Tag Archives: Martin Soan

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

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

I posted Part 1 of this chat yesterday.

Here is Part 2…


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

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

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

LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.

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

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

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

LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.

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

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

LOUISETTE: But, getting back to character acts…

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

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

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

I may be like a Miss World contestant. 

LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?

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

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

LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.

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

LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?

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

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

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

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

JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different. 

LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOUISETTE: Like Phil EllisFunz & Gamez.

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

LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…

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

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

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

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

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

… CONTINUED HERE

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

The poster for the latest Pull The Other One

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

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

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


Martin – legendary performance artist with a sense of humour

JOHN: So you are selling your props… Why?

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

JOHN: Doing something else? 

MARTIN: I’m reinventing myself, John.

JOHN: As what? A woman?

MARTIN: A performance artist with a sense of humour.

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

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

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

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

JOHN: Which is?

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

JOHN: Hamlet?

MARTIN: No.

JOHN: So?

MARTIN: Stupid, surreal.

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

MARTIN: No. 

JOHN: Why?”

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

JOHN: Where?

Could Scarborough be the new Edinburgh for Fringe comedy?

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

JOHN: Why?

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

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

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

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

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

JOHN: You mean move there?

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

JOHN: So what props are you selling?

MARTIN: The Gates of Hell.

JOHN: Eh?

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

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

JOHN: And the relevance of Mr Punch is…?

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

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

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

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

MARTIN: Well…

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

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

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

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

JOHN: You got around a bit.

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

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

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

JOHN: Such as?

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

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

MARTIN: Yeah. He is 49 years of age.

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

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

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

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

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

JOHN: Have you got reserve prices in mind?

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

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

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

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

JOHN: It’s a natural aptitude.

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

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

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

JOHN: Not Martin Soan?

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

JOHN: Such as?

MARTIN: Miss Haversham.

JOHN: From Great Expectations.

Martin Soan on stage as Miss Haversham

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

JOHN: And Miss Haversham IS the armchair.

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

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

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

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

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

JOHN: You’re not going to retire.

MARTIN: No.

JOHN: That’s a relief.

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Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulkner reviews my first stage performance

Publicity shot for my first ever show

Last Wednesday night I took to the stage for the first time.

I appeared doing a 10-minute spot in a Valentine’s Night special at Martyn Sadler’s new comedy club in East London.

It was, perhaps, a rather rowdier audience than I would have preferred.

But, sitting in the audience, was comedy promoter Noel Faulkner, who founded the Comedy Cafe – now at its new venue in Shoreditch.

He was kind enough to share this review of my act via social media the next day.


Noel Faulkner is a man of exquisite taste

Well I have to say John Fleming – who has seen more comedy than anyone in the business – is definitely a dark horse of the stage. He was amazing in his performance last night. First of all, nobody told me he has such a great falsetto voice. I thought he was miming!

His performance from the moment he stepped on stage just blew everyone away (John is good at blowing). And, at his age, to come on to what must be one of the most difficult tap dancing routines since Fred Astaire and still have the energy to do two songs – one with an audience member on his shoulders – was both a treat and a feat.


Martin Soan (pictured) introduced German act The Short Man in Long Socks in 2016 wearing short socks to avoid confusion

I have hopes that Noel may book me at his Comedy Cafe Theatre in the summer but, in the meantime, Martyn Sadler has re-booked me to perform at his new East London club at the end of March.

Also on the bill will be that extraordinary German variety club act The Short Man in Long Socks – Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken – who has not been seen in London since his appearance at Pull the Other One in Nunhead in 2016.

I blogged about it at the time.

Tickets for the March show at Martyn Sadler’s club are available online now at £10 full price; £15 for students.

This admirable pricing system is based on a model the late Malcolm Hardee once used for his show at the Edinburgh Festival.

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Why audiences would rather pay than see free comedy shows in London

Martin Soan and Paul Vickers before a Pull The Other One

Martin and Vivienne Soan have been running Pull the Other One comedy nights in Nunhead, South London, for over ten years. The shows are monthly. You pay to enter; and, in my opinion, they are always value for money whoever is on the bill.

Relatively recently, they also started monthly sister shows – free to enter – called It’s Got Bells On.

These two monthly comedy shows mean Martin and Vivienne run shows roughly every fortnight.

Pull The Other One is at the Ivy House in Nunhead; It’s Got Bells On is at the Old Nun’s Head in – you guessed it – Nunhead.

Martin has always paid acts to perform at It’s Got Bells On, though entry has been free for audiences. From this Friday, though, Martin is going to charge £3 entry.

“Why?” I asked him a couple of weeks ago, before a Pull The Other One show.

Also sitting at the table, mute, was Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey.

“Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked Paul.

“No,” he replied.

“So,” I said, turning back to Martin Soan, “why start charging entry?”

“Well,” said Martin, “I started It’s Got Bells On because I was getting a little tired of putting on stuff that sells. If I book a big name like Alan Davies or Omid Djalili or Stewart Lee at Pull The Other One, people will happily pay to come along.

Stewart Lee (left) behind-the-scenes with Martin Soan

“If I don’t have a big name, people won’t come along in such big numbers, Which is very frustrating because all the shows are always consistently good. (Martin tells the truth here.) It doesn’t matter who is on, the shows are worth the same ticket price. The fickle nature of the public, though, is that more will come along if they see a name they recognise. And, because the audience is paying, the acts feel they have to deliver risk-free performances.

“So I wanted to have a free-to-enter evening which would allow acts to be more anarchic and experiment more without worrying about the possibility of failing. I could also feed off It’s Got Bells On and transfer acts tried-out there into Pull The Other One.

“What happened was that the first few months of It’s Got Bells On were incredibly successful. I didn’t realise at the time why, but the (mostly South London) acts I was putting on were bringing along lots of friends. But then, when I started having acts on from North London, they didn’t bring friends and I had only 20-30 people coming in, which was disappointing.”

“Why,” I asked, “would charging get you bigger audiences?”

“People have been talking to me, saying: I didn’t want to come along because it was free so, obviously, it was not going to be very good. Which isn’t true, but that’s what they think. So I thought: Right, fuck it. We will charge the audience, but all the ticket money will go directly to the Clowns Without Borders charity. 

It’s Got Bells On – £3 this Friday in Nunhead

So the people who won’t come to free shows because they think they will be shit may come to this pay show because they assume it will be better. But we will keep the essential elements of It’s Got Bells On – freedom from having to do risk-free comedy and allowing people to experiment. And I will still (as before) pay everyone £20 to perform. So it’s good for the performers and hopefully now people will start taking it a bit more seriously because there’s an admission fee (which goes directly to Clowns Without Borders).

“I’m still gobsmacked by the attitude of audiences out there. People have got these boundaries of what they will allow themselves to experience. If the performers have been on television, then that’s OK. They will come. At Pull The Other One, invariably, when we have really big names on, we will put acts either side who are completely nuts and the audience will come out saying: I loved the Big Name but that guy who did the blah blah blah whatever – I REALLY, REALLY loved him!

“The whole idea of It’s Got Bells On was to be free so acts feel no pressure not to fail… but I have never known an act to fail there. Generally, if you get up and do something new, then your adrenaline and determination will carry the whole thing through.”

Martin smiled.

Martin Soan decided not to have bluetooth

“Why do you have a green tooth?” I asked. “That wasn’t there before.”

“I wanted bluetooth to communicate better but I got a green tooth instead.”

“Ah,” I said. I turned to Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey. “Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

Paul lives in Edinburgh but had come to London to appear in various shows.

“Are you staying with Lewis Schaffer?” I asked.

“No. I’m staying with Martin here. That means I won’t have to do the book.”

“Do the book?” I asked.

“You remember I told you about the book?” Paul told me. “I Can Teach You How To Read Properly by Lewis Schaffer.

“Ah,” I said. “Do you have any books at your place?” I asked Martin.

“I do have a pop-up Kama Sutra,” he replied.

“A pop-up Kama Sutra?” I repeated.

“Yes. You open the pages and figures pop up fucking each other and, if you move the pages correctly, you get the penis going in and out.”

“How much did that cost?” I asked.

“It was 15p from a charity shop in Peckham.”

“That must be an interesting charity shop,” I said.

“It was in the children’s section.”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” said Martin. “That’s the God’s honest truth.”

“Why?” I asked. “Just because it was a pop-up book and they assumed it was for children?”

“I suppose so,” said Martin. “I don’t think anyone had opened the book and looked inside.”

“Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked Paul.

“No,” he replied.

“Ah,” I said.

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In London soon: a little-seen Saxon comedian with a chicken on his head

Martin Soan, master maker of stage genitalia

Martin Soan – long stalked a Saxon comedian

I was in bed all of yesterday, trying to throw off the remnants of a cold which had turned my voice into a rivett-rivetting impression of a frog.

The only real interruption to my sleep was a Skype video call from comic Martin Soan, who was wondering if I was going to his Pull The Other One comedy club show in Nunhead on 29th January.

Wild hoarseness would not stop me, because it is my first chance to see live The Short Man In Long Socks – I always thought he was called The Short Man With Long Socks, but I stand – or, given my cold, lie – corrected. I presume it is a variable translation from his actual German stage name: Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken.

Martin tells me it is Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken’s first live UK appearance. I think I may have seen him back in the 1980s when London Weekend Television’s Entertainment Dept had a tape with video excerpts of Vier gegen Willi a German peaktime TV show which was co-presented by a hamster. I think LWT was considering doing a British TV version but might have been put off by the fear of complaints by animal lovers. In Germany, they had to have multiple Willi doppelgängers on standby because the eponymous hamster tended to die under the hot studio lights.

There is currently a clip of Vier gegen Willi on YouTube, though the star rodent does not appear until 26 mins 16 secs into the clip.

Martin told me yesterday: “I first saw Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken 15 years ago in Leipzig, at Jim Whiting’s club Bimbo Town – the best club I’ve ever been to. It’s full of automata, installations, art, music and performance and is what us Londoners call ‘immersive’ – everything is out of this world and challenging. It’s a funfair of surreal proportions in a disused factory and it is VAST… Jim is a magnetic force and artists of all descriptions gravitate to him. Some aren’t even artists but genius just the same.

“Anyway one such act featured that night I went to Bimbo Town was Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken, I really, really was impressed, It was the most pointless and ridiculous act I have ever seen, but one of the best. There are three sections to the routine. Him getting ready to ‘go out’… Him ready to go out… And then him out. That doesn’t really explain his act, but… “

“I seem to remember,” I told Martin, “that, in Vier gegen Willi, he had a live chicken on his head.”

...a chicken...

…a chicken…

“Oh yes,” said Martin. “I forgot about that.”

“Is he possibly,” I suggested, “ever-so slightly bonkers?”

“Depends how you define it,” said Martin. “When I met him, he didn’t think any of it was mad at all. I had the feeling it was maybe a little cathartic for him.”

“Why cathartic?” I asked.

“No idea, “replied Martin. “He told me he very rarely did the act.”

“Possibly,” I suggested, “because of a lack of willing or well-balanced chickens.”

“It was just a thing he felt he had to do,” Martin explained.

“And they say,” I mused, “that Germans have no sense of humour…”

“He is fiercely not German,” Martin told me. “He is very definite that he is a Saxon not a German. Apparently he earns a very good living as an optician in Plagwitz (a suburb of Leipzig). He told me Saxons love designer glasses. He invited me around to his flat for kuchen (cake). We got on really well and he showed me his etchings. Very dark, they were – the subjects. Lots of eagles and women wearing horns. Angst is a good word isn’t it?”

“I do,” I agreed, “always enjoy hearing it said out loud.”

Too poster - Phil Kay

Kay fan: Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken

“When I was back in England,” Martin continued, “I contacted him regularly to try and entice him over. I have actually booked him three times and three times he has cancelled and I got resigned to never getting him over for the club. But he’s making it on the 29th of this month because there is some opticians’ convention in London and because Phil Kay is on the bill at Pull The Other One. He has seen Phil Kay perform abroad and he’s a big fan. So he wants to perform with him.”

“Who else is on the bill?” I asked.

“Darren Walsh and a nun.”

“I’m not going to ask,” I told Martin. “Some things are best left to the imagination.”

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