Malcolm Hardee in Alternative Comedy’s early days with his protégée comedian Jo Brand (pholograph by Steve Taylor)
As I have very little time to write a blog today and as yesterday’s blog was about the ‘old’ ITV, here is an extract from comedy icon Malcolm Hardee’s increasingly prestigious autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake. It is about his participation in Martin Soan’s comedy group The Greatest Show On Legs and refers to OTT, the adult TV series produced by Chris Tarrant after his success with children’s series Tiswas.
At this time, I was working on the continuing Tiswas series.
Because ATV/Central messed-up and did not at first give the OTT team their own office, Tarrant squatted in our Tiswas office for around (if memory serves me) a month. I later worked on the LWT series Game For a Laugh, but not at this point.
This is Malcolm Hardee’s story…
The Greatest Show on Legs perform the Balloon Dance (from left) Malcolm Hardee, Martin Clarke, Martin Soan
The Greatest Show on Legs’ breakthrough was doing The Balloon Dance on ITV.
Dave ‘Bagpipes’ Brooks was supposed to be with The Greatest Show on Legs on the OTT pilot, but he’d buggered off to Cornwall. He’d had enough.
This was right in the middle of The Mad Show.
So, at about 6.30am one morning, I knocked-up Martin Potter who used to operate our tapes and he came out with us and did the pilot for OTT and the audition for Game For a Laugh.
We needed someone permanent and Martin Potter wasn’t interested, so we recruited Martin Clarke from Brighton, who’d been in a theatre group called Cliffhanger. He had quite a posh voice and looked a bit like Tony Blackburn, so we called him ‘Sir Ralph’.
We were invited to do The Balloon Dance first on Game For a Laugh but, when we got to the LWT studios, the producer wouldn’t let us do it naked. He said the show was for family viewing.
“But that’s how we do it,” I said. “That’s the whole humour of it.”
He sent researchers out to get smaller and smaller items of underwear – even going into sex shops to get us jockstraps. But we held out and said:
“We’re not doing it with our pants on”.
We partly held out because we knew that OTT also wanted us on ITV in a month’s time and they would let us do it naked. In the end, we did the Scottish sword dance on Game For a Laugh. We used the show’s co-presenter Matthew Kelly as the crossed swords. He had a broken leg at the time. So we kept our clothes on but terrorised Matthew Kelly in exchange.
A month later, we finally got naked on TV when we performed The Balloon Dance on OTT. (The video is on YouTube) That was in January 1981. It was one of the first programmes made by Central, who had taken over from ATV as the Birmingham ITV station.
OTT was meant to be the all new, very daring adult version of Chris Tarrant’s anarchic children’s show Tiswas. Alexei Sayle performed on it every week and still no-one understood his humour. Lenny Henry, Bob Carolgees and Helen Atkinson-Wood were the other OTT regulars.
On the first night we were there, the studio audience didn’t react very well to the over-all show but, when we came on, we set the place alight – figuratively speaking – and afterwards there was a furore in the press, which we wanted. Mary Whitehouse complained about it, which is always a good thing.
We got on very well with Chris Tarrant but, two or three years later, we did the Balloon Dance on another late-night TV show created by him (Saturday Stayback – there is a video not including Malcolm on YouTube). It was shot in a pub and he was desperate for ratings, because they hadn’t been very good. So he got us in to do the last show in the series.
Afterwards, there was a big end-of-series party for everyone and we weren’t invited to it. So our roadie saw a massive bottle of champagne – a Jeroboam – and nicked it. We were giving Helen Atkinson-Wood a lift because she also had to miss the party to get back to London. We all got in our Luton Transit and suddenly Chris Tarrant came running out, mad, shouting:
“You’ve had my champagne!”
“No we haven’t!” I lied.
“You have!” he yelled. “You’ll never work on TV again!”
At this, Helen Atkinson-Wood jumped out of the van because she didn’t want to be associated with us and the roadie drove us off back to London.
I have heard since that Chris Tarrant says this incident involved the pub having some silvery cutlery nicked which had sentimental value to the landlord. If anything else was nicked, it wasn’t us; we just nicked one bottle of champagne.
Anyway it all ended in tears. But our first appearance on OTT was our big breakthrough and afterwards it was all congratulations.
As a result of our TV success, we ended up with an agent, Louis Parker, who treated us like The Chippendales.
We went mainstream. We were doing hen nights and End of The Pier variety shows for two or three years – not the University shows that we had done before. Literally end-of-the-pier. Colwyn Bay and Blackpool we did. We were a novelty act doing a 15-20 minute show for what was then an enormous amount of money: about £500-£600 a show. But there were three of us to pay, plus a roadie.
The Young Ones. Christopher Ryan (bottom_ replaced Pete Richardson, who clashed with the show’s BBC producer
While we were doing that, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson went on to TV success in The Young Ones.
Pete Richardson (who went on to direct The Comic Strip) was meant to have been in that: he was meant to have been the one that no-one knows. They wanted a macho-man figure as a counter-balance to the others and Pete was replaced by someone they recruited out of a casting agency.
The Young Ones garnered all the credit for being clever comedians, while we were literally performing a dumb show. Our success was short-term, lowbrow and mainstream.
Margaret Thatcher meets The Greatest Show On Legs doing the Balloon Dance in a 1982 Sun newspaper cartoon
We even performed at a TUC Conference in Blackpool where Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dogs got booed off for being sexist: he was singing a song about a woman with tits and they didn’t like him. But they liked The Greatest Show on Legs naked with balloons. Except that we didn’t use balloons: we used photos of Mrs Thatcher to cover our genitalia and, after we turned round, our penises were sticking out of her mouth.
Partial Tiswas singing reunion in Birmingham yesterday
I went to a Tiswas reunion in Birmingham yesterday, organised by the Tiswas Online website (who are currently offline, in a suitably anarchic way)
I was told four completely unpublishable TV sex stories (none involving Tiswas but three involving BBC Television Centre).
Buy me a tea and a muffin and I’ll tell you.
The most interesting anecdote, though, was told to me by one of the TiswasOnline stalwarts, Peter Thomas.
He told me why Chris Tarrant’s attempt at a late-night ‘adult’ version of Tiswas – OTT – was taken off-air.
Tiswas was originally produced by ATV but then ATV lost its broadcast franchise partially because it was seen as a London-based TV company not a Midlands company (it had the ITV Midland franchise) but also largely, it was said, because the regulatory body was embarrassed by the low standard of its Crossroads soap opera, which had become the butt of comedians’ jokes.
The company which took over – Central Independent Television – was, in effect, the same as ATV – it had much the same staff, premises and programmes (even Crossroads). But it had new shareholders.
One of these was Boots, the chemist company.
Peter Thomas told me: “The wife of a director at Boots was appalled when she saw The Greatest Show of Legs perform the naked balloon dance at the end of the first OTT show.”
The Greatest Show on Legs, at that time, were Martin Soan, Malcolm Hardee and ‘Sir Ralph’.
“She found the whole thing to be immoral and perverse,” Peter told me. “So pressure was put on the Central board to tone down the show.”
The writing was on the wall, despite the fact the Greatest Show on Legs were invited back again.
“Chris Tarrant & co had expected a second series,” said Peter, “but Central would not let them do it live – It would all have to be pre-recorded so Central could vet everything… and Central would not give them a studio. So OTT became Saturday Stayback, an alternative comedy sketch show filmed in a pub.”
This terrible dog’s dinner of an idea, of course, did not succeed.
Peter tells me this story of the decease of OTT was recounted by Wendy Nelson, former newsreader for ATV Today and Central News in the documentary ATVLand In Colour, in which he and other Tiswas Online people were involved.
The Greatest Show on Legs’ OTT appearance is on YouTube:
Being nominated for this year’s main Malcolm Hardee Award for comic originality AND winning the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe would be good for your career you might think.
Well, you might think that…
Except Bob Slayer won both those prestigious comedy industry accolades two weeks ago and yesterday he told me:
“Ever since I was nominated as the OTT comedian, no club seems to want to book me…
“To be fair, I have a full-on Edinburgh hang-over and I haven’t spoken to that many – but it would be nice if they would speak to me! They should know that I would not get my knob out in polite company… I did not get it out at any children’s gigs and I would not in a golf club, for example!”
It is not all gloom and doom in Bob’s award-winning household, though:
“There are some nice things lining up,” he tells me. “Like touring my show in the UK and Ireland and supporting other tours. So there are some folks more than happy to embrace the mayhem… Maybe it will all be OK?”
Let’s hope so.
When Malcolm Hardee managed a young Jerry Sadowitz in the 1980s, he succeeded in getting him noticed by playing up (with good reason) the outrageousness of the act and that Jerry was so OTT he was untransmittable on TV. The result, both Malcolm and Jerry came to realise in retrospect, was that TV producers never even considered Jerry for TV because they ‘knew’ he would be untransmittable. This was perhaps not helped by the Gobshite audio album which was withdrawn over fears it might be libellous to Jimmy Saville.
I produced a one-hour TV show for BSB in 1990 titled The Last Laugh with Jerry Sadowitz in which Jerry performed live to an audience at the Astoria Theatre in London. From memory (which might be faulty) I think I told him he could have a handul of “fuck”s and to try to keep the “cunt”s to maybe two at most.
BSB’s guidelines to comedy producers at that time were that you could not have casual ‘conversational’ fucks or cunts in a sentence – you could not, for example, include “I was walking along the fucking road” – but the words were allowed if they were an integral part of the joke and if removing them would weaken the routine. I told Jerry something like: “Try not to say “fuck” or “cunt” at all and, that way, a few will inevitably come out but it will be OK over the course of an hour.”
He did the entire hour-long show with neither a “fuck” nor a “cunt”. Not a single one. I was amazed. I had thought the swearing was so much a part of the rhythm of his sentences – delivered at breakneck speed – that he would not be able to avoid using the words without screwing up his flow.
A couple of years later, he quite rightly got a late-night BBC TV comedy series The Pall Bearer’s Revue.
With Bob Slayer, far less controversial than Jerry, the problem is not so much swearing as ad-libbed physical anarchy – having people throw (real, genuine) darts at him or suddenly decide to have five people hit him on his back and on his head with folded-up metal audience seating – but he can tone that down appropriate to the situation and is amazingly good with audience members.
Oddly, I think he is, in television terms, a gameshow host. Kept under control, he is Michael Barrymore without the swimming pool. Barrymore was genuinely good with real people and equally at his best going off-script – provided he had a producer with the self-confidence to let him improvise within certain format and time restrictions.
Bob Slayer fronting a personality-led real-people game show would breathe novelty, energy and fresh air into a tired TV format. And, after all, as well as winning the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award, Bob was also nominated, for the second consecutive year, for the main Malcolm Hardee Award for comic originality.
After Monday’s Malcolm Hardee Debate finished a whole hour late (it merged into the next show), Scots comic Nob Stewart grabbed Kate Copstick when she came off stage and chatted to her on camera for 45 minutes.
I guess the adrenaline (and possibly the two pints she had had on-stage) pumped away. In the first two minutes, she named a comedy company whose flyerers had physically threatened her and she was laying into the big promoters at the Edinburgh Fringe. If you think she is sharp-tongued on ITV1’s Show Me The Funny, you have only heard the half of it…
Later today, Copstick is travelling down to the O2 arena in London as a judge for the live final of Show Me The Funny (although the winner is decided by viewer voting). Then tomorrow she is on a train back up to Edinburgh when we decide the Malcolm Hardee Award winners at noon and she will take an active part through the wonders of 21st century technology. As I said in my blog yesterday, what’s this thing with the Prime Minister having to be dragged back from holiday every time something happens?
If we had Copstick as Prime Minister, things would be easier.
Me? I have to be at the Blue Moon cafe-restaurant-bar in Barony Street just off Broughton Street in the New Town at noon today to collect more spaghetti for the second day of the Malcolm Hardee Spaghetti-Juggling Contest. The Blue Moon is generously sponsoring us with free spaghetti.
The spaghetti-juggling happens outside the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket.
Yesterday the first spaghetti-juggling contest, partially in the rain, became less of a solo juggling event, more a three-a-side sideways-throwing contest with the participants constantly changing. This came about when Scots comedian Bruce Fummey valiantly tried to bring some order into the proceedings; it must be his background as a teacher.
In its latter stages, to be honest, with spaghetti stocks dwindling, the thing degenerated more into a custard-pie type spaghetti fight than juggling. The arrival of Malcolm Award nominated Johnny Sorrow on the scene in a macintosh and flat cap did little to quell the degeneration of this fine potential Olympic sport – and he seemed to encourage the rain.
At the end, Laughing Horse Free Festival supremo Alex Petty mucked-in with a stiff broom, helping to clear up the scattered spaghetti in the cobbles outside the Beehive Inn. If his flirtation with big-time comedy promoting ever falls through, he has a future as a street sweeper.
Today’s spaghetti-juggling will include on-the-spot advice on the aerodynamics of pasta from Dr Sophia Khan, formerly of NASA , Harvard, the Japanese Space Agency and Shanghai University. She will be joined by Dr Andrew Bunker, former Head of Astronomy at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Oz and now Reader in Astrophysics at Oxford University.
Who said spaghetti-juggling was trivial?
Brainiac eat your heart out.
While waiting for the spaghetti-juggling to start yesterday, I got dragged into Lancelot Adams’ show outside the Beehive Inn – The Magic Drawabout – an enticingly odd concept in which he gets passing members of the public to take part in a one hour show which involves drawing each other in various parts of the Grassmarket while he chats to the ‘sitter’.
He told me he had thought I looked like a weirdo when he first saw me in the street, but soon realised I was not. I was genuinely offended this.
Have the last several decades of my life, cultivating weirdness, all been in vain?
The Magic Drawabout and Lancelot Adams’ other show at the Beehive Inn – Ze Hoff Und Friends – about David Hasselhoff – are decidedly quirky, but the ‘sleeper’ of the Fringe has arguably been Paul Provenza’s Set List: Standup Without a Netwhich started in Just The Tonic at the Tron, then moved to one of Just The Tonic’s bigger venues at The Caves and now has moved to a bigger Cave, such has been its increasing popularity. It has gathered even more word-of-mouth with Paul Provenza flying in from LA last week.
Set List: Standup Without a Net has also been getting a lot of word-of-mouth buzz among comedians, because its format of the stand-up comic being shown a list of six words or phrases as subjects – the set list – one-at-a-time without pre-warning only when they are on stage is an utter nightmare. The best comics can weave a thread through the disparate subjects rather than just perform six unconnected routines. The risk of getting lost is high. The likelihood of a comedian eventually shitting on stage must be equally high.
Last night, among those trying their luck were Frank Skinner, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Richard Herring and Phill Jupitus. Big names for a concept that seems likely to get bigger.
One tiny aside…
While waiting to get into Set List last night, a comic came up to me and said she had just been to Malcolm Hardee Award nominee Bob Slayer’s show at The Hive where, on stage, she had stuck her finger up his bottom. A rubber glove had been provided by the ever-amenable Bob.
As far as I know, it is the second time this has happened in Bob’s show.
Call me old-fashioned but I think, as a format, Set List: Standup Without a Net has more likelihood of being commissioned as a TV series.
I would be happy to be proved wrong, though I am not sure I would be watching on a regular basis.
Bob Slayer was nominated for this year’s Malcolm Hardee Award “for going beyond OTT into uncharted areas of comedy excess”.
I think it would be difficult to fault our nomination.
When I mentioned this story to Bob Slayer, he said, “Well, I do want to point out that it did not happen a second time – The lady who did it the first time was in the audience last night and so another lady tried to emulate her (who wouldn’t?) – She tried to do a fist but failed .
“I obviously don’t want people to think that any Tom, Dick or Harry can finger my entrails.”
There seem to be two separate ‘circuits’ in London at the moment: the amorphous alternative comedy circuit and the burlesque circuit. The latter seems to meander from stripper-type-tease to glimpses of old-style variety to fetish-style stuff with more than a nod to Berlin cabaret between-the-Wars.
Most of the straight comedy shows nowadays are a just a string of stand-ups with maybe, occasionally, an odd act thrown in. Vivienne and Martin Soan’s monthly Pull The Other One club in Nunhead (that’s Peckham to me and you) is clearly not burlesque; but it is not one of the amorphous straight comedy nights either.
It is old-style variety mingled with comic performance art plus usually one big-name straight stand up. It is never short of the unexpected and bizarre, so it’s no surprise that Pull The Other One regulars Bob Slayer and Holly Burn both appear in the April issue of Bizarre magazine as New Alternative Comedy Heroes.
The average Pull The Other One show does not exist and it is a sign of how unusual it is that it has always attracted comedians to its audience. Last month Boothby Graffoe was there in the audience just to enjoy it; this month it was Stephen Frost.
The Big Name stand up on the bill last night was multi-talented Omid Djalili, a man who can move with nary a blink from appearing in Gladiator, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean and James Bond movies to club gigs on the London comedy circuit to playing Fagin in Oliver! at the London Palladium and having his own TV series on BBC1. His career is almost as variety-filled as a Pull The Other One show.
I missed most of last night’s show because main speciality act Paul Morocco had got cut down earlier in the day with a very serious stomach bug and couldn’t appear – well, it’s a tribute to his professionalism that he would have appeared if Vivienne Soan had not been able to find a fill-in sharpish. But Paul’s amazing act includes juggling, a lot of bopping around and blowing/juggling multiple ping pong balls from his mouth. This is not ideal if you have a serious stomach bug and just want to lie in bed and die with the pain.
So I missed most of last night’s show because I was picking up and driving my chum Melbourne-based Irish fiddle-playing comic vagabond Aindrias de Staic from the West End to Nunhead after he appeared in two performances of Woody Sez at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End. Aindrias is not so much jet-lagged as show-lagged. He is over in London to appear in Woody Sez until 2nd April – another two shows today – and tomorrow he performs his one-man show Around The World on 80 Quid at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington.
So last night, at 9.35, we were legging it to my car to get to Pull The Other One in time – parking mid-evening on a Friday in the West End had not been fun.
Aindrias decided in the car on the way to the venue what he was going to do: mostly stand-up stories with an inkling of fiddling… but, when he actually got there and realised the measure of the audience, changed it all.
He gave them a bit of a foot-stomping fiddle, then a bizarre story and a couple more musical items.
Well, that doesn’t quite do it justice.
He had had a 20-second chat with Martin Soan before he went on and they ad-libbed what then happened.
Aindrias was interrupted during his second diddly-aye foot-stomping Irish fiddly piece by Martin Soan – totally naked, of course – Riverdancing in from the wings behind him and, trust me, Irish dancing in the nude is a particularly visual entertainment.
There’s a lot of flopping up and down going on.
When this went down very well with the audience, Aindrias called Martin back on stage to do a reprise “bollock dance” to the Jew’s Harp accompanied by a rather dubious song which Aindrias improvised.
Aindrias called what was happening “gyp-hop” – a musical combination of gypsy and hip-hop.
Watching this, Stephen Frost said to me: “If only Malcolm (Hardee) were here to see this.”