Tag Archives: Teddy Bear

Odd UK comic acts: teddy bear torture and the man who ate his own brain

Comic investigator Liam Lonergan

Comic academic Liam Lonergan

Starting last week, I have posted three extracts from a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

This is final extract:

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John: In the 1980s you went to alternative comedy shows and got a stand-up bloke talking about Margaret Thatcher. You got a juggler. You got a man who came on and read awful poetry. And you got a man who came and set fire to his hair or something. Lots of variety.

Whereas now if you go to a comedy club it’s stand-up followed by stand-up followed by stand-up followed by a bigger stand-up.

Liam: Variety is sort of dead, isn’t it?

John: Yeah. So you’ve got, like, five people all basically doing the same thing and there actually isn’t any variety on the bill, whereas the original alternative comedy actually had variety. The last two years at the Edinburgh Fringe I thought the funniest acts were mostly listed in the Cabaret section.

The last two years – possibly three years – there’s been a Cabaret section separate from the Comedy section and I’ve seen quite a lot of the shows and a lot of the funnier shows have actually been the cabaret section shows and not the comedy section. In the Comedy section they’re either doing straight stand-up or they’re doing quite good storytelling or they’re doing “I’m a student being wild and wacky”. God help us! If you ever see the word ‘wacky’ or ‘zany’ in a listing, avoid it like the plague.

Liam: That’s it. Toxic.

John: Whereas, in the Cabaret section, just weird things are going on. And very, very funny.

Liam: I didn’t know whether, within the dissertation articles I’m doing, to incorporate comedy revue and local theatre as well because there’s lots of that going on…

John: Small comedy clubs are closing and people are getting less interested in new comedy. You can see the big comedians with guaranteed quality in a big venue like the O2.

So why should you go to a small comedy club with acts you’ve never heard of? Acts who may be good but you’ve never heard of them so it’s a matter of luck. And, if you go to a comedy club, you’re going to get five or six people doing the same thing: stand-up. Whereas in the 1980s and early 1990s you got variety so you’d no idea what you were going to see. I mean, you would get Chris Lynam coming on and sticking a firework between his buttocks and they’d play No Business Like Showbusiness. Now THAT is entertainment.

There used to be an act who just came on and tortured teddy bears. There was a wheel of pain and the teddy bear got strapped to the wheel of pain and got tortured. Someone told me the guy is now a social worker in Tower Hamlets.

That’s what we want. That’s entertainment. Have you seen Hannibal? The sequel to The Silence of the Lambs?

Liam: The sequel to the film? Yes. Yes I have.

John: He eats someone else’s brain while the guy is still alive.

Liam: Oh, yeah.

John: There used to be a variety act in the 1980s or 1990s – someone told me he was a psychiatrist, I don’t know if he was – and he used to go round the comedy clubs with an act and the act was that he wore a fez and he had a spoon and he used to eat his own brain. He put the spoon inside the top of the fez and brought out grey stuff which he ate. And, as he ate different parts of his brain, different parts of his ability to communicate and to function disappeared. So he’d eat one part of his brain and he’d keep talking to the audience all the way through, then he starts twitching. So then he eats another bit and his speech starts to slur or the words get mixed up. It was simultaneously funny and very unsettling and scary because it like a flash forward to your own senility. You don’t get many of those type of acts anymore.

Liam: It’s a shame that’s dead because that’s the kind of stuff I’d… the audience reaction to that would be so mixed. It would be so…

John: You couldn’t altogether say it was funny but it was unsettling all the way through. It certainly wasn’t straight stand-up.

Liam: But that’s what I love. That’s what I…

John: Last year I sat through an entire evening of BBC3 comedy. There were four shows in a row. Not a titter. And I was sitting there thinking These people are sitting there trying to write a series of funny gag lines and that’s not really…

Liam: I think weird stuff can tap into humanity and the visceral reactions a lot more than the clever stuff.

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“Britain’s Got Talent”, Eric Morecambe, Malcolm Hardee and the question of torturing teddy bears

Last Sunday, at the late Malcolm Hardee’s annual birthday celebrations (he drowned in 2005), excerpts were screened from Jody VandenBurg’s long-planned feature-length documentary about the great man. If the mountain of great anecdotes which I know Jody has can ever be edited down to 90-minutes or so, it will be an extraordinary piece of social history: a vivid glimpse into the early days of British Alternative Comedy.

Last Thursday, I saw a vivid insight into an earlier British showbiz era: a preview of the first episode of BBC TV’s The Story of Variety with Michael Grade – it’s a two-part documentary to be broadcast much later this year.

I learnt stuff.

I didn’t know that smooth, sophisticated pianist Semprini was such a wild ladies’ man. There is a wonderful story about a showbiz landlady with the punchline “Oh, Mr Sanders, what must you think of me!”

I remember staying at the legendary Mrs Hoey’s theatrical digs in Manchester where there were no sexual shenanigans, but getting breakfast in the morning involved choosing from a roll-call of every type of egg available since the dawn of time and she and her husband (a scene hand at BBC Manchester) used to go on holidays to Crossmaglen, one of the most dangerous places in Ireland during the then Troubles.

Mrs Hoey’s was impeccably clean, but I had not heard the story – told in The Story of Variety – that you could guess in advance if a theatrical bed-&-breakfast place was not of the best if a previous act staying there had written “…quoth the Raven” in the visitors’ book.

I had also never heard the story of young English comic Des O’Connor’s first time playing the notorious Glasgow Empire where they famously hated all English acts. He went so badly on his first nightly performance that he figured the only thing he could do was pretend to faint, which he did and got carted off to the Royal Infirmary.

Old-style variety was much like modern-day comedy in that, as the documentary says: “You couldn’t be in Variety and be in elite company. It just wasn’t done. But, if you became a very big star, you could mix with kings and princes.”

Except kings and princes are thin on the ground nowadays and have been replaced by other gliterati.

The Story of Variety with Michael Grade is wonderful stuff for anyone interested in showbiz and bizarre acts. Ken Dodd talks of the old Variety theatres having “a smell of oranges and cigars”. In Ashton-under-Lyme, the performers had to hang their shoes up in the dressing rooms because of the rats.

But after-screening anecdotes and opinions were as interesting as what was in the documentary.

I had never spotted, until Michael Grade mentioned it to Barry Cryer after the screening, that now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Hylda Baker’s stage persona was actually an almost direct copy of now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Jimmy James. Like the sleight-of-hand in a good magic act, once you know it you can see it.

I was vaguely aware that Eric Morecambe’s famous catchphrase “Look at me when I‘m talking to you” was actually lifted from ventriloquist Arthur Worsley’s act – the dummy Charlie Brown used to say it to Worsley. (Eric freely admitted where he had got the line from.)

Most interestingly, Michael Grade said he would not have commissioned ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent series (which he likes) because he wouldn’t have thought it would be possible to get so many interesting acts.

But bizarre and interesting variety acts have always been and are always out there. I know from personal experience, looking for Gong Show style TV acts, that you just have to put an ad in The Stage newspaper on three consecutive weeks and they spill out like a tsurreal tsunami. A combination of real-people adding interest to their drab lives in godforsaken towns and suburbs around the UK… and struggling professionals who in previous times might have played clubs but who now often play street theatre.

The Story of Variety with Michael Grade comes to the conclusion that live Variety was killed off in the mid-to-late-1950s by a combination of television, scheduling rock stars in Variety stage shows (which split the audience into two groups, neither of which were fully satisfied) and adding strippers (which destroyed the appeal for family audiences). But this did not kill off the acts, merely the places they were showcased. Sunday Night at the London Palladium thrived on ITV in the 1950s and 1960s.

Michael Grade was wrong.

There are loads of good variety acts playing the Piazza in London’s Covent Garden every week and there is a third tier to the annual Edinburgh Fringe, which no-one ever seems to mention. There are the paid-for Fringe venues… plus the two organisations offering free venues… plus the free street theatre with which Edinburgh is awash throughout August.

And Variety is not dead elsewhere. Mr Methane still farts around the UK; Charlie Chuck is more speciality/spesh act than stand-up, The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper doubles as The Great Voltini and the ratings success of Britain’s Got Talent on ITV1 and The Magicians on BBC1 show that there are not just loads of good spesh acts out there but that there is an appetite for them.

Now, what was the name of that bloke who used to torture teddy bears on a wheel of death at Malcolm Hardee’s old clubs The Tunnel Palladium and Up The Creek?

Was it Steve someone?

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Spending Christmas 1998 with Malcolm Hardee in Sarf Eest London

It was 22nd December 1998 and the comedian Malcolm Hardee (who drowned in 2005) was still living with his wife Jane. The record label Beggar’s Banquet were just about to release a CD single by his stepson’s rock group The Llama Farmers. It was two years before the turn of the century, with the Millennium Dome (now the O2 Dome) still a new structure. This is an extract from my diary…

***

I spent the afternoon with Malcolm, who has developed a habit of making a wet sound with his mouth, as if tasting his own saliva.

At the end of Malcolm’s road, a house-owner has put a new tiled name on their house: Dome Vista.

“But all you can see from the back windows of his house,” Malcolm told me, “is the bloody great flyover from the Blackwall Tunnel standing at the end of his garden. You can’t see the Millennium Dome. Fucking Dome Vista!”

I had been going to take Malcolm out to lunch but, on the way, as is often the case, he had “a better idea” and we went to the warehouse office of the three brothers who co-own Malcolm’s Up The Creek comedy club to pick up Malcolm’s weekly cheque. Two of the brothers plus wives and five or six staff were having a Christmas buffet meal with lots of seafood and champagne. On the walls of the room in which we sat were drawings of various property developments, including a new Greenwich shopping centre: they already own two existing Greenwich markets.

“He used to live in a mansion next to Rod Stewart in Hollywood,” Malcolm had told me about one of the brothers. When Malcolm tells you a wildly unlikely story, it usually turns out to be true. The more unbelievable the facts, the more likely they are to be true.

“That’s a bit severe,” this brother said of Malcolm’s ultra-close-cropped hair.

“Just had it cut,” Malcolm explained.

“Malcolm,” another brother explained to me, “only has his cut his hair every six months. He lets it grow over six months, so he only pays for a haircut twice a year.”

“No I don’t,” said Malcolm aggrieved and blinking. “I set it on fire at Beggar’s Banquet, in the offices.”

“Why was that?”

Malcolm thought briefly, shrugged and ignored the question. The truth is that he occasionally sets his hair on fire just to have an effect. He set fire to two cinemas in his youth. There has been a lot of arson around in his life.

“It doesn’t catch fire easily but it doesn’t cause any pain,” he mumbled defensively, by way of an explanation about his hair.

“What did Beggar’s Banquet say?” I asked.

Malcolm shrugged and blinked.

“You should make a record like Keith Allen,” I suggested. “You’d get lots of money. Form a group called The Old Lags.”

“I don’t hang round the Groucho Club enough,” he mumbled.

Malcolm recently came back from Australia, where he met his friend Wizo. “Typical,” Malcolm told the brothers, wives and staff over champagne and seafood, “Wizo lost his job the day I arrived and I had to pay for everything. He’d been selling advertising space in the Melbourne Age newspaper. They told him he had to wear a suit, but he got bored and came in one morning wearing a chef’s outfit. They weren’t happy. The good thing about Australia, though, Wizo told me, is that you can be poor quite comfortably.”

Malcolm’s brother, formerly a comedy promoter in Manchester, is now working in Wizo’s old London job – for music mogul Miles Copeland.

“My brother’s throwing a Christmas party for friends and relations,” Malcolm told us. “He tried to charge his guests £70-a-head to come but no-one’s agreed yet, so he’s probably going to invite them for free but have a whip-round for a new washing machine while they’re there.”

The brothers, their wives and staff looked impressed.

After the meal, we drove off to a bank where Malcolm deposited his cheque from the brothers and various other cheques including one for £29 from BBC TV to cover sales to Croatia of a Blackadder episode he appeared in. He was much impressed by the sale to Croatia. He banked about £900 then withdrew £700 and went to a betting shop, allegedly to check if ‘his’ greyhound was running at Catford. Instead, after realising a dog called ‘Oi Oi’ (Malcolm’s catchphrase) had won the previous race and he’d missed it, he bet £50 on a dog at random in the next race… and it won!

“I always win bets on dogs at Christmas,” he told me. “The rest of the year, I lose everything, but I always win just coming up to Christmas.” Then he added unexpectedly: “I part-own a greyhound.”

“You do?” I asked dubiously.

“It’s handled by a bloke who got ‘done’ in the 1970s for greyhound ‘ringing’. He got arrested after he had a very good black dog and disguised it by dying it brown. But, as luck would have it, when the dogs paraded round before the Off, it started to rain and the dye came out.”

This sounded like an urban myth to me.

“Ricky Grover,” I said, “told me a story about the ‘wrong’ dog coming round the final bend at Romford Stadium and someone throwing four footballs onto the track in front of the dogs.”

“Oh,” said Malcolm, never to be out-anecdoted, “I was once in prison with a bloke nicknamed ‘Teddy Bear’. His job was to stand by the rail at various stadiums around the country and, if the ‘wrong’ dog was winning, he would throw a teddy bear onto the track;. The dogs stopped racing, went crazy and tore it apart. His great talent,” explained Malcolm, “was that he could run very fast after he’d thrown the teddy bear.”

After picking up answerphone messages at Up The Creek, collecting mail from a new tenant in his old house in Glenluce Road, attempting to buy his own £7.99 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake in a Greenwich remainder shop for £1 (they had sold out), visiting the kitsch Emporium shop which sells lava lamps and 1960s memorabilia and buying a Christmas tree from a dodgy-looking man in a car park, we went back to Malcolm’s current home in Fingal Street via Jools Holland’s railway station (to see the top of the mini castle tower he has built) and up a suburban back street to drive past Shangri-La – a corner house the outside of which the owner has decorated.

On the side wall of the house, there are embossed metal horses heads and three large garage doors.

“The anvil’s gone,” Malcolm told me, slightly peeved.

“Has he got three cars?” I asked.

“No, he’s got green astroturf behind them,” Malcolm replied as if that explained it all.

“It’s a strange world,” I said.

“Nah,” said Malcolm, making a wet sound with his mouth, as if tasting his own saliva. “This is South East London.”

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