Tag Archives: Malcolm hardee

Stand-up comedians, death and fame – Who will be remembered and why?

Yesterday, I was talking to someone about reviving the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards – I would not be involved in them. 

Of course, few people have ever heard of Malcolm Hardee.

Fame, as they say, is a fickle mistress.

In the UK, who were the biggest and most-loved comedians of the late-20th Century?

Probably Morecambe & Wise.

Before them? Maybe Arthur Haynes.

Before him? Maybe Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley.

Before them? Maybe Arthur Lucan.

But, younger readers might ask, Who WERE these people?

Arthur Haynes, Tommy Handley and Arthur Lucan?

Never heard of them.

Come to that, who the fuck was Arthur Askey?

Certainly, if you are my devoted reader in Guatemala, you will never have heard of them.

But massively famous in their lifetime is what they all were. In the UK. But now forgotten by subsequent generations in the UK. And still totally unknown elsewhere. 

If you were born and brought up in China, India, Indonesia, the USA… none of those names ever meant anything even when they were at the height of their fame. Perhaps Benny Hill was more famous worldwide. There is a possibly apocryphal story that Chinese State Television interrupted their programming to announce his death. But do new generations remember him still in Shanghai or Guangzhou? I doubt it.

Malcolm Hardee outside his childhood home in London, 1995

The annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards ran at the Edinburgh Fringe 2005-2017. 

Not a lot of people know that. Certainly not in Guatemala or Guangzhou.

I mentioned during the conversation I had yesterday that I thought there was a chance – perhaps an outside chance – that Malcolm Hardee might be remembered in the UK for much longer than other comedians who were ‘famous’ during his lifetime and who are nationally known today.

Come to that, given current events, memories of Malcolm might outlive the very existence of the UK.

Malcolm was not famous when he was alive – infamous in certain areas, yes, perhaps, but never famous.

He was totally unknown by the general public unless you mentioned to people of a certain age The Naked Balloon Dance on Chris Tarrant’s OTT in 1981 or 1982. Then they might remember the three-man act doing the perfomance; but not him individually. He was the one on the left.

His death in 2005 got lengthy obituaries in all the quality press but none in the popular tabloids. Because, although he was widely-known by the media and very influential in the comedy industry – Heavens! GQ even ran a fashion spread featuring Malcolm – not a man known for his sartorial elegance! – the general public didn’t know he existed.

My point yesterday was that the material and style of comedy acts date but vivid anecdotes of real people’s lives do not. 

In my opinion, Malcolm was not a good stand-up comedian. In fact, you could hardly call him a stand-up comedian at all. Though he was a superb and much-underestimated MC/compere. 

People always correctly said that Malcolm’s act was his life. He had maybe eight or ten jokes which he repeated over 20 or so years. But ask people about him and what do they remember first? Not the jokes but:

    • the fact that, naked, he drove a tractor through someone else’s act at the Edinburgh Fringe.
    • the fact that (with Arthur Smith) he wrote a good review of his own Edinburgh Fringe show and conned The Scotsman newspaper into printing it thinking it was written by their own reviewer.

If you see a stand-up comedy show from 40, 30, 20, even 10 years ago, the material has dated; the style of delivery has dated; the physical look of the whole thing has dated. Even Morecambe & Wise shows, the last time I saw one, are starting to date. And, sadly, surprisingly, younger comedy fans do not find even Tommy Cooper as funny as those who saw him years ago.

Comedians’ acts and material date badly and relatively quickly.

But wildly eccentric OTT life stories and anecdotes about rebellious characters do not date.

If anyone ever fully collates the OTT anecdotes about recently-deceased comic Ian Cognito, there is another performer whose legend and personality were arguably greater than his impact on the general public.

The image which promoted the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in Edinburgh.

Successful comedians tend to be more mentally ‘together’ than the real wild card comics. People love the successful performers’ professional material, love their delivery. But they are less interesting off-stage.

When was the last time you heard a wildly eccentric anecdote about that brilliant on-stage performer Michael McIntyre doing something totally apeshit off-stage?

Malcolm Hardee could not walk from his home to the Post Office without five bizarre things happening to him – or causing bizarre things to happen.

Even the title of Malcolm’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (yes, he did) is OTT and the story of him stealing it will possibly still be funny decades hence, long after people have forgotten who, Freddie Mercury was.

Well, maybe that’s not true, because the off-stage Mercurial life story is a cracker too.

But my point is that anyone watching a 100% brilliant, top-notch Michael McIntyre routine… anyone watching an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, Monty Python or Fawlty Towers… anyone watching a Robin Williams routine… in 75 or 100 years time… may not find any of them funny because tastes will have changed and cultural tastes are different. Humour in the form of jokes and scripted funny routines does not necessarily transcend borders.

A joke that is funny in Indonesia may not make ‘em rock with laughter in Canada or Novosibirsk today. A joke or routine that is funny in London today may not be funny in London in 2099. But a bizarre anecdote about a man who “throughout his life maintained a fearlessness and an indifference to consequences” (as Malcolm Hardee’s obituary in The Times said) is likely to outlive all the people who were more ‘famous’ than he was during his lifetime.

Malcolm Hardee – generally unknown during his lifetime and remembered by few since then – may yet outlive those who apparently achieved more during their lives. 

Lao Tzu is right that “the flame which burns twice as bright burns half as long”. But the flame which burns half as bright as those around it is still just as 100% hot when you stick your finger in it and yet may burn twice as long.

Of course, if you’re dead, it doesn’t do you any good so, as Malcolm himself would have said: “Fuck it!”

Or: “It don’t matter, do it? There are people starving in Africa. Not all over… Round the edge… fish.”

RIP the unknown comic, Malcolm Hardee, 1950-2005.

I know someone is going to mention that Charlie Chaplin is remembered fairly worldwide. But I don’t care and I never found him funny anyway. And I am already regretting the line about sticking your finger in…

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Writer/musician/comic John Dowie on his death, dentists and other Dowies…

So I had a blog chat with poet/comedian/writer John Dowie. 

I was going to the dentist. We arranged to meet when I was finished.

“You might as well come to the dentist in case he’s over-running,” I suggested.

“Charming as your dentist’s waiting room undoubtedly is,” John Dowie replied, “I will be in this pub down the road.”

And he was.

He drank sparkling water. He wore a hat,

This is part of our chat.


JOHN FLEMING: Are you going to see Avengers: Endgame, the latest Marvel movie?

JOHN DOWIE: No, because I won’t go to a cinema. People talk, use their phones and eat popcorn. I can’t believe they sell popcorn in cinemas: the noisiest and smelliest food known to mankind. I resent the attitude of the people who own the cinemas: they shouldn’t sell popcorn. I mean, people are bringing in hamburgers and chips now.

FLEMING: Are they? Where?

DOWIE: I dunno. But they are.

FLEMING: You’re getting to be a grumpy old man.

Consistently grumpy young John Dowie – a living legend

DOWIE: Getting? I was always a grumpy man. Age doesn’t come into it.

I can’t function unless I’m in complete privacy, in an enclosed space with no distractions.

FLEMING: You must have had to in your erstwhile youth.

DOWIE: I had a bedsit and wrote in that. Or I’d sit in my bedroom in my mother’s house and write there.

I am now thinking of trying to rent an office.

FLEMING: It is difficult to write at home.

DOWIE: Yes. If you have a partner of any kind, just as you reach the moment where you think: Yes! YES! there will be a knocking on the door – “Would you like a cuppa tea?” – and it’s all gone.

I had a friend, Gary, who was a painting artist and he said it was always happening with his missus.

FLEMING: The painter’s wife from Porlock.

DOWIE: …or the unwitting girlfriend from Porlock.

FLEMING: Unwitting?

DOWIE: To think it’s alright to knock on the writer’s door and ask if you want a cup of tea.

FLEMING: You should be publishing more. Your story in the excellently-edited Sit-Down Comedy anthology was wonderful.

Freewheeling John Dowie’s latest book

DOWIE: Well, I’ve got an idea for another book. But it’s under wraps. It’s bad luck to talk about it before you’ve done it.

FLEMING: Fiction?

DOWIE: No, no. I can’t be fucked with fiction… But I did have an idea for a story… It’s about this woman dentist who has a new patient and he walks into the room with the most perfect teeth. She falls madly in love with this guy, but how does she keep on seeing him? There’s only one way: tell him his teeth are shit. So, over the course of a year or so, she gets him back for more appointments, taking out his teeth one-at-a-time until he has no teeth left… and then she goes off him.

FLEMING: You should call it Take Me Out.

DOWIE: …or Pulling.

FLEMING: Can I quote that idea?

DOWIE: Yes. I won’t use it. But I do have an idea for a new book – though I can’t write it until I’ve found somewhere to live. At the moment, I’m staying with my two sons and their mother. One of my sons is doing a show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

FLEMING: Called?

Comedy/magic and conspiracy theories

DOWIE: Oddly Alike. My son is Harry Scott Moncrieff and it’s a two-hander with his mate Robbie Fox. Harry does comedy/magic wrapped around conspiracy theories. If he does it really well, they will kill him.

FLEMING: Or so he thinks… Why is he Scott Moncrieff?

DOWIE: He took his mother’s name which has turned out quite well, because he’s not cursed by association with my name as being drunk and abusive.

FLEMING: But Dowie is a famous name.

DOWIE: In Scotland it is… Dowie’s Tavern in Edinburgh… 

FLEMING: I’ve never heard of it. But Dowie is a creative name. There’s you. Your sister Claire Dowie. And Helga Dowie whom I worked with at ATV, who’s a producer now. Your son should have kept the Dowie name. Three prestigious Dowies. How many Scott Moncrieffs are there?

DOWIE: Hundreds, including the man who translated Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

FLEMING: Really? Was your ex-girlfriend related to the Proust Scott Moncrieff?

DOWIE: Yeah. And she can actually claim lineage from Henry VIII. All I can claim is a couple of ex-cons from Australia.

FLEMING: Really?

DOWIE: Nah! Dunno. Irish. My dad’s Irish, so… Well, there’s a famous John Dowie in Australia who’s a sculptor.

FLEMING: Oh! Is he related to you?

DOWIE: No… There’s another John Dowie who plays football. He is related.

Maybe dour, mean-spirited but never ever dull

FLEMING: Does ‘Dowie’ mean anything?

DOWIE: It means dull, dour and mean-spirited. There’s The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, a famous folk song.

FLEMING: So your father was Irish with a Scots name…

DOWIE: Yes. My mother was very scathing about the Irish.

FLEMING: She was Scottish?

DOWIE: No. From Stoke-on-Trent but she married my dad, who was from Belfast and she was always scathing about how terribly not-bright the Irish were. I once did a genealogy thing on her maiden name. It turned out she was from Ireland… I think I may get an Irish passport if Brexit happens.

FLEMING: A comedian has just been elected President of Ukraine. (Volodymyr Zelenskiy)

DOWIE: Yes. Swivel on THAT Mark Thomas! Never mind your NHS show. Look what a real politician comedian’s getting up to!

FLEMING: Can I quote that?

DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Yeah! Jeremy Hardy must be spinning in his grave. That could’ve been me up there on that podium! I’m going to the Jeremy Hardy memorial in May. He was very good, very precise and his death deserved all the press coverage it got.

“Now, when comedians start dying, you become jealous of their obituaries…” (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

It used to be that comedians were only jealous of other comedians succeeding. But then you write a book and you’re jealous that other comedians’ books are doing better than yours. Now, when other comedians start dying, you become jealous of their obituaries. Ian Cognito’s obituaries this month! I would kill for that amount of space!

FLEMING: I know. He was getting in mainstream papers…

DOWIE: … in the Guardian AND in The Times! I expected the Guardian to do one, but not The Times.

FLEMING: Malcolm Hardee got very extensive obituaries in the quality newspapers because people in the media knew who he was, even if the public didn’t. But Ian Cognito! – I don’t think people outside the comedy industry itself were really aware of him. He did prove, though, that the best way to die is on-stage like Tommy Cooper – and/or live your life so OTT that there are lots of outrageous anecdotes to quote. Fame may die but anecdotes live forever.

DOWIE: That Hollywood Reporter article you posted on Facebook about John Belushi’s death was quite horrific. No respect. There’s a corpse being wheeled out on a trolly – Oh! I’ll take a photograph of that, then! – No. mate, don’t – And Lenny Bruce, of course. He died on a toilet trying to inject himself. He was lying naked on the bathroom floor with a syringe still in his arm and they were leaping up the stairs two-at-a-time to take photographs of him.

FLEMING: Apparently dying on the toilet is quite a common thing. Doing Number Twos puts a big strain on the heart.

DOWIE: Elvis.

FLEMING: Yes.

DOWIE: I have ‘died’ IN some toilets.

FLEMING: Wey-hey! You still have it!… I should have taken heroin when I was younger. Look at Keith Richards: 75 years old and a picture of good health; his main risk is falling out of trees he has climbed. Wasn’t it Keith Richards who accidentally smoked his father’s cremated ashes?

DOWIE: He said he did; then he said he didn’t.

FLEMING: Always print the legend, I say, if it’s a good story.

DOWIE: The story I like is Graham Nash. After his mother died, he discovered that she had wanted to be a singer but was saddled with having to bring up children and having to work. So he took her ashes on tour with him and, every time he did a gig, he dropped a little bit of her on the stage.

“What’s going to happen? … Are you going to rot or be burnt?”

FLEMING: What’s going to happen to you? Are you going to rot or be burnt?

DOWIE: When I buried my friend David Gordon, I found a natural death company with grounds and you can do what you like there. You can put the body in a hole in the ground or in a coffin or in a sack – You can do what the fuck you like – And then they plant a tree there. That’s what I’m going to have done – What kind of tree would it be? – I think it will have to be a weeping willow.

FLEMING: You’ll be happy to rot? You don’t want to be burnt?

DOWIE: I don’t like that bit where the doors close.

FLEMING: Like curtains closing on a stage…

DOWIE: …and no encore.

FLEMING: I think it’s more romantic to rot.

DOWIE: Also your body serves a purpose if you grow a tree out of it. Actually, I quite like the idea of a Viking funeral with the boat and the flames. But I try not to ponder on my own death too much, John. It’s just tempting Fate.

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Eric (Just Eric) pays tribute to the OTT comedian Ian Cognito, who has died

Ian Cognito’s Facebook photo – presumably how he would like to be remembered

In the previous blog here, Becky Fury remembered Ian Cognito, who died while performing on stage last week.

Now fellow comedian Eric (Just Eric) adds his own tribute…


When I saw the headline BRITISH COMEDIAN DIES ONSTAGE, I thought: Oh, that will be Cogs…

Then, when I saw the full story, I was devastated to see that, tragically, my instinct was correct.

Like Malcolm Hardee before him, probably no-one ever expected to read the words “After a long battle with illness, he passed away peacefully in his sleep.”

Cogs just wasn’t that kind of guy.

He died as he lived, in the spotlight, commanding full attention, with no-one quite believing what they were witnessing.

We all have our own memories of Cogs and bizarrely I have enjoyed reading the stories that others have shared of this marvellous mischievous maverick.

I first met Ian Cognito at Malcolm Hardee’s Up the Creek comedy club when, as he passed my table en route to the stage, he scooped up my pint and drank it while headlining the night.

The Greenwich club was a renowned bear pit and it wasn’t long before he got his first heckle. Whenever this happens, it is the stock-in-trade of the comedian to deliver smart-put downs in response and the more cutting they are the better; and Cogs could cut anyone to the quick. But Cogs didn’t just embarrass his detractors: he went further, much further. He would intimidate them.

So, climbing across the seats in the direction of the hapless heckler and standing astride the back of the chairs either side of him, Cogs delivered his withering repost, while towering over the now cowering heckler. Not surprisingly, it was the only heckle that he received that night.

Given what I had just witnessed from his awesome onstage persona, I did consider saying nothing and just getting myself another beer. But, with what I now realise was a somewhat foolhardy and reckless regard for the ‘perceived’ risk to my personal safety, I summoned up all my courage and, after the show, I challenged him about drinking my pint.

I was then astonished to find him most apologetic. He had just made an honest mistake, confusing my Guinness for his own, which he then realised he had absent-mindedly left on the bar.

So he bought me a replacement and, with a mutual love of the black stuff and comedy in common, it was the start of a friendship I could never have expected. Over the next few years, I did numerous gigs with this comedic whirlwind, who would proudly announce to audiences that he had been banned from more comedy clubs than any other comic.

But that brash onstage (and sometimes offstage) persona belied the sensitive, caring, supportive soul which lay beneath.

I should imagine that anyone who ever had the privilege of being invited to his home will have the memory of that visit etched on their memory forever.

I certainly remember my first visit. Pulling up in a layby in the middle of nowhere, thinking: Why on earth would he want me to meet him here? Only to find Cogs suddenly emerging from a bush and extending an invitation to climb over a crash barrier and down a bank. Where, only a few yards from the busy highway, a boat is moored on a slow-flowing river in an unfeasibly serene spot.

In my experience the standard invitation would include a meal, which Cogs would cook in his galley while his guests sat on the bank enjoying the unexpected calm after the long drive from London.

Then, over lunch, we were treated to a side of this quiet, reflective, thoughtful man that his audiences would probably never get to see.

Then, it seems, no-one would be allowed to leave, without first choosing a book from his shed to take with them. I remember choosing The Book of Shit Towns.

Then it would be back into the car and on to the gig, where it was sometimes difficult to reconcile that the astonishing and aggressive performance the audience and fellow performers alike were treated to that evening was delivered by the same man who had humbly dished-up the pasta a shortly before, while sharing stories about his children.

When I first visited Paul (his real name was Paul Barbieri) and discovered that he lived on a boat, he said: “It’s the most interesting thing about me.”

Which is patently untrue.

No, it isn’t, Cogs, YOU are the most interesting thing about you!

Some things I know. Some things I will never know.

One thing I do know is that the world of comedy has just become a far less interesting place without you…

We have lost another shining light from our world.

What is it that is said about the flame that burns brightly…?

RIP mate.

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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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The Museum of Comedy’s Monday Club – “London’s best ‘new material’ night”?

In London, there are loads of free ‘new material’ comedy nights. This often means inexperienced comedians turn up with half-written, half-baked half-ideas and the evenings can sometimes be more endurance test than entertainment.

One exception is the (in my experience) consistently good and – amazingly – free Monday Club show, held in The Museum of Comedy on – well – on Mondays.

The Museum of Comedy is a random collection of comedy memorabilia and a well-designed performance space in a crypt under St George’s Church in Bloomsbury.

It (The Museum of Comedy not the church) is owned by the Leicester Square Theatre and this coming Monday is the 1st anniversary of The Monday Club.  

So yesterday I chatted to David Hardcastle, who (with Tony Dunn & Patch Hyde) organises The Monday Club and runs comedy competitions for the Leicester Square Theatre and the Museum of Comedy.


David Hardcastle and (top) Tommy Cooper

JOHN: The majority of new material nights in London are – well – not very good but you always maintain a high quality. Genuinely.

DAVID: I hope so. It’s mostly invitation only – some people get in touch, but they have to be of a certain level. Because a lot or some of the acts know each other, there’s a sort of support group AND competitive element in it: they HAVE to write something new for it, otherwise people will know they’ve been lazy. 

JOHN: What is your actual title at the Theatre and Museum?

DAVID: Artist Development. 

JOHN: And comedy competition supremo…

DAVID: Well, originally, at Leicester Square, we just ran the one competition and now it’s the Leicester Square Theatre AND the Museum of Comedy AND the Great Yorkshire Fringe – and there are four competitions within them, so I’ve sort-of invented my own job.

One of the reasons for The Monday Club is we used to have people coming in through competitions but then we had nothing else to give them; no way of supporting them by giving them stage time unless they came back and rented the space to do a preview. So it’s hopefully a way of keeping those people in the loop and involved in the venue.

JOHN: You have a New Comedian of the Year competition, but you no longer have an Old Comedian of the Year competition.

DAVID: Now it’s called the Not So New Comedian of the Year.

JOHN: And the title was changed because…?

DAVID: A lot of people refused to enter a competition that had the word ‘Old’ in it. It is for comics over 35 years old and people argued 35 is not old enough to call anyone old!

JOHN: I say just give it to Lynn Ruth Miller every year: she’s 85!

DAVID: Well, she MCs it every year now.

JOHN: You sometimes MC at The Monday Club yourself, but not always.

DAVID: I quite enjoy it when I do it, but I never particularly want to do it.

JOHN: You’re not frustrated by putting acts on but you’re not one of them?

DAVID: You perform comedy and you reach a stage where you are sort-of competent but, if you’re not aged 23, it’s very hard to get further than that.

My full-time job is comedy admin, so I don’t have the time to perform as well, really. And I’m too lazy to perform. I’ve not written a joke in four years.

JOHN: Before comedy, you were doing what…?

David’s poster for US comic Doug Stanhope

DAVID: Graphic design, which I still do. I still do the design work for here and Leicester Square Theatre.

JOHN: Graphic designers and stand-up comics surely have a different mind-set?

DAVID: I think, if it’s a creative thing, that’s… Well, weirdly, there are a lot of comics from an art and design background. They start popping up online at this time of year saying Do you want poster designs for your Edinburgh Fringe show? 

I did fine art originally, at Bradford College of Art.

JOHN: You are from Bradford.

DAVID: Yes. Then I did an MA at Camberwell in London. There is no money in doing fine art, but you can make a living doing graphics. So I started doing that by accident.

JOHN: You used to run a night called Get Happy in Farringdon.

DAVID: My girlfriend at the time and I had both done Logan Murray’s comedy course and running Get Happy was an easy way to get stage time.

JOHN: You did Logan Murray’s course because…?

DAVID: I think stand-up comedy is one of those things where you always fancy giving it a go.

JOHN: Not me.

DAVID: I had always fancied doing stand-up.

JOHN: So you started in…?

DAVID: Around 2007, I think.

JOHN: And now you are in theatre management and Artist Development… So do you get a hard-on by finding new talent? I will think of some better way of phrasing that when I transcribe this.

DAVID: I’m spunking my pants even as we speak.

JOHN: Perhaps I will leave it in, then, if that’s the phrase.

Behind The Scenes at the Museum… of Comedy

DAVID: I know what you mean, though. When I first started running my own comedy night, I actually found that there was more satisfaction in putting an entire night together that works than there was going up myself and performing. I just found there was something really nice about the fact that people would come into a pub and watch something for an hour and a half and go away happy.

JOHN: Because you had structured it well.

DAVID: Exactly. There are so many comedy nights that aren’t structured and are just a shambles and then they wonder why they don’t work.

JOHN: I think club owner Malcolm Hardee’s rule-of thumb was you end with the best act, start-off with the second best act and have a good solid act at the end of Part One. So what is your template structure?

DAVID: Don’t let people bang on too long and let the audience know what’s happening.

JOHN: The acts all get 5 minutes.

DAVID: Yeah. It’s all about keeping it in manageable chunks, I think. And proper lighting; proper sound.

JOHN: Have the nights got better over the course of the first year?

DAVID: Yes. Because we have started to get some regulars in the audience. People don’t come back every week but, if we ask at the start, usually at least half of them have been before, which means we now have an audience that knows what’s going on and are on-board with the concept. Which is nice. You start with a warm audience, so it’s better.

We want it to be relaxed for the audience AND the acts. One of the reasons we start at 7.00pm and finish by 9.00pm is it leaves time to have a chat afterwards.

Crypt-ic comedy under a Bloomsbury church

JOHN: The acts you have on are good solid acts but not ‘TV names’ or mega names. Are the Big Names too big to play The Monday Club?

DAVID: I think audiences generally are more aware of the concept of new material now. I think once you reach a certain level, you can do a whole hour of new material rather than rock up and do five minutes. The Big Names can do an hour and sell tickets to it. Michael McIntyre has been here at the Museum of Comedy doing new material. Alexei Sayle is on for a week with a new show.

JOHN: When they’re Big and more experienced, they can try out entire shows rather than five minute chunks, which is the Monday Club format.

DAVID: Yes. But Josh Widdicombe has done a Monday Club. Rachel Parris did one.

JOHN: Next Monday is going to be a special show to celebrate your 1st anniversary?

DAVID: Yes, we are going to have on exactly the same people we were going to have on before we realised it was our birthday.

JOHN: But with added free cake, I heard.

DAVID: Oh yes. We’re having cake.

JOHN: Then I’ll be here.

DAVID: We have started describing it as “London’s best new material night” purely on the grounds it is difficult to prove any different.

JOHN: I like your way of thinking.

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The art and psychology of heckling comics and throwing objects at them

Malcolm Hardee – known for running notorious comedy clubs

Exactly 14 years ago tonight, comedian Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock in the Rotherhithe peninsula, London.

He maintained his principles, even in death.

When his body was raised from the dock several days later, he was still clutching a bottle of beer.

Malcolm was famed for spotting and helping talented comedians at the start of their careers. He was also known for running and hosting the Tunnel Palladium club night – a Sunday evening show with good professional acts but also an ‘open spot’ section so dangerous for new acts to perform in that aspiring comics would sometimes travel hundreds of miles to see if they could survive an audience known and feared for its razor-sharp heckling.

After the club was raided and closed by the police for drugs offences (NOT on one of Malcolm’s nights – he only did Sundays) he opened Up The Creek comedy club in Greenwich where, initially, the hecklers continued their trade.

Here, I chat to one of the Tunnel’s most effective hecklers – Gordon ‘Bres’ Breslin.


Gordon Breslin – a taste for heckling

JOHN: You got a taste for heckling at the Tunnel club…

BRES: Well, before that, me and a friend used to go to Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday afternoon and absorb some of the heckling of speakers that was going on. I remember heckling the Reverend Donald Soper on occasion, when he was preaching there. That’s where we cut out teeth.

JOHN: Did Lord Soper take it well?

BRES: He did indeed. He was a very nice gentleman. After that, though, we discovered the Tunnel club.

JOHN: You were regulars.

BRES: Yes. And the heckling was quite good fun. To start with, it was limited to the open mic spots.

JOHN: But all heckling is surely cruel and nasty.

BRES: Sometimes it is cruel and nasty but sometimes an act just needs to go if they’re not very good.

JOHN: But these poor, sensitive people have spent months refining their act…

BRES: Well, being heckled is how they know it needs more refining. If an act is really bad, something should be done apart from walking out. I think audiences have become too tolerant of bad acts these days. Back in the Tunnel days, it could be quite rude – “Get off! You’re shit!” This was 1984 to 1989.

But word got out about the heckling there and it got progressively more ermmm… ‘aggressive’ I guess is the word.

JOHN: Well, I guess throwing beer glasses at the acts is aggressive.

BRES: Yes, but people like Simon Munnery were cutting their teeth there and he didn’t mind a bit of heckling. There used to be a very good heckler at The Tunnel called The Pirate…

JOHN: I think Malcolm told me The Pirate was a stockbroker who retired early to Spain with lots of money.

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

BRES: His great one was… A comic would make his best joke of the night and The Pirate’s voice would be heard saying “Oh larf… Oh larf… Oh larf,” which would just floor the comedian. Some of the heckling was very very funny.

JOHN: And the best heckles are…?

BRES: I think the art of the heckle is… A heckler wants to make a funny gag and make the audience laugh and perhaps even get the biggest laugh of the night and – not necessarily make the comic feel small, but – make the comic appreciate the heckler’s one one-liner as well.

JOHN: Surely it is just solely to make the comic feel small.

BRES: Well, in a way. But the comic has the right of reply, so he can make the heckler feel even smaller. A lot of people don’t want to sit in the front rows because they don’t want to be picked-on by the comic. Let’s get it into perspective. For me comedians, if they are any good, will always pick on the front row. So they have more than ample opportunity to get their retaliation in first.

JOHN: So heckling is the audience picking on the comedian, not the comedian picking on the audience.

BRES: Exactly. That’s the one. As long as it’s fair and just. At The Tunnel, some of the comedians would come on looking nervous and, before they’d even said a word, the first thing shouted out was: “Maaallcolm!!!” Then someone else would take up the cry: “Maaallcolm!!!” Then the whole audience would end up shouting “Maaallcolm!!!” and, before the comedian had even said a word, it was not unknown for the act to walk off without even doing a joke.

JOHN: And the audience would sometimes call out for a taxi…

BRES: Yes. “Cab for (the comedian’s name)!” Those were the regular heckles. But then it got a bit overtaken by… Well, a bit violent, I should say – Throwing things and it… it got… erm… too bad. There was an incident where Clarence & Joy Pickles (Adam Wide & Babs Sutton)… I think it was a beer crate or something like that was thrown at them – something quite chunky…

JOHN: Malcolm told me he wasn’t the compere that night. I think he was maybe at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Malcolm made a mistake in giving a copy of this letter to each member of the Tunnel club audience

BRES: I think she sustained a cut – Joy Pickles. So, the following week, there was a letter to the audience from Tunnel Arts – which was Malcolm – asking all members of the audience to “refrain from throwing anything at the stage… The Tunnel Club is noted for its witty heckling and appreciation of a good act. Let’s not spoil it by behaving as animals. It is coming to a point where a lot of good acts are thinking twice about performing here (quite rightly so) and this means that your enjoyment will be impaired.”

A copy of this letter was put on every seat in the Tunnel club and, of course, when Malcolm came on stage, he got bombarded by people throwing screwed-up letters and paper aeroplanes at him. So the letter became a surreal heckle.

JOHN: My memory is that, sometimes, they didn’t just throw beer glasses at the acts; they sometimes threw half-full glasses so there was beer all over the place too.

BRES: Well, it was probably quite watered-down beer. 

JOHN: The heckling-off of acts was quite effective.

BRES: Yes. Sometimes self-defeating. Sometimes you might have seven or eight acts and the show would be over in half an hour because everyone had been heckled off – sometimes even the good ones.

Jools Holland (left) with Malcolm Hardee at the Tunnel club in 1985 (Photo by Bill Alford)

JOHN: Malcolm told me that, after the trouble with Clarence & Joy Pickles, he had to make it a members-only club and he then discovered lots of the audience were not local. They were coming through the Blackwall Tunnel from north of the Thames and a lot were very highly-paid, highly-educated City workers, which was why the heckling was of such a high standard. I think someone was once heckled off in Latin and looked a bit surprised.

BRES: Yeah.

JOHN: What was your job at that point?

BRES: (LAUGHS) I was a Lloyds underwriter, working in the City.

JOHN: So basically it was up-market scum causing the problems.

BRES: Exactly. (LAUGHS) But I am from humble beginnings. I guess the Tunnel club had a timely demise and we were then a bit bereft of anywhere to go. We tried out Jongleurs club in Clapham, but the comedy was never great there and we weren’t allowed to heckle. We were physically told-off by bouncers. Luckily, Malcolm then set-up Up The Creek in Greenwich, which didn’t have the same notoriety as the Tunnel.

JOHN: I think the brothers who co-owned it with Malcolm told him after a few weeks that he couldn’t allow heckling and throwing things. Though I do remember some open spot act who got up on stage and started reading poetry. He was a bald man and you could see the blood trickling down his forehead after something was thrown and hit him.

BRES: I was there when Eddie Shit was performing. He came on dressed as Freddie Mercury and was singing songs by Queen with all the lyrics changed to refer to shit. I was sitting down the front and we were getting things passed to us from the back – including glass ashtrays – to throw at him. Which, obviously, we never did.

There was one occasion when an act which really was shit had been using a real frozen chicken and they ended up throwing this frozen chicken at the audience. The audience kept it then, slowly but surely, it made its way down the front. It came to me and I remember getting up on stage and offering it to Malcolm and I think I started up the chant “Shag the chicken! Shag the chicken!” which the whole audience took up.

So Malcolm got his knob out and duly obliged. 

That was quite amusing.

JOHN: Did you make friends with the other hecklers?

BRES: Yes. And some of the acts as well. It wasn’t all animosity. Simon Munnery, Martin Soan, Boothby Graffoe, Rich Hall. We would leave the good acts alone and they would leave us alone.

JOHN: Mostly, I thought the hecklers at Malcolm’s clubs were firm but fair.

BRES: I would like to think that.

JOHN: Part of the training process for new comedians. You don’t get much heckling nowadays.

BRES: The demise of heckling is down to the extra tolerance we have nowadays, even for bad acts. There are hidden boundaries these days. There’s too much respect for comics these days. Performers don’t know how to give a riposte and, as a heckler, you don’t want to show them up. It would just stump them.

JOHN: Isn’t that the point?

BRES: Not always. The next generation should learn what “Maaallcolm!!!” means.

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

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

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

He was a very naughty boy…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WANTED FOR THEATRE GROUP

ACTORS

I thought I’ll have a go at that! 

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

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

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

Then they went: 

“Ooooooooh!……Eeeeeeeh!” 

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

But I thought I’d have a go at it. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright,” I said. 

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

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

“Yes,” I said. “No problem.”

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

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

“Anyone cab for Peckham?” 

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

“Can you take five?” 

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

So this bloke called out: 

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

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

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

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

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

“Get in the boot!” 

Full credit to her, she did. 

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

“Who’s that?” 

“Dunno,” I said.

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

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