This morning, I got a text message from Jonathan Hale, co-owner of the Emporium vintage clothes shop in Greenwich:
“Quite expecting my whole day to be chaos owing to Malc,” it said. “He will be playing tricks from wherever he is.”
Today would have been the 63rd birthday of Malcolm Hardee, the godfather of British alternative comedy. He drowned in 2005. The annual birthday tribute to him takes place at the Lord Hood pub in Greenwich, London, on 20th January and the three increasingly prestigious (www.increasinglypresigious.co.uk) annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards are presented during the now traditional two-hour variety show in his honour at the Edinburgh Fringe on 23rd August.
For almost thirty years, on and off, Malcolm performed with Martin Soan’s comedy group The Greatest Show on Legs.
Last night, I phoned Martin.
“It’s Malcolm’s birthday tomorrow…” I said.
“I remember one year,” Martin replied, “I discovered that his favourite soup was mulligatawny soup. So, that year for his birthday, he got 48 cans of mulligatawny soup off of me.”
“How did you first meet him?” I asked.
“Ah,” he said. “I was asked to join the Put It All in The Pot show directed by Diane Brookings – Diane Broken-knees, as Malcolm nicknamed her.
“I was working as a Punch & Judy man afternoons and weekends. One of the gigs I had was Sunday lunchtime at Greenwich Theatre, performing to children in a jazz lunchtime thing – The jazz band would have a break and, in the ante room, I would do a Punch & Judy show for all the kids who’d come down with their parents to watch the jazz.
“This woman, Diane Brookings, came up and asked if I’d like to join her community-based touring show for children. I’d never done anything else except Punch & Judy and was interested and flattered that someone had asked me to do something else.
“The rehearsals were in the main hall at Goldsmith’s College, which had this staircase which came up in the middle of it.
“I ascended the stairs and my heart sank a little bit because I could hear this voice doing these theatrical exercises: I want you to stretch-stretch-stretch. I want you to pretend your fingers are like the tips of the ends of the branches of trees. Stretch-stretch-stretch. And I thought Oh fuck me! This is going to be exactly what I do NOT want to be involved in.
“As I came up the stairs, I looked round the hall and there were two other men. All the rest were women and they all had Fame-style leg-warmers on and they were all wearing lurex-lyrex-spandex whatever you call it. They were all doing these drama school warm-ups, but there was this one man who had a jacket on and a greatcoat and jeans and he could barely get his arms above his head and, every now and then, he’d adjust his glasses with his middle finger. He wasn’t really trying. It was Malcolm, of course. I looked down and there was this bald boxer dog, wearing a bow tie, fucking his leg. I thought Aha! There may be some saving grace within this show.
“That was my first image of Malcolm. It was Stuart North’s dog fucking his leg, but I can’t remember the name of the dog. It always wore a bow tie.
“During a break, Malcolm came over to me and said: See him over there? – It was the only other bloke; he was called Dave – He’s gay, Malcolm said. See that girl over there? I’ve fucked her. See that one over there? I’ve fucked her. See her over there? I’ve fucked her. I’ve fucked all these girls here. What you wanna do? You’re not gay, are you?
“He just assaulted me with this little barrage of how good he was at everything. I was half convinced it was actually his show until Diane Brookings came over and handed out scripts.
“A number of people I’ve met who have become good friends… my first meeting with them has been strange.
“I remember the very first time I met Don, another of my friends. We were standing by a river and he just turned round to me and said: I could chuck you in that river, if I wanted. I dunno what it is in me that brings out the worst in types like Malcolm.”
“How did the Diane Brookings show go?” I asked.
“It was absolutely atrocious,” remembered Martin. “It was Malcolm, me Dave and about twelve women. There were about three weeks of rehearsals. We had scenery, costumes and a terrible script. After about a couple of weeks, I knew Malcolm as much as I knew him two weeks before he died. We were that close. Roaring with laughter backstage and playing-up and acting-up, enjoying ourselves. I think Malcolm probably shagged a couple of ‘em, but he didn’t shag ‘em all. The women were not the main reason we did it. Malcolm needed something to do when he got out of prison. I still remember one of the songs:
Put it all in the pot!
What have you got?
You’ve got fun!
You’ve got fun!
Put it all in the pot!
What have you got?
A good ti-i-ime!
“It was shockingly bad. We went to Cheltenham with it. We went to village halls with it. I think Diane Brookings had realised the script was a bit weak, so she got me in and Tom and I – he was my Punch & Judy ‘interpreter’ at the time – basically did one half of the show with the Punch & Judy and a song at the beginning and a song at the end; and then there were a few sketches.
“But the show wasn’t really working,” said Martin. “Then the van that had all the props in was broken into overnight and nothing was stolen apart from the sound tapes. An expensive tape recorder was in there and was left; only the tapes were stolen. It was a bit odd. Diane Brookings discovered it and blew up and said We’re going to cancel the rest of the run!
“There were only about five shows left and we were quite enjoying ourselves. She got us all around in a circle and basically lost it and slagged us all off about how useless we all were. We had worked at it and we had learned our lines. We were putting on the best show that we possibly could, singing and dancing and I was putting on my Punch & Judy show.
“But she went round each one and did a character assassination on each person. When she came to Malcolm, she said: Oh, you’re absolutely useless! You’ve not been long out of out of prison. Call yourself an actor? No such thing! You’re just a useless waste of space!
“Malcolm just leant down and put his face up close to hers and said Well, at least my mum still loves me and there was something extraordinarily funny about it. She had broken her leg and she was in a wheelchair.”