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A first meeting with Malcolm Hardee, the godfather of British alternative comedy (and some four-letter words)

Malcolm Hardee (left) & Martin Soan: The Greatest Show on Legs (photo by Steve Taylor)

Malcolm Hardee (left) & Martin Soan: Greatest Show on Legs (photograph by Steve Taylor)

This morning, I got a text message from Jonathan Hale, co-owner of the Emporium vintage clothes shop in Greenwich:

“Quite expecting my whole day to be chaos owing to Malc,” it said. “He will be playing tricks from wherever he is.”

Today would have been the 63rd birthday of Malcolm Hardee, the godfather of British alternative comedy. He drowned in 2005. The annual birthday tribute to him takes place at the Lord Hood pub in Greenwich, London, on 20th January and the three increasingly prestigious (www.increasinglypresigious.co.uk) annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards are presented during the now traditional two-hour variety show in his honour at the Edinburgh Fringe on 23rd August.

For almost thirty years, on and off, Malcolm performed with Martin Soan’s comedy group The Greatest Show on Legs.

Last night, I phoned Martin.

“It’s Malcolm’s birthday tomorrow…” I said.

“I remember one year,” Martin replied, “I discovered that his favourite soup was mulligatawny soup. So, that year for his birthday, he got 48 cans of mulligatawny soup off of me.”

“How did you first meet him?” I asked.

“Ah,” he said. “I was asked to join the Put It All in The Pot show directed by Diane Brookings – Diane Broken-knees, as Malcolm nicknamed her.

“I was working as a Punch & Judy man afternoons and weekends. One of the gigs I had was Sunday lunchtime at Greenwich Theatre, performing to children in a jazz lunchtime thing – The jazz band would have a break and, in the ante room, I would do a Punch & Judy show for all the kids who’d come down with their parents to watch the jazz.

“This woman, Diane Brookings, came up and asked if I’d like to join her community-based touring show for children. I’d never done anything else except Punch & Judy and was interested and flattered that someone had asked me to do something else.

“The rehearsals were in the main hall at Goldsmith’s College, which had this staircase which came up in the middle of it.

“I ascended the stairs and my heart sank a little bit because I could hear this voice doing these theatrical exercises: I want you to stretch-stretch-stretch. I want you to pretend your fingers are like the tips of the ends of the branches of trees. Stretch-stretch-stretch. And I thought Oh fuck me! This is going to be exactly what I do NOT want to be involved in.

“As I came up the stairs, I looked round the hall and there were two other men. All the rest were women and they all had Fame-style leg-warmers on and they were all wearing lurex-lyrex-spandex whatever you call it. They were all doing these drama school warm-ups, but there was this one man who had a jacket on and a greatcoat and jeans and he could barely get his arms above his head and, every now and then, he’d adjust his glasses with his middle finger. He wasn’t really trying. It was Malcolm, of course. I looked down and there was this bald boxer dog, wearing a bow tie, fucking his leg. I thought Aha! There may be some saving grace within this show.

“That was my first image of Malcolm. It was Stuart North’s dog fucking his leg, but I can’t remember the name of the dog. It always wore a bow tie.

“During a break, Malcolm came over to me and said: See him over there? – It was the only other bloke; he was called Dave – He’s gay, Malcolm said. See that girl over there? I’ve fucked her. See that one over there? I’ve fucked her. See her over there? I’ve fucked her. I’ve fucked all these girls here. What you wanna do? You’re not gay, are you? 

“He just assaulted me with this little barrage of how good he was at everything. I was half convinced it was actually his show until Diane Brookings came over and handed out scripts.

“A number of people I’ve met who have become good friends… my first meeting with them has been strange.

“I remember the very first time I met Don, another of my friends. We were standing by a river and he just turned round to me and said: I could chuck you in that river, if I wanted. I dunno what it is in me that brings out the worst in types like Malcolm.”

“How did the Diane Brookings show go?” I asked.

“It was absolutely atrocious,” remembered Martin. “It was Malcolm, me Dave and about twelve women. There were about three weeks of rehearsals. We had scenery, costumes and a terrible script. After about a couple of weeks, I knew Malcolm as much as I knew him two weeks before he died. We were that close. Roaring with laughter backstage and playing-up and acting-up, enjoying ourselves. I think Malcolm probably shagged a couple of ‘em, but he didn’t shag ‘em all. The women were not the main reason we did it. Malcolm needed something to do when he got out of prison. I still remember one of the songs:

Put it all in the pot!
What have you got?
You’ve got fun!
You’ve got fun!

Put it all in the pot!
What have you got?
A good ti-i-ime!

“It was shockingly bad. We went to Cheltenham with it. We went to village halls with it. I think Diane Brookings had realised the script was a bit weak, so she got me in and Tom and I – he was my Punch & Judy  ‘interpreter’ at the time – basically did one half of the show with the Punch & Judy and a song at the beginning and a song at the end; and then there were a few sketches.

“But the show wasn’t really working,” said Martin. “Then the van that had all the props in was broken into overnight and nothing was stolen apart from the sound tapes. An expensive tape recorder was in there and was left; only the tapes were stolen. It was a bit odd. Diane Brookings discovered it and blew up and said We’re going to cancel the rest of the run!

“There were only about five shows left and we were quite enjoying ourselves. She got us all around in a circle and basically lost it and slagged us all off about how useless we all were. We had worked at it and we had learned our lines. We were putting on the best show that we possibly could, singing and dancing and I was putting on my Punch & Judy show.

“But she went round each one and did a character assassination on each person. When she came to Malcolm, she said: Oh, you’re absolutely useless! You’ve not been long out of out of prison. Call yourself an actor? No such thing! You’re just a useless waste of space!

“Malcolm just leant down and put his face up close to hers and said Well, at least my mum still loves me and there was something extraordinarily funny about it. She had broken her leg and she was in a wheelchair.”

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A strange showbiz meeting + the adult Punch & Judy show banned in Cornwall

(A version of this was also published in the Huffington Post)

In my quest for a third Christmas with Malcolm Hardee story to titillate potential blog-readers, I spent yesterday afternoon at comedian Martin Soan’s home.

Martin was in The Greatest Show on Legs comedy troupe with Malcolm. They were best-known for their naked balloon dance on Chris Tarrant’s OTT TV show but, in fact, The Greatest Show on Legs was originally Martin’s solo act: a Punch & Judy show.

“I had a booth that went on my shoulders, hence the name Greatest Show on Legs,” he explains.

He started the act when he was 18 and it was not until he was 26 that he met Malcolm Hardee, at which point they teamed-up for two or three years with Martin continuing to perform the Punch & Judy show and Malcolm being the ‘interpreter’ outside the booth. It was when Malcolm came out of prison after his second ‘stretch’ that they decided to expand the act into more sketch-based comedy.

Yesterday, I got somewhat distracted in my search for a Christmas with Malcolm Hardee anecdote, because Martin Soan is a walking (or, yesterday, sitting) encyclopaedia of fascinating facts, with a daughter who is a big fan of the TV show QI.

Once you have been told that eating jelly will strengthen your finger nails and hard rock guitarists have been known to eat a lot of jelly to harden the nails on their plucking fingers, you tend to forget other things because you start to imagine leather-clad Heavy Metal hard-nuts gorging on wobbly desserts. It is not a comforting image.

And then the West Country Punch & Judy tours came up in conversation.

The Greatest Show on Legs used to perform in streets, on beaches and in pubs.

“Me and Malcolm were doing a show on Plymouth Hoe,” Martin told me, “and it was memorable for two things. One – an egg was thrown at us… and two – after the show where the egg was thrown at us – this rather attractive young lady came up to us and said: A friend of mine is doing a show at the Theatre Royal and has invited you along and here’s some tickets.

“So we turned up and found it was the stage production of Yes, Prime Minister featuring her friend Harry Worth as the Prime Minister.”

For anyone of a certain age, Harry Worth and the iconic opening title sequence of his TV show was the stuff of legend.

“At the end of the play,” Martin told me, “he came back on stage and did a little routine as his Harry Worth character – his TV show leg-lifting thing and everything.

“And, after that, the same rather attractive young lady comes up to us and asks, Would you like to join Harry Worth backstage? So Malcolm and I went and had a chat with him and he was a lovely, lovely gentleman.

Would you like to come for a meal? he asked us.

“So we went to a local Indian restaurant and had a meal with Harry Worth. All polite conversation. It turned out the girl was his P.A. who went round with him. He had been at the show where the egg had been thrown at us and I guess he just felt sorry for us, so he sent his P.A. over to invite us to the theatre.”

Frankly, that is a meal I would have paid to see: the future kings of nude alternative comedy chatting with Harry Worth over a meal in an Indian restaurant in Plymouth

If you get an egg thrown at you in Plymouth, though, it does tend to mean you may have annoyed or outraged a section of the local populace. Which brings me to another odd fact Martin brought up yesterday afternoon.

“What’s the one thing that distinguishes Punch & Judy from every other type of light entertainment in Britain?” he asked.

“No idea.” I eventually replied.

“It has never been banned,” he said.

And this is true if you take the overview.

But Martin’s Greatest Show on Legs was specifically banned – from performing anywhere in the county of Cornwall.

The way Martin tells it, local street traders and retailers had complained about the GSOL show adversely affecting their business by distracting potential shoppers. “I think maybe they were jealous because of the attention we were getting,” he says.

And indeed, The Times ran a semi-outraged half-page article about Cornwall County Council banning a Punch & Judy show. Were councils, the article asked, getting too draconian and conservative?

The Greatest Show on Legs were banned from performing anywhere in the whole county of Cornwall. “But of course,” says Martin, “we still used to set up and do shows, because they couldn’t police the ban.”

And I have a sneaking suspicion the nature of the show might have influenced the Council’s decision as much as the jealousy of local traders. For one thing, it was not a children’s but an adult version of Punch & Judy which The Greatest Show on Legs performed – sometimes to local Hells Angels, more usually to the general adult public in streets, on beaches and in pubs.

“In the show,” admits Martin, “there were two innovative things that we developed. The first was that Albert Edward Harry, our crocodile, used to eat 25ft of sausages. The inside of the booth on my shoulders was stuffed full of sausages and I couldn’t wait to get the routine out-of-the-way so I could move. Malcolm used to go out into the audience and give the end of the sausages to any rather attractive girl, then Albert Edward would start eating the sausages and the woman would start getting nearer and nearer until I got her in the booth.

“The second innovation was that Malcolm used to sit in front of the booth reading a pornographic magazine and Mr Punch would read it over his shoulder and slowly get an erection and then get more and more excited – I used to build it up as long as I could – and eventually he would come over the audience and I would use my Swazzle for sound effects – the Swazzle is ideal for faking the sound of an orgasm – Oh ooh ooooh ooohaah oohhhhhhh! – and I’d up end by yelling out That’s the way to do it!”

Ah! Innocent days.

Innocent golden days.

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