 2005 funeral

“He was like an alternative Jesus. He had these followers who were all borderline criminals, vagabonds and vandals and they were all massively loyal to him. He had that ability to create loyalty. And he had that ability to go out for a packet of cigarettes and not come back for three weeks, having been abroad or something. Most people’s lives are a lot duller… Malcolm died and now Addison Cresswell has died and Chris Luby has died. All the nutters are leaving us.”


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Writer/performer Jenny Eclair – from German beer commercials to Splashing

Jenny Eclair was having a Splash! on ITV1 last weekend

Jenny Eclair was making a big Splash! on ITV1 last weekend

“You’re all over the place,” I said to Jenny Eclair. “What are you?”

“I’m a writer/performer.”

“Performing just seems like a form of masochism,” I said.

“I really enjoy it,” Jenny told me. “I like audiences. I’m always relieved when there IS one.”

Last weekend, Jenny appeared on Splash! the celebrity ITV reality show in which celebrities jump off diving boards into a swimming pool in Luton. She had previously been in the Australian jungle for I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

“Why did you do Splash!?” I asked her.

“I didn’t get panto this year.”

“Oh yes you did,” I said.

“Oh no I didn’t,” said Jenny. “Well, I didn’t until there were two Saturdays Jo Brand couldn’t do her panto in Wimbledon, so I stood in for her. It was one rehearsal and on. I did five shows as Genie of The Ring so she could go to (her agent) Addison Cresswell’s funeral and do the judging for Splash!

“Well, there’s big money in panto,” I said. “The Fonz from Happy Days – Henry Winkler – he does it!”

One of Jenny’s pantomime extravaganzas

“Pantomime makes you a better performer as a stand-up”

“Yes, panto’s a strange one,” said Jenny. “And for stand-up comics – who are by nature quite lazy – panto is a real kick up the arse. It’s good to have the experience, because it actually makes you a better performer as a stand-up. It’s two-and-a-half hours per show, two shows a day. So it’s performing five hours a day mostly seven days a week. It’s gruelling. I have done three shows a day – a 10.30, a 2.30 and a 6.30. By the end of that, you don’t know what you’re wearing.”

“But why,” I asked, “do Splash! and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!? Usually, to an extent, these celebrity reality shows are for one-time stars on the way down or people who need to revive their careers and you are in neither category.”

“Well, it’s not about career revival,” explained Jenny. “Everything needs to tick over and they’re quite well-paid and it means I buy myself time for writing books that I don’t get paid very much for. I buy myself the extra six months that I need to finish or start a book.”

“But you must get vast advances and sell millions,” I asked.

“I don’t!” said Jenny. “Not at all.”

“You’re a TV star,” I said.

Jenny’s latest well-reviewed book

Jenny’s latest very well-reviewed book

“But that doesn’t translate into selling books,” explained Jenny. “I think I fall between two stools. People who are very into books and their reading are very dubious about me because they think She probably didn’t write it anyway. And, for people who don’t care about books, mine are not shiny and chic-litty enough for them. But it doesn’t matter. I like writing. Though I am quite greedy, too. I like making money.

“I think the thing is to throw yourself around a bit and cast your net quite wide these days because it’s really tough out there. There’s generation after new generation of comics rising and not enough of us are dying. In fact, too many of the old fuckers are coming back and storming round the country doing big gigs and soaking up everybody’s money… Did The Pythons REALLY need to do a tour?”

“But you are one of those people taking the food out of 23-year-olds’ mouths,” I suggested.

“I’m not!” said Jenny very firmly.

“You’re in books, you’re in television, you’re in comedy… You’re taking up ten people’s jobs.”

Jenny Eclair at home, chatting to me about getting a foot up

Jenny, at home this week, giving advice on getting a foot up

“I’m not hogging the live comedy circuit in London,” Jenny replied, “I do the arts centres out-of-town. I feel really sorry for 23-year-old youngsters trying to get into the business, because there are just too many people doing it.

“They’re all really well-educated and bright and funny and they’ve seen a career pattern – there was never a career pattern before, so people didn’t know they could do it – but now there’s a template and you can’t blame them for having a go. I saw a picture of John Bishop’s house in the paper today – his vast country pile.”

“Yes,” I said, “The first time I encountered him was around 2007 when I was in Edinburgh doing the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in the middle of a Late ’n’ Live show which he was MCing at the Gilded Balloon. We had eye contact for about two seconds. I had never heard of him and thought Oh, he’s one of those good, solid Northern club comedians who have been around for ages toiling away unseen, never going to make it at his age… And then suddenly… SNAP!”

“That’s it,” Jenny agreed. “The weird randomness. The fickle finger of Fate that just goes Oh, I’ll have you!

“I think if you’re not going to be one of those very very big ones, it’s quite good to keep not totally under the radar but to change tactics every so often. A lot of my bread-and-butter is doing the arts centres but you can’t do the same ones twice a year. You have to fuck off for about three years because the audience won’t come back if they’ve seen you too recently. I’ve paid to see comics but whether I’d pay to see them twice in two years I’m not sure.

“You can’t be fashionable all the time. You’ve sometimes just got to go away and lick your wounds and say: Well, I’ll just try doing something else for a bit. People sneer at the celebrity reality TV stuff, but it’s silly to think of a career without it now unless you’re very very successful or very snotty about these things. And I’ve never been snotty about ‘light’ entertainment… Well, as a drama student, I thought I was going to be a proper actress. I never thought I’d even end up doing regional theatre. We used to sneer at regional theatre, never mind panto or reality TV.”

Jenny helped develop the concept of Grumpy Old Women

Jenny helped develop the concept of Grumpy Old Women

“You got into this whole thing because you saw an ad,” I prompted.

“Yes,“ said Jenny, “in The Stage in about 1982. An ad for novelty acts. I was still kind of wanting to be an actress. I was waitressing, auditioning now and again. But I’d been part of a cabaret act at drama school in Manchester and I had these punk poems.”

“And you were just starting out and taking anything,” I said.

“Yes. I was with two modelling agencies for odd looking people— Uglies and I think it was Neville’s… Might have been Gavin’s”.

“But you weren’t odd-looking,” I said, surprised.

“No,” said Jenny. “I was quite pretty, but I had anorexia at the beginning, so that was quite a look. They were after girls who could do faces and I used to get quite a lot of beer commercials in Germany, because I speak a bit of German and they didn’t have enough girls who were prepared to look funny. So I’d get auditioned in London and be flown over to Berlin or Stuttgart or wherever and pull faces for beer commercials. Some were for TV. Some were poster campaigns.

“I also worked on the phones for a lookalike agency when Princess Diana had just arrived on the scene and there were millions of grandmothers all over the country sending in photos of their granddaughters saying Doesn’t she look like Diana? And she didn’t at all. She’d be some spotty 17-year-old from Derbyshire. I had odd little jobs like that. I was a life model at Camberwell Arts School.”

“And you still live in the Camberwell area,” I said.

Jenny’s first novel, published in 2000

Jenny’s first novel, published in 2000

“I moved a lot when I was little,” said Jenny, “but I’ve not moved since. I’ve moved houses, but not moved area.”

“You moved a lot as a kid because your father was in the British Army?”


“My eternally-un-named friend’s father,” I said, “was in the RAF. Malta, Germany, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Scotland, all over. She says she doesn’t feel specifically British: she’s not from anywhere specific.”

“I feel Northern,” said Jenny. “My parents are northern. It’s something about roots and spirit and sensibilities. I love London. I’m passionate about it though it was hard work when I arrived. I had no money and didn’t know anybody and was incredibly lonely. I had a waitressing job at a bar job in Covent Garden and I couldn’t work out how Camberwell linked to Covent Garden. The shape of London was just completely beyond me. I still don’t understand Ealing.”


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Memories by other comedians of comic impressionist and eccentric Chris Luby

Chris Luby - the forces’ favourite

Chris Luby swapped between Army and Air Force acts

Comedian Chris Luby died in London on Saturday. He fell down a staircase at home when (it is said) he was drunk.

In January 2005, his friend, mentor and occasional manager/agent Malcolm Hardee drowned when he fell into Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe. Malcolm, too, was drunk at the time.

It is a very British thing.

Chris and Malcolm ran the Wibbley Wobbley floating pub and comedy venue in Greenland Dock.

Chris’ comic stage act was to use his mouth and considerable lung power to perform audio recreations of Trooping The Colour, Formula 1 races and bombing raids/aerial combat in World War II. The act usually went well though, on Malcolm’s Christmas Eve show in 1998, Chris’ act was not much appreciated by some sections of the audience and, in the middle of his Battle of Britain impression, a heckler yelled out: “Do a glider!”

2004: Chris Luby (foreground) at the Wibbley Wobbley with Malcolm Hardee and Malcolm’s mum Joan. All are now dead. So it goes.

2004: Chris Luby (foreground) at the Wibbley Wobbley with Malcolm Hardee and Malcolm’s mum Joan. All now dead.

In its 2005 report of Malcolm Hardee’s death by drowning, the London Evening Standard wrote:

His business partner Chris Luby said friends were shocked. “His death will leave a huge hole,” said Mr Luby, a friend for over 30 years. “He ran the best club in the world called Sunday Night At The Tunnel Palladium, which was the most extraordinary club ever.

“It set people like Jo Brand, Jack Dee and Harry Enfield up. Malcolm was incredibly good at spotting new talent. There are thousands of comedians that were given open spots by Malcolm and have gone on to carve their niche in comedy.”

Now both Malcolm and Chris are dead. So it goes.

In a possibly frightening illustration that nothing is private nor forgotten by Google in this Cyber Age, I can tell you that, on 24th September 2010, comedian Alan Davies Tweeted:

Chris Luby did the Spitfire, the Lancaster and various marching bands. Did many gigs with that fella. Bonkers…

Yesterday, Alan Tweeted about Chris: He could name 6 of anything.

Malcolm Hardee is still remembered in the comedy industry and by media people, though not yet by the Great British public.

A Twitter conversation between comedians Robin Ince and Omid Djalili on 28th September 2012 went:

ROBIN INCE: If comedians don’t make it to TV or radio then, once they’re gone, that’s it (true of all I suppose).

OMID DJALILI: Chris Luby has done no TV but lives in my mind more vividly than most. But that’s not comedy, it’s heroic lunacy.

ROBIN  INCE: I never had a lift with him because I had been warned of those long air shows all the way up the M1.

This refers to Chris’ habit of doing his aeroplane impersonation act on long journeys (as I mentioned in yesterday’s blog).

Comedian Charmian Hughes said yesterday:

I will never forget the time I had Chris and Malcolm in the back of my car on the way back from a gig in Birmingham. They were so distracting that, at the roundabout at Hammersmith flyover, I pranged another car. Luckily Malcolm was a brilliant witness and pointed out that it was the other car’s fault, which it was. But I would have anticipated him if they hadn’t been so noisy! Farewell Chris, a kind, sweet, generous, often annoying, and noisome man.

Malcolm and Chris’ friend Steven Taylor aka ‘Steve From Up North’ says:

One of my favourite memories was on the way back from a gig in, I think, Blackburn. There was Chris, myself, Malcolm Hardee and Jo Brand. Chris was annoying us all – doing the noises of the gear changes and the engine. Suddenly, Jo said to him: “Chris, if you don’t shut the fuck up, I’ll open that door and push you out and you can do the sound effect of your body bouncing down a motorway!” He was a great guy and true eccentric.

Brian Damage remembers:

When the Wibbley Wobbley started, Hardee comedy intermingled with Luby quiz nights.

When the Wibbley Wobbley started, Malcolm Hardee’s comedy nights mixed with Chris Luby’s quiz nights.

We had a three hour car journey with Chris a few years ago. To keep us entertained he did a quiz… all the way to the gig. We were exhausted by the time we got there. On the way home, he did another quiz – with exactly the same questions. Apart from his quizzes, he was one of my favourite people.

Promoter Kev Wright says:

I was proud to get Chris Luby on at our Cracking Night Out at The Hackney Empire. I must have told him it started at 7 and he turned up on time… But he told me it was the second time he had been there that day as he had already been knocking on the stage door at 7 in the morning, as thats the time he thought we meant! The cleaner had told him to go away and he came back across London twelve hours later for 7 in the evening.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, he also performed on a comedy bus.

Brian Crane remembers: Ah, the comedy bus with Malcolm as the naked conductor and Chris Luby on the mic as announcer… a classic night, never to be forgotten.

I booked Chris on TV shows with ‘mad inventor’ John Ward at least a couple of times. Yesterday, John told me:

Oddly, I was bringing Chris to mind only the other day as we live in a flight path for the RAF Memorial Flight and they often fly their Spitfire over our place on the way to gigs and I thought how smashing it would be to get him to come up to see us this summer – I thought I would take him up to the base at RAF Coningsby and introduce him.

Chris Luby - once met, never forgotten

ATTEN-SHUN! – Chris Luby – A very loud act

I met Chris twice when he was doing his act on Prove It (presented by Chris Tarrant) for TVS light years ago – once for the pilot and once for the actual show. The first time, I recall being in the canteen in the TVS studios with my lunch and, as I was sorting myself out, I thought I heard an army battalion in the distance or at least in the building but – No – I suddenly found myself in the World of Chris Luby. He had moved towards me sideways so that I did not see him speaking or, for that matter, doing his act of impersonating sounds that you don’t normally associate with a single person on his own.

His Spitfire impression was a masterpiece as he talked through the process involved in getting the plane into the air – starting the engine from cold, the warming-up before take-off, then climbing up to 5,000 feet or so, levelling off and then spotting the ‘Hun’, going into battle and, after shooting one down in flames, his descent and landing.

The second time we met on Prove It, once again, the TVS canteen was his stage as that week’s guests were sitting down having a bite to eat at lunchtime and, having not seen him perform in the rehearsals, they were baffled as they sat there training their ears to fathom out where the noise was coming from. It was just Chris creating the sound of a WW2 Spitfire all on his own. But to see four full-grown adults standing against a window and opening it to look for a plane that seemed to be rather close – in fact even overhead – It was a classic moment.

When he appeared on the show that second time, he had broken his leg. He lurched on to the studio floor dressed in a Coldstream Guardsman’s uniform plus busby with his leg all done up – but he was still brilliant despite this minor upset. He was a real trouper or should that be trooper?… R.I.P. and I hope he keeps ‘em laughing in the ‘hanger in the sky’.

Yesterday, comedians were Twittering.

Ian Stone suggested: There should be a marching band at his funeral.

Andy Smart thought: It’ll be a lot noisier where ever he’s gone!

Even the trade union Equity Tweeted:

We’re sorry to hear of the death of Chris Luby. His one man Battle of Britain was a thing to behold.

Arthur Smith told me last night:

He was, as you know, incorrigible – I used to pay him a tenner to shut up for ten minutes and then torture him by saying: “I wish I knew what a Sopwith Camel sounded like….” but he always managed the ten minutes, at which point he would explode into an aerial bombardment… He was not entirely of this world. I hope he is enjoying the molecules in the stars.

Jenny Eclair Tweeted:

Oh please can all the mad, bad, bonkers and wonderful old timers from the old days of alternative comedy stop dying?

and, when I asked her about Chris Luby last night, she told me:

I just remember when Malcolm offered me out-of-town gigs asking if Chris would be in the same car and taking the train rather than be trapped with him doing Spitfires in my ear!


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At the Edinburgh Fringe, it is perfectly normal for women to wear nothing below the waist: it is cucumber season

Steve Ullathorne, photographer to the stars, outside the Gilded Balloon yesterday

Steve Ullathorne (right), photographer to the stars, doorstepped outside the Gilded Balloon yesterday

I arrived at the Edinburgh Fringe yesterday to find it unchanged.

Going into the Gilded Balloon venue press party, I passed a young man who was wailing: “I just got wine on my phone! I just got wine on my phone!”

Inside the Gilded Balloon, comedian Maureen Younger, who was going in to see Janey Godley’s show Janey Godley Is Ungagged, told me people keep coming up to her in the street because they mistake her for either Janey Godley or Karen Dunbar – both of whom have Scots accents – despite the fact Maureen looks nothing like either and has an English accent.

Maureen Younger yesterday - or is it Janey Godley?

Maureen Younger – or is it Janey Godley?

On the other hand, Maureen’s own show The Outsider is about how she became the only London-Scottish, Austrian-accented German-speaking, black lesbian on the UK comedy circuit, despite being white, straight and British.

At the Gilded Balloon party, I also bumped into New York comic Laura Levites, still jet-lagged, who told me she had finished re-writing her show Selfhelpless eight minutes before her first performance yesterday, which turned out to be a good idea, as Kate Copstick (the Fringe’s most influential critic) came in to see that show.

Apparently Copstick liked it.

“What’s it about?” I asked Laura.

Laura Levites does not like puppet pigs

Laura Levites does not like puppet pigs at all

“What’s it always about?” she asked.

I can do no better than quote the blurb.

Life is shit. Drugs, shrinks, denial and the higher power of eBay haven’t helped. It took Laura three hours to get a new diagnosis – judge her in 60 minutes. ‘A straight-talking New Yorker with an upfront attitude’ (Scotsman). ‘Levites is both lovable and crazy’ **** (BroadwayBaby.com). If life were a cab it would first refuse to take her home and then hit her … wait … it just did! Laura almost let a creepy ex-neighbour photograph her in chains for this show. ‘Nuff said. Her dog needs vaginal rejuvenation. Lord knows what Laura needs.

What she did not need at the Gilded Balloon party yesterday was a rather scary pink pig puppet on the end of a man’s arm come up and try to sell his show to her while she was drinking.

Leaving by the pedestrian underpass outside the Pleasance Dome venue, I heard someone say: “He’s daubing graffiti with an invisible paintbrush,” and, indeed, a man was doing just that, while talking loudly to himself about the fact that the bees are being killed off by “them”.

But even I can be occasionally slightly surprised at the Fringe.

Adrienne Truscott and her one-woman bottomless show

Adrienne Truscott’s one-woman bottomless show

I have seen some topless comedy shows, but American performer Adrienne Truscott’s show is the first time I have seen a female comic’s show performed bottomless.

Her show was an eye-opener in that I now know the projected faces of several pop stars look even weirder with a lady’s pubic hair added to their chin. Her show is called  Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! 

As someone said to me afterwards, it seems perfectly normal, at the Edinburgh Fringe, for a performer to wear nothing below the waist.

Bob’s Bookshop bar - where everything costs £3

Bob Slayer’s new Bookshop bar – with Cat the lovely manager

The show took place in Bob’s Bookshop – a new venue run by comic Bob Slayer which unsurprisingly (for those who know Bob) has a public bar selling beers and sundry other drinks.

Before and after Adrienne’s show, I was chatting to comedian Ian Cognito. He was wearing a hat. He said he had a song about the late Malcolm Hardee. I invited him to perform it at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show on the final Friday of the Fringe. He said Yes.

The last time I saw Ian Cognito was when he, Jenny Eclair and I shared a funeral car at Malcolm Hardee’s funeral at Greenwich in 2005 – an event that was ‘reviewed’ by the Daily Telegraph with the words “Rarely can there have been so much laughter and irreverence at a funeral service and rarely can it have been more appropriate”.

Ian Cognito and Pam Ford at Bob’s Bookshop last night

Ian Cognito and Pam Ford (holding up the wall) last night

Last night, Cognito told comic Pam Ford and me a very funny series of stories about his own dad’s funeral and what happened to the ashes afterwards.

Alas, I don’t think I can repeat them, because I was harassing Cognito that he should do death stories as an Edinburgh Fringe show in 2014.

“You would make it funny, sad and odd,” I told him. “You should call it Four Funerals and a Funeral.”

He did not seem persuaded, but you never know.

When I got back to my Edinburgh flat, zonked, an e-mail was waiting for me from Alexander Frackleton, a Scot living in the Czech Republic, occasionally mentioned in this blog.

He told me: “Please gonnae no’ refer to me as an ex-pat. I hate ex-pats and avoid them like the plague cos they are always complaining about how things are not like Britain, America, Canada, Australia etc. And I’m not a comedian – and don’t want to be. Ye know that. I’m a Scots Poet in exile. Don’t look at me like that, yer a writer, ye can work with that idea.”

His real reason for writing, though was to tell me that a report he had spotted in yesterday’s Daily Mail online was not a wind-up.

“It is true,” he told me, “cos it was reported here in the Czech Republic a few days ago.”

Pastafarianism lives! - in the Czech Republic at least...

Pastafarianism lives! – in the jolly Czech Republic at least…

The report was about a Czech man who claims his religion forces him to wear a sieve on his head. He says his religion is ‘Pastafarianism’ and the authorities have now given him permission to wear a sieve on his head on his official Czech ID card picture.

Perhaps it is NOT just Edinburgh which is eccentric.

“Do ye know what the Czechs call the ‘silly season’?” Alex asked me. “They call it the cucumber season.”

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Jewish comic Sol Bernstein soars while Lewis Schaffer frets about good news

“Ah! You’re John Fleming. You don’t like character comedy,” said character comic Sol Bernstein when he saw me leaving Vivienne and Martin Soan’s Pull The Other One comedy club in SE London last night.

“I generally don’t,” I replied. “But you were brilliant tonight. Utterly brilliant.”

And he was.

In fact, there was not an even remotely duff act on the show.

PTOO's Silver Peevil last night

PTOO’s Silver Peevil last night

Character act Barbara Nice had the entire audience on its feet singing and dancing along. Oram & Meeten were as crowd-pleasing as always (that’s a compliment); Danish comedian Sofie Hagen, in only a three-minute spot, appeared to successfully go way off script in highly-confident and highly-successful audience interaction; and there was what was claimed to be the world premiere of extraordinary character act The Silver Peevil – very funny – a scantily-clad retro visitor from Venus circa 1935.

All this plus the Greatest Show on Legs in a pre-show-start act which involved Martin Soan  with a Campbell’s soup can round his neck a la The Producers and a post-show event in which he literally carried his wife Vivienne off stage.

I think the word “variety” springs to mind.

That has been the word of the week.

The previous night I saw the penultimate Mat Ricardo’s London Varieties at the Leicester Square Theatre (last show this year and possibly forever is next month). That managed to smoothly blend admirably foul-mouthed Jenny Eclair, an extraordinary ping-pong act by Rod Laver (not the tennis champion), a So and So Circus dance acrobat duo and veteran comic Jimmy Cricket.

Susan Harrison’s  Cabarera audience

Susan Harrison’s Cabarera audience might be new alternative

The previous day, I had chatted to Susan Harrison about her Cabarera Club (more on that in a future blog) and been interviewed by Si Hawkins for an upcoming piece in Fest magazine about what may or may not follow ‘alternative comedy’.

It feels as if Variety/Cabaret may be the answer, though who knows? Not me.

‘Alternative Comedy’ at the late Malcolm Hardee’s clubs – and many others in the days when it really was alternative – meant shows where you saw some stand-up comedians and perhaps a music act, a juggler, a possibly psychotic indescribable act and perhaps a man torturing teddy bears (bring back that act!)

Possibly the most bizarre two things in a very odd evening last night, though, happened outside the venue after Pull The Other One had finished.

Vivienne Soan told me she had stumbled on what was, to both of us, an unknown sub-culture of Laughter Clubs scattered around the country.

“I’ve never heard of them,” I said.

“Neither had I,” said Vivienne. “They’re all over the country.”

“Maybe they are like Fight Clubs,” I suggested. “You must never talk about them.”

“They have £175 lessons,” Vivienne told me, “where they teach you how to laugh. And they give you a certificate afterwards. I think they really ARE having a laugh.”

Shortly afterwards, I had a chat with comedian Lewis Schaffer, who does not normally go to other people’s shows but had been bullied into going to Pull The Other One by his tenant. (He has tenants; he’s Jewish; what can I say?)

“I’m depressed,” he told me.

“Great,” I said. “You’re at your best when you’re depressed. What has happened?”

“My Leicester Square show has been extended again,” he said, glumly.

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Lewis Schaffer, with no shoes

His weekly show Lewis Schaffer’s American Guide To England started in March this year, for an 8-week run. It was then extended for a few weeks. Then extended to the end of July. And now it has been extended again until next March (with a break for the Edinburgh Fringe in August).

“It’s a disaster,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“You mean it sounds too successful and Lewis Schaffer does not ‘do’ success?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Lewis Schaffer. “It will all end in tears.”

“You could always start torturing teddy bears on stage,” I said.

Lewis Schaffer looked at me. There was a pause.

“You’re just trying to make me feel better,” he said. “It’s going to be a disaster.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I’m Lewis Schaffer,” he said.

“You have a point there,” I agreed. “But don’t worry. Look on the bright side. Maybe it will never happen. Success.”

Despite my attempt at reassurance, Lewis Schaffer walked into the night, his brow furrowed, fretting about the unwelcome possibility of success.

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