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Edinburgh Fringe publicity stunts: the planned drowning of Malcolm Hardee

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards – there are currently three of them – are being given every August until the year 2017. This is because that’s the number of physical awards I got mad inventor John Ward to make.

Of these three prestigious annual prizes, the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award (won last year by Stewart Lee) honours the best publicity stunt for any act or show at the Edinburgh Fringe that year.

There are no rules for the Malcolm Hardee Awards. If there were, Malcolm’s ashes would turn in their urn. But one rule-of-thumb for the Cunning Stunt Award is that people do not have to apply to be considered. Because, if you have to tell the judges you have done a publicity stunt then, by definition, the stunt has failed.

I started the Cunning Stunt Awards because it seemed to me that the marketing and publicising of comedy shows on the Fringe had become too serious and what was lacking was a bit of mindless irresponsibility. The Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award aims to encourage this.

The late lamented Malcolm was a comedian, club owner, compere, manager and sometimes agent, but it was often and correctly claimed that his real comedy act was his life off-stage and, at the Fringe, he was known for his stunts – writing a review of his own show and conning The Scotsman into printing it under the byline of their own comedy critic; driving a tractor naked through American performance artist Eric Bogosian’s show; announcing at a press conference that Glenda Jackson had died then eventually adding, “No, not that Glenda Jackson.”

If it had not been his mother who phoned me up in 2005 and told me Malcolm had drowned, I would probably have thought it was a publicity stunt.

Especially as, a few years before, I had tried to persuade Malcolm to fake his own death by drowning, as a publicity stunt.

The Assembly Rooms venue (now re-branded as simply Assembly) were paying him that year to do a show for the duration of the Edinburgh Fringe but he had also somehow managed to double-book himself on a mini-tour of South Africa.

“My kids have never been to South Africa,” he told me dolefully. This was after he had already started his Fringe run at the Assembly Rooms. “I think I’ll just do a runner.”

“How will the Assembly Rooms react?” I asked.

Malcolm shrugged his shoulders, blinked a bit and mumbled something inaudible, as he often did.

“Rather than pissing-off the Assembly,” I suggested, “why don’t you fake your own death?”

Malcolm had once been in prison with disgraced MP John Stonehouse, who had faked his own death by drowning then been found living with his mistress in Australia.

“You could hire a car in Edinburgh,” I suggested, “and drive it to North Berwick. Leave it near the beach with your clothes in a bundle nearby and something in the clothes which has your identity on it – a letter addressed to you, maybe. Then piss off to South Africa.”

“Mmmmm…” Malcolm mumbled.

“You go off to South Africa for two weeks,” I continued, “When you come back, you can read your own obituaries, with luck you can go to your own funeral and everyone including the Assembly will think it’s a great joke that’s in character. It’s a triple whammy. You get to go to South Africa for two weeks, you get publicity and you don’t piss-off the Assembly too much.”

Malcolm thought about it for a bit.

“I can’t do it,” he eventually said to me. “The only way it would work is if I didn’t tell Jane (his then wife) or my mum.”

Malcolm was a surprisingly sensitive man:

“They’d get hurt,” he said. “It wouldn’t work unless I didn’t tell them and I couldn’t not tell them.”

So that particular publicity stunt was never pulled.

One day, he just never turned up for his show at the Assembly Rooms. He had gone to South Africa. I don’t think, under the circumstances, the Assembly Rooms took it too badly.

I guess they just shrugged their shoulders and thought:

“Fuck it! It’s just Malcolm.”

(This year’s Malcolm Hardee Awards, including the Cunning Stunt Award, will be announced on the evening of Friday 26th August during a two-hour comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe.)

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