When Malcolm Hardee and I wrote his autobiography in 1996, the editor at Fourth Estate publishers persuaded Malcolm to change the opening of the book to one which I thought and still think was a much less interesting opening. This is the way Malcolm’s book – I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake – originally started:
I stole Freddie Mercury’s birthday cake. He was one of the most famous pop stars in the world and I was booked to perform nude at his 40th birthday party.
The Kray Twins seemed to split their lives into 95% criminal activity and 5% Showbiz. I’ve tried to go for 95% Showbiz intermingled with 5% criminal activity, but I only had about 3% of the success the Krays had.
Apart from me there’s no showbiz in the family, as far as I know, but my grandfather was born behind Greenwich Music Hall, which is now Greenwich Theatre. And when I was in Ford Open Prison I read a music hall book which mentioned an act 200 years ago called ‘The Great Hardeen’. A magic act. He was Greenwich-based like me, so I wonder if there was any link-up there.
When I was one day old, my Dad bought me a train set. It was a steam train and ran on methylated spirits in a little container underneath the train. It was bigger than your normal train set with a big circular track. What you did was set light to the methylated spirits and this started the piston. My Dad set it up in the hall. He didn’t let me play with it. You know what fathers are like. He set it off and it went so fast centrifugal force took the train off the rails and it set light to the carpet. (Nearly burnt the house down.)
My mother wonders if this may account for my early interest in setting fire to things.
I was born in Lewisham Hospital on 5th January 1950. But after I was born I was almost immediately whisked off to an orphanage in Ware, Hertfordshire. My Mother was in a sanatorium with tuberculosis and they didn’t allow fathers to keep their babies then. My father was working all hours on the River Thames as a lighterman.
My mother came out of the sanatorium when I was 2 years old. She quite reasonably wanted to go out and have a good time. So I was brought up by my two doting grandmothers really. They were poles apart.
My mother’s mother was the down-to-Earth, down-the-Bingo type. She’d worked in Service when she was younger – as a maid or something.
My father’s mother put on big airs and graces. She was a docker’s wife, but thought she was sort of royalty and she used to take me up to the Cafe Royal where we’d sit around and have a cup of tea. Another treat she used to give me was to go and see various relatives laid out after they died. She loved a funeral. The biggest news she ever gave my mother was that she had worked it out with funeral directors that my mother could go in the Hardee family burial plot – as long as she got cremated.
When my mother came out of hospital, we moved into Grover Court, a 1930s block of flats with flat roofs. We were in No 20 and there were about 100 flats. It was almost like a village in itself just because of where it was – set off the road.
I’ve almost always lived near someone famous. In Grover Court, I grew up next to Val Doonican. When we moved from there, Michael Leggo lived next door to me. He later invented Mr Blobby. After that, I had a flat in Lee Green and three doors up was Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits. (I never talked to him.) Later there was Jools Holland – he lived over the road from me in Blackheath. (I did talk to him.) And now I live about five doors away from Miss Whiplash. Dire Straits played in local pubs in Deptford. There was a definite Deptford sound in music. It’s been covered in a book called South East London Rock and Roll. There was Squeeze, Dire Straits, The Flying Pickets. They all came from Deptford. They all sound different, but that’s not my fault.
At Grover Court, we lived in No.20 and Val Doonican lived at the back of the block with his mum. He wasn’t famous then. He used to sit in an armchair on an old porch, playing a guitar. He must have been in his mid-twenties. He taught me the mouth organ when I was about ten or eleven. There used to be an apple tree outside and we used to nick apples. Not him. Me and some other boys.
He came over here from Ireland with a group called The Four Ramblers and three of the Four Ramblers lived in Grover Court. The others were a bloke called Pat Sherlock and a bloke called Pat Campbell.
Pat Campbell went on to be a Radio Luxemburg disc jockey and Pat Sherlock produced a Sunday night telly show called The Showbiz Eleven. based on football teams. They used to have The TV All Stars on one side and The Showbiz Eleven on the other. The Showbiz Eleven were the sort of people you didn’t normally get on telly – like Norman Wisdom. Pat Sherlock had a son called Barry Sherlock who was a couple of years younger than me and Barry was my mate. People in these ‘football teams’ used to come round to visit Pat Sherlock, so I used to see Tommy Steele and people like that.
In November 1957, when I was seven, I remember the Lewisham train crash happening behind my house. ‘The Great Lewisham Train Crash’ they called it in the papers. It was caused by the very thick fog which you used to get in those days. I remember foggy winters and very hot summers. I suppose it was foggier because they hadn’t passed that smoke law and we all used to have coal fires. (All that’s gone now.)
Several railway lines cross on two levels at Lewisham. There are three at the bottom and one that goes over the top. On a foggy day in November, two trains collided in the middle. Shot up in the air and knocked a whole train off the top. About 117 people died. My Dad’s garage was next to the line and afterwards there were railway wheels in it. A brick wall at the back had to be rebuilt after it was hit by a fire engine coming to rescue people.
I remember my Aunt Rosemary was in the house with her husband, Uncle Doug (though he wasn’t my real one). He was meant to have travelled on the very train that crashed. They heard it on the radio.
I didn’t hear anything and I think I was sort of hidden away afterwards. A woman called Mrs Fantos was the hero of the crash and she went out to the main road and commandeered cars and blankets and stuff. The injured were brought into the car park space probably suffering from post-traumatic shock although, of course, they didn’t ‘have’ that in those days.
The next day I think the showbiz bug got into me. I climbed onto the flat roofs. The TV cameras were there to film it and I was up on the roof waving while they were carting dead bodies about. I felt excited because suddenly these little flats in South East London were the centre of almost world attention.
We used to play on bomb sites in Lewisham. I found old gas masks and all that sort of stuff. There were lots of bomb shelters we used to play in and there were still people who had gardens with the Anderson shelters in.
It was the Fifties, so it was still a bit bleak after the war. Rationing never affected us too much because my Dad worked on the river. They used to have all the cargo coming in, so we got bananas and things. Legally. My dad never stole anything – he was a very honest man. People who worked on the River tended to get more goods than other people. I know he didn’t steal anything because he was known as ‘Honest Frank’ Hardee.
My dad was a lighterman on the River Thames. A lighter is a barge. A lighterman pulls the barges along. He did that all his life. And his Dad before him and his Dad before him. A big family thing. It was a job for life really.
The family assumed I would do that too, but I turned out quite bright – in fact I got the highest grade in the Eleven Plus at my school. So I ended up going to grammar school. Lucky I didn’t go on the River, as it happened.
My dad was a bit eccentric. We used to go on holidays on boats. He used to work on boats then he used to take us up the River on a boat for a holiday.
He used to do impressions – Maurice Chevalier. Every time he got drunk he sang: Thank ‘eaven for leetle girls. That was the only one he could do. He sounded like Maurice Chevalier a bit. (Except he wasn’t French and couldn’t sing.)
Malcolm Hardee drowned in 2005.
There are currently three annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in his memory.
This year, they will be presented during a two hour variety show – The Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show – at the Edinburgh Fringe on Friday 23rd August.