Tag Archives: Jenny Eclair

The death yesterday of Joan Hardee, mother of British alternative comedy’s godfather Malcolm Hardee

(This was also published by the Huffington Post and, in a shortened version, on the comedy industry website Chortle)

Last night, when I was on a train coming home from London, the late comedian Malcolm Hardee‘s sister Clare phoned to tell me that their mother Joan had died earlier in the day.

Joan was 84. I met her over perhaps 25 years. She was feisty, redoubtable and with a mind so sharp you could cut cheese with it. She doted on Malcolm and, when he drowned in 2005, it – as you would expect – affected her greatly for the rest of her life. She died from pneumonia, peacefully, in a nursing home near Deal in Kent.

Joan & Malcolm Hardee

In his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, Malcolm said:

“Just after my dad was demobbed, he met my mum in a pub called The Dutch House on the A20. They met on VJ Night.

“He was quite old when he got married – 32 – and my mum was 20. They stayed rooted in South East London, with never a thought of leaving.”

Joan gave birth to Malcolm in 1950; then her daughter Clare ten years later; and son Alexander another ten years later.

Malcolm remembered:

“I was born in the Tuberculosis Ward of Lewisham Hospital in South East London. Immediately after my birth, I was taken from my mother and moved to an orphanage in a place aptly named Ware in Hertfordshire. We were not to meet again for nearly two years.

“The reason I was shuffled off to Hertfordshire was that my mother had tuberculosis, which is extremely infectious and, in those days, it was unknown for working class fathers to look after young children.

“When my mother was released from the solitary confinement of the TB sanatorium, she came to collect me from the Hertfordshire orphanage. She said she nearly chose the wrong child as there was an angelic lookalike contentedly sitting in one corner, quiet as a mouse. But I was the screaming brat in the other corner.

“We went to live in Lewisham, at 20 Grover Court, in a modest block of genteel 1930s apartments with flat roofs. They are still there, set off the main road: two storeys, four flats to each storey, about 100 flats in all.. They look a little like holiday flats in some rundown seaside town like Herne Bay or Lyme Regis. It was fairly self-contained: almost like a village in itself.”

Joan’s husband was a lighterman. He worked on the River Thames, as the captain of a tugboat, pulling lighters (barges). Malcolm told me:

“People who worked on the River used to earn quite a good wage. Sometime around 1960, I remember a figure of £40 a week being quoted, which was probably about the same as a doctor got in those days.”

But Joan did not have it easy.

Comedian Arthur Smith told me yesterday: “Joan had a kind of necessary but graceful stoicism.”

Malcolm, in particular, must have been a difficult son to bring up.

Malcolm’s friend Digger Dave told me: “Nothing could faze Joan. She just took everything in her stride.”

And she had to.

In his autobiography, Malcolm remembered what he was like as a kid:

“I sometimes used to go shopping with my mother and pretend she was nicking stuff off the shelves. I would get up to the till and say: You know that’s Doris the Dip don’t you?  

“She actually got arrested once – well, stopped  – in Chiesmans Department Store in Lewisham. She’s always been indecisive, picking up things and putting them back and, with me standing behind her, she looked very suspicious. She wasn’t arrested – just stopped. She said she’d never felt so insulted in her life. But my mother has a sense of humour. I suppose she has had to have.”

“Malcolm’s entire family,” comedian Jenny Eclair told me yesterday, “are like him. They are rich, in the best sense of the word – there was so much love amongst the Hardees.”

As a surprise on her 70th birthday, Joan received a birthday card from artist Damien Hirst

Well, it was not a card. He sent her one of his paintings with Happy Birthday, Joan on the bottom right hand corner.

Joan used to work at Goldsmiths, the art college in south-east London where Hirst had studied. When he was a student, she had sometimes let him and other impoverished students share her sandwiches.

Malcolm had bumped into Damien in the Groucho Club in London and asked him if he would create a card for Joan in time for her birthday party.

The Daily Telegraph quoted Joan as saying of the students at Goldsmiths: “I used to buy some of their work at the annual degree show although I didn’t know that much about art actually. I never bought anything by Damien Hirst. I think he did a cow for his degree show and I must have thought Where would I put it?

Malcolm’s son Frank – Joan’s grandson – says: “For me, Grandjo was another Hardee eccentric who loved life and enjoyed to socialise.”

Frank is coming back from South Korea and his sister Poppy is coming back from Palestine to attend Joan’s funeral, details of which have not yet been finalised as I write this.

I liked Joan a lot. She had more than a spark of originality and a keen, intelligent mind.

Poppy writes from Palestine:

“One of my fondest memories of Grandjo comes from the time when I must have been around 10 and she had sold the Damien Hirst dot painting. She held a party to celebrate with the theme of ‘dress as a famous artist/piece of art work.’ The room was full of sunflowers (a strange take on surrealism by Steve Bowditch, if I remember), me as the lady of Shalott and dad as a policeman (the artist John Constable). Joan roamed around the room in an outrageous 1930s flapper girl costume (she was over 70 at this point) enjoying life and the company of eccentric friends and relatives.

“I will remember Joan as a true character – interesting, vibrant, artistic – and I think the person who has most influenced my vintage style and love of a charity shop bargain. She also gave me also my love of old films, celebrity memoirs and whiskey!

“I always loved Christmas with Joan – her snobbery regarding eating only Capon Chicken (simply corn fed darling!), the argument over whether the meat was drier than last year’s lunch and her love of snowballs (the drink) at 10am! I also loved her for the ‘Queen Mother’s Sausages’ (sold by the local butcher and of a type rumoured to have been once eaten by the QM!), trips to the pantomime as our Christmas gift every year and her speciality onion soup!

“The last years of Joan’s life were incredibly difficult for both herself and the family. My aunt Clare and I took on Power of Attorney for her as she was unable to take decisions for herself and I pray and believe we made the best decisions for her regarding making her last years comfortable and the least distressing they could be in light of her dementia and other health problems.

“I thank Clare, who took on the majority of this task with the amazing support of her husband Steve and gave herself selflessly to the task of primary career and decision maker for Joan. No-one could have done a better job than the two of them and it is thanks to them that Joan got the right care and support in these past months and experienced the peaceful death she deserved.

“I think that, in sad reality, Joan never really recovered from the loss of our father Malcolm and it is a comfort that they will rest together at Shooters Hill in London.”

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One man can change the world with a bullet (or six) in the right place….

(A version of this blog was also published in the Huffington Post under the title What Links Dead Comedian Malcolm Hardee, Gangster Mad Frank Fraser & a British Political Sex Scandal?)

My local handyman (who is a very interesting person; he was at university – UCL, London – with the mother of Kate Middleton, our possibly future Queen) came round to mend my side gate yesterday. He was telling me he hated reading Charles Dickens and could not understand what people see in Dickens’ writing.

“Just caricatures,” he fumed. “Just caricatures. But,” he continued, “Horace Walpole is worse. “The Castle of Otranto is utter shit yet people thought it was a great piece of writing at the time and they thought Horace Walpole’s name would be remembered. Now, quite rightly, no-one remembers him except dusty academics. He’s a footnote. Who knows which ‘famous’ people’s names are going to survive from the 20th century? It’s pot luck.”

Also yesterday, Bill Alford sent me a Facebook message telling me he had posted on Flickr ninety-five… count ’em that’s ninety-five… photographs he took in the years 1985-1987 at the late Malcolm Hardee‘s legendary – nay, notorious – seminal alternative comedy club The Tunnel Palladium.

In among the early photos of Keith Allen, Clive Anderson, Phil Cool, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield, Jeremy Hardy, Ainsley Harriott, Jools Holland, Eddie Izzard, Phill Jupitus, Josie Lawrence, Neil Morrissey, Mike Myers (yes, that Mike Myers), Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Screaming Lord Sutch, Squeeze and many others at Malcolm’s Tunnel Palladium, there is a photo of a trendy-looking gent captioned Johnny Edge.

All ninety-five… count ’em that’s ninety-five… of Bill’s photos are interesting – a nostalgic flashlight on an earlier comedy era – but the photo of Johnny Edge was the one which interested me most because I never met Johnny Edge.

I only knew of him by reputation.

He died almost exactly a year ago, on 26th September 2010.

He was just an ordinary bloke living in south east London, whom most people had never heard of yet, when he died, he merited very lengthy obituaries in the Daily Telegraphthe Guardian and the Independent.

In that sense, he was a bit like Malcolm Hardee.

Most people in Britain had never heard of Malcolm Hardee but, when he drowned in January 2005, such was his importance to the development of British comedy, that he merited near full-page obituaries in the Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, the Guardianthe Independent and The Times – indeed, he managed to get two obituaries in the Evening Standard and two in the Guardian.

Malcolm had told me tales of Johnny Edge coming to his comedy clubs and, when I showed the Flickr photo to a friend who worked at Malcolm’s later comedy club Up The Creek, she immediately recognised him:

“Oh yes. I recognise him. He was a regular. He always seemed to me to be on his own. I didn’t know who he was, but other people seemed to know him and treat him with respect, like he had been in known bands or something, He looked ‘reggae’ and he held himself well, maybe just because he was older and quiet. He seemed nice. I think if he had been in a rock band I would have heard which one, which is why I wondered how people were familiar with him… Now I come to think about it, maybe Malcolm always put his name ‘on the door’ so he got in for free. Logically, I think that is highly likely.”

When Malcolm had told me about Johnny Edge being a regular at his clubs, I could feel the slight thrill he had in being able to say he had met and, to an extent, known him.

Johnny ‘Edge’ was a nickname. He was actually Johnny Edgcombe. What he did in 1962 was the catalyst that triggered the Profumo Scandal in 1963 which played no minor part in bringing down the Conservative government in 1964.

Edgecombe had fired six shots at osteopath Stephen Ward’s mews flat, where Edgecombe’s ex-girlfriend Christine Keeler was hiding.

Malcolm’s barely-contained thrill at having a link with Johnny ‘Edge’ was the same thrill I could sense in him when famed 1960s South London gangster Charlie Richardson came to a party on Malcolm’s floating pub the Wibbley Wibbley. It is the same thrill some people feel if they have an even tenuous link with the Kray Twins.  I have heard more than one stand-up comic joke about the TARDIS-like capacity of the Blind Beggar, seeing as how most of the population of East London appears to have been in the pub the night Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell.

It is the thrill of one or two degrees of separation from important historic or society-changing events.

Malcolm had three degrees of separation from the Krays, which I think he always cherished and which is mentioned towards the start of his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (now out-of-print, but currently available from me via Amazon at  the remarkably reasonable price of £49.99 + p&p).

When Mad Frank Fraser, the Richardson’s ‘enforcer’ was shot in the thigh during a fight at Mr Smith’s Club in Catford, he was eventually left lying in the front garden of Malcolm’s aunt Rosemary and uncle Doug. The shooting was part of the bad blood and linked events which led to the shooting in the Blind Beggar which brought the Kray Twins and, to an extent, the Richardsons down.

Links within links within links.

To an extent, I share Malcolm’s thrill with one or two degrees of linked separation from national, international or parochial history. Everything and everyone is inter-linked.

Malcolm never met Mad Frank Fraser. I have and I am glad to have met and chatted to him a couple of times: the man who once lay bleeding in Malcolm’s aunt and uncle’s front garden.

Links within links within links.

Once, Mad Frank told me he worried “a bit” what people would say about him after he was dead, because what people are seen as being is ultimately not what they are but what people write about them in retrospect.

A butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazonian jungle really can change the world. Ordinary unsung individuals can be part of the chain that creates historic events. Or, to quote anti-hero Mick’s line in Lindsay Anderson’s trendy 1968 film If….

“One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place…”

Or six bullets.

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Has British comedy stagnated since Monty Python, Hardee and Tiswas?

Beware. This is my blog. These are my very highly personal opinions. You can object. Please do.

People have said Alternative Comedy is not dead, it has just ceased to be Alternative. It has become the Mainstream. But they seldom talk about the next new wave of British comedians who will replace the now mainstream Alternative Comedians.

I desperately want to spot any new wave for the annual Malcolm Hardee Awards, which I organise. Our avowed intent is to try to find “comic originality”.

We do find admirably quirky individuals to award the main annual Comic Originality prize to – last year, the one-off Robert White; this year, the one-off Johnny Sorrow.

And their one-offness is as it should be. You cannot have comic originality if 37 other people are doing something similar.

But where are the new style comedians performing a recognisable new type of comedy genre? There has not been anything overwhelmingly new since so-called Alternative Comedy arrived in the mid-1980s – over 25 years ago.

As far as I can see, there have been four very rough waves of post-War British comedy, most of them comprising overlapping double strands.

The first double wave of ‘new’ comics in the 1950s were reacting partly to stuffy mainstream 1930s Reithian radio comedy, partly to the necessary order of the 1940s wartime years and partly they were rebelling against the dying music hall circuit epitomised by John Osborne‘s fictional but iconic Archie Rice in The Entertainer (1957).

The Goon Show (1951-1960) on BBC Radio, at the height of its popularity in the mid 1950s, was the antithesis of the ‘old school’ of pre-War comedy. The Goons were a surreal comic equivalent to John Osborne’s own rebellious Look Back in Anger (1956) and the kitchen sink realism which surfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Osborne was ultra-realistic; The Goons were ultra-surreal.

But Osborne’s plays and The Goons‘ radio comedy were both reactions to the rigidly ordered society in pre-War, wartime and immediately post-War Britain and The Goons‘ new anarchic style of comedy (although it owes some debt to the pre-War Crazy Gang and although the Wartime radio series ITMA was slightly surreal) really was like the new rock ‘n’ roll (which was not coincidentally happening simultaneously). It was startlingly new. They were consciously rebelling and revolting against a clear status quo which they saw as stuffy and restrictive.

Hot on the heels of The Goons came a different form of rebellion – the satirists of the 1960s – with Beyond the Fringe (1960) on stage and That Was The Week That Was (1962-1963) on TV. These two slightly overlapping Second Waves of new post-War British comedy were again reacting to a stuffy status quo.

The First Wave, the surrealist Goons wave, then reasserted that it was still rolling on when a Third Wave of influence – Monty Python’s Flying Circus – appeared on BBC TV 1969-1974 and – as satire declined in the 1970s – it was Monty Python‘s (and, ultimately, The Goons‘) comedic gene pool that held sway for a while – also epitomised, oddly, by the children’s TV show – Tiswas (1974-1982).

The Goons, Beyond The Fringe and That Was The Week That Was had been rebelling against something; Monty Python was surreal and Tiswas was anarchic just for the sheer sake of it. Monty Python and Tiswas were one-offs, but they have pale imitations trundling on even to today.

After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, a Fourth Wave of new comics arose in the early and mid-1980s – a generation influenced by the satire gene not by the Goons/Python gene. These mostly-university-educated young left wing things rebelled against Thatcherism with their often political-based humour which became known as Alternative Comedy.

But again, just as there had been a second overlapping wave of comedy in the previous generation, this mostly ‘serious’ comedy was paralleled by a different wave possibly more low-key but epitomised by the decidedly fringe appeal of the hugely influential Malcolm Hardee, whose release from prison and subsequent comedy career coincided with the start of and overlapped with the future stars of Alternative Comedy.

Malcolm’s strand of mostly non-political comedy was spread by the clubs he ran and the acts he managed, agented, booked and/or nurtured: acts including the young Paul Merton (performing as Paul Martin when Malcolm first managed him), Jenny Eclair and later Keith Allen, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Jim Tavaré and Johnny Vegas.

While London’s Comedy Store nurtured future mainstream acts (some progressing there from Malcolm’s clubs), the more bizarre and original new acts continued to flock to Malcolm’s gigs and clubs including his near-legendary Sunday Night at the Tunnel Palladium gigs and later his lower-key but just as influential Up The Creek club.

These two strands of 1980s comedy – the alternative political and the Hardee-esque – successfully came together in a Channel 4 programme – not, as is often cited, Saturday Live (1985-1987), a mostly failed hotch-potch with different presenters every week, but its long-remembered successor, Geoff Posner‘s Friday Night Live (1988) which supposedly firebrand political polemic comic Ben Elton presented every week in what was supposed to be an ironic sparkly showbiz jacket.

Political alternative stand-ups mixed with strange variety and character acts, oddball comics and cross-over acts like Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield and many others nurtured by Malcolm Hardee.

This was both the highpoint and the start of the decline of Alternative Comedy because serious money was spent on the relatively low-rating Saturday Live and Friday Night Live on Channel 4, both ultimately shepherded by Alan Boyd’s resolutely mainstream but highly influential Entertainment Department at LWT.

Since then, where has the next giant New Wave of British comedy been? There are random outbreaks of originality, but mostly there has been a barren mediocrity of pale imitations of previous waves – and the desolate, mostly laugh-free zone that is BBC3.

At this point, allow me an even more personal view.

I thought I spotted a change in Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows around 2003 when Janey Godley was barred from consideration for the Perrier Award (despite a very lively verbal fight among the judging the panel) because it was decided that her seminal show Caught in the Act of Being Myself did not fall within the remit of the Awards because it was not a single ‘show’ repeated every night: she was basically ad-libbing a different hour of comedy every performance for 28 consecutive nights.

That same year, Mike Gunn performed his confessional heroin-addict show Mike Gunn: Uncut at the Fringe although, unlike Janey, he lightened and held back some of the more serious details of his life story.

It seemed to me that, certainly after 2004, when Janey performed her confessional show Good Godley!,  Fringe shows started an increasing tendency towards often confessional autobiographical storytelling. Good Godley! was one of the first hour-long comedy shows at the Fringe (though not the only one) to use material that was not in any way funny – in that case, child abuse, rape, murder and extreme emotional damage. Janey did not tell funny stories; she told stories funny. Viewed objectively, almost nothing she actually talked about was funny but audiences fell about laughing because it truly was “the way she told ’em”.

Since then, too, there seems to have been a tendency towards improvisation, probably spurred by the financial success of Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard. The traditional 1980s Alternative Comics still mostly stay to a script. The 21st Century comics influenced by Janey Godley, Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble often do not (to varying degrees).

So it could be argued there has been a tendency in this decade away from gag-telling (apart from the brilliant Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine) towards storytelling… and a tendency towards improvisational gigs (bastardised by the almost entirely scripted and prepared ad-libs on TV panel shows).

But long-form storytelling does not fit comfortably into TV formats which tend to require short-form, gag-based, almost sound-bite material – you cannot tell long involved stories on panel shows and on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow type programmes. So a tendency in live gigs and certainly at the Edinburgh Fringe – a tendency away from gag-based comedy to storytelling comedy – has been unable to transfer to television and has therefore not fully developed.

Occasionally, a Fifth Wave of British comedy is sighted on the horizon but, so far, all sightings have turned out to be tantalising mirages.

One possibility are the Kent Comics who all studied Stand Up Comedy as an academic subject in the University of Kent at Canterbury. They include Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club, Tiernan Douieb, Jimmy McGhie, Laura Lexx and The Noise Next Door. But they share an origin, not a style.

Whither British comedy?

Who knows?

Not me.

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British comedians seem to be turning to electronic book publishing – maybe

I have blogged before about the galloping-blindly-towards-an-unknown-destination changes in book publishing.

In 2003, the late Malcolm Hardee and I put together Sit-Down Comedy for Random House. It was an anthology of original writing (some of it very dark) by comedians Ed Byrne, John Dowie, Jenny Eclair, Stephen Frost, Boothby Graffoe, Ricky Grover, Malcolm Hardee, Hattie Hayridge, John Hegley, Dominic Holland, Jeff Innocent, Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery, Owen O’Neill, Arthur Smith, Linda Smith, Jim Tavare, Dave Thompson and Tim Vine.

Sit-Down Comedy has just been issued in both iBook (for iPads) and Kindle downloadable electronic editions.

Apparently, in the US market, electronic books now account for 20% of total book sales. In the UK, it is still only 5%, but it is expected to double in the next year.

In the last week, two of the contributors to Sit-Down Comedy have mentioned to me that they are thinking of publishing electronic books, probably via lulu.com, the same print-on-demand (not to be confused with self-publishing) company which comedy writer Mark Kelly has used to publish his books Pleased as Punch, This Is Why We Are Going to Die and (free to download) Every Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? Comic Shelley Cooper told me she is also looking into print-on-demand publishing.

A highly relevant factor is that print-on-demand publishers may take 20% of your book’s earnings to arrange print and electronic versions… while conventional print publishers doing the same thing normally give the author royalties of only 7.5% of paperback sales. With print-on-demand  you have to market the book yourself, but you also have to factor in that significant difference between getting 80% or getting the conventional 7.5%.

I have blogged before that am thinking of re-publishing Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (probably revised back to its original version) as an e-book… but that is only if I can actually pull my finger out – always a major factor in the production of any book.

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Of comedy awards, bra warmers and the death of Malcolm Hardee

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

Time Life Books called John Ward “possibly the best English eccentric inventor living today”. Yesterday I went up to Lincolnshire to see him at his home (an enormous, rambling bungalow within someone else’s farmyard). I was up there to take delivery of his latest creations – the newly-designed Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award and the new-this-year Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award. They join his Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality trophies. All will continue to be awarded annually until 2017.

John’s other creations include his surprisingly overlooked invention the electric bra warmer, as well as the one-man personal barbeque, the mobile church font and my personal favourite – a small rubber nautical mine which you leave in your cup of tea so no-one else will steal it.

He still fondly remembers a curry which the late lamented Malcolm Hardee cooked for him in my kitchen. It was, I think, the only occasion known to me when Malcolm did not drop curry down the front of his shirt, something I am eternally grateful for. Malcolm once had a meal with comedian Charlie Chuck at the end of which, instead of asking for a doggie bag, he spooned the uneaten parts of his curry into the top pocket of his white suit.

His famed Edinburgh Fringe exploits included writing a glowing review of his own show and conning The Scotsman into printing it under the byline of their own comedy critic…  and riding a tractor (naked) through the middle of American performance artist Eric Bogosian’s show.

Malcolm, oft-called the “godfather of British alternative comedy” talent-spotted, encouraged and advised Keith Allen, Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Paul Merton, Al Murray, Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Jim Tavare, Johnny Vegas and many other comedians early in their career.

He drowned in Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe, in 2005. At the Coroner’s Court, Police Constable Martin Spirito said that, when they pulled Malcolm from the water, he “had a bottle of beer clenched in his right hand”. Even in  death, he had a sense of his priorities.

Five years gone but not forgotten by the comedians he helped.

The Malcolm Hardee Awards this year are going to be presented on Friday 27th August during Nik Coppin‘s nightly show Shaggers, part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Three Sisters in Cowgate. I feel Malcolm would have approved of the title of the show. Judges include Tim Arthur of Time Out and Dominic Maxwell of The Times plus The Scotsman‘s Kate Copstick and Jay Richardson.

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