Document 65392

COPYRIGHT 1996 by Malcolm Hardee & John Fleming
ISBN 1-85702-385-4
Contact in UK: 07836-703504
Outside the UK: +44-7836-703504
with John Fleming
Chapter 1
Near Someone Famous...............................................................…….……1
Chapter 2
My Dad Was a Bit Eccentric........................................................……….10
Chapter 3
A Soft Spot for Circuses..........................................................…………..22
Chapter 4
The Scar Under My Chin....................................................………….......33
Chapter 5
I Lost My Virginity..........................................................…………..........50
Chapter 6
A Home-Made Electric Chair.................................................……….......64
Chapter 7
I Came Off Dressed as a Monk.............................................……….........81
Chapter 8
He Had a Tin Plate in His Head............................................……….........96
Chapter 9
The Eccentric Middle Class Family........................................…….........113
Chapter 10
The Greatest Show on Legs.................................................………........125
Chapter 11
Percy The Peacock Fell Out of The Tree...............................….......…...140
Chapter 12
Nudity and Margaret Thatcher...............................................……...…...155
Chapter 13
I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake...............................….............172
Chapter 14
Glenda Jackson, Emma Thompson, A Tractor.........................…...........180
Chapter 15
Jo Brand and Frank Skinner’s Secret Life................................…….......196
Chapter 16
Blowjobs and Jools Holland................................................……...….....207
Chapter 17
Birth and Death..................................................................…………......219
Chapter 18
Paula Yates and a Tirade of Abuse...................................……....….......222
Chapter 19
A Lucky Limp...................................................................………….......232
Chapter 20
Pip Was Pregnant Again...................................................…….…..........243
Chapter 21
A Firework Up My Bum....................................................…………......248
Chapter 22
The Wonderful World of Television......................................……..........263
Chapter 23
“This Isn’t a Wedding! This Is a Farce!”...............................….….........279
Chapter 24
Vic Reeves and a Live Sex Show.........................................……...........296
Chapter 25
Two Paramedics Looked at Each Other................................….…..........312
Chapter 26
Even From Relatives...........................................................………….....336
It is 1996, I am 46 years old and I have all my own teeth.
This story starts on 5th January (the day before Epiphany) 1950, when I was
born the first son of Frank and Joan Hardee in the Tuberculosis Ward of
Lewisham Hospital in South East London.
Immediately after my birth, I was taken from my mother and moved to an
orphanage in a place aptly named Ware in Hertfordshire. We were not to
meet again for nearly two years.
The reason I was shuffled off to Hertfordshire was that my mother had
tuberculosis, which is extremely infectious and, in those days, it was
unknown for working class fathers to look after young children.
My father was a Lighterman, as was his father and his father before him. He
worked on the River Thames, pulling lighters (barges) with his tugboat or, in
the early days, with ponies.
My dad was physically a cross between Frankie Howerd and Dennis Healey.
He was quite a solid, well-built man and his nickname amongst the River
folk was ‘Tiddler’..
When I was one day old my dad bought me a train set. But I didn’t see it
until I was almost two years old. It was a steam train and ran on methylated
spirits held in a little container underneath the engine. 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.
When I first saw the train, he wouldn’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 the burning meths set light to the carpet. Nearly burnt
the whole house down.
A lot of people have said I came off the rails myself later on and my mother
wonders if this incident may also account for my early interest in setting fire
to things.
When my mother was released from the solitary confinement of the T.B.
Sanatorium, she came to collect me from the Hertfordshire orphanage. She
says she nearly chose the wrong child as there was an angelic lookalike
contentedly sitting in one corner, quiet as a mouse. But I was the screaming
brat in the other corner.
We went to live in Lewisham, at 20 Grover Court, in a modest block of
genteel 1930s apartments with flat roofs. They are still there, set off the main
road: two storeys, four flats to each storey, about 100 flats in all.. They look
a little like holiday flats in some rundown seaside town like Herne Bay or
Lyme Regis. It was fairly self-contained: almost like a village in itself.
I have almost always lived near someone famous. In Grover Court, I grew
up next to the singer Val Doonican. When we moved from there to another
part of Lewisham, Michael Leggo lived next door; he later became a TV
producer and invented Mr Blobby with Noel Edmonds. After that, I had a
flat in Lee Green and three doors up was Mark Knopfler from the rock group
Dire Straits, though I never actually talked to him. Later there was musician
and TV presenter Jools Holland: he lived over the road from me in
Blackheath. I became friends with him. And now I live about five doors
away from the prostitute Miss Whiplash. Showbiz, eh?
Val Doonican (nice man, poxy initials), actually taught me to play the mouth
organ when I was about ten or eleven. It is a skill that has stood me in good
stead over the years. He lived at the back of our block with his mum. He
must have been in his mid-twenties and wasn’t famous then. He used to sit
in an old armchair on his porch, playing the guitar. There used to be an apple
tree outside and we used to nick apples. Not him. Me and some other boys.
Val came over here from Waterford in Ireland with a group called The Four
Ramblers and three of the Four Ramblers lived in Grover Court. There was
him, Pat Sherlock and Pat Campbell.
Pat Sherlock had a son called Barry Sherlock who was a couple of years
younger than me and Barry was my best mate. Pat Sherlock produced a
Sunday afternoon TV show called The Showbiz XI. 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 - people like the comedian Norman Wisdom.
People in these ‘football teams’ used to come round to visit Pat Sherlock, so
I often used to see people like the pop star Tommy Steele. But I was more
impressed with boxing champion Rinty Monahan, who was a regular visitor
and much more famous than Tommy Steele. He was the Barry McGuigan of
the 1950s and used to sing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling every time he won a
fight. He used to muck around with us kids and pretend he was going to hit
us. It seemed glamorous.
The other member of the Four Ramblers, Pat Campbell, went on to be a
Radio Luxemburg disc jockey. At around the same time, he assumed a false
American accent and recorded The Deal, which is often voted one of the
worst records ever made. And it is. He sings as a husband who makes a deal
with God to take him rather than his dying, pregnant wife.
As a child, I remember my two grandmothers being extremely influential on
my upbringing. But they were poles apart.
My father’s mother - Nanny Hardee - was an eccentric woman, extremely
vain and, in appearance, not unlike a young Margaret Rutherford. She put on
airs and graces and often dragged me ‘Up Town’ to go and sit in the Cafe
Royal in Regent Street and watch the real rich people. She seemed preoccupied with death and I remember being taken “as a treat” to a funeral
parlour to see my Aunt Grace laid out. She loved a good funeral, did Nanny
Hardee. The biggest and best news she ever gave my mother was that she
had agreed with funeral directors that my mother could go in the Hardee
family burial plot - as long as she got cremated to save space.
Nanny Hardee’s husband had died young (34). He loved riding motorbikes
and was a bit of a womaniser. He died when he was returning on his
motorbike from seeing another woman. The motorbike broke down, it was
freezing cold, he was trying to kick-start the bike and he contracted a fatal
pneumonia. On his deathbed, he made my grandmother promise that she’d
always remain faithful to him, which was a bit of a cheek really. But she did
and she was.
She had a particularly hard life because she had a son called Malcolm and he
was killed at Dunkirk. My father died before she did, too. So she outlived all
the important men in her life - her husband and her two sons. I am sure she
invested her unfulfilled love for her husband into my father Frank and, in a
smaller way, into me.
My other grandmother - Nanny Maude - was the exact opposite to the airs
and graces of Nanny Hardee.
Nanny Maude was a slight woman, down-to-earth, loved a Guinness and, in
the 1950s, enjoyed the new fad of Bingo. She’d worked in Service when she
was younger - as a maid - and used to take me to Ramsgate.
Growing up in the 1950s in South East London was a unique experience.
Unique to me and the thousands of other ‘baby-boomers’. Grover Court
seemed cut off from the ordinary world, both physically and, in a strange
way, intellectually.
As a child, I remember foggy winters and very hot summers. The buildings
were dirtier then. All that’s gone now and, in a way, it’s a shame. We had
proper fog in those days. Real stuff that made you choke. I suppose it was
foggier then because everyone used to have coal fires belching out smoke in
the autumn/winter and they hadn’t passed the smoke law. The fogs were a
sort of brown/green colour known as pea-soupers. To this day, I’ve never
liked pea soup.
The big event that sticks out in my mind was in November 1957, when I was
seven. It happened behind my house. THE GREAT LEWISHAM TRAIN
CRASH they called it in the papers. It was caused by very thick fog.
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 night in November, two
trains collided on the bottom line, in the middle. They 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. He was meant to have travelled on the very train that crashed. They
heard about it on the radio and I think that was the first time I saw a person
in shock.
I didn’t hear the crash happen. It was at night and I was asleep and I was
made to stay in the house afterwards. A woman called, I seem to remember,
Mrs Fantos was the hero of the crash: 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.
Next morning, I think the showbiz bug got into me. I climbed onto the flat
roof of our building. The TV cameras were there to film the aftermath of the
crash 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.
London was different then. There were empty spaces all over the place
where German bombs had exploded during World War Two. We used to
play on bomb sites in Lewisham. There were lots of bomb shelters to play in
and there were still people who had gardens with Anderson Shelters in.
These were shelters that people had made themselves by basically digging a
hole in the ground and putting corrugated iron round, like small Nissen Huts.
I found old gas masks and all that sort of stuff to play with.
It was the 1950s, so it was still a bit bleak after the War. Rationing never
affected us too much because my dad worked on the River Thames and
people who worked on the River tended to get more goods than other
people. They used to have all the cargo coming in, so we got bananas and
Perfectly legally.
My dad never stole anything. He was a very honest man. I know he didn’t
steal anything because he was known as ‘Honest Frank’ Hardee.
Working on the River Thames was a big family thing: a job for life in the
days when people really did have a job for life.
My family assumed I would work on the River too, but I turned out quite
bright - in fact I got the highest Eleven Plus exam grade at my school. So I
ended up going to grammar school as a scholarship kid. It was lucky I didn’t
go on the River because, in the late 1960s/early 1970s, they found it was
cheaper to put things in big sealed containers. River life just fell apart
because of the containerisation. Most of the people whose families had been
on the River for generations got paid off and made redundant.
Some went to work on the pleasure boats. One of my dad’s mates became a
bookmaker; another worked on Greenwich Pier. Lots tried to do related
trades, but there wasn’t enough River work to go round. So people spent
their redundancy money and did anything they could to get by. My Uncle
Ralph became a taxi-driver.
So there I was, growing up in South East London - ‘Sarf East’ London in the
vernacular - being doted-on by two grandmothers and sewing the seeds for a
life of crime or showbiz or both. My life was to become a bit like The
Krays’ lives over the River in the East End....except they did 90% crime and
10% showbiz. I managed to reverse the percentages.
My dad was a bit eccentric and my mother was an admirable foil for his
behaviour. My dad used to do impressions. 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. My
mum, after she came out of the sanatorium, got various secretarial jobs and
caught up on lost time by socialising and going out quite a lot.
My dad also loved a gadget. The early 1950s saw the advent in ordinary
homes of washing machines, electric kettles and other labour-saving devices.
So my dad bought a Sweep Your Own Chimney kit.
Our immediate neighbour at Grover Court was a Mr Moran but we called
him ‘Mr Moron’. He was a mild-mannered, long-suffering bloke who
worked in an insurance office. Like many men in those days, he had a
‘pencil moustache’.
My dad unpacked this Sweep Your Own Chimney kit in our flat and covered
all our furniture with sheets but, for some reason, he thought the best way to
go about the task was to sweep the chimney downwards from the top while
standing on the roof.
He said to my mum:
“Get down by the fire and tell me when the soot’s coming down and we’ll
catch it all in there”.
My mum sat by the fireplace for about a quarter of an hour and nothing
came down. Then there was a knock on the door. It was Mr Moran and he
was covered in black.
“A funny thing’s happened,” he said. “There’s soot coming out of my
My dad was still up on the roof, shoving his brush down the wrong chimney.
My mum didn’t bat an eyelid and said to Mr Moran:
“I dunno what that can be”.
She cleverly didn’t let him in, so he wouldn’t see all the sheets in the front
room. And he never found out. He must have gone to his grave still
On another occasion my dad, still with his love of labour-saving devices,
bought some carpet dye. He was one of those people who, once they have
set their mind on something, will carry it through however badly.
My mother had invited Mr Moran round for dinner that evening, because his
wife was in hospital expecting a baby. In those days, it was unknown for a
man to cook for himself and we were also one of the few families in Grover
Court to have a telephone. So he was eagerly awaiting news of his expectant
My father had returned from work and immediately set about dying the
carpet while we were sitting down for dinner. (It was called ‘tea’ in those
Our G-Plan dinner table was by the window and the door was at the other
end of the room. My dad’s idea was to dye one half of the carpet while we
had dinner then do the other half later on. He decided to begin at the door
end working inwards towards the window. We were sitting having dinner
with Mr Moran while my dad was dyeing the carpet when he suddenly read
on the instructions that you couldn’t tread on it for four hours. At this point,
the phone rang.
It was the hospital. She was having the baby.
Mr Moran, not unreasonably, wanted to get to the door. My dad said:
“You can’t! It’s all wet! You can’t go! You can’t cross the carpet!”
So Mr Moran had to climb out of our first floor window with a twenty feet
drop below him. We lowered him down using our tablecloth. My mum and
dad held one end - I tried to help - and Mr Moran held on for dear life at the
other end as we lowered him slowly down to the ground.
Life in Grover Court was seldom dull.
Someone used to steal underwear off washing-lines in the area. One night
my dad was drunk and got up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet.
He managed to lock himself out of the flat and nothing wakes my mum up.
So he had to go downstairs and out the front of the block to get round to the
back of the block where he could get in. As he was walking round outside in
a string vest and nothing else, he got stopped by the police, who were
looking for this underwear thief.
He did explain himself away in the end. But it was the talk of Grover Court
for quite a bit.
Our flat was always full of my dad’s mates. There was a very close feeling
of community among River people and they were famous for their ‘Beanos’:
their parties and trips away. Each year, they would go to a seaside resort in
about six coaches.
My dad had a friend called Knocker, so-called because he ‘knocked off’
things. One year they all went down to a Beano at Margate and there were
stories of people floating about in the sea with top hats and cigars and all
that sort of carry on.
At the end of the day, they all ended up in a pub till last orders at eleven
o’clock and my dad and Knocker were a bit drunk. They saw another mate
called Ginger - his second name was Baker - in the pub and started chatting
to him. All three of them got drunker and drunker until, by closing time,
Ginger was the most drunk. My dad said:
“Don’t worry, Ginger! We’ll get you home”.
So my dad and Knocker helped Ginger on to the coach and they got driven
back from Margate on the Kent coast all the way up to Rotherhithe in South
East London. It was about two o’clock in the morning by the time they got
him back home. They took Ginger all the way up to the third floor of the
council block where he lived and his fourteen year old daughter came to the
“Hello,” my dad said. “We’ve bought your dad back from the Beano”.
The girl looked at him as if he was mad and said:
“Beano? What Beano? He was on holiday with my mum in Margate”.
There was always a sense of humour about my home when I was growing
up. And it was surprisingly cosmopolitan because, although a lot of the
River folk were not well-educated, they met all kinds of people - off ships
from all over the world. They developed quite a cynical sense of humour.
But they were quite patriotic as well. I remember we used to have to stand
up in our flat whenever God Save the Queen was played on the radio. But I
think everywhere was like that. It just seems odd now because times have
changed so much.
When I was born in 1950, the Second World War had only been over for
five years, so everyone had patriotism instilled in them. Patriotic did not
mean Right Wing in those days. Even right up to the 1960s if you had a
Union Jack on your parka or you went abroad with a Union Jack it wasn’t
Right Wing, it was just eccentric. People with Union Jacks stuck in bowler
hats. It was just eccentric.
People who worked on the River used to earn quite a good wage. Sometime
around 1960, I remember a figure of £40 a week being quoted, which was
probably about the same as a doctor got in those days.
But even though these lightermen had good wages, the way of The Working
Man was that he frittered it away. So a doctor might be on the same wage,
but he’d save and invest; whereas with a lighterman it just went. Much like
myself today. I earn enormous amounts at various times but it just goes.
My dad spent his money on good living and going out. He liked going out in
the car for day trips to the seaside. There would be me, two grandmothers,
Aunt Kit and my mum. We went to Devon several times. Once, we got in
the car at Lewisham and drove all the way down to Devon, parked the car by
the sea, got out for about four minutes, then all got back in the car and drove
back to London again.
My dad didn’t have flash cars, just newish ones. The first one I remember
was a white Cortina. Then a Corsair. He loved cars. He loved driving and I
love driving. Some people say stealing cars is sexual - fast cars, excitement,
sexual replacement. I just liked driving then. I still like it now.
My family’s interest in vehicles goes way back. My dad’s father - the one
who died of pneumonia - was one of the first people in Britain to have a
motorbike. He even married my grandmother on a motorbike: she went to
the wedding ceremony in the sidecar. It was thought so newsworthy that a
picture was even printed in The New York Times. My mum still has the
picture to this day.
It had been quite a big family. My father’s mother had four or five sisters
and a couple of brothers. One of the sisters, Flo, worked as
cook/housekeeper at Wilsford Manor in Wiltshire. It is now the country
residence of the pop singer Sting. When I was a kid, we used to go down
there a lot and stay with Flo. The house was magnificent. The rooms were
Art Deco but some had been left like Miss Haversham’s place in Great
Expectations. In fact, some made Miss Haversham’s place look like Habitat.
Flo’s husband, Lou, had a really strong Wiltshire accent, much stronger than
you get anywhere nowadays. I think people’s accents were stronger in those
days because they didn’t have a lot of telly and television levels out people’s
Flo and Lou used to look after Stephen Tennant, the eccentric owner of
Wilsford Manor. He was related to Colin Tennant who owns Mustique, the
island that Princess Margaret goes to. Stephen Tennant lived alone, with the
occasional boyfriend, in this massive big mansion with its own trout river.
He lived off some sort of an allowance. He used the old wooden horse stalls
as his garage - there was a Rolls Royce in there that he never used. He had
an aviary with parrots flying about all over the place and he had a summer
house/conservatory which he filled up with lizards. Completely mad.
I sometimes heard bells ringing in the house. He used to ring for his toast; he
liked it burnt. I was a small kid and it all seemed normal. I thought my Aunt
Flo owned this big mansion and Stephen Tennant was just someone who
rang bells. I hardly saw him. I think I saw him once in all the time I went
there. I saw him walking across this massive lawn. He had very blond hair,
probably dyed, and on top was this panama hat. He was very, very gay - but
you don’t understand what gay is at that age.
I saw Greta Garbo on the lawn at Wilsford when I was about eight or nine.
She was visiting Stephen Tennant. I saw her when I was lying on the grass
and she stepped over me. I’ve had a few people step over me. I had the Laird
of Cromarty step over me once and he had a kilt on. He wasn’t wearing
anything underneath. I got off with his daughter - sort off - and she insisted I
slept in the spare bed in a room just by the hall and he came round the next
day to visit her and I was lying in the bed and he just stepped over me.
I remember once, when I was about ten, we went to Wilsford Manor and
some money went missing. I was accused of stealing it and I didn’t. It has
always been one of my pet hates: being accused of something I didn’t do even though I have done lots of things.
I was totally honest up until the age of 14 or 15. I was in the Scouts and went
to Church and did all that sort of stuff. At Wilsford Manor, I felt extremely
bad being accused of pinching money when I hadn’t. It might have even
triggered me off to actually do it later on. Sometimes I have wondered if
perhaps I did take that money and have somehow just blocked it out
mentally. But I don’t think I did.
We had another relation down there in Wiltshire called Bob. He lived in a
gypsy caravan near my aunt Flo and he was always humming: “Hmmm,
hmmm , hmmm, hmm, hmmmmm”. As he got older, that’s how he talked.
Then there was Uncle Sid. He used to walk around wearing a fez all the
time. He was completely off his head. He never said why he wore a fez.
Never mentioned it. Well, he was bald and he’d been to Morocco: it might
have been that. And he had a handle-bar moustache. He was the longestliving man in the family. Most of the men in my family have died young.
dad was 54. And his dad was 32. My dad’s brother was only 21, but he got
killed in the war, of course.
My dad left the River in 1939 to go to the war. He never talked about it. I
only found out a lot later, at his funeral, that he’d been quite heroic. He
could have avoided joining up as he was on the River but he was very
patriotic. He was a gunner in the Merchant Navy on the Russian convoys.
They were particularly hard - freezing cold and all that sort of stuff. Lots of
them went down into in the icy waters.
Just after my dad was demobbed, he met my mum in a pub called The Dutch
House on the A20. They met on VJ Night. He was quite old when he got
married - 32 - and my mum was 20.
They stayed rooted in South East London, with never a thought of leaving.
People think the East End and South East London are much the same but
they’re completely different.
In the War, the Germans had heavily bombed London’s East End. After the
War, the old community feeling had disappeared because there was more
redevelopment in the East End. And Eastenders scattered to Harlow and
places like that. I think in South East London they still kept living in the bits
round the bombed areas. The South East London communities stayed
together and their criminal families stayed intact more than the East End
ones did.
South East London had a big wave of West Indian immigrants in the 1950s,
whereas the East End didn’t particularly have that. London Transport
recruited West Indians to two main areas where there were big bus garages.
- Brixton and Lewisham.
So we had a big influx of West Indians round the area where I was born.
There was a Victorian house just behind Grover Court. It was one of the first
houses painted up in West Indian style - pink, blue, green - every colour you
could think of. The bloke who owned it used to sit out on the porch, as if he
was still in Jamaica, playing a guitar. He still lives there and the house,
though faded, is still multicoloured.
The West Indians were considered very colourful in the 1950s - a colourful
addition to Britain. There were Africans as well - Nigerians for some reason.
But I remember when I was a kid we were scared of black people. It was just
fear of the unknown - that, and watching Tarzan films.
When I saw my first black person, I remember bowing down and saying:
“Salami! Salami! You are barmy!”
And running away.
A West Indian family moved into the next road and we threw stones at their
windows. I smashed the window in their front door and they caught me and
locked me up in their house. I’d never been so scared in my life. There were
all these black people in this house and what seemed to me at the time to be
a very peculiar smell from their cooking.
But I also had a couple of black friends called Tom and Jerry - those were
their real names. They were the same age as me and they lived in Grover
Court. I remember them at my birthday parties.Their father was Burmese
and their mother was African.
At Grover Court, there was also a ‘genteel’ woman. She was sort of Edge of
The Aristocracy. She’d obviously seen better days. A bit of snobbery in
there somewhere. She lived at Grover Court with her son and I saw him
again years later in Borstal where he was the assistant governor. He didn’t
recognise me and I didn’t mention it.
We also had a woman who used to go sleepwalking during the day, with her
arms straight down by her side. She used to walk along the pavement, down
to the end of the road, and then back again. In her nightgown. She never said
anything and no-one ever tried to stop her. There was not a lot of traffic
about in those days and we used to see her when we were playing in the
street outside Grover Court in the late afternoon, after school.
I was thought to be clever at school. My nickname was ‘Brains’ at some
I wasn’t a hard worker, because I found schoolwork very easy. I think I was
one of the brightest because it was a fairly deprived area, so there were
people at my schools who were possibly educationally sub-normal. I’m
always good when I’m with people who are, well, thicker than me. I always
linked up with the strong bloke of a school. Not with the school bully, but
the one everyone admired. The good-looking Flashman sort of bloke. I think
it was a defence to save me from any bullying. I never, ever, was bullied.
And I’ve never, ever, to this day been scared of anything. Violence doesn’t
scare me at all.
For one thing, I wore glasses from a very early age and there used to be this
thing that you don’t hit someone with glasses. So no-one would ever hit me.
When I first wore them, at about eight or nine, I had one lens covered with
soap in an early medical attempt to cure a lazy eye. It made matters worse,
really, as my good eye was being obscured by a soapy mist and my bad eye
was still lazy.
During one of our regular holidays to the Kent coast, I won my first prize for
anything. There was a clown/Punch & Judy man working on the beach at
Ramsgate and he decided to hold a fancy dress competition - Smokey The
Clown’s Fancy Dress Competition. I entered as Smokey The Clown,
decked-out completely in crepe paper and wearing a ping-pong ball nose and
I won first prize - a picture of Smokey The Clown!
During that time, the heyday of the South Coast holiday resorts, big
companies used to do promotions by sending some poor bugger of an
employee round a popular resort. If you had, say, a copy of the Daily
Express then you went up to their ‘Mr Money’, and said:
“Hello, Mr Money! I claim my £5.”
And he gave you £5.
The trouble was that most adults look the same to kids and a lot of my
holidays were spent going up to complete strangers demanding £5. The
organisers must have received complaints because they changed the system
later on and had people wandering around in bear costumes.
At school, I was the class clown to an extent but not to a great extent.
I remember, at about the age of ten, John Griffin was my mate. He was good
looking and strong but not necessarily gifted with brains. I remember going
round to his house and playing a Peter Sellars record to his dad who worked
in warehouses by the River. It was an LP which I thought was extremely
funny and included Balham: Gateway To The South. I remember John and
his dad looking at me as if I was mad. They just didn’t think The Goons
were funny at all. It wasn’t part of the dad’s culture: Mr Griffin was a pub
pianist - Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner - all that sort of stuff. He didn’t
really appreciate irony or parody and, hence, his son didn’t either.
John Griffin always got the main part in our school plays because of his
traditional good looks or whatever. If I got into them at all I only got on
stage for about 3 seconds. I might not have been pushy enough. John ended
up as a postman.
One year, I was in Alice in Wonderland as the frog footman. My big moment
came when a bloke called David Briggs got meningitis. He was the fish
footman, so I had to be the frog footman and the fish footman. It was off
with the frog mask! On with the fish mask! And I was away - Showbiz!
One reason I didn’t get bigger parts in the plays was that my primary school
teacher, Miss Pawsey, more than hated me. We once had to write an essay
entitled This Is Our Teacher. She was very thin. So I put something like:
“Our teacher is called Miss Pawsey. We call her Old Pozzle. She’s as thin as
a rake. My dad was going to use her as a pipe cleaner...”
When she read this, she just got me out in front of the class and started
whacking me round the back of the legs and sent me out. About a week later
her husband, who was also a teacher, came to take us for football. We were
all queuing up ready to go off.
“Which one’s Malcolm Hardee?” he asked.
“Me,” I said.
And he beat me up in the street. Not just hit me - beat me up. I was on the
ground. He went mad, kicking me in the side of my body and all sorts.
“You guttersnipe,” he said as he kicked me and the way he spat the words
out made me realise he meant business.
Afterwards, I went off and played football. I was a bit shocked. Normally
you got a slap round the back of the leg. I suppose I must have upset his wife
and she’d gone back home in tears. But it was satire really, wasn’t it? I
suppose this particular piece of violence was done out of misguided
chivalry. But I didn’t tell my parents because, in those days, I led two
separate existences. School was school and home was home.
I had a friend who was known as Wizo (not Whizzo), a shortening of his real
name: Wiseman. He lived round the corner from Grover Court. I met him
when I was about eleven and he became important in my life later on.
He was a cherubic, befreckled lad, a bit like Keith Chegwin in appearance.
He was three years younger than me and, at the ages of eleven and eight, that
is a big difference. The attraction of Wizo as a friend was that he was
younger therefore more gullible. He was up for anything I suggested. I’ve
always tended to be the leader. Wizo would go anywhere and do anything.
The first misdemeanour I committed was at Grover Court when I was about
10 or 11. There was a bike leaning against a wall behind our block of flats. I
nicked it with my mate and we left it with Wizo down the road. They found
out it was me and came down to my school. I didn’t know it was the local
midwife’s bike. We didn’t see anything wrong with nicking it: just some
bike left there by someone. It didn’t seem very criminal at the time - didn’t
seem anything wrong with it really - part of the laissez-faire attitude of the
early Sixties.
My big mate at that time was still Pat Sherlock’s son, Barry - also three
years younger than me. I was always the leader. Later, I always claimed I’d
got in with a bad lot, but the truth was that I was the bad lot. Nearly every
weekend, we used to travel up to the West End. A particular favourite was
Leicester Square tube station, where we would spend many a happy hour
sliding down the handrails on the escalators. I used to come home with a big
black streak right down my body. You can’t do it now because they’ve put
lumps on the escalator handrails. We used to lie face down, facing uphill,
then grip the rubber handrail and - whoosh! - down we went, one leg
dangling into the escalator well, with the other balancing on the central
partition. We’d go straight from there to Soho strip clubs.
The attraction was not the fact they were strip clubs - it was the excitement
of ‘bunking in’ (getting in for free). We were so short we used to be able to
run under the kiosk windows and get in without them seeing us. I don’t
remember actually seeing the strippers. I remember the music and the smoky
atmosphere. Because we were so short, we ended up looking through blokes’
legs and usually we were only in there for about two minutes before they
realised there were kids around, then there would be a hoohah and we’d leap
out. To this day, I’ve always been attracted to strippers.
We used to bunk in everywhere.
One trick was to send Barry Sherlock into a building on the pretext of
looking for his mum. Then he would open an emergency exit door and
hordes of local ruffians would pile in. I got into the London Palladium like
that. Norman Wisdom was playing Buttons in pantomime. I remember him
throwing sweets out to the kids.
Circuses were a piece of piss, although I had a hairy experience once when
we bunked into Chipperfield’s Circus which had pitched up on Blackheath,
near where I lived. Our favourite method of entry was simply to crawl under
a flap in the tent. This day, we arrived a little late. I crawled into the Big Top
and found myself right next to the tunnel where the lions came out. About
three feet away from me was a massive mangy old lion and, two feet away
from him, a circus hand driving him into the ring. In retrospect, I was more
scared of being evicted by the circus hand than mauled by the lion.
I’ve got a soft spot for circuses (or is that ‘circi’?).
At one point, we used to go to Bertram Mills’ Circus at Olympia, more or
less on a weekly basis. One week we bunked in and it was full but there
were two seats empty so we just sat on them. About three-quarters of the
way through the performance an Italian couple whom I recognised came in
and indicated we were sitting in their seats but, because they couldn’t speak
proper English, we said:
“Oh no we’ve paid”.
It turned out they were the ‘stooges’ in the horse act. They put a harness on
the bloke and the ‘wife’ chased him and her skirt came off and all that sort
of thing. I’d seen the circus show before and had thought these people were
for real even though it was the same people I’d seen four or five times - I’d
thought That bloke’s mad to keep volunteering to go on that horse. I’d seen
the same man each time but somehow the illusion was still there because of
the way they acted. I realised after we sat in their seats that they were
actually part of the circus. I realised that the act was all a big con. A bit of an
early lesson in showbiz and life.
We used to bunk into Saturday morning pictures at the Lewisham Gaumont.
If it was your birthday they used to let you in free and then bring you up on
the stage. All you had to do was bring along a birthday card to prove it. So I
just used to get different birthday cards. - but not every week. That would
have been when I was about eleven or twelve.
I got blamed for setting light to the Gaumont, but I didn’t do it - someone
else did. In those days, cinemas used to have little ante rooms with sofas in.
The bloke just set light to one of those but the whole bloody place went up.
It was a massive, million pound fire and our bunking-in stopped when the
Gaumont went up in flames.
There was another cinema opposite called the Rex and, after the Gaumont
had gone up, I remember seeing the manager of the Rex standing outside
wearing a bow tie rubbing his hands with glee.
So, when they got the Gaumont refurbished and changed its name to the
Odeon, I broke into the Rex one day with a bloke called ‘Fatty’ Hodgkins
and we set light to the screen. We ran out and stood at Lewisham station,
above the Rex, watching the whole cinema burn and all the firemen working
to put it out. I liked the drama, I think, but apparently pyromania is meant to
be sexual. I think there was some sort of excitement - but I didn’t want to see
anyone get burnt or get hurt.
The next day, I passed the Odeon, formerly the Gaumont, and saw the
manager gleefully standing on his front steps rubbing his hands.
After the mysterious conflagration, the Rex was re-furbished and became
two cinemas: Studios 6 and 7.
Both the Lewisham Odeon and Studios 6 and 7 have now been reduced to
rubble by bulldozers courtesy of Lewisham Council, which is in keeping
with the fairly recent changing face of Lewisham and indeed most London
suburban areas. We used to have a massive department store, Chiesmans,
and The Army & Navy. They were demolished last year. Lewisham Market,
where I had many friends, is still there. But they are trying to move the old
traders into the ultra-modern, ultra-crap Lewisham Precinct development.
My first school has been demolished to make way for an MFI furniture
warehouse. The old alma mater was St Stephen’s Church of England
Primary School, Thurston Road, Lewisham, London SE13.
The building also housed a Sunday school and a boy’s club. Our headmaster
was a sadistic Welshman called Mr Hughes and we had to sing We’ll keep a
welcome in the hillside every morning at assembly - in the middle of bloody
Lewisham! He used to come round and hit you with his bloody rulers on the
back of your knuckles. Admittedly, we had done things which we shouldn’t
have done. But he was very disciplinarian and strict.
In Sunday School, the back of the piano was covered with a black cloth. One
day, I and my mate Paul Smith, who lived underneath me at Grover Court,
just happened to have a box of matches and I remember having these
matches and lighting the black cloth. I think it must have taken some time
for the fire to take hold because we had managed to get back into the general
group and were singing All Things Bright and Beautiful when the cloth went
up in flames and there were screams because a woman was actually playing
the piano at the time.
There were screams, but not from her. She was the last to realise what was
happening because the flames came out of the back of the piano and over the
top and I remember the audience screamed and we just ran. Afterwards, I
“I did it to see the Holy Smoke”.
It did cause a bit of a furore, but my mum says the Sunday School teachers
continued to like me and asked me to tea the next week.
Paul Smith was a polio victim. He wore one of those leg irons and had one
of those tricycles with a boot at the back and a stick that came out so his
mum could hold on the back of it - a sort of bread bin affair. One day Barry
Sherlock, with me and some others, tied Paul Smith’s leg irons and his feet
to the pedals and his hands to the handlebars and put a load of petrol-soaked
rags in the boot, set light to them and pushed him down a hill. He went down
it like a bloody rocket, screaming as he went. The tricycle stopped and he
didn’t get hurt. It shows how cruel kids can be at that age, without realising
We did it because it would look good, not because Paul had had polio. He
was my mate. I think I had an effect on him: he became an artist. For a time,
he was my best mate and then he went to Australia. We swapped presents he gave me his marbles.
I passed my Eleven Plus exam with enough marks to be able to apply to a
local public school, St Dunstan’s, which is situated near Catford Dog Track.
(I’ve always wondered - Will there ever be a Dogford Cat Track?)
According to my mum, I didn’t get into St Dunstan’s because, during a
disastrous interview, my dad came over as a bit of a rough diamond working
on the River who didn’t seem to fit in with their idea of what parents of sons
who went to St Dunstan’s should be. They also asked him if I was any good
at sport and my dad said I wasn’t. In fact I was. I don’t know why he said
that but I think my dad might have seen me as a bit of an unsporty type,
particularly wearing glasses. The hierarchy of St Dunstan’s saw my father as
the sort of man who would poke a chimney in the wrong direction.
I think failing to get into public school upset my mother more than me,
because this was the topnotch local school. But I went to the local grammar
school, Colfes, which was also very posh and I was the only kid from St
Stephen’s to go there.
The posh kids didn’t pick on me and I was still mixing with old friends from
St Stephen’s during the 1st and 2nd year at Colfes. The work was extremely
hard compared with the primary school - there was Latin, doing quadratic
equations in maths in the second year and all that sort of thing.
Colfes was one of the old style grammar schools where the masters wore
mortar boards and robes and flapped about the corridors like crows. The
posh boys were complete wimps compared to the mates I was mixing with
out of school.
One drawback at Colfes was that obeying the School Rules was paramount
and one of the rules was that we had to wear full school uniform at all times
- including cap to and from school. Unfortunately, the Colfes cap was navy
blue with three golden rings. This made it look like a target, particularly if
you were walking and your assailants were on the top deck of a London
double-decker bus. I frequently got pelted by the local Sedgehill
Comprehensive lads on their bus journey to school and if I took my cap off Sod’s Law - I would be spotted by a master or prefect from Colfes.
By this time, I was leading a treble existence. I had the posh school life; I
was mixing with my low-life ex-primary school chums; and home was
When I was 12 or 13, St Stephen’s, my old primary school, held a summer
fete and the headmaster had two tickets to see the Beatles at the Gaumont.
They were prizes in a Guess The Number of Peas in The Jar competition.
So, the night before, Wizo and I wormed our way into the school and
counted the peas. The next day, we won and got tickets to see the Beatles.
All I remember is loads of girls with scarves screaming. I couldn’t hear, but
I saw them and, at the end, Paul McCartney came down and talked to a load
of girls.
I’ve since met Paul McCartney and George Harrison at Jools Holland’s
place. He was on a path at the back of my garden because my back garden
was bang next door to Jools’ studio. I went: “Oy! Oy!” to Paul and he
nodded as if he knew who I was.
I don’t suppose he did.
At school, although I was seen as difficult, I wasn’t thought of as being wild
because I wore spectacles. I wasn’t seen as tough. I was a church-going Boy
Scout and never stole anything until I was 14. I think it must have been
puberty that was my downfall; and I never quite got shot of the bad bunch of
mates from St Stephen’s.
My old primary school was next door to a Coca Cola bottling plant. So one
of the first crimes we ever committed was to climb over the wall and just
nick all these Coca Colas. We drank them and that was it. We broke in there
daily at one point. After about forty break-ins, I got arrested because they’d
started keeping watch. They saw us and I was chased by a policeman. I ran
behind a locksmith’s and was climbing over a barbed-wire fence when the
copper grabbed my leg and pulled it and I gave up. He took me into the
locksmith’s, Willet & Son, where I was locked in the workshop while they
called for a police car. The locksmith’s is still there, an anachronism on the
edge of Lewisham’s shopping complex.
Because of the Coca Cola break-ins, I ended up in Greenwich Juvenile Court
where, as a pupil of Colfes, I was treated leniently. I was given a conditional
discharge and a five shilling (25p) fine.
Part of the Coca Cola plant later became a Solex carburettor factory and, at
Colfes, we’d been doing experiments on how to make hydrogen. I knew that
if you put iron filings into hydrochloric acid you got hydrogen and I knew
that hydrogen made things float.
In the back yard of the factory were these big acid carboys - big jars - full of
hydrochloric acid. They were wrapped up in metal frames with straw inbetween the carboys. Next to these big things were loads of metal shavings
where they’d been making screws. Big tubs of them. So, to show off my
new-found intellectual prowess in front of my St Stephen’s hooligan element
mate, I said:
“I tell you what. We’ll make a hot air balloon”.
We got into the factory and put all the metal shavings into the acid carboys
and got a big tarpaulin over the top to try and make it float as all this
hydrogen was coming out. In the meantime, an old bloke rode past on a
pushbike smoking a fag, threw his fag into the yard and the whole thing
blew up. Big explosion. All these metal bars flew out and stuck in the wall
behind me. The bloke on the bike was blown off and flung right across the
road. And all I got was this scar under my chin from a bit of glass. I’m lucky
to be alive really. I was only about 5ft from the carboy. I went home and the
next thing there were fireman coming up the path. I remember my dad going
a bit mad about that. Fire engines parked outside our house.
I still have the scar under my chin.
Opposite St Stephen’s was an old derelict pub called The Angel and we used
to go in there and play. One day, we knocked some bricks out of the wall of
the pub into the warehouse next door and discovered it was a fishing tackle
warehouse. I used to like fishing at that time and it was like a dream come
true - rods and reels everywhere. We used to systematically empty the
warehouse out. But then the school caretaker grassed me up because he’d
seen me on the roof of the pub. The police came round to my house to
search it and the only place they didn’t look was under my bed where all the
stuff was.
During this year of many encounters with the police, I once unbelievably
told them that my dad had died in a lorry accident because I didn’t want
them to go round to my house and, of course, they went round and said to
“You’re meant to be dead in a lorry accident”.
The police were always coming round. My dad must have been shocked
because he was very honest: he was ‘Honest Frank’ Hardee.
My parents, like almost everyone in Grover Court, went to St Stephen’s
Church. They went until about the mid-1960s. After that, no-one seemed to
go to church much anymore. It was a social thing. People went to church
because that was just what everyone did at the time.
I used to go to three churches every Sunday. The sermons were the boring
bit. I liked it when they got a good hymn going so I could sing out loud.
Each Sunday, I went to the St Stephen’s early morning mass. It was an
Anglo Catholic church: ‘Anglo Catholic’ meant they were basically Church
of England but with lots of stuff that Catholics do. It was in Latin; they had
Confession and Confirmation and all that sort of stuff.
St Stephen’s was my first stop. Then after that each Sunday, I went to a lowlife church: The Shrubbery Hall Mission. It used to take in tramps and
dossers. I remember one particular tramp who must have been an actor in his
time because he started quoting Shakespeare plays, some of which I knew
from school. He did Portia’s speech from The Merchant of Venice something about rain upon the bough beneath. Quoted it word for word.
After the Shrubbery Hall Mission - at about 6 o’clock - I then went to a West
Indian church which was brilliant. They used to give me a tambourine - me
and my mate - we used to sit at the back and they were singing all the
gospel songs. There I was singing Go Tell It On A Mountain with the West
Indians and I’d been singing Kyrie Eleison with the Anglo Catholics in the
morning. I learnt Call and Response in two completely different cultures repeating the same phrase over and over again in a worshipful way.
I was a chorister in the choir at St Stephen’s but I seem to remember I got
thrown out and ended up going to yet another church in Catford to join their
choir. I must have been 13, 14 years old.
By this time, I had outgrown my St Stephen’s luminaries and started
attracting an even rougher element, most of whose names it suits me to
forget. We stopped ransacking commercial premises and went private.
I broke into a house with Chris Hawkins, one of my new-found accomplices.
The house belonged to an old music hall bloke and we nicked his banjo,
which was his pride and joy. Someone had seen us breaking in and they told
the old bloke so he came round asking for his banjo back. But we had
already sold it for £5 in a place called The Swap Shop about two miles
away. We’d sold it and spent the money so, that night, we went and broke
into The Swap Shop. We just smashed a window at the side and got in.
There was thousands of pounds’ worth of stuff in there. We nicked the banjo
and a load of guitars but didn’t have a car, so we just carted them away in a
We sold the guitars at school and the bloke got his banjo back, so everyone
was happy except The Swap Shop bloke. But he had given us a fiver for the
banjo then marked up about £40 on top of it. So he deserved what happened
to him.
I went in to The Swap Shop the next day and there was a woman there, an
oldish woman.
“We had a terrible robbery here,” she said.
“That’s terrible,” I said, as I would often find myself saying often in the next
few years.
Somehow, I felt a bit guilty about the old music hall bloke. He used to sit
and strum his banjo. Poor bugger - that banjo was probably all he had in the
world. But I hadn’t known him. Hardly at all. I wouldn’t have done it if he
had been a friend or a close acquaintance. I wouldn’t nick from a friend: it’s
personal then.
The first record I ever bought was Deck of Cards by Wink Martindale. It
was covered by Max Bygraves later on. A right sloppy old song. A
sentimental, religious thing - recorded in a church ... When I see the Ace it
reminds me there is one God. Basically, it is about a soldier who doesn’t
need a Bible because he’s got this pack of cards which remind him of the
fundamentals of morality and religion. A load of old bollocks really. But I
used to listen to it time and time again. It was the religious element that
appealed to me. I must have been religious at the time, because I got
confirmed and all that. And I was very sentimental. Like everyone, I’ve
become cynical with age but I used to play the record over and over again,
amazed at how clever it was. It’s a mathematical record as well: When I
count the spots, there’s 365 and so on. Mathematics always interested me
and, as it has connections with money, that has proved useful.
When I was in the choir at St Stephen’s, I had a surplice and I used to wear it
to go carol singing and earn some money at Christmas. I used to take a
whole gang round with me. We’d go round the posh houses in Blackheath
carrying candles and everything. People would invite us in and put us on
tape recorders to send to their relatives. They thought it was for the church,
of course.
I used to make money all the year round.
From early October until November 5th it would be the ‘Penny for the Guy’
routine then, once November had gone, I got the carol singing going.
The rest of the year, we went round in Boy Scout uniforms and did Bob-aJob. No-one knows when Bob a Job Week actually is, so you can do it any
We almost got caught out once because we accidentally went to a Scout
Master’s house and he knew it wasn’t Bob-a-Job Week. But I explained to
him I was in a different branch of the Scouts and it was our Bob-a-Job
The Scouts I was in were not the Baden-Powell Scouts. This guy had set up
a splinter-group called BBS (British Brotherhood of Scouts).
The Baden-Powell Scouts’ motto is “Be Prepared”. The BBS one was
“Always Ready”. So everything was almost the same but not quite. We still
wore the uniforms and had the scout oath and ran flags up the pole and all
that. When I saw my BBS Scoutmaster years later, it was so obvious that he
was gay but at the time he was just a Scoutmaster to me. People weren’t so
aware of gayness in those days.
I’ve never had any homosexual experiences and yet they must have been
going on around me. That Scoutmaster didn’t fancy me, he just used to hit
me with ropes every now and again. He used to like hitting people with
ropes. I think he must have got chucked out of the Baden- Powell lot for
some sort of sexual scandal. He also had another church he took us to called
St Magnus the Martyr up by London Bridge which was another High
Church. His real name was Charlie Brown, but we called him ‘Bosun’. We
had three Scoutmasters: Bosun, Beaky and Kim.
I eventually got thrown out of the BBS for writing fake notes from my
mother to avoid going to a Camp.
I was no angel.
I got thrown out of the choir.
I got thrown out of everything, really.
I got expelled from primary school apparently - I don’t remember it - I was
too concussed. We used to have these stairs at the school and I used to dive
up to hold on to a ledge and swing. I swung up and my feet touched the
bottom and my hands let go and I fell on my head and ended up in
Lewisham hospital. I had to stay in three or four days. They discharged me
early because I was going a bit berserk - racing about in the wheelchairs in
the ward and stuff. So I got thrown out of hospital too.
I don’t think the concussion had any effect on me, but both my mother and
grandmother always thought it had, because that seemed to be the turning
point in my behaviour. Knock on the head and all that sort of thing.
And I was about to get expelled from grammar school.
At my primary school, there had been a sadistic Welsh headmaster. At the
grammar school they were worse.
There was another Welsh bloke called Mr Davis - we called him ‘Joe’ Davis
after the champion snooker player of the time - and if you did wrong with
him he used to stand you out in front of the class and just cuff you round the
side of the head with his hand as hard as he could. On your ear. It really hurt.
That was his particular thing.
Another one was Mr Dakum - his thing was hitting you on the bottom with a
slipper but he used to tell you when he was going to give it to you. So when
I was due to have The Slipper I went round and borrowed everyone’s PE
shorts. I would wear about nine pairs of PE shorts under my trousers and he
used to bend me over the desk and all the class knew that I had these PE
shorts on and as he’s hitting me I’m pretending its hurting and going: “Ooh!
Aaahh!....” and winking at them. I know that he knew. He touched my
bottom to feel if there was anything there but he didn’t say anything so
maybe he was a good bloke after all.
Colfes had been a very posh public/grammar school for years but they’d
been rehoused in prefabs after the War and then they moved from Lewisham
to a brand new school in Lee. It was very grand and the piece de resistance
of this new school was the Great Hall, with a window designed by Sir Basil
Spence, who had something to do with designing Coventry Cathedral.
In the Great Hall, they had this brand new organ in which the bloke played
down the front but the pipes were at the back. I had a friend called ‘Stinks’
Newman who was really good at chemistry. And somehow we had a railway
detonator that we had got off the railway track. When the trains went past
certain points, they ran over these detonators and they made a bang to warn
someone down the line that they were coming. We used to get loads of them
and set them off.
It was the opening of the new school building with the organ playing and all.
‘Stinks’ had rigged up the organ so that, when the pedal played ‘B’ Flat, this
detonator would go off where the pipes were. We were all singing the
School Song:
“Come sons of Colfes
Come one and all
Tell out in lusty song
The stirring deeds of heath and field....”
And, on the word “field”, the bloody thing exploded and one of the pipes
came slowly out of the wall - one of the big ones. It was about twenty feet
high. A full hall. The mayor and everyone were there - dignitaries - it was
really posh. They had mortar boards and all that game. They taught Latin.
And this big pipe was gradually tilting and it would have killed someone if it
had actually come out, but it didn’t.
They found out I was part of the gang. Stinks Newman didn’t get expelled,
for some reason. Admittedly it had been my idea, but Stinks was the one
who rigged the bloody thing up and I got expelled, aged 14.
I went from the semi-public-school regime of Colfes, one of the best schools
in the area, to Sedgehill Comprehensive. It was mixed-sex and the roughest
school in the area - they used to have race riots and all sorts there.
The deputy head was an extremely hard bloke called Mr Dawson, who
ended up moving on to be headmaster of Eltham Green School: he was the
headmaster who expelled Boy George and put a remark on his report This
boy will never get anywhere.
Even though I hadn’t worked particularly hard at my grammar school, when
I got to the comprehensive school, I was in the top stream straight away and
I was even a year ahead of that lot. It was like I was a genius. Everything we
were doing I’d done a year before, so I did hardly any work there at all.
Because I was so educationally advanced, I took a lot of time off and used to
spend days hanging around in cafes, playing pinball machines and stealing
motor scooters.
In Art class, we used to make smoke bombs by getting a ping-pong ball and
cutting it up, then wrapping it in silver paper. If you poke a bit of the pingpong ball out of the silver paper and set light to that, it gets quite a flame
going, then you blow it out and one ping-pong ball will fill up a normal size
classroom full of smoke. We used to put them in tins of powder paint, then
put the lids back. The tin lids would blow off - well, explode off - a lot of the
powder paint would come out as well and then there would be powder paint
in the pretty-coloured smoke.
Our Art master never did much about any of this. He was one of those
teachers you get in every school. Everyone just laid into him. When he
turned his back, you’d be flicking things. It was a shame because I was good
at Art, but this man had no discipline about him.
We also had a master at Sedgehill called Mr Garrett who never used to read
the sick notes. I used to write my own and put things like:
Dear Mr Garrett.
I’m sorry Malcolm couldn’t come into school,
but he’s had a dose of leukemia.
Mrs J.Hardee
Then one day he actually did read the note. It said I had beri-beri.
I got the cane for that.
My parents never used corporal punishment on me. I think my dad hit me
once with a little toy golf club. I don’t use corporal punishment on my
children. I slapped my son on the hand once. With children, it is just good
enough raising your voice and they’ll know. I think corporal punishment
generally speaking is a bad thing. It can affect different people in different
ways, but I’m sure a lot of the murderers and hard people about today had a
lot of violence inflicted on them to start with. Some of the people I later met
in prison had appalling stories - normally not so much from school, more
from the parents.
Eventually, after less than a year, when I was still only 15, I got expelled
from Sedgehill Comprehensive for just generally being a nuisance and being
a disruptive element. By this stage, I was stealing scooters and, when I could
be bothered, coming to school on them.
Although Sedgehill Comprehensive expelled me, they let me come back to
do my 0-Levels which, for some reason, I did in my pyjamas as some sort of
protest. It was 1966 and coming up to the Summer of Love and you were
allowed to wear your own clothes in that 0-Level year. So I just explained
that my pyjamas were my own clothes. They were like those heavy blue and
white striped pyjamas you used to get issued in the Army and I suppose they
looked as if they could have been some Indian fashion I was going through.
As well as my pyjamas, I wore my suede Hush Puppy shoes and my socks
and a mod parka jacket. I took the parka off before I went into the exam. I
didn’t want to look silly.
I got four ‘O’-Levels there - they would only let me take four - Maths,
English Literature, English Language and Art. A little later on I got a lot
more - in less liberal institutions.
By the time I got expelled from secondary school, I’d got a modest criminal
record, including the conditional discharge for stealing Coca Colas. I used to
hang around a cafe at the side of the gutted Lewisham Gaumont. It was
called Botticelli’s, but everyone knew it as Botties. It had a pinball machine
and bagatelle, so became the focal point of some of the local youths’ lives as
well as these these older villains who used to call me ‘Brains’.
I couldn’t have been that brainy, because they used to send me out to C&As
to nick clothes to order and I got caught once nicking a pair of trousers.
They were maroon and slightly flared. I used to steal trousers by going to the
changing room, putting them on and then putting my own trousers over the
top of them. The trouble was that these maroon trousers I stole were slightly
longer than my own because the bloke who wanted them was a bit taller than
me. Bits showed underneath.
At around the same time, I sometimes used to go shopping with my Mother
and pretend she was nicking stuff off the shelves. I would get up to the till
and say:
“You know that’s Doris the Dip don’t you?”
She actually got arrested once - well, stopped - in Chiesmans Department
Store in Lewisham. She’s always been indecisive, picking up things and
putting them back and, with me standing behind her, she looked very
suspicious. She wasn’t arrested - just stopped. She said she’d never felt so
insulted in her life. But my mother has a sense of humour. I suppose she has
had to have.
My first proper girlfriend was Pamela Crew. I lost my virginity on my
sixteenth birthday. So did she, though it wasn’t her sixteenth birthday. Then
we got engaged but it was a very up and down relationship. I bought a ring
and then we had a row on a 94 bus about something. I didn’t used to have
rows, but she did. She threw the ring back at me and I later lost it. She never
believed me - she thought I sold it - but I didn’t.
I was engaged from 16 right through to about 20 and I was completely
faithful to her. We were almost exactly the same age. She was a nice girl.
She went to Prendergast, which was the sister school to Colfes.
After we had been together about six months or a year, we learnt to exploit
her father’s regular habits. He was a builder. He was the nearest South East
London could get to Alf Garnett, a very disappointed man because he
wanted a boy and Pamela was one of four daughters. His routine was that
he’d do his day’s building, then, at 8.00pm, go round to the Summerfield
Arms pub at the end of their street and every night he’d come home at
11.15pm and go to bed. So I used to go and visit Pamela Crew when he was
out and sometimes we’d have sex in the front room when her mother and all
her younger sisters had gone to bed.
This one night, her father came back at 10.50pm and looked in. I was lying
on top of Pam on the floor in front of the fire, banging away. He shut the
door behind him and she went out and talked to him. She was in tears and he
said to me:
“You’ve made your own bed, now you can lie on it!”
I didn’t like to point out that we didn’t actually use a bed.
Her mother always had a bit of a soft spot for me, but her father just thought
I was completely mad and alien. I went round there once on a white horse
which I got from Mottingham Riding Stables. I thought This will impress
Pamela and her dad answered the door.
“Hello,” I said. “Is Pam in?”
He said: “Bugger off, you silly fucker.”
And that was that.
For some reason, I took the horse up to Blackheath and just left it tethered to
a tree. There was a piece in The South East London Mercury later that week,
I once got Pam on the front cover of the local paper as ‘Miss June’. It was in
the days before feminism, so she was sitting in the swimming baths with her
tits half-hanging out. That impressed her. The fact that I’d contacted the
When I left school, after taking my ‘O’ Levels in 1966, my first job was at a
thriving advertising agency called Saward Baker at 79 New Cavendish
Street in the West End. I started working as a messenger, as people did in
those days, thinking you were going to progress up the line and become Mr
Big at the top. I definitely wanted to be in advertising. It was a ‘glamorous’
profession. We all wanted to be copywriters or advertising executives. I was
the bee’s knees, working in the West End: Malc the Mod, earning my living.
My first weekly wage packet held £7-6s-8d (£7.33p in today’s money).
I worked at the ad agency with a bloke called Rod Stewart - but not Rod
Stewart the singer. Like me, he was a messenger and a Mod and he had his
own motor scooter. We once got stopped by the police going back to where
he lived in Pratts Bottom, near Orpington in Kent. The policeman asked him
his name.
"Rod Stewart," he said.
"Oh yeah?” said the copper. “Where do you live?”
"Pratts Bottom.”
We almost got arrested on the spot.
One hot summer day, we went over to Regents Park for the lunch hour. I had
a platonic friend called Diane Ainsley who was going out with a bloke called
Ray Mitchell. So he came over to the park as well. We were just lying on the
grass, I turned over on my front to get a bit of suntan and he threw a knife in
my back. It probably went about half an inch into me and stuck there.
I was a bit shocked. He just did it with no emotion or anything. He didn't say
anything and I didn't ask why he'd done it because it was known he was a bit
mad. He must have taken the knife back and he went away. It didn't hurt.
When I got back to work, they all asked what had happened, because there
was lots of blood coming out. My shirt was covered in blood. The first aid
kit was out and someone stuck a plaster on it.
Another time, I was travelling with Ray Mitchell on a tube train. I was just
sitting there, he got up and, for no reason at all, tried to deliver a karate kick
right into the middle of my face. It narrowly missed and he sat down again.
Never said anything. He just went like that occasionally. He lived in
Blackheath and he was probably the first violent psychopath I had met.
He wasn't a friend of mine. Just someone who was about.
About to stab me. About to kick me.
I've heard about him in later life and there have been stories of shotguns.
My girlfriend Pamela Crew had a best friend called June French and she
married Ray Mitchell - at least, she had a baby by him. Diane Ainsley also
had a baby by him. She must have been 14 or 15 at the time and ended up
living in a hostel. Very recently, I met her again. She now lives in a
picturesque little village in Kent. She ended up marrying a bloke who was a
Ray Mitchell lookalike and seems very content. I saw her 30 year-old
daughter by Ray Mitchell and fancied the daughter!
At the advertising agency, I wanted to be a copywriter but never progressed
beyond being a messenger because I got sacked the first time I was ever
I had about four pints of cider in the local pub and wanted to fight everyone
including the office manager, Mr McKenzie. I came back after lunchtime
and said:
“Let’s beat up Mac!”
I was one of those cocky, spotty 16 year-old messenger boys. And I was
swinging punches wildly round the room. I didn't hit him. I was just a stupid
young kid swinging punches at him. So I got my marching orders. In those
days, it didn't matter if you got sacked or lost your job because you could get
another one the next day. Everything seemed possible.
In 1967, ‘The Summer of Love’, when some people were sitting in parks in
kaftans, I was 17, on probation, at work and a Mod. My adolescent homegrown music heroes were Geno Washington and The Ram Jam Band, but I
got into Black American soul music. That’s what Mods did. I saw Otis
Redding perform in an Oxford Street club called Tiles which was open at
lunchtime. He was brilliant. A very exciting live performer. I saw Wilson
Picket and I saw the Stax tour in Fairfield Hall, Croydon - Sam & Dave,
Carla Thomas and Lee Dorsey - I saw him a few times.
I was a Mod and the Mod drugs were amphetamines - ‘Purple Hearts’. I
have taken them since, but I didn’t take them then. I had a Scooter and
never listened to The Who. They were a Rocker band.
The movie Quadrophenia re-wrote history really. The Mods didn’t listen to
white bands - they listened to black bands and Otis Reading. The Small
Faces were a bit of an exception - they did listen to them. But The Who
were not a Mod band, certainly not in South East London. I remember going
to see them at Eltham Baths and the audience was mainly Rockers: leather
jackets boys. I had a Lambretta SX200 scooter, which was the fastest one
you could get and in fact it was so fast the back wheel came off twice
because when it accelerated it came off its bearings. That’s how I lost it in
the end: I had leave it somewhere and it got stolen.
There was a club in Catford called The Witchdoctor. It was a club we all
went to although they didn’t sell drink. Downstairs there was ‘Mr Smiths’ a gambling casino, but upstairs they had a disc jockey called Steve Maxted
who was white but played all the latest American soul music and they used
to have black American soul bands coming over - and white bands as well I saw Marmalade there. I saw Tony Blackburn there singing in a band. He’d
come along because he was a disc jockey on pirate radio. They had Johnnie
Walker. And Ed Stewart was there. I got on stage with him. He just used to
get people up - First one up here with a pair of white knickers! - that sort of
thing. I always used to jump on stage with anyone at the drop of a hat.
Around 1967, Goldsmiths’ College in New Cross, South East London, had
an event called ‘The Happening’. Spike Milligan was there; Pink Floyd; and
some bands I’d never heard of because it was all a bit hippyish for me. There
was The Modern Jazz Quartet out in the garden - all that sort of thing. I
didn’t know who Pink Floyd were - they were just a bunch of old hippies to
Pink Floyd were doing this very arty sort of thing: a puppet, marionette sort
of tune and I just took my clothes off and walked across the front of the
stage, stark naked, like a puppet. It was the era of ‘streaking’. I think Pink
Floyd were probably too stoned to notice. I just walked across and it got a
bit of a reaction. I know they stopped having concerts in the hall from that
day onwards.
In 1967, I was no hippy. I wore suits. I was a very sharp, snappy Mod
dresser and then, briefly in 1968, I went very slightly hippyish - but still
nice suits: double-breasted suits.
I was into Soul and R&B and the Small Faces.
Disillusioned with the advertising world (they sacked me too), I decided I
wanted to become a disc jockey but I only had about eight records. I got one
of my first professional engagements from a bloke who worked at Lewisham
market on a flower stall. I must have played Return of The Django by The
Upsetters about 20 times in the course of the night. They got fed up with it.
I think I was probably the first mobile disc jockey - certainly the first one to
advertise in Melody Maker. There weren’t mobile discotheques then. Very
few discotheques at all. There was The Witchdoctor and there was a place in
Lewisham called the El Partido which was a completely Jamaican club. I
never went there, because the seeds of racism were being sown in those
early days and a voluntary code of apartheid seemed to operate.
I wanted to become a DJ because of this bloke called Steve Maxted, the DJ
at The Witchdoctor. He wasn’t like a DJ today. He didn’t just play the
records; he used to do a whole show. Once a year, he used to stick pins
through his face. And he used to show blue films on an old projector.
So I advertised in Melody Maker and my ad said I was:
I got several replies to the ad and I did my first gig for £11 at a Youth Centre
in Potters Bar. The snag was I still didn’t have many records - about twenty.
I played Judy in Disguise With Glasses about 10 times and, just to make it a
bit more interesting, I held a dance competition. The prize was a trumpet
which I’d nicked somewhere and there was a fight at the end - it was that
sort of place.
My dad drove me there. He didn’t think I had a future in showbiz, but he
was my dad and he had the car.
Then I got a job at a place called the Carlton Ballroom in Slough. I was a
snotty teenager. The manager was old-fashioned - bow tie, dance bands and
all that. And there was another disc jockey there: Emperor Roscoe. He was
the famous high-paid pirate radio disc jockey and I was the ‘other’ disc
Around this time, I also sometimes performed with The Bonzo Dog Doo
Dah Band. Our paths crossed a fair bit on the London pub circuit - the King
Alfred in Catford, the Tiger’s Head in Catford, the Tiger’s Head in Lee. I
basically got up in local pubs when they performed and played the
harmonica with them and did a couple of little bits with them. I don’t want
to exaggerate. I wasn’t a fully-fledged member. But that was the first time I
came across Neil Innes, who was with the Bonzo Dogs and whom I’ve met a
few times since although, to this day, I don’t think he knows who I am.
This was the Swinging Sixties and, like Liverpool, the working class areas
of London had recovered from the War and the deprivations of the Fifties.
Britain was changing and I was changing with it. I was a Mod and mohair
suits were de rigueur. South East London had a strong contingent of Mods;
so did North London; and so did the further-out parts of East London - out
around Dagenham.
The middle class teenagers of West London and North West London tended
to be verging towards hippiedom by then - certainly in the summer of 1967.
Hippies tended to be the children of more affluent parents, like the Crusties
are now. South East London, then and now, tended towards being a lower
middle class/working class area, except for Blackheath, near Greenwich.
There was a Blackheath pub called The Three Tuns which was the hippie
pub in about 1968/69; but I used to go there as well. It was a focal point for
young hippies but only held about 200 people so, in the summer, people sat
outside smoking joints. I didn’t smoke dope but I tended to mix with people
who did.
Areas change. My grandmother used to talk about “dirty old Greenwich” but
today it’s thought of as a very desirable area to live in. Even Lewisham,
which was very rundown in my youth, is becoming quite desirable. But
some things never change.
The south bank of the River Thames, from the City to Deptford has been a
haunt of self-contained communities of villains since Jacobean times. A
feeling of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. Its still true. I think I probably learnt my
disregard for authority. I just can’t get on with authority and institutions like
the government or tax collectors and people like that. There is a sense of
honour among thieves, though. Basically, you don’t shit on your own
By this time, I was quite well known locally and Wolf G. Hardee was having
his 15 minutes of notoriety. There was also a short period when I started
getting into fights when I was drunk.
I once had a fight in a pub with a bloke called Barry Clegg. I attacked him
and ended up half-strangling him over the juke box. After I beat him up,
Barry Clegg brought his big mates up to find me and I came out and there
was going to be a massive big fight. I was going to get beaten to fuck by this
bloke called Micky Desmond, who was a right boxer type. I was just about
to lay into him with no hope of winning when a mate from my secondary
school, John Sales, came up on his motor scooter, saw me, shouted:
“Jump on!”
And I did.
And we just got away.
I would have probably been killed by that bloke Micky Desmond. He
actually did end up going to prison for attempted murder and I’ve heard he is
now dead.
In all this, Pamela Crew played the part of the moll to my gangster.
Another local Mod/villain was Stuart Morgan. He was quite stocky and was
always getting into fights. He was a big Charlton Athletic supporter and, I
suppose, was one of the original football hooligans. He was looked up to by
that group. There is always someone who is King of The Herd and that was
him in those days. Our paths didn’t cross much until I saw him in
Wormwood Scrubs a few years later, when he had learnt to play the guitar.
He copied songs from Top of The Pops and he was shit.
There was a big fight between Mods and Rockers at the King Alfred pub in
Southend Lane, Catford. It was a pub where the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band
often played. This particular week, all the Mods were there and the Rockers
assembled on the other side of the road and there were people throwing
bottles and glasses across this main road. In the end, the Mods realised there
were about five times as many of them as there were Rockers and started
running after them. I remember running and I caught up with some Rocker
and looked at him and thought: This is pointless, and walked off. He thought
the same. He just looked at me. It was madness. If I’d been with a big gang
I’d have been alright and fought him, but the fact that he was on his own and
I was on my own - I thought: It’s not worth it. So I looked at him and said:
“Oy Oy! It’s a game, innit?”
We shook hands and I went off and stole a car.
The first motorised thing that I ever stole was a motor scooter. Then
someone told me how to nick a car using a threepenny bit - how to get it
exactly into the fuse box of the ignition. It was really easy.
In 1967, you could open Mini doors with a screwdriver or, if you were really
sophisticated, go to your local car spares place and buy a key - FS 967 which fitted most Austin/Morris/BMC makes. If the ignition was
particularly difficult, you could open the bonnet (from the outside) and
wedge a threepenny bit between two of the fuses and - Hey Presto! - the
ignition was on. You then got back in the car, pressed the rubber starter on
the floor and off you went.
I would not have a clue how to steal a modern car, but villainy seems to have
kept up with the technology because the crime is just as popular now as it
ever was.
The first car I stole was a mini-van. I never really stole flash ones - except
for a couple of Jags, an Austin Healey and a Rolls Royce.
When I stole cars, it wasn’t for financial gain because we never sold them. A
couple we ‘rang up’ - we changed the number plates - so we could keep
them for a couple of months. But if you steal a car you don’t look after it, so
it generally tends to break down at some point and you just leave it and go
and steal another one.
I didn’t nick them to drive fast, necessarily. Just to drive. I love driving and
through stealing cars I became more involved with proper criminals.
To do villainy or any criminal activity you’ve got to mix with people of a
similar nature, generally speaking, unless you’re something like a forger.
Then you don’t want to mix with anyone, because that’s how forgers get
caught - not through visibly passing money but by the police backtracking.
Most criminal activity is quite a social thing because you get stolen goods
then you’ve got to sell them to someone and so on and in the South East
London area they all used to meet in a pub called The Sultan or in Lewisham
Snooker Hall.
Lewisham Snooker Hall was a famous haunt for villains. I don’t know why
the police just didn’t go in there one day and arrest everyone. It was obvious
that was where they all were. I knew that when I was about 16 or 17 - so
why didn’t the police know and just go and arrest everyone? Same thing if
the police want to arrest anyone for drugs, which they seem to be keen on
every now and again. Why don’t they just go to the Glastonbury Festival?
Arrest everyone!
I was sent to Detention Centre for three months in 1968 and Pamela nobly
stood by me, being quite proud of it with her mates because Bonnie and
Clyde was a popular film at that time.
I had broken into the record department at John Menzies over a Bank
Holiday weekend with a bloke called Brian O’Hara. I’d probably had about
five convictions for petty things before this.
I was living at home. Home then was about two miles from Grover Court in
a three-bedroom 1960s house in Blessington Close, Lewisham, that my
parents bought because they’d been left some money. It was like Brookside.
We had gone up-market. Michael Leggo, who later created Mr Blobby,
moved in next door a bit after we did. Because it was a cul-de-sac it was,
just like Grover Court, a bit of an enclosed community.
John Menzies was handy as I was a Mod and Brian O’Hara was more of a
hippy. So I took all the Otis Reading and Soul and Tamla Motown records
and he took the Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. There was no
trouble about cutting up the spoils.
As Brian O’Hara was hippyish, he smoked dope which I hadn’t done at all at
this stage because I thought it was stupid. He had some dream about
distributing our stolen records to the poor and ended up coming out of his
house and giving away a lot of them to complete strangers on Blackheath
Hill. The police, of course, stopped him. Then they twigged where the
records had come from, arrested him and took him off to Ashford Remand
Centre in Middlesex. Fair play to him, he didn’t grass me up as the other
person but I went round to his house and stupidly left a note on the door
MALCOLM 852 8677
The police got hold of the note, came round to my house and found all the
records. I don’t know why I left my phone number.
I was taken to Ladywell Police Station and charged, then back to Greenwich
Magistrates’ Court, who sent me to Ashford Remand Centre for reports on
my suitability for detention centre.
I went to Ashford Remand Centre for two weeks to await trial. It was the
most depressing place I’d ever been. It smelled permanently of piss and
disinfectant and an air of No Hope permeated the buildings. It was my first
experience of incarceration and it was full of hormonally-challenged 16-20
year-olds. I ended up in a cell with two sons of East End villains who tried to
beat me up. Luckily I was physically strong and I knocked them out. I was
moved to another cell where there was an extremely posh bloke and we
ended up playing cribbage. My father came to visit me and we both knew I
had taken a wrong turning somewhere, but it took me another ten years to
sort myself out. My father was very upset. So was I.
I ended up at a Detention Centre in Goudhurst in Kent. It was like a big old
country house with a board saying BLANTYRE HOUSE. I said to the
coppers who took me:
“It looks just like a pub”.
When you are taken from court, the police are in charge of you. When you
get to the detention centre or prison, the Screws - the warders - are in charge.
When you arrived at Blantyre House, the routine was that the Screws said:
“Stand up against that wall!”
Then they just whacked your head straight into the side of the wall.
I watched this through a gap in the door and saw them do it to the three
blokes before me. But they didn’t do it to me because of my glasses. So I
didn’t get the full treatment. But life at Blantyre House was very hard.
You had to run about four miles with medicine balls under your arms and
get up at six o’clock to do press-ups every morning and drill like in the
“Quick march! Slow march! Get in line!”
They had a swimming pool and on May 1st, whatever the weather, you had
to do four lengths of the swimming pool. This particular May was one of
those cold ones and the swimming pool had a thin layer of ice on it.
Someone just forced us all to dive in it. They worked you like demons. I got
solitary confinement for two days, in damp a cell on bread and water, just
for shouting out: “Bollocks!” at some point during a football match.
I was in Blantyre House in l968 when the gangsters who were thought to be
untouchable were put behind bars: The Krays (Ronnie and Reggie). They
only operated in London’s East End and it has become overmagnified how
important they were. They were just one of many gangs. The Richardsons
(Charlie and Eddie) were operating in South East London and they weren’t
quite so high profile. The good ones, of course, are the ones you don’t read
about - the Frenches were well known for local villainy and drew very little
publicity. I was just on the very vague periphery of all this as they were a lot
older and in a different league.
Eddie Richardson was involved in a big shooting at Mr Smith’s, underneath
The Witchdoctor. It was a inter-gang thing. They all met down the gaming
club and this bloke got shot and was bleeding all over the place from an
artery. ‘Mad Frankie’ Fraser (the Richardson’s infamous ‘enforcer’) hit a
bloke who subsequently died and ‘Mad Frankie’ himself was shot in the
thigh. He got outside and the police found him lying in a front garden round
the corner in Fordel Road, Catford, where my Aunt Rosemary and Uncle
Doug - the ones connected with the train crash - were then living. His mates
had just left ‘Mad Frankie’ there. A bit inconsiderate to the neighbours.
No-one outside South East London knew the Richardsons until they were
arrested and there was a lot of publicity at their trial about torturing people
in a home-made electric chair.
But everyone knew the Krays. As comedian Lee Hurst says, the Blind
Beggar must be the biggest pub in the world. Every time you meet a London
taxi driver he was in the Blind Beggar the day Ronnie Kray shot George
Some people say the Krays wouldn’t have been big if there hadn’t been the
shooting in the Blind Beggar. But these days people are getting shot all the
time. In the paper yesterday there was a bloke shot in a pub in Yorkshire at
lunchtime. I suppose The Krays were setting a trend.
The Krays also had that showbiz thing about them. They actually owned a
club; the actress Barbara Windsor was a girlfriend of Charlie Kray and later
married Ronnie Knight who worked for The Krays; and the Conservative
politician Lord Bob Boothby, whose mistress had been Prime Minister
Harold Macmillan’s wife, was having it off with Ronnie, the gay Kray.
The film about The Krays was wrong on almost everything, really. I saw part
of it being filmed in Greenwich, which was the wrong place to begin with.
They’d done-up this street to look like l934 when the twins were born and
there was a scene where Billie Whitelaw was coming out of a door as their
mother. I was watching this scene being shot with a friend. We were sitting
in a place called Lil’s Diner, a local cafe, where a lot of lorry drivers go. The
director was trying to get it right and first an aeroplane went over, then a
lorry drove past and then someone coughed loudly and on about the 5th or
6th take he got it right and it was all quiet and the light was right and the sun
was out and Billie Whitelaw came out the door with this double pram with
two kids in it and one of the lorry drivers yelled out:
“So which one’s the poof, then?”
The director went mad.
Having the popstar Kemp twins playing The Krays wasn’t quite right, either,
as they were from Spandau Ballet and The Krays and ballet didn’t seem to
go together.
My sentence at the Blantyre House detention centre was three months, of
which you used to do five sixths. It’s changed now: at the time of writing,
you get 50% remission. There is a move afoot to abolish remission
completely, but that’s madness. Remission is all that keeps prisoners in line.
There’s no real threat that your sentence will get even longer if you cause
trouble, because that will only happen if you commit another criminal
offence and they have to take you to an outside court. If you smash up
furniture that is criminal damage, but they’re not going to take you all the
way through the court system again just for that.
When I was inside, as you got nearer to the end of your sentence, the Screws
got kinder to you so you forgot about the harder times when you first arrived
and you looked at the poor buggers coming in and felt quite superior. A bit
like when you’re at school. The same feeling you get when you’ve been in
any institution for a while and you see newcomers arriving.
I think prison is like mime or juggling - a tragic waste of time.
As I write, the Home Secretary is playing up to public opinion with the Short
Sharp Shock and Bang ‘Em Away theories. It does not work. The people
who have been locked away are normally very sad. There has been no
attempt to find out why they have done whatever they did. Apparently it
costs about £500 per week to keep a person in prison. Give that person a
wage of £300 per week and they won’t go back.
I came out of Blantyre House as fit as a fiddle, unreformed, re-united with
my mate Wizo and with a grant of about £6. I got off at Blackheath Station
and dead opposite was the John Menzies shop which I’d been sentenced for
breaking into. In the window was a notice saying:
So I came straight off the train, walked in and got the job.
In the shop were all the records in white covers that I’d stolen - I hadn’t got
all the proper covers. They still had my writing on them. An old lady was in
“You know,” she said, “We had a terrible burglary in here a few months ago.
They came and took all the records from downstairs and all the fountain
pens from upstairs. They made a terrible mess!”
“Oh dear,” I said: “Terrible isn’t it”.
Being a record shop manager was a good job because I was nicked all the
best records to continue my job as a disc jockey.
I used to play a pub in Brighton called The Ship. They used to have strippers
in between the records. And this was when Wizo really came back on the
scene and became involved as my disc jockey assistant. His job was really to
keep me company but he used to come and nick records from Menzies as
well. I’d sell him one, but he’d take out ten.
When Wizo was fifteen, he fathered a child. The mother, Pauline, was
fifteen as well. She was quite a domineering girl. She had the child in some
sort of hostel, then they lived together in a shed by the side of the railway
track because they’d been thrown out by both sets of parents. Eventually she
got a Church flat in Forest Hill in South East London. Wizo felt a bit trapped
because he was only 15 or 16. I stole another Mini, because they were easy
to nick, went round to see him and said:
“Shall we go down to Cornwall? It’ll cheer you up.”
So he said to Pauline: “I’m just going out”.
She said: “Can you get me some fish and chips?”
“Alright love,” he said.
Wizo and I drove all the way to Cornwall in this car and ended up getting
arrested down there for car theft and burglary. We went to Exeter Prison for
about three months, came out, stole another car and drove all the way back
to South East London. He hadn’t said a word to Pauline in three months and
he’s now got this eight month old baby.
He said to me: “I’d better buy those fish and chips”.
“You better had, Wiz” I said.
So he bought the fish and chips, went back to this squalid flat in Forest Hill
and said:
“Hello, love”.
As if nothing’s happened.
“Oh. Hello,” said Pauline.
“It’s okay,” he said: “I’ve got your fish and chips”.
She opened them up, ate one and said: “They’re cold!”
Wizo and Pauline didn’t stay together. They were very young. She was
fifteen, poor girl, bringing up a kid and she wasn’t over-blessed with
intelligence. Last time I saw her she was in a betting shop and she’d married
an Arab. I asked how she was getting on, thinking she would be in Easy
Street. Unfortunately, he was as un-wealthy as she was.
Not a lucky girl.
Wizo, of course - clever - had given her the slip.
Fat Wizo was always good at escaping. Once, in our car-stealing period at
the end of the Sixties, we nicked a E-Type Jaguar. We used to share it. We
parked it 100 yards from Wizo’s house in a working class road in South East
London, where it stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Wizo came out of
his house one day, got in it and the police were waiting for him. They chased
him and he drove the Jag like a lunatic, leapt out and ended up jumping over
people’s gardens and got away.
Another day around the same time, we had nicked a Mini-Cooper and three
of us decided to go and have a drink at the Grasshopper pub in Westerham,
Kent. It was Sunday and I didn’t know that pubs in Kent, in those days,
closed at 10 o’clock on Sundays: half an hour earlier than in London. So we
got down to The Grasshopper at about 10.45pm and it was deserted. It was a
massive old Tudor coaching inn with a balcony on three sides and a little
stage in the middle and standing there on the stage was an amplifier and
microphone. I was a bit pissed and I went up to the microphone and started
singing in it for a laugh. Then two biggish blokes on the balcony yelled out:
“Oy! What you doing?”
So we ran for it, as was our wont.
Wizo ran out first and got in the car and drove off and left behind me and
our other mate - Pete Watts. Westerham is all fields, so we jumped over a
hedge and I lost my glasses. These blokes from the pub came up to the
hedge and were peering over and we thought We’ll ‘front them out so we
stood up - hard like - and the blokes ran away.
That was OK but now we were stranded in the middle of Kent with no
transport. So we jumped back over the hedge and walked towards the main
village to see if we could steal another car. Then the police drew up.
For some reason I decided to speak to them in an Irish accent to pretend I
wasn’t the same person who’d been in the pub earlier on, despite the fact I
had bright red trousers so was easily recognisable.
“Excuse me,” said one copper: “Were you in that pub earlier on?”
“Sure an’ we weren’t!” I said, in this big, horrible Irish accent.
They brought the two blokes from the pub to identify us. This was where my
luck ran out. The two blokes, unfortunately, were Maltese so the fact I had
an Irish accent didn’t make any difference at all to them. They identified us
and we got taken to Chelsfield police station where I kept up this Irish
“My name is John Murphy,” I said.
“Where do you live?”
“Oh, sure,” I said, “Fifteen College Parade, Bromley”.
They charged me with the attempted theft of an amplifier: I’d just turned the
bloody knob to put the thing on! And then they gave me bail under the
name of John Murphy, 15 College Parade, Bromley. I’d made the address
up, but it turned out there was a real 15 College Parade and they insisted on
taking me back there.
We got to this house and I said:
“Well, you can’t come in because me poor mother’s got a very dicky heart.
Goodnight officer.”
Then I got out of the police car, went up to the door with pretend keys to get
in, pushed the door and, by some miracle, it had been left off the latch. So I
walked into someone else’s house, switched the hall light on and the police
drove off, nodding. I think there was someone in the house, but I just waited
for the police car to go away and then came out, stole my second Mini in 24
hours and drove home.
When they gave me bail they’d taken my fingerprints and, when I went back
to the police station in Chelsfield two weeks later to answer my bail, they
knew I wasn’t John Murphy. They said:
“Oh, hello Mr Hardee. We found your glasses in a field.”
It was alright, though: I was found Not Guilty.
However, I was less lucky with the sentencing I received for a series of
The players in this particular criminal enterprise were myself, Wizo, Pete
Watts and Brian O’Hara, the hippy I did the record shop with.
We intended to go to a really posh party at Hildenborough, near Tonbridge
in Kent, in a stolen Ford Consul. But, when we got there, no-one else was
around because we’d got the wrong week and they were all away. So we
broke into this house and had piled everything we could by the door, ready
to load it into the Consul, when the owners came back.
We all leapt out various windows and ran away. I tried to escape in the
Consul, but the irate householder blocked the drive and attacked the Consul
with a large felling axe. I jumped out and made my escape on foot.
Wizo and I separated and got clean away while Pete Watts and Brian O’Hara
got caught. I remember running across a field and crouching down behind a
hedge and the police were the other side of the hedge with dogs, so I picked
up a clod of earth and slung it as hard as I could over their heads and they
fell for it. They all went off that way and I went off in the opposite direction.
I ended up thumbing a lift on the A20 back into Catford and got to a pub
called The Rising Sun for the last knockings. Wizo was already in there he’d got away in almost exactly the same way.
The next morning at 6.30am the police came round to my house because
Pete Watts had confessed everything. The police said to me:
“Would you like to come down to the police station?”
“No,” I said.
But they took me anyway.
There’s a thing called TIC (Taken Into Consideration) which means you
don’t get charged for every offence separately. If you don’t mention TICs,
they can re-arrest you afterwards and you can get done for them all. Pete
Watts overdid it on the TIC front. He was just showing off a bit. He
confessed to crimes we hadn’t even committed. We were supposed to have
stolen a car in Leeds at 4.30pm and then another one in South East London
at 5.15pm on the same day. The police were just clearing up their books.
The outcome was that we were all banged up in Tonbridge nick for about a
week, then we all ended up at Canterbury Prison together, waiting to be
sentenced. We all shared the same cell - four of us in a cell 12’ x 8’. We
were young and we had some laughs.
That week, 47 illegal immigrants had been arrested at Dover and they all
ended up in Canterbury waiting to be deported. They were put to work
sewing mailbags with us and they all said their surname was Singh. Every
time one of them had a visitor or needed to be taken out of the Mailbag
Shop, a screw would come in and shout:
All 47 Asians would stand up and Wizo, myself, Brian, Pete plus various
others would all sing very loudly.
The three others were sent to Detention Centre and, as I had already enjoyed
the benefits of D.C., I was sentenced to Borstal.
Borstal used to be called Borstal Training and it used to last from six months
to two years - or, for particularly nasty crimes, you could get nine months to
three years - either one. It was a terrible sentence really, because of the
uncertainty of your date of release.
I went to a very nice open Borstal called Gaynes Hall, an old RAF camp
near Bedford.
Pamela Crew must have been long-suffering as she had heard the phrases
Once bitten, twice shy and Never again after each of my court appearances.
Also, while I was in Gaynes Hall, I was two-timing Pamela by writing to a
platonic girlfriend in Leeds called Nicola Hildebrandt. ‘Platonic’ meant I’d
previously tried and failed to shag her at a party in South East London. I
hadn’t shagged her but wanted to.
I stupidly sent them both a V.O. (Visitor’s Order) for the same month and, as
luck would have it, they both turned up on the same day. Nicola (who knew
about Pam) turned up 15 minutes earlier, so I told her to tell Pam (who
didn’t know about Nicola) that she was my cousin. As the visit progressed, it
became obvious to Pam - who knew all my family - that Nicola wasn’t my
cousin and the last hour of the visit was spent with them talking to each
other while I sat in silence.
I stuck Gaynes Hall for about four or five months and then got in with the
He decided to take some of the boys out to a Retreat, a monastery in
Newark. It turned out to be a worse punishment than Borstal. The food was
fine but it was a Silent Order. Very peaceful but they didn't say anything. It
nearly drove me up the wall. There was a phone nearby, so I called up
Pamela Crew. She came up and we shagged like rabbits in the woods, which
gave me a taste for the outside world again.
I thought I'd escape, although there wasn't much of an escape involved. I
stole a monk's habit so I'd be more likely to get a lift from motorists.
Underneath, I had a pair of pants and my Borstal boots. These didn't really
go with the habit, as the more traditional footwear worn by monks is the
open sandal.
I thought I'd be less likely to get caught if I went North. So I thumbed two
lifts to Leeds to see Nicola Hildebrandt. The second lift, unfortunately, was
from a vicar's wife who asked me what Order I was in. I mimed that I was
on a Retreat and couldn't speak. But she was suspicious and later she phoned
the police.
She dropped me off in Leeds. I went round to Nicola Hildebrandt's house,
knocked on the door and, when she opened it, I said:
"I always get in these bad habits".
I couldn't stay with her, but stayed with her friend Margaret and, sure
enough, six o'clock the next morning the police were at the door, arrested me
and took me down to Armley Jail in Leeds. They knew where to look
because I'd been writing to Nicola Hildebrandt from Borstal and, of course,
she had visited me.
I was taken from Leeds to Strangeways Prison in Manchester, so I could be
allocated to a Borstal again. I had to be allocated to a closed one this time
because I'd escaped from an open one. I got transferred from Strangeways
down to Wormwood Scrubs in London to be allocated a Southern Borstal.
The sad thing was that, if I'd been allocated to a Northern Borstal I'd have
been out in 2-3 months, because they were so full up then that they were just
chucking people in and out quickly. The average time spent in Southern
Borstals was about 14 months.
I ended up in Dover, which was a right 'hard nuts' closed Borstal on top of
the cliffs. When you got off the coach, all these hardened Borstal people
were watching to see what you were like. I was right at the back and all
these lads came off with mohair suits and sovereign rings and then I came
off dressed as a monk. They thought I was a sex offender. It took a bit of
convincing to tell them what had happened but, in the end, I was alright.
While I was in this closed Borstal, the vicar came and told me:
“Your father’s only got six hours to live”.
They got me on a train up to London, handcuffed to a Screw. But he was
quite decent. He took the handcuffs off before we reached the house and I
went in. My father must have died about half an hour before I arrived.
It was September 1970.
When I saw my father dead in bed, with his mother Nanny Hardee sitting
severely by his side, my mother was downstairs overcome by grief. I was 20.
My sister was 10 and was shuffled off to other relatives. My brother was less
than a year old and was asleep in his pram. My mother must have been
going through hell. She was 42, had just had another kid, her eldest child
was in Borstal with no sign of getting any better and her husband had just
died. What a start to the 1970s.
Later in the week, I had to go to the funeral in handcuffs but, again, they
took them off so I could read the Lesson. It was all a terrible business.
My father died of cancer. Every picture you see of my dad, he’s got a fag in
his hand - even at his wedding. In those days you almost had to smoke. It
was glamorous and macho. The River people loved a fag - still do.
I didn’t start smoking myself until I returned to Borstal after my father’s
death. There must have been some psychological link. As a kid, we used to
smoke wild rhubarb - a woody sort of plant. We used to hollow that out, put
any sort of old nonsense in it, smoke, then cough and that was it. I never
wanted nicotine. I might have tried once when I was about 11 or 12 but it
was so horrible - I hated cigarettes - hated them.
The strange thing was I was brought up in a smoky atmosphere. My dad
smoked and my mother smoked. Perhaps I was rebelling by not smoking. I
didn’t drink either until I was about 19. All my mates were drinking and
smoking. I thought they were fools. You know what its like when you’re
sober and other people are drunk. I can’t bear it now when I go out and don’t
have a drink when other people are drinking - I think the same - that they’re
mad. But when you’re drunk with them its alright.
I was finally released from Borstal in January 1971, the same time as
decimalisation. I got a job as sports organiser and entertainer in Grooms
Holiday Camp at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. My first proper Showbiz job.
Unfortunately, I had to sing in the evenings and my repertoire consisted of
Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner. My only
assistant was an old boy called Harry (on the pianoforte) with a reel-to-reel
tape recorder on which the drum beat was recorded. Probably the world’s
first drum machine!
I didn’t wear a redcoat. But Grooms Holiday Camp had a song which went
something like:
We get up in the morning
And have our breakfast
Just like the bride
And Grooms
We all had to sing it round the table at breakfast.
The holiday camp was a real Hi Di Hi place, a family-run affair with chalets;
it was an old RAF base. Each year in September, to fill up a slow week at
the end of the season, they had pupils from a private school in for a week.
The schoolkids were aged from eight to sixteen.
My job was to amuse and entertain these people for seven days and virtually
24 hours a day. Remembering my old Scout training, I decided to take them
‘tracking’ in the woods and split them up into two groups. This other bloke
and I were both a couple of womanisers, so we took all the 16 year-old girls
in our group; and left the other group in the charge of some poor little 10
year-old. Our group was leaving a trail for the other group, laying down
sparrows by disused railway tracks and all that. They had to track us.
Our group got back to camp at about 3.00pm and waited. And waited. And
the other group didn’t turn up. It got to 5.00pm, then 6.00pm, then it got
dark. It turned out they’d tracked for about 15 miles and ended up at a
completely different holiday camp and had to be brought back, crying, in
As a result, I got sacked from the Entertainer job and was made Head Waiter
While I was at Grooms, I went down to London to see Pamela Crew. I went
to her house and a light was on, so I thought I’d better look just in case she
was in there with some other bloke and she was and I thought Oh, this might
be over now, then. She was with the bloke she eventually married.
She was happily married for 24 years but I heard recently that she got
divorced in 1992. I told her it wouldn’t last.
Shortly after I realised it was over with Pam, I went to a party and took dope
for the first time. When I took it, I just felt so way out of it. I just thought
This is not very good. I can’t do anything. Some sort of dream: a
hallucinogenic type state. I’ve smoked some dope since, but I’m not really a
dope smoker. Now it has hardly any effect on me - but when I first took it
then I couldn’t do anything
It’s not the same with drinking. With drink, I feel in control. I know for a
fact that there’s a certain point where I’ll be more efficient and more
confident by drinking, though there’s obviously a point after that where
you’re useless. For instance, I always have a drink before I go on stage - I’m
sometimes drunkish but, in my case, there is a point where I’m more
After I came out of Borstal, I went right off the rails. I was 21 and Wizo was
about 17. One thing we did was we stole a load of silver from a big posh
house in Buckinghamshire: candlesticks and that sort of stuff. We didn’t
know where to sell it because we thought it would be a bit dodgy to take it
into a shop and, as we were walking along in the New Cross area, we saw a
couple of young lads whom we recognised from Lewisham Snooker Hall.
We didn’t know their names, but we said to them:
“Where can we sell this silver?”
“We can sell it round Pop Stevens’ house,” they said.
He was apparently a well known fence though we’d never heard of him.
I had my own Thames van at the time - not stolen. As I drove us all to Pop
Stevens’ in the most shady part of Deptford, I noticed two detectives
standing on a corner and they recognised me. We carried on to Pop Stevens’
‘house’ which was actually a flat in a tower block. Wizo went up with the
silver to do the deal while I waited downstairs. In the meantime the
detectives came up to me and said:
“What are you doing?”
“Oh nothing,” I said, “Just waiting for my friend”.
“Is this your van?”
While we were talking, Wizo and these two young villains came down the
stairs carrying the stolen silver. Plus there was some still in the back of the
van. So the detectives said:
“We are going to have to ask you to come down to the station with us.”
“Oh!” I said.
And then they stupidly said to Wizo:
“You drive this van yourself and we’ll take the others in the police car”.
Before Wizo’s detective passenger could get in my van, Wizo had jumped in
and driven off off like a rocket over the pavement and got away.
I got taken with these two young blokes to the police station. I said I didn’t
know who Wizo was. I don’t grass. And I honestly didn’t know who the hell
the other two were. After all the questioning, the coppers said:
“Well, we only want to do one of you”.
We were all denying everything, so they figured they’d just get one person
for it and they actually drew lots to see which one of us was going to get
done. They put matchsticks between their fingers and the one who got the
shortest was the one who was going to get done.
It was me.
So I got done for receiving stolen goods from persons unknown, from places
unknown. They never found out where the stuff came from, so the people we
nicked it from probably stole it themselves in the first place. It hadn’t been
I was convicted by the magistrates but they felt they couldn’t pass sentence
on me. Magistrates in those days were only allowed to pass six month
sentences and they thought because of my record it should be more, so I was
in this sort of no man’s land where I was a convicted criminal without a
sentence. I was waiting for the Quarter Sessions and being held in
Wandsworth which is the worst prison in the whole country - always was
and always will be. Because it holds recidivists: people the authorities
consider No-Hopers. It’s enormously strict. I had bread and water in there.
I was in Wandsworth at the same time as ‘Mad Frankie’ Fraser. Everyone in
prison knew who he was and what he'd done. His biggest thing was that he
would just hit the prison governors as soon as he could. He hit about eight or
nine of them. Back in 1951, he had strung one up from a tree on
Wandsworth Common - Lawton, the governor at Wandsworth Prison, who
was a horrible bloke - and Mad Frankie strung Lawton’s dog up as well.
Lawton didn't die because the branch bent too much and his feet touched the
ground. But the dog was killed.
When I was in Wandsworth, the governor was a bloke called Mr Beastie so,
of course, he was known as ‘The Beast’ and he was arguably worse than
In those days, they had this thing called Silent Labour. We all sat round in
the mailbag shop - it’s not a shop, its the place where you work - sewing
mail bags. You have to do eight stitches to the inch in silence. One reason
you traditionally see criminals in movies portrayed talking out of the side of
their mouths is that, in Silent Labour, it was the only way you could
communicate with the person next to you. A sort of sideways-mouth-type
whisper. You got used to talking that way.
It was the most depressing thing in the world, just sitting there sewing
mailbags in complete silence with the odd click of scissors going for eight
hours and I remember one day, after about seven and a half hours, some
massive big bloke at the back just shouted out extremely loudly:
“Remember you’re a Womble!”
He got carted away.
I never saw him again.
I ended up going to the Inner London Quarter Sessions and I didn’t have a
barrister, But there are these people called Dock Briefs, who hang around
the Court on the off-chance there might be someone for them to defend.
They’re not that good. They’re normally past their prime. I saw this barrister
who must have been about 70-odd and I couldn’t understand a word he said,
probably due to a combination of his extremely plummy accent and alcohol
I thought I can’t have this bloke defending me!
But, as he was the only one there, I had no alternative.
When he got up in court, he just mumbled away. I’m sure the judge didn’t
understand a word he said. I think if I’d had an articulate barrister coming
out with the full facts I’d probably have ended up with about three years. But
the judge must have taken pity on me after listening to this geriatric bloke
because he ended up giving me a twelve-month suspended sentence.
At that time, I used to go out with Wizo and nick cars and do all sorts of
villainy and I eventually got caught again in Kingsbridge, Devon, in the
summer of 1971. We nicked a Rolls Royce because the stolen car we were in
- a Mini - was playing up quite a bit so we needed another car. I always
thought that the Rolls Royce belonged to government minister Peter Walker,
but he wrote to me in 1995 stating that he had never owned a Rolls Royce.
Whoever owned the car we nicked, it was his own fault. He left the keys in
While we were in the West Country, Wizo and I went on a real petty crime
At the time, long hair was fashionable and I stupidly bought a long black
wig so that I would fit in with my hippy peers. I looked like Peter Sellars in I
Love You, Alice B.Toklas.
One time, we were living in a caravan on a holiday site just outside
Newquay. We held a party and I was knackered by about three or four in the
morning, but there were so many people in the caravan that I had to sleep
outside in a huge refuse bin. It rained, but I slept through it.
Another time, I took a party of local hangers-on for a ride in a car I had
actually bought - a Ford Taunus. However, the car had a problem with its
braking system. I was driving downhill to the beach in Newquay when the
brakes failed, the car hit the sea wall and, with a sudden jolt, my head went
forward then backward and my wig landed in the lap of a girl I fancied who
was sitting in the back. She screamed. I assumed it was the crash but I
learned later it was the sight of me with my short prison haircut.
We managed to live off the proceeds of crime for a few weeks and met a
couple of girls. There was Brenda, who Wizo copped off with: she earned
the nickname Brenda Suspender. And there was ‘my one’: Annie, who found
me repulsive because of my unfashionable hairstyle.
All four of us booked into a caravan site in Crantock, near Newquay. We
unloaded the car, which was full of the spoils from various burglaries and
cheque frauds - jewellery, car radios, even a photographic enlarger - and hid
the goods in the bowels of our holiday home.
I had booked in under the name of Mr Werb (‘brew’ spelt backwards).
Wizo and Brenda Suspender were in one double bed shagging all night,
while I was getting nowhere with ‘my one’. By the morning, I’d had enough
so, at 6.30am, I went off with a can to get water to make some tea. As I
walked the 50 yards from the caravan to the stand pipe, I noticed two
detectives coming towards me. I had just turned on the tap when Detective
One said:
“Mr Werb?”
I said, “No,” and pointed towards the caravan which contained Wizo,
Brenda Suspender, ‘my one’ and a bottom half reminiscent of Aladdin’s
Detective Two made his way over to the caravan and the next thing I knew
we were in Torquay Police Station on our way back to Exeter nick.
If you were 21 or over, you ended up in the adult prison. If you were under
21 you ended up in what they used to call YPs (now called Youth Custody).
I was 21 at the time but pretended I was 20 because I wanted to stick with
We were taken to Totnes Magistrates’ Court which is the oldest magistrates’
court in the country. It was quite forbidding because it still had shackles and
old rifles on the wall. You couldn’t get straight out of the police car to go
into the court as it was in a cobbled-off area. You had to get out of the police
car in the car park and be handcuffed, then walk through the streets of
Totnes in public. It was all very embarrassing and I devised a plan for
We had to be taken to Totnes Magistrates’ Court every week while they
gathered all the charges against us and could start committal proceedings.
This was going to go on for at least a couple of months. Every week, the
police took us in a Black Maria van into the prison, undid our handcuffs,
then we’d walk about five yards to the prison reception, where the Screws
would take charge of us. Prison officers and police have a hate-hate
relationship. Most Screws wanted to be coppers and never got in. Each
Service thinks it’s more important than the other.
I noticed we came in at the same time every week - about 4 o’clock. This
was the same time some of the Screws went off duty. They used to open the
wicket gate - the little gate inside the big gates - and walk out of the prison.
When they took our handcuffs off, most times, that little wicket gate was
open, so I said:
“Wizo, when they take the cuffs off we can just run. We’re in our civilian
clothes, so that’s no problem.”
“Alright,” he said.
After about five weeks of this - we were trained-up and fit - sure enough the
little gate was open, someone was going out and I ran......and Wizo stayed
where he was.
He was meant to come with me. But Wizo, the great escapologist, stayed
One policeman ran after me but he was about 50, so I got away into a park
opposite the prison. It was summertime and I thought I’d hide until it got
dark and then try to make my way back to London. I was hiding in this park
from about 4 o’clock until just before ten at night. Then the police came and
caught me in the bushes. I’d been reported as a Peeping Tom by a woman
who’d gone past and seen me.
I was arrested and questioned about being a Peeping Tom for about an hour
and a half in the police station. I, of course, gave a false name. Just as I was
about to be released, they suddenly twigged I was the same bloke who’d
escaped from the prison in their town.
I got convicted at Exeter Quarter Sessions (now Exeter Crown Court) and
ended up in a holding cell beneath the court. I was sitting there, depressed,
thinking I’m 21; I’ll be 24 when I get out. After about an hour, another bloke
came in and sat opposite me.
Just the two of in there, all silent.
A bit of a pause.
Then he looked up and asked:
“What you in for. mate?”
“Nicking cars,” I said.
Another pause.
Then I said: “So what you in for?”
Then he looked up at me:
“How long did you get?”
“Three years.”
“How long did you get?”
“Seven years.”
There was a very long pause and he said:
“Ever get one of those days when nothing seems to go right?”
We ended up in the same cell in Exeter Prison.
When I opened the cell door, he saw it was me again and said:
“You’d better have the bunk nearest the door - You’re out first”.
By this time, they had found out I was over 21, so I had to go into the adult
bit of the prison and had to wear ‘patches’.
If you were an escapee or attempted escapee, you got yellow patches put on
your prison uniform and you had to be accompanied by a Screw wherever
you went and you could work only with other yellow ‘patches’ and eat your
dinner only with them. But I was the only one ‘on patches’, so it was
tantamount to solitary confinement. And it shouldn’t have been.
I ended up on ‘patches’ for about 14 months. During that time, there were
perhaps only two months when I did have companions. One was a mad
ginger-haired bloke who had jumped out of a Black Maria on the A30. He’d
broken his leg in the attempt, so I had to go round the exercise yard with him
limping. The other was a bloke in whose cell they’d found some sort of
hacksaw; he was only briefly put on patches.
You were allowed to apply every month to come off patches. So I applied
every month and, every month, the governor refused. He still felt I was a
risk. Also, you had to behave quite well and they felt I wasn’t behaving
ideally. There was a period of about three months when I refused to wash or
shave myself or do anything. That tended to go against me.
Basically, I was in solitary confinement and had no-one to talk to for 14
months. I took some more 0-Levels and A-Levels and one of the 0-Levels
was English again, even although I’d already got it. This time, I did it with
‘Spoken English’ although I’d hardly spoken to anyone in months. When the
bloke came into the cell to give me the Oral English exam, I could hardly
speak. Even so, I passed.
The only time I saw anyone was when I went to Church. I became a Catholic
because the Catholic priest gave fags out and, if you were a Catholic, you
got two services a day and that was the only time I could actually mix with
anyone. I used to exercise on my own. I was in a cell all day sewing
mailbags from 8’o'clock until 4 o’clock with an hour off for lunch which
they bought in to me because there were no other ‘patches’. The only other
time I got out was to the prison cinema once a week: I had to sit at the back
on my own with a Screw next to me.
Exeter Prison was not a happy experience.
There was a prison officer called Bill Lovett who, so rumour went, had
worked in Dartmoor Prison, where someone had thrown him over the
landing. This resulted in him having a tin plate put in his head, which made
him quite a mad character. If you got transferred in those days to any prison
in Britain and you said you’d been in Exeter everyone would say:
“Oh, you’ve met Bill Lovett then!”
When I first went into Exeter, he was on duty and he marched up - this very
military-type person with a gruff voice - and he said:
“Get away! Get away out of it! Get away! Get away out of it!”
He talked a bit like the Scottish prison officer played by Fulton MacKay in
the BBC TV sitcom Porridge. Very similar sort of bloke. Very erect. But he
was slightly schizophrenic and I was scared shitless the first time I met him.
He ordered me into the cell and then slammed the door tight and I thought
He’s mad! And about five minutes later he opened the door and said in a
very gentle voice:
“Anything you’d like? Cup of tea? Cup of coffee? Library books?”
So I said : “Oh, yeah, I wouldn’t mind a cup of....” and then his personality
turned again:
“Get away! Get away out of it!” and he started wandering off again.
One day he was in charge of the mail-bag shop in Exeter Prison and
obviously the big thing in any prison is knowing how many people you have
in any one place at any one time. The Screws sit up on a high pedestal with a
blackboard behind them and anytime someone comes in or goes out they’re
meant to cross it out. But Bill Lovett wouldn’t have any of this. He didn’t sit
on the pedestal. He just marched up and down the whole mail-bag shop,
“Get away! Get away out of it!”
One day, the Governor came round with the Chief, who’s the second-incommand. It’s an event that takes on great importance in the prison regime:
like a General inspecting his troops.
The Governor started by saying:
“Morning, Mr Lovett”.
“Morning, sir,” replied Bill Lovett.
“How many in, Mr Lovett?” asked the Governor.
Bill Lovett just looked around and paused and eventually said:
“Quite a few, sir. Quite a few”.
Then the Governor started shouting at him and he had to go round counting
everyone and it was all very embarrassing for him.
The Governor at Exeter was ex-Army. He’d had half his face blown off in
the War and he had a massive scar but he wasn’t too bad.
I got ‘put on report’ to him once. I’d bought some loose tea from a bloke in
the kitchens and got caught with it in my cell. You weren’t supposed to have
loose tea. You’re not meant to have anything in your cell - particularly loose
tea which could only have come from the kitchen. So I was ‘put on report’. I
was taken to see the Governor with two Screws - one on each side. You have
to give your name and your number.
“What’s your name?” they asked.
“Hardee. Number 594711,” I said. “711 to my friends.”
“Call the Governor SIR!” they said.
“I didn’t realise he’d been knighted,” I said.
Then he gave me a big lecture on taking this tea - I hadn’t said I’d bought it,
just got it somehow.
“Well,” he said, “If everybody did the same thing no-one in the prison would
have any tea.”
“On the contrary,” I said, “If everyone did the same thing, then we’d all
have some tea”.
I lost a fortnight for being offensive.
A little later, I saw a notice outside the Shop saying:
and when I went there was me and about three others.
This camp bloke, Mr Dwyer the Church organist, was running the Glee Club
and it transpired that he gave you cigarettes half way through. So one minute
we’re singing Gilbert & Sullivan numbers and four-part harmonies to Bread
of Heaven and then he starts handing the fags out. Word quickly got round
about this and at future Glee Clubs there were about 40 or 50 blokes - the
maximum you could get in a class. They went for the cigarettes and none of
them could sing. So there were all these West Country criminals trying to
sing Gilbert and Sullivan in croaky voices and smoking free fags.
One week there were about 40 cons at the Glee Club and it was the break.
They were all smoking and the Governor came round on one of his rare
visits with the Educational Officer who was also as camp as a row of tents.
The only place you’re supposed to smoke is in your cell at certain times. So
there were these 40 cons all with fags hidden under their coats when the
Governor and this man came in and the Educational Officer said:
“Oh hello Mr Dwyer. How’s the Glee Club going?”
“Oh, very well,” said Mr Dwyer.
“And what,” asked the Educational Officer, “Are you doing now?”.
“We’re doing Gilbert and Sullivan,” cooed Mr Dwyer.
“The Governor really likes Gilbert and Sullivan,” squeaked the Educational
“Well, if he likes ‘em,” said one of the surlier cons from the back, in a broad
West Country accent: “He’d better fuck off now, then, hadn’t he?”.
Eventually, I ended up in a prison called Grendon Underwood in
Buckinghamshire. They wouldn’t take any people at Grendon who were on
patches, so the Governor at Exeter had taken me off patches about two
months before. Just coming off ‘solitary’ and going into the main Exeter
prison itself had been like being released. Then going to Grendon was like
You were more or less allowed to walk around anywhere you liked at
Grendon even though it was a maximum security prison. I don’t think there
had been any escapes from there. In those days they called it a ‘Modern’
prison. It was ‘liberal’ and you called the Screws by their first name.
At Grendon, the Screws ‘had’ to treat you right because it was this ‘liberal’
place. It was a psychiatric prison, though not in the sense of being a Prison
Hospital like Rampton or Broadmoor. Grendon had two parts: the
Psychiatric bit and the Education bit. I was in the Education bit.
There was also a normal Hospital bit which took people’s tattoos off. A lot
of prisoners, in order to have a cushy Nick, used to apply to have their
tattoos taken off saying, if they kept them, they wouldn’t be able to get a job
in a bank when they got out.
I joined every club I could find. I was in the drama society. I was in ‘The
Toastmasters’, doing harmony singing. I was into everything.
I was in the bridge club.
It was odd playing bridge in these surroundings, as bridge is a card game
normally associated with old ladies and retired colonel types. It was as
surreal as watching the murderers singing four-part madrigals.
I played bridge with John Stonehouse as my partner. He was a Conservative
MP who had faked his own death. He pretended he drowned in Miami to get
an enormous amount of life insurance, but he was also having an affair with
his secretary Sheila Buckley, who now coincidentally lives in Thamesmead,
not far away from me. John Stonehouse himself is now dead for real.
He was very good at bridge and there was another bloke who was
very good too: a ‘lifer’ called Bob Gentles. He’d already done about 20 odd
years. I think he was heterosexual when he went in but he was one of these
people who’d been so long in prison they turn gay. He was The Prison Gay,
outrageously gay, but he was also a very violent man because he was a
murderer. So he was a strange combination.
There was no real bigotry about gayness in prison. When I first went to
prison, homosexuality was still illegal and so there were people in prison just
for being gay. It was ridiculous when it was illegal because, in order to
punish people for being homosexual, they used to send them into a prison
with loads of other men.
The Screws in most prisons didn’t object to homosexuality. It was just
accepted. There was quite a high proportion of gay men, some of whom
wore make-up and lipstick. They used to get jobs in the kitchen and take on
what was seen as the ‘women’s role’.The overtly camp ones were a laugh
and used to be given women’s names. By the time I got to Grendon,
homosexuality had been made legal for consenting Over 21s, so there
weren’t so many overtly gay people in prison.
When I was at Grendon, I got the nickname ‘Tadpole’ because I worked
very briefly on the gardens where I found a lot of tadpoles and I kept them in
my chamber pot. I never used to get any intellectual jobs in prison. In
Grendon I started off making mats: not mats for the floor - mats for your
I shared a cell with a bloke called Bernie from Birmingham, who had had his
moment of glory as a TV star but never really wanted it. One day, at the
height of his TV fame, he went out, got really pissed and nicked a lorry-load
of rice pudding. As he was driving down Mucklows Hill just outside
Birmingham, he smashed the lorry through a shop window - untold damage gas mains ruptured - all sorts. He ended up getting three years.
Bernie was very gullible. In prison, tobacco is like the currency. We used to
get half an ounce of tobacco a week, which was equivalent to a week’s
wages. Every week, I used to bet Bernie I’d beat him at Brain of Britain on
the radio and I did beat him - every week. He never realised I used to listen
to it on a Monday by myself and then we both listened to the repeat on a
Friday and I used to beat him knowing all the answers.
At Grendon, I also met a bloke called Dexie Doug Davies who was a local
lad. Local to me. Upbringing is probably the biggest deciding factor in how
someone is going to turn out but the hereditary side does have an effect as
well because this bloke Dexie Doug Davies was adopted. He grew up in a
very middle class family where his adoptive father was the conductor of a
symphony orchestra - quite a middle class musical family. But he didn’t take
on board any of that. He was just a born criminal. He got tattooed. I think
that part was hereditary. He was covered in tattoos and lived the life of a
drug-wrecked villain to the full.
Dexie Doug had the normal home-made, Borstal-type tattoos: L-O-V-E and
H-A-T-E on the fingers and all that. You do them with shoe polish and the
pin you use to sew the mailbags up. You prick holes in your skin with shoe
polish on the end of the needle and that gets under your skin like a normal
tattoo does and it’s there forever, unless you have a skin graft.
Dexie Doug had some of his tattoos taken off in the prison hospital at
You can generally work out well in advance where criminals are going to
come from. If you go down the Pepys Estate in Deptford in South East
London, there’s a good chance that a high proportion of the children on that
estate will become criminals. If you’re born into quite an affluent lifestyle
with plenty of opportunities, there’s not much point in becoming a criminal
and stealing.
The irony is that I’ve known successful criminals who’ve stolen quite large
amounts of money and they tend to keep their working class standards. They
still live on council estates. Even though they’ve had enormous amounts of
money over the years, they don’t move into a big place with the nobs in
Ascot. The most they’ll do is they might move out to East Essex. South East
London council estates are what they know, the way they’ve been bought up
and they wouldn’t understand sipping Earl Grey tea in Claridges.
As my criminal record lengthened, the police became less tolerant. But I
only got beaten up once, when they thought I’d done a big drugs crime. I
hadn’t really. What I had done was I’d broken into a chemist shop with
Dexie Doug Davies, who was a drug addict. I wasn’t into drugs. So I was
just nicking all the aftershaves while he was rummaging in the dangerous
drugs cabinet.
He used to virtually have morphine on toast, that bloke. He took anything.
He was just completely mad. He’s still alive - nothing short of a miracle!
The extraordinary thing is that it doesn’t seem to have had any lasting effect
on him. He seems just the same whenever you see him.
I remember he had these suppositories which had some filling which he sold.
I went with him to sell these drugs to a right seedy bloke in Harrow. This
dealer was the biggest 1960s hippie you’ve ever seen. He was sitting crossed
legged on the floor. Dexie Doug swapped his dangerous drugs for a big
lump of dope - about half a pound I think - of which I got a chunk for
driving him over. I didn’t smoke dope at the time, so I sold my chunk for an
enormous amount of money.
While we’d been selling the drugs upstairs, the people downstairs in the
house had noted my car number - PAD 999G - and told the police. So the
coppers came round to my home and said:
“You’ve been selling drugs”.
They took me to Ladywell Police Station in Lewisham. The Drugs Squad
came down from North London and their bloke started beating me up in the
interview room. A local copper there - Ron Smith - who’d had regular
dealings with me actually stopped him. Ron was a policeman of the old
When the police interview you, they normally do the hard and soft
treatment. They have the nice bloke who says:
“Now come on Malcolm. Just tell me and it’ll be OK”.
Then the next one comes in and starts shouting at you.
Once they were short staffed and one bloke had to do both. So one minute he
was saying gently:
“Here, Malcolm, have a cigarette”.
Then, when I said I didn’t smoke, he started shouting:
“Have a fag, you bastard!”
and he was trying to ram it down my throat.
The oddest thing was that he kept going in and out of the room when he
changed characters.
One positive thing that I owe to Dexie Doug Davies is that he introduced me
to a woman called Madelaine Wood who had became my pen pal in
Grendon and I briefly attempted to go out with her on my release. It turned
out she was a very strict Catholic but, via her, I was introduced to the world
of her Middle Class family. It was my first exposure to the proper middle
classes but this household was a touch eccentric.
Her mother, to this day, still has the Christmas decorations up from 1976.
They don’t take them down - they just keep them up there all the time. They
live in an old Victorian house in Eltham and, in the back room, is an Aga
cooker with a wall above that has never been wallpapered. People who come
in are encouraged to write anything they like on the wall. So they have
collected the wise sayings of drunkards over the decades. For some reason, I
wrote ALAS POOR YORICK on the wall in 1972 and that’s still there.
Madelaine once went out with me wearing a cocktail dress and roller-skates.
I was wearing a long Doctor Who-type scarf at the time. We saw some
people sitting in an Indian restaurant, so she went to one side of the window
and I went to the other. She held my scarf low-down, where they couldn’t
see it and I pulled her across. The people in the restaurant could only see the
top half of her body and it just looked like she was floating past the window.
Her mum’s nickname is ‘Moth’ - short for Mother. Her husband left her
quite early on; he fled to New Zealand and, in the photos Moth keeps, he has
this big handle-bar moustache, just like my Uncle Sid who used to wear a
Madelaine has three brothers.
Kieron is one of the most irreligious people I’ve ever met and he is the
religious correspondent for Irish Television. Jeremy is a very straight
computer programmer living comfortably in the Stockbroker Belt. Laurence
is one of the country’s leading experts on tropical diseases.
And all three brothers are like John Cleese.
They’re tall, manic, have that John Cleese manner and, being Catholic, are
constantly surrounded by kids. Each brother has four or five and Madelaine
has four.
Because of the Catholicism, I think Kieron veers politically towards the
Right Wing. In the last few years, I’ve tried to get him interested in
alternative comedy, but he thinks it’s just a bunch of Left Wing lesbians.
Laurence the doctor is quite socialist and Jeremy the computer programmer
is quite capitalist. So they’re a mixture. Moth and Madelaine are apolitical,
really, but they‘re strong Catholics and Madelaine - who is a very intelligent
woman and went to university and everything - is a member of the ‘ProLife’ movement. She gives anti-abortion talks.
Politics has never had any great effect on my life. I remember when I was a
kid Labour seemed ‘common’ and the Conservatives seemed ‘not common’.
That seemed to be the case. When I was a kid, I remember a Mr and Mrs
On the left side of their bay window, they had a poster saying:
And on the right side:
I wondered how they got on together. They seemed very happily married.
I stood for Parliament in the very important Greenwich by-election in 1987
when Rosie Barnes stood for the SDP and Deirdre Wood was standing for
the Labour Party. Everyone expected Labour to win in Greenwich but Rosie
Barnes won.
I was supported by The Rainbow Alliance, who were loosely linked to The
Monster Raving Loony Party. They linked up on this election and I met
David - Screaming Lord - Sutch. He was broke and living with his mum at
the time. He was ringing up from phone boxes trying to get his £500 deposit
The Rainbow Alliance was run by a peculiar old hippy called George Weiss.
He had got a lot of money from his parents who were in the jewellery and
silverware business and he'd blown it by gambling and betting on himself
winning these elections, which he never did. I think he is convinced that one
day he will win. He wanted computer-based referenda and Peace and Love
all over the world. He always wanted to be a ‘personality’ but never
managed it. His idea of humour was carrying a Gonk about - one of those
stuffed toys that were popular in the 1960s.
George had come to the Tunnel Club which I ran and he wanted Jools
Holland to run for The Rainbow Alliance in Greenwich. Jools didn't want to
appear to be a fool, so said he didn't want to run but agreed to be my sponsor
and Rainbow George put up my £500 deposit.
I ran for election under the banner THE RAINBOW ALLIANCE BEER,
FAGS AND SKITTLES PARTY and we got an enormous amount of press
and TV coverage because everyone thought it was going to be the last byelection before the General Election.
It was a good laugh, especially when I went to the count. The Great British
public's ignorance knows no bounds. It must be the easiest thing in the world
to put an 'X' next to a candidate's name. Some people had put ticks. A few
had put marks out of ten. Some had voted for them all.
I got 174 votes. I beat the Communist Party. And I beat the National Front,
which takes some doing because there's strong support for them in the area.
At that time, the comedy agent Addison Cresswell was very left wing and
was handling all the Red Wedge tours. He phoned me up and went mad at
me because I was standing. He thought I'd take votes from the Labour Party
which might have an effect if it was a close-run thing. In the event, their
candidate lost by a lot more than 174.
If I had thought more seriously about it, part of my Manifesto could actually
have won it for me. This was Bring Charlton Athletic Back to The Valley.
Charlton is the local football club and The Valley was their ground. At the
time, they had to play at Crystal Palace's ground. If I had got the whole of
the Charlton Football Supporters' Club on my side, I would have got enough
votes to win it. Four years later, they did form a Valley Party for the local
elections and they did get a counsellor in and did get Charlton back to The
My other Manifesto ideas were a cable car for pensioners to the top of
Greenwich Hill (This has since been successfully suggested by the
Millennium Committee)...Proper rides at the funfair and proper
prizes....Bringing proper fog back to London for old times' sake....And
concreting the Thames so people can travel about easier.
I’ve always felt detached from politics because Government represents
authority whether Labour or Conservative. The strangest thing I noticed,
when I was in prison, was that prisoners always had a better deal under a
Right Wing government. Parole came in under a Conservative government.
One-Third and later One-Half Remission came in under a Conservative
government. I also used to think that, when a Conservative government was
in power, the prison officers themselves were happier and therefore the
prisoners got treated better. Due to recent developments with the Hang ‘em
and Flog ‘em brigade, this is no longer the case.
Prison warders are the type of people who would have been prefects at
school. They’re even worse than the Police and the Army because they’ve
got authority over people who in the main are completely helpless.
To be a prison warder all you have to do is to have a clean record and be
over 5’6” tall, then take a very simple exam like What is your name?
Psychologically, policemen are much the same as Screws. I’ve actually had
two brother-in-laws - in effect they were my brother-in-laws - who were
both policemen.
I lived with a woman for 13 years and her brother was a copper. Now my
wife’s sister’s husband is a policeman. He became a policeman because he
couldn’t get a proper job. He was a salesman for a bit.
Sometimes people who become policeman are quite decent but being in the
Force changes them just because of the pressure of all the other people who
are there. They just go along with the gang like people do in many jobs.
With the Police, I think the qualifications are much too low: again you’ve
only got to be over a certain height and take exams. I think you should have
the same qualifications you need to be a social worker or probation officer.
I don’t like people in authority.
But my life could have been different.
After I came out of Grendon, I met and lived with someone called Mazzie
Merrick whose father was a very big wheel at the Bank of England. Mazzie
was a very striking girl in the Marilyn Monroe mould and, as at the
beginning of any relationship, we were shagging like rabbits any time, any
where, any how. I bought her a lettuce for her birthday to see if she ate like a
rabbit as well.
We moved into my grandmother’s old flat. I tried ‘proper’ work - even
working on an ice cream van - but this was not a lot of good in February.
And frequent visitors included Dexie Doug Davies, Bernie and other
criminal associates.
Mazzie and I were not destined to last. She got out while the going was bad.
She was and is a lovely woman and now lives in the West Country with her
husband and fourteen year old daughter.
I had come out of Grendon in the autumn of 1973, about two months before
Bernie, thinking I was going to go straight. But I knew a bloke at school
who’d now become a postman. This postman used to sell me all the
chequecards and chequebooks which he could get hold of in the mail.
It’s the ideal scenario - you can just go into any shop and buy anything.
Which Bernie and I did. If you’re in the position where you can go round
and buy anything, you do just that. You buy anything - no matter how tacky.
I bought one of those awful lamps with the floating oil and bubbles, like in
The Prisoner. Very Sixties. And I bought loads of clothes which, of course,
became very unfashionable after I did another sentence in prison.
Bernie and I grew beards and one day we were wandering round the West
End of London with our pockets stuffed with other people’s chequebooks
and chequecards. A policeman came up to us and said:
“I’ve been looking for two blokes with beards!”
I was worried.
“Oh yeah?” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
But he wanted us for an Identity Parade. So the copper took us down to Vine
Street Police Station. There was another bloke with a beard who’d been
accused of cheque frauds and we were just filling in the Identity Parade line.
This shopkeeper came along the line and picked out Bernie by mistake. We
had, of course, to be released because we were two innocent passers-by cooperating fully with the Boys in Blue.
After a year of using these chequebooks and chequecards, we got arrested in
Torquay and I got three years for £57,000 of cheque frauds and ended up
back in Exeter Prison, where I almost got put on ‘patches’ again because I’d
been a Category ‘A’ prisoner before.
Both Bernie and I were given these ‘vocational’ tests. If you were the
lowest-of-the-low, you got put on a Bricklayers’ course. If you were the top,
as I was, you got a Radio and Television course. I thought That’s good. I’ll
get on telly!
But it turned out they meant fixing them.
So Bernie got sent to Nottingham and I went to Lewes in Sussex, where I
acquired the nickname ‘Biggles’.
I used to play football there in the lunch breaks and I still had a beard
because it was easier than shaving every day and asking permission for
razors. I used to play midfield. People down the front were shouting out:
“Oy! Goggles!”
The bloke at the back was shouting out:
And the bloke who played alongside me used to get mixed-up and call me
I used to play bridge with this bloke called Johnny Hart, who was one of the
most pleasant blokes you could meet. But he started to get depressed. So he
went and saw the doctor. Then he went to a psychiatrist who gave him some
tablets. And, after that, he started getting extremely paranoid at certain
times. When you play bridge with someone, you sometimes say:
"Well, you shouldn't have led with that card".
After starting the tablets, if you said that to Johnny Hart, he'd really explode
and look quite dangerous.
One day, I was eating my dinner in the dining room and, all of a sudden,
right in front of me, I saw Johnny Hart get up and stab this black guy. He'd
stolen a 10’-12" knife from the kitchen and he pushed it in this guy's back.
He pushed it into him right up to the hilt. The black guy literally looked like
he'd turned white. He collapsed over my table. Everyone looked.
There was a long silence.
Then it turned into a race thing.
All the black guys got up and chased Johnny Hart.
He went to court for attempted murder and it turned out it was all over the
fact Johnny Hart thought this black guy was wearing Johnny's plimsolls.
I read some years later that Johnny Hart had committed an awful crime
where he'd burgled a house, tied a couple up and murdered the wife. So
maybe it wasn't the tablets. Maybe he was a psychopath after all.
Anyway, I passed the Radio & TV course and got a couple of ‘A’ Levels at
Lewes: Art & History of Art plus English again. Because I finished the
course, I got transferred back to Exeter and ended up working on the prison
Prison is the only education you can’t get expelled from and it is an
education in itself.
There was a solicitor imprisoned on the farm who refused to pay his ex-wife
maintenance. Instead of paying her thousands of pounds every year, he used
to walk into his local police station every July, say he hadn't paid his
maintenance, go to the Magistrates’ Court, get sentenced to six weeks in
prison (reduced to four with remission) and spend four weeks’ holiday on
the farm. They used to save a place for him every year. He'd been doing it
for about six or seven years when I arrived. No back maintenance or
anything. He paid his wife nothing and got a free holiday as ‘punishment’.
I think working on the prison farm was the thing that eventually made me go
straight, because I ended up in very open conditions for about a year and I
was treated decently. I think being treated decently had a lot to do with it.
There was a bloke called Ron Parker, a civilian worker on the farm. He
invited me round to his house every Sunday to have dinner with his family
and he used to play a bit of jazz organ. I still see him. He now lives down in
Cornwall and I don’t think he knows the effect he had on my life.
My going straight was a combination of being treated well and also a lot of
people who’ve been in prison do go straight when they get to be around 30
years old. I suppose it’s just a maturing process. Most people in a prison are
under 30 and that’s in the prisons which only have people over 21.
For whatever reason, I decided to go straight, get out of prison and get into
I came out of Exeter three days after after Jubilee Day 1977. Unless you’re
young enough to be a footballer, there are only two things you can do when
you come out of prison and you want immediate employment. You can
either be a minicab driver or you can go into showbusiness. I did both.
Alan Curry, who later joined The Greatest Show on Legs, had been looking
for a flat and had just gone knocking on doors. He’d found a massive
Victorian house in Micheldever Road in Lee Green, half a mile from
Lewisham. A woman called Sally Niblett lived there. Her husband was
disabled and was quite a famous doctor and he’d taken himself, his
wheelchair and their five boys off to Papua New Guinea. She was left in this
massive house on her own. So Alan Curry moved in.
Alan told Wizo about the house, Wizo told me and I moved in. At this point,
Wizo was a lifeguard at a local swimming pool despite the fact he couldn’t
swim. Not what you would call swimming in the traditional sense.
After that, my mate Martin Potter moved in and, over the years, Sally had
maybe 70-odd different tenants in that house. My sister lived there for a
time. Nearly everyone I know has lived there.
The house next door was owned by a man called Michael, who was
clinically mad. He used to come along in the morning, cut the hedge and
then stick the leaves back on with glue and Sellotape.
There were the maddest goings-on in the world at Sally Niblett’s house.
There was a bloke called Vic, who thought he was practical but he wasn’t.
He constantly had a car engine in his bedroom that he was repairing but it
never worked. Once I was in bed with a girlfriend and he tried to come into
the room, but there was a wooden beam across the door and he hit his head
on it. He went running downstairs, got a chainsaw out, ran back up and
started sawing through the wood.
Another bloke who lived there was Dave. He bought an old taxi, took the
body off it and decided to make a car completely out of wood, because he
was a bit of a chippie. Eventually, after about two years making this car, he
decided to take it for a test run. He came out of the drive where he’d been
making it, turned left and, after about 100 yards, got stopped by the police.
They said:
“You can’t have this. It’s illegal. You’ve got no M.O.T. certificate”.
So he put it back in the drive and it stayed there for fifteen years until it
rotted away.
Sally Niblett used to be a nurse and she had a series of affairs and eventually
ended up moving into the basement because there were so many people in
this house. Everyone paid her £5 per week. Didn’t matter which room: £5
per week. It was just the maddest house you could ever imagine. It made the
house in BBC TV’s The Young Ones look like a palace.
Once, I wanted to have a chicken-run in the garden, so I came back with two
chickens and didn’t have anywhere to put them, so I put them in the oven
while I built the chicken-run. Sally Niblett came home and switched the
oven on. She never noticed.
Another time, we moved a sofa from a house round the corner. We didn’t
have any van to put it in, but I had an old Austin Cambridge car. So I towed
it behind the car, with Vic sitting on the sofa as we towed it round the
streets. I came round a corner, the rope snapped and he just carried on sitting
on the sofa as it hurtled straight into the Manor Lane Cafe.
It was at this house in Micheldever Road that I became a minicab-driver
when I met this bloke called ‘Alec The Greek’, who wasn’t a Greek. He lent
me £65 to buy a car and I bought the cheapest possible four-door car I could:
a Renault 4 saloon.
At the same time, I saw a notice in the local paper saying:
I thought I’ll have a go at that!
This was the 1970s so, basically, being in a Theatre Group meant somebody
gave you a Grant and you went round and scared kids for about an hour.
I went to this audition and they were all standing in a circle going:
“Taaaaall as a tree!......Smaaaall as a mouse!”
Then they went:
And I thought What the fuck’s going on here?
But I thought I’d have a go at it.
I had a boxer dog I was looking after at the time and as I tried doing Taaaall
as a tree! the boxer dog was trying to shag my leg. They were all taking it
seriously but, over the other side of the room, was a bloke called Martin
Soan and he looked at me and he looked at the boxer dog and I looked at
him and we knew, from that moment, we were going to get on. And we did.
I was also minicabbing with the boxer dog in the car. There was a girl in this
Theatre Group who was very big. Well, let’s be honest, she was fat.
She fancied me. I don’t know why, but she did.
I went to the minicab office one night at 1.00am and this girl was there,
waiting for me. She said:
“Can you take me home to Peckham, Malcolm?”
“Alright,” I said.
Just as she was getting in the car, the minicab boss shouted out:
“Oy! I’ve got another fare for Peckham, round the corner! Can you take
“Yes,” I said. “No problem.”
So I drove round the corner to the address and the fare was on the 14th floor
of a tower block.
I went in. The lift didn’t work. I ran up the stairs. Knocked on the door.
Shouted out:
“Anyone cab for Peckham?”
This bloke came to the door a bit drunk and said:
“Can you take five?”
“Well,” I said, “I don’t think I can take five. I’ve got a dog in the car”. I
didn’t mention the fat girl.
So this bloke called out:
“Mavis! Oi, Mavis! We like dogs, don’t we?”
“Yeah,” she called back: “We love dogs!”
So I capitulated because he said he’d pay double.
“Alright,” I said, “I’ll take five”.
I ran all the way down the stairs and shouted to the fat girl:
“Get in the boot!”
Full credit to her, she did.
The boot in my Renault was at the front. So she got into the boot and the
family came down. They were luckily quite small people. I put three of them
in the back with the dog over their laps and the bloke and his wife in the
front. I started the engine up and the fat girl must have panicked because the
boot lid came slowly up and her face rose in front of the windscreen. The
bloke asked the not unreasonable question:
“Who’s that?”
“Dunno,” I said.
The lid of the boot went down and we drove off to Peckham. The bloke
never mentioned it again. Nor did I.
When I first met him, Martin Soan had a Punch & Judy show called The
Greatest Show on Legs. In a normal Punch & Judy show, you have a booth
that stands on the ground. He’d decided to strap the thing on the top half of
his body and his legs stuck out underneath. So he was The Greatest Show on
Legs. It was handy because, if the show went badly, he could just run away
with the whole thing attached to him.
Martin was about 23 at the time and he had a young lad called Tom, about
15 or 16, helping him. Tom was the bloke who stood out the front as the
‘interpreter’ and ‘bottler’. The bottler is the person who goes round with the
hat collecting money. In olden days, they used to go round with a bottle
which had a live fly in it and the bottler had to keep his thumb over the top
of the bottle and people put money in. When he gave the money to the
performer, if the fly wasn’t in the bottle, the performer knew the bloke had
been nicking money out of it because the fly had escaped. Martin suggested
I should be his interpreter and bottler.
Our first show was in the winter of 1978. We performed to kids at the
Riverdale Centre in Lewisham and I was as nervous as anything. I don’t get
nervous at all now, but I’ve never been happy performing in front of kids:
they seem to pick out your faults straight away.
The next show we played was outside a pub called The Cutty Sark by the
River Thames and Martin used to have a bit in his act where he blew fire.
This time he cleverly decided he could do it by bending down and blowing
the fire between his legs. As he was starting to do this and couldn’t see, a
little toddler ran towards him and he blew out this massive ball of fire which
missed the toddler by about two inches and the kid started screaming and all
the parents complained.
When we did the Punch & Judy show at the Deptford Festival (which is a
misnomer in itself), we went down quite well and a bloke came up with
Marcel Steiner of The Smallest Theatre in The World - a theatre built on an
ordinary motorcycle - and put £5 in our hat, which no-one ever did then - it’s
like putting £50 in a busker’s hat today.
“Do you know who that was?” Martin said to me: “That was Neil Innes from
the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band”.
And then I recognised him, from when I’d played harmonica with the
Bonzos in South East London pubs. He, of course, didn’t recognise me.
We carried on doing the kids’ shows for a while. But it wasn’t really our sort
of thing. Eventually I said:
“Why don’t we just get in the van and go round doing a Punch & Judy show
for adults? A bit of swearing and all sorts”.
So we did. We recruited Barry Sherlock - my childhood chum and
companion as an eight year old in Soho strip joints - as the banjo player; and
we invited Alan Curry because he had a van. We started in Brighton and did
a couple of shows in the shopping precinct and Barry Sherlock did his
normal trick and gave it all up as he’s done with many things including
playing with Squeeze and Kate Bush. As soon as anything he did seemed
successful, he gave it up. Alan Curry quickly learnt the banjo, took over
Barry’s role and we went down to Devon where had some good times.
Much later, Janet Street-Porter coined the phrase Comedy is The New
Rock’n’Roll and, when you have the likes of Rob Newman & David Baddiel
playing Wembley, it’s arguably true.
The Greatest Show on legs playing Devon wasn’t quite on the same scale.
We were more like medieval troubadours, going round from place to place.
Or lucusts. When we first toured, we didn’t stay in hotels, I simply used to
say to the audience:
“We haven’t got anywhere to stay tonight. Can anybody put us up?”
And 99% of the time someone did. Normally female.
There have been many examples of females putting us up, putting up with us
and us putting up them. For me, that was one of the attractions of touring. It
got me out of the house and into women.
I think the comedian Tony Allen is usually credited with coining the phrase
‘Alternative’ Cabaret. But in 1978, years before The Comedy Store, the
local Yacht Club at Salcombe in Devon was putting on very mainstream acts
and the bloke from the nearby Ferry Inn put an ad in the local paper saying:
meaning an ‘alternative’ to the Yacht Club’s cabaret. That was the first time
the phrase was used, as far as know.
The Ferry Inn at Salcombe has a patio by the river estuary. Normally, when
we performed, we just left out the hat for people to throw money in. But, on
the first occasion we played the Ferry Inn, I said to Martin:
“What you should do is, at the end of the show, unstrap the booth from
yourself, dive over the wall into the sea, swim round to the steps, come up,
then go round with the hat. They’ll love it”.
So he did. Performed. Whoosh! Over the wall. Into the sea. Round with the
hat. £30 in our pockets.
The next day we went back to do the show again. He unstrapped the booth.
Whoosh! Over the wall. We saw him leap over, there was an Aaargh!, a bit
of a pause and he came up the steps covered in seaweed and blood.
The tide had gone out.
I told him to go round with the hat anyway and we only got £2.
The reason we went to the West Country was that I knew it from my
criminal days and I was very attracted to the area. When we were touring
there, it was an eye-opener because there were all these summer fairs and
more life than in London. We had found our niche.
There was a Festival of Fools, a Hood Fair etc and lots of arty types and
hippies. But we were seen as being slightly ‘base’ because we were doing a
Punch & Judy show. I also didn't have anything in common with these
people because I was still wearing my traditional mohair suit.
There were lots of arty Theatre Groups doing 'warm-ups'. The Greatest
Show on Legs used to do 'sober-ups'. But somehow - apart from the radical
feminists - audiences liked us. The feminists didn't dislike us for anything
we did, just our generally coarse attitude. Feminists always tend to like the
more arty, drifty type.
Well, to be honest, there was something they disliked. The whole adult
Punch & Judy Show upset them a bit.
Back in those days, if you even mentioned the word "knob" or "cunt", that
was it. Instant disapproval.
Chris Lynam - another fine performer of the Weird school - had an act
involving a huge rubber penis about 5ft long and 1ft wide. At the end of his
act, he used to flap this out onto a table for some reason and he ended up
pissing out of it. Some basic humour. That was banned from the whole of
Devon for a while.
There was a feminist group around called Cunning Stunts, but that was ‘OK’
because they were women and they'd all been to Dartington, the ‘liberal’
college for the arts in Totnes. The irony was they ended up getting off with
the most sexist men imaginable, which is often the way with feminists.
I should know, I’ve shagged loads of ‘em.
But I’m not as horribly macho as most of the men some feminists go for.
Germaine Greer married a bloke who, according to her, was a violent,
horrible Australian. It’s quite often the way. Most of the feminists I’ve met
have been arguing not for equality but for over-equality. They’re generally
the products of quite well-off parents and had quite a privileged education
and somehow they’re always arguing for equality on behalf of someone else
who perhaps doesn’t always want it. Feminists at that time wanted to support
their ‘sisters’, but their sisters didn’t seem to include Joan Collins or the
stripper down the road.
I think if you get women laughing you’re halfway there.
Unfortunately, humourless feminist groups tended to tour the same areas as
us. We toured the West Country and East Anglia. In Norfolk, there were
'tree fairs' like the Rougham Tree Fair. They were not so much music, more
cabaret and theatre groups. They've all stopped now. They were run by a
woman called Tarbie, who lived in an amazing Norfolk cottage, but they
were a bit lower-scale than the West Country fairs.
In the West Country, we did fairs at the weekend and, during the week, went
into normally the roughest pub in the area. The one in Exeter, The Queen
Vic, was always full of Hell’s Angels and people who recognised me from
when I’d been in Exeter Prison four or five years previously. But they were
an enormously good audience. We were doing a Punch & Judy show and
grown men were shouting out:
“That’s the way to do it!......Behind you!”
It probably did help that it was an adult Punch & Judy show. There was
masturbation and sex and a punk rocker in it.
I thought we could get some publicity for this show on TV. At the time, the
local ITV station was Westward Television and I phoned up the producer on
Westward Diary, their local news magazine programme.
“Hello,” I said. “We’re doing a Punch & Judy show in your area. Very witty.
Everyone loves it. Can we go on Westward Diary?”
“No!” he said.
So I came out of the phone box.
“How did you get on?” Martin asked me.
“We’re on tomorrow night,” I said.
We went all the way down to Plymouth and I was too embarrassed to tell
them he’d said No. I hate failure.
We got to the TV studios and I thought we’d bluff it out. I said to the
“Hello. We’re The Greatest Show on Legs. We’re on Westward Diary
She rang upstairs and the producer had gone off to London for the day. But
he’d written down THE GREATEST SHOW ON LEGS on a bit of paper.
So she said:
“Yes. That’s right. You are on.”
And we were. We appeared on Westward Diary and, at the end, someone
came running over and asked me:
“Are you in Equity?”
“Yes,” I said quick as a flash.
She gave me an Equity contract for £180. I sent the contract to Equity and I
got accepted into the union. People used to go to drama school and sweep
floors to get an Equity card.
Silly buggers.
Back in South East London after our Alternative Summer Season, I met Pip,
the woman I was to spend the next thirteen years with, on and off.
I met her at my local pub, The Crown, in Blackheath. I chatted up two girls
and fancied the tarty-looking one, but I ended up with the feminist one, who
was Pip.
I tend, in long-term relationships, to go for a woman who’s quite straight and
strong. Perhaps if I didn’t I’d go completely off the rails and be in some
gutter injecting heroin.
Most of the women I’ve had long-term relationships with have been
intelligent and have been in the Caring professions - teachers, nurses etc. Pip
is a very strong woman and my wife Jane is a very strong woman.
Emotionally and intellectually strong. I’ve had relationships outside Steady
Relationships with the more bimbo-ish types. When I was living with Pip I
went off with a stripper who was completely bimbo-ish. She was featured in
the Penthouse centrefold, so she was the epitome of a glamorous woman and
she’d flash her false eyelashes at me, but she was stupid. I couldn’t stand her
for more than a day.
For a long-term thing, an intelligent woman’s much better, because you’ve
got to actually speak to them after the three hours of sexual activity.
The ‘Malcolm Hardee’ character on stage wouldn’t be interested in an
intelligent woman, but that’s just an exaggerated stage persona which I’m
using to link up with a lot of the men in the audience. It’s a Cor! Look at
her! thing which all men do anyway. I’ve seen Ben Elton do it.
At the time I met Pip, I was still alternating The Greatest Show on Legs with
minicabbing and, after about two years of not being arrested, I was arrested
in 1978 for a burglary which I didn’t commit.
I’d been helping a bloke whom I’d known briefly in Lewes Prison. His name
was John McNulty. He had five days’ Home Leave from prison and I felt
sorry for him. I let him stay for one night at the house in Micheldever Road
and, for the five days, I drove him wherever he wanted to go in my minicab
without charging him.
When he returned to prison, I read an article in the Evening Standard saying
that the police were looking for a hooded rapist and burglar who had been
operating in the South East London area. I realised that the rapist/burglar had
been active during John McNulty’s five day Home Leave and decided to tell
the police about my suspicions.
After they went to question him, the police brought me in and wanted to
keep hold of me because they wanted me to testify against this bloke, just to
say I’d picked him up from these various spots, which I had - though I
hadn’t known what he was doing. Luckily I’d never picked him up from any
spot where he’d committed a rape: only burglaries. I was charged with
burglary and stealing one key worth 75p. All he’d stolen on this particular
burglary I’d picked him up from was the key out of the side door. He’d
smashed the glass panel in the door and stolen the key. I ended up getting
two years and going to Ford Open Prison.
Ford was quite a nice place. The footballer George Best was imprisoned
there and so was the England football Captain Tony Adams. I always tell
people I played in the same football team as George Best and Tony Adams.
Tragically, not at the same time as them.
While I was Inside, The Greatest Show on Legs was joined by a bloke
nicknamed ‘Knob Rot’ for no particular reason. He didn’t last long, but
Martin and Alan carried on through that summer. In 1979, I was released on
appeal after nine months and returned to Micheldever Road, where Pip had
set up a home of sorts for us in one of the rooms.
I started living with Pip although - I don’t want to make this sound too harsh
- I didn’t really want to live with anyone. I lived with Pip slightly by mistake
but we got on alright and I ended up going to visit her parents who are
extremely upper middle class. Pip’s name is really Philippa but I couldn’t
call her Pip in their house. Her mother’s a magistrate and her father has his
own business and is in the local Rotary Club. They hated me on sight and,
after we got back home, Pip had a letter asking Who was that dreadful man
you brought round?
Pip and I were together 13 years and her parents never really got on with me
at all although I still got invited over there every other Christmas. They had
silver napkins rings with their names on. I never got my name on a silver
napkin ring, though.
It’s a bit better since Pip and I split up because I think they dislike the new
boyfriend even more than they did me. He’s a gardener but very hippyish
and they don’t like that at all.
When I came out of Ford Open Prison, I also rejoined Martin with a lot of
sketches I’d written in prison because I was fed up with the Punch & Judy
I had written a sketch involving the famous speech from Henry V:
“Once more unto the breach dear friends.....”
My mum saw a Shakespearian-type costume with a lion on the front so I
wore this and we did the old music hall thing where I stood at the front and
gave the speech with my arms held behind me and Martin stood behind me,
his arms coming underneath my armpits so they looked like they were mine.
I wore a crown, having recently used one to great effect.
There was a hard, really tough New Zealander called Scott who wanted to be
our roadie and I got a cardboard crown to use as part of a very old joke. I
asked him to help on that.
“A horse! A horse!” I would say, “My kingdom for a horse!”
Then the audience plant, played by Scott, stood up holding a newspaper and
“Ere, mate, I’ve got an ‘orse.....Sonny Boy in the 2.30 at Kempton Park!”
I would take my crown off, tear it in half and say:
“Alright! I’ll have half-a-crown each way.”
Decimalisation had been in ten years, but the joke still worked.
Unfortunately Scott - one of the largest, toughest blokes you could ever meet
- got stage fright. So he just went all red and squeaked out his words in a
horrible high-pitched voice like a chipmunk.
While all this was going on, I was still living with my girlfriend Pip in the
house in Micheldever Road. Pip was a probation officer when I met her - not
my probation officer - but she decided she wanted to do a postgraduate
degree course at the University of Kent in Canterbury, so we had to find
somewhere betwixt Canterbury and London, where most of my work was.
Eventually, we found a mansion near Maidstone in Kent where you got a
free flat for doing 12 hours gardening a week and 12 hours housework a
We found it through a Maidstone-based friend of mine - Terry Lovell - who
had seen an advert in the local paper. The mansion was owned by a very rich
Scotsman who worked for Bank of America. When the Scotsman and his
wife asked for a reference, I asked Terry to supply one. As a joke, he
decided to write two - one glowing reference informing the Scotsman of my
gardening skills - and one totally derogatory (but truthful) reference
describing my prison record and general unreliability.
He intended to send me the derogatory one as if it was a copy of the
reference he had sent the Scotsman. Unfortunately, he got the envelopes
mixed up.
When the Scotsman got the bad (but truthful) reference, he felt it was so farfetched it must be a joke, so Pip and I got the positions anyway.
It turned out I wasn’t a very good gardener. I pulled up the wife’s asparagus
plants. They take about four or five years to mature and they were in their
fourth year. In the end, my supposed 12 hours of gardening involved inviting
about six friends down for the weekend and each of them doing two hours.
We got someone else in to do the housework for £30 a week, called that
‘rent’ and Pip was able to claim that £30 rent back off her student grant.
At the mansion, the Scotsman and his family had a couple of ponies, some
peacocks, a white rabbit, three dogs and about a million bloody hamsters.
The hamsters tended to die and Percy the Peacock fell out of the tree twice
that winter. He was frozen, but he recovered - the first time. Not the second
The wife had gone all vegetarian and her son went to boarding school while
her two daughters went to the local comprehensive.
One of her daughters had this favourite white rabbit called Snowy which,
unfortunately, one of the dogs got hold of. Killed it. So the woman asked me
to bury Snowy for them, which I did. I then had to break the news of the
rabbit’s death to this poor daughter. I said:
“All of you who think you’ve got a white rabbit called Snowy, one step
She stepped forward and I said:
“Where do you think you’re going?”
She was a bit upset about the rabbit but they invited us down for dinner that
evening and we were all sitting round having dinner when the dog came in
with the dead rabbit hanging out of its mouth and plonked it right down
beside the girl. I hadn’t buried Snowy deep enough. She cried a bit. A few
tears were definitely shed.
On New Year’s Eve, the family went away to Scotland and I was left in
charge of the whole lot - ponies and everything. One of the ponies was very
stubborn. In the morning, you had to lead him round the family’s croquet
lawn into the field where he spent the day, then back to the stable at night.
Unfortunately, we’d had our own New Year’s Eve party with Dave
‘Bagpipe’ Brooks, a bloke called Dave The Druid and about 100 other
lunatic friends. Bit of a wild party.
The next morning, I had to get up to let this bloody pony out. It got stubborn
and bolted. I held onto its tail to stop it getting away and roaming round
Kent. But the upshot was that there were my two boot marks right across
their croquet lawn where I had been dragged water-ski style and the family
were coming back the next day. It was a nightmare: I had to get all the
guests out from the party to work restoring the lawn to its original condition.
The family didn’t notice anything when they got back.
I had met Dave The Druid - also known as Digger Dave - in Exeter Prison
and he was a very clever man. He had decided he had some Druid
connections and he liked mystic things, but he was always up to some scam.
He lived, like everybody else, in Micheldever Road. He briefly performed
with The Greatest Show on Legs, then moved back down to Truro in
Cornwall, making Roman masks. He said he'd got them out of the sea and
they were antiques, but he had a mould.
When he was in The Greatest Show on Legs, he didn't really share our idea
of comedy. He was more into the morris dancing area: he liked bells and
bladders on the end of sticks.
We left the mansion when Pip’s course came to an end at The University of
Kent and we moved back to London. Luckily, I’d been spending a lot of
time in London anyway - Maidstone was only 30 minutes’ drive away.
Unknown to Pip, I’d been having an affair with a woman called Mandy Moy
who was the daughter of a very rich Greenwich businessman. He owned a
house called The Man in The Moon - an ex-pub which had become a shop.
Pip and I moved into the top storey. The Meridian Line went right through
the building, so when we lived there I was able to eat my dinner in the
Western Hemisphere and eject it in my toilet in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Mandy Moy had three eccentric brothers - Toby, Jeremy and Rupert. Toby
has a place called The Junk Shop in Greenwich and walks around with no
shoes on his feet the whole time. Recently, I bought a ‘Joke Box’ off him it’s like a Juke Box except it tells jokes instead of playing records. He came
to club Up The Creek to get the money and, when my business partners saw
him, they thought he was a Crustie or a tramp and wouldn’t give him the
money. Yet he’s the son of one of the richest men in Greenwich.
Mandy Moy herself looked fairly normal. She was and is a nurse at
Greenwich Hospital. She refused to be supported by her father’s riches and
went her own way. She still does.
So Mandy Moy was responsible for getting somewhere for Pip and me to
live, but Pip didn’t know I was having an affair with Mandy. I was just
happy to be back in London, where most of my work was.
By January 1980, there were three of us regularly in The Greatest Show on
Legs - Martin, myself and Christian Steiner, son of Marcel Steiner who ran
The Smallest Theatre in The World. At this point, we’d stopped doing Punch
& Judy shows and were doing sketch-based stuff. There was a big article on
us in the London Evening News, in which Val Hennesey called us “cult
So I immediately went out and got my ear pierced.
We used to do lots of shows at Camden Lock because we had persuaded
Greater London Arts to give us a Grant for performing there. Once, I saw
John Cleese watching us from the restaurant and later I noticed him doing
our sketches on The Secret Policeman’s Ball. He did our Shakespearewithout-arms sketch. We had just started doing our nude Balloon Dance, but
with bits of paper instead of balloons and he did that same routine with
clothes on which, of course, is only half as funny.
Christian Steiner and Martin eventually had a row, so we recruited a bloke
called Pete who was excellent. He played guitar and could make up a song
instantly in any style. We used to go round with a hat at the end of the shows
and naturally enough a big proportion of that money was spent on drink. He
felt a bit put-out by this because he didn’t drink. So, unfortunately, he left
Then we recruited Dave Brooks, the jazz bagpipe player who wasn’t
Scottish. He came from Hampstead. But he was an excellent bagpipe player.
Our problem was that he insisted he couldn’t tune up his bagpipes outside:
he had to tune them in the place where we were going to perform - because
of temperature changes and technical things.
So The Greatest Show on Legs’ first section was him tuning up. This
probably took two minutes but it seemed like an hour. Then he’d play a
number - in tune - and then Martin and I would burst on. But, if he went
down well and got applause, Dave would do another number and, if that
went well, another number and so on and......Sometimes, he’d do about 30
minutes of bagpiping in what was meant to be a 45 minute show.
The Greatest Show on Legs also performed at a local Woolwich club called
the Tramshed. We were known as The New Fundation and joined forces
with Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, who had a double-act called 20th
Century Coyote. The old Fundation had been Hale & Pace, Joe Griffiths and
Phil Skinner and they used to do a different show there every week. It was a
middle-of-the-road variety show, but good. I didn’t know any of this. I’d
only been out of prison two weeks when we first played there. The new
manager at the Tramshed had chucked out the old Fundation because he
thought they were too lowbrow. We did our Punch & Judy show plus a few
sketches and, after our first performance, he said:
“Very good. Can you come back next week and do a completely different
This threw me, because what I had expected was to do the same Punch &
Judy show every week.
One of the new routines we worked out for The Tramshed was Mongo The
Strongman. Martin wore a leotard which also covered his arms and part of
his legs. Under this, where muscles would be, he put deflated balloons
connected to a series of rubber tubes which came out the neck of the leotard.
He wore a veil, like some Arab woman from a harem, which hid the tubes.
Then, when he flexed his muscles, he blew up the balloons via the tubes and
it looked like Popeye The Sailor Man. I played the part of a traditional circus
barker out the front.
Another routine involved Martin lying down and I put a paving slab on his
chest, then put a brick on the paving slab and then I hit the brick with a 10lb
sledgehammer. The brick split. We also put an egg on top of the brick for
effect. It looked like he was taking a lot of weight but, in fact, the size of the
paving slab absorbed all the pressure and it theoretically didn’t hurt.
Unfortunately, when we did it at The Tramshed, I was a bit the worse for
wear from the demon drink.
In the act, I used a silver-topped walking cane which I swung and I
accidentally hit Martin right in the testicles. I could see he was a bit worried
when I then put the paving slab, brick and egg on his chest and picked up the
sledgehammer. Martin was in agony but the audience liked it because it was
a time when there were a lot of theatre groups around and they were
impressed by that sort of thing.
Our Mongo The Strongman act was followed by Sidney The Sea Lion. For
this, Martin - he always does all the hard work - had to rush off stage and get
the bottom half of his body into the inner tube of a tyre from a truck. He
came back on stage in that, unable to walk, waddling like a sea lion. He also
wore a clown’s red nose painted black and whiskers on his upper lip and
cheeks. He waddled up to a horn fitted with a rubber ball at the end - like
Harpo Marx’s one - pressed it and went Oink Oink. I used to ask him
questions - One oink for Yes - Two oinks for No. We tried it several times,
but it never really worked because the inner tube kept coming off and it was
all a bit embarrassing really. Good idea of Martin’s though.
We experimented quite a lot.
During any Greatest Show on Legs performance, we nearly always had need
of a theatrical backdrop 1) to change behind and
2) to drink behind and
3) to hide the bucket for pissing in.
Once, I had the idea of having three doors at the back of the stage. It was a
technical nightmare, but they were built so that they could open inwards,
outwards, left to right or right to left or spin on their axis horizontally or
vertically. Every time someone came on stage, he could come through a
door a different way.
At the end, we arranged them so we could come in with the doors swinging
over from top to bottom. I managed alright but Martin, as usual, overdid it
and he just span round and round on this door then fell flat on his face and
blood came out of his nose and that was the end of the show. The audience
loved it. We never used the doors again, not just because it was hideously
complicated but because they were massively heavy and we didn’t have a
van big enough to put them in.
Martin was able to use the same idea, with just one door, in comedian
Boothby Graffoe’s very successful 1995 Edinburgh Fringe show.
The original doors were burnt in a fire on comedian Chris Lynam’s doubledecker bus. We used to store our props on his bus, but he kept it in South
East London and, Peckham being Peckham, the bus was victim of an arson
The Tramshed was good training for the six weeks we did it because we
learned to write a-show-a-week in an hour: myself, Martin, Rik Mayall and
Ade Edmondson.
During the six weeks, Rik mentioned a new venue in the West End called
the Comedy Store.
The first proper alternative comedy venue in central London was The
Comedy Store. I will always regret missing the first week, but I was there
nearly every week after that with The Greatest Show on Legs.
The idea of the original Comedy Store was that you got up on stage and
there was a gong and, if you survived three shows without getting gonged
off, then you were on the payroll. Very few survived. We did. Rik Mayall
and Ade Edmondson did. Pete Richardson (now owner of The Comic Strip)
did. Nigel Planer did. Tony Allen always survived. Keith Allen always
survived: if he hadn’t, he would probably have torn the gong off the wall.
So, in early 1980, we became a regular team there.
At that time, The Comedy Store was in a building which housed an old strip
club called The Gargoyle, just off Dean Street. It was quite confusing. You
had to go in a lift and quite often you’d get Japanese tourists coming into
The Comedy Store thinking they were going to see a strip show. And
sometimes they did see one when The Greatest Show on Legs were
performing. You’d sometimes also get the trendy, politically-correct comedy
audience going into the strip club by accident, which was even funnier.
The person who was running The Comedy Store - Pete Rosengard - was
very shrewd. He later managed a pop group called Curiosity Killed The Cat
and has never given up his ‘day job’ as top salesman for Abbey Life
Insurance. He had been over to the States and seen how the Los Angeles
Comedy Store worked, then he had approached the owner of this Soho club
Don Ward (who now owns the current Comedy Store outright).
This was 1980, when the Thatcher Years were just kicking in. On the one
hand, you had your mainstream frilly shirt & dinner jacket comics coming in
telling mother-in-law and racist jokes. They got booed off, because the
audience were champagne socialists - it was £6 or £7 to get in. On the other
hand, you had very political comics.
When we were on the payroll, we used to get paid £15 (between three of us)
by The Comedy Store. Tony Allen started as the main compere while we
were there then, after about six weeks, Alexei Sayle took over.
By the summer of 1981, we were also appearing nightly in a West End stage
show. One of the producers was a mad bloke, madder than the production
itself, who had decided to get together all the eccentric acts he could find
and put them in one show. He called it The Mad Show and put it on at the
Collegiate (now the Bloomsbury) Theatre. It was a good idea in a way, but
his previous showbiz experience was writing a play called Noddy The
Squaddie when he was at Sandhurst Military College. It had been performed
to the upper echelons of the Army and he said it had been highly satirical
but, just from the title, I knew it had been rubbish.
He had a partner on The Mad Show - both had double-barrelled names - and
they were both somehow friends with Flick Colby who used to choreograph
Pan’s People, the dancers on BBC TV’s Top of The Pops. So the two blokes
with double-barrelled names got these speciality acts together and made a
whole show of it.
They spent an enormous amount of money building a 5,700 gallon tank on
the stage, filling it with water and putting a weighted-down piano in it. Then
a Ronnie Smith would come out on stage wearing flippers, sing this hideous
song that wasn’t fit for pantomime - Flip! Flop! Splish! Splash! - and the
finale of his act was to climb up a ladder, get in the tank, swim down to the
piano while wearing sub-aqua gear and start playing. Except he didn’t play.
You can’t play a piano underwater. He just mimed and a tape came on. It
was painfully obvious it wasn’t him playing.
Even if there had been any applause, he wouldn’t have heard it underwater.
Another Mad Show act, J.J.Waller, was quite a good street act who used to
lie on a bed-of-nails. This act would take a normal human being three or four
minutes but he could extend it into an entire half-hour performance. One
way he managed to do this was to be very theatrical in his presentation. He
wore a tight leopard skin costume, was very thin and didn’t look like the
Strongman type who would normally do this sort of act.
He used to hold up the bed-of-nails and say:
“Will you, sir, hold this potato!”
then throw a potato into the audience.
He’d throw a few more potatoes at the audience, have a bit of interplay with
them and get them to throw the potatoes at the bed-of-nails so they stuck to
it. He ended his act by getting a big bloke out of the audience to stand on his
stomach while he lay on the bed-of-nails.
Lying on a bed-of-nails doesn’t hurt at all provided the nails are close to
each other. I asked him if he started practising just using one nail to lie on
and he said I was being ridiculous.
Also on The Mad Show was Chris Luby, who did aeroplane impressions.
More about him later. Remember the name.
There was a man called Anthony Irvine, who did an act where he just
crawled across the stage wearing a yellow souwester cape and Wellington
boots, got up a ladder, then put a chain with a hook on it between the two
parts of the stepladder and picked up a bag. He took a toothbrush out of the
bag, cleaned his teeth, got down the steps and crawled off stage again. This
took between ten and twenty minutes depending on audience response.
Today he calls himself The Iceman and melts a block of ice on stage - that’s
his act. At the 1995 Edinburgh Fringe he jointly won the Tapwater Award
for most bizarre act with me and Charlie Chuck.
The Mad Show also had Bob Flag with an act involving a saxophone. He
came on stage several times dressed in various Army regalia for some
reason. It seems worth mentioning that Bob Flag’s face was used in the film
of Orwell’s 1984 as Big Brother.
There was also Norman Milligan, whose costume was visibly in two halves.
On his top half he wore an American Army uniform and a metal helmet like
General Patton’s. The bottom half of his costume was stockings and
suspenders. He sang a rambling monologue about the War.
The Greatest Show on Legs did The Balloon Dance.
At the time, there was a play on called The Romans in Britain. These men
were prancing around nude on stage and Mary Whitehouse objected to it.
About a week later, I read that Mary Whitehouse did like cha-cha music.
I thought I know what to do. We’ll do a sketch and be naked in it but we’ll
have cha-cha music and then everybody will be happy. So we ended up with
The Balloon Dance.
This involved all three of us, stark naked (except for socks), dancing the chacha while holding two balloons each and swapping them round on the fourth
beat to cover our genitalia. Basically, that’s it. It was popular with
audiences. Lovely.
We also tap-danced with dustbin lids on our feet. And we did a Scottish
sword-dance using members of the audience instead of swords.
But The Mad Show didn’t really attract audiences. It started off with exPan’s People girls dancing with stockings and suspenders and Union Jack
It was all meant to be eccentric and British but it came at the time when the
Union Jack was getting slightly National Front connotations. The concept of
the show was years behind its time.
In a rare moment of shrewdness, the producers did a deal with Japanese
television to get their money back. They did a ‘Mister Looniverse’
competition to find the most eccentric acts ‘in the World’. This meant it was
the people in The Mad Show and some Japanese blokes they brought over.
One of the Japanese acts played musical vegetables: he hollowed out real
vegetables and then blew through them. He came into our dressing room,
couldn’t speak any English and foolishly asked us the name of the
vegetables in English.
When he picked up a marrow, we told him:
A carrot: “Goldfish”.
A cucumber: “Tractor”.
So he went on stage with his wheelbarrow full of vegetables, picked up a
cucumber and said: “Tlactah!”.
We were almost hoist by our own petard. The audience thought he was
taking the piss and he nearly won.
Another Japanese act was ‘The Monkey Man’. He just went round the stage
like a monkey. He was quite agile. But the point of doing it escaped me.
We won the competition and got £1000 from the Japanese. We had to do our
tapdancing with dustbin lids routine, because they couldn’t show the Balloon
Dance on Japanese TV. Too naughty.
That was the peak of The Mad Show.
After about eight weeks, one of the double-barrelled producers called all the
cast together and said:
“Well, I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to pay you for ten weeks”.
The orchestra immediately got up and walked out the door.
In the final days, there were people dismantling the hired props on stage as
the show was going on. On the last night, the water tank was still there so
The Greatest Show on Legs, ever keen for a dip, plunged in and swam
around like nymphs while Ronnie Smith mimed playing the piano.
But The Mad Show was a success for us in that it led to our Big Break.
We were seen by Chris Tarrant, who was preparing his upcoming Central
TV series OTT and we were also seen by the researchers for LWT’s
upcoming Game For a Laugh series.
At the same time we were doing The Tramshed, The Comedy Store and The
Mad Show, we were also still performing in the summer at hippie fairs in
Norfolk and the West Country, which is where we met The Box Brothers, a
four-piece swing band.
I arranged a tour of Holland featuring The Greatest Show on Legs and The
Box Brothers.
When we got to the border, the Dutch Customs Men took almost all our
money. At that time, if you went into Holland with electronic equipment,
amplifiers etc, they wanted enough money to cover the cost of the equipment
as a guarantee that you wouldn’t sell it within the country: they returned the
money to you when you left Holland with the same equipment. Fair enough.
But they took almost every penny we had. We had just enough petrol to get
to the first gig.
The first day of that tour was the only show I’ve ever done completely sober.
The irony was that, when we first got to the theatre, the manager gave me
sixty tickets with the word CONSUMPTIE printed on them. It wasn’t until
afterwards I realised that each ticket entitled us to a free drink - and that
Dutch beer is strong.
We turned out to be very popular in Holland and we appeared at their annual
Festival of Fools. It used to be held in Amsterdam one year and somewhere
in England the next. The Dutch government used to give lots of grants and,
in Amsterdam, there was a place called The Melkweg which used to
encourage performance art and British acts. Then, around 1984, they started
a policy of not encouraging British acts and just had Dutch acts who were
appalling. I think it’s now turned into an Acid House rave place.
When we came back to England, we tried to make a point of appearing at
The Comedy Store every week. If we were doing a gig in Manchester which
finished at 10.00pm, we would get straight on the train and get down to The
Comedy Store for last knockings at about 1.30am. We loved performing
there. It was like a drug.
There were now two alternative comedy venues. Pete Richardson had split
off from The Comedy Store when some of the acts didn’t like how they were
treated. He formed The Comic Strip at a place called The Boulevard
Theatre, next door to Raymond’s Revue Bar in Soho. But we stuck with The
Comedy Store.
One of the sketches we devised was a Boy Scout routine at the end of which
Martin did a striptease, but we didn’t have any Boy Scout uniforms. I had a
cousin Geoffrey and he was a Scout Master. He’s educated and he’s worked
in a bank and he’s never nicked a car, no shop-lifting, nothing. He’s the
black sheep of the family. So I went round to see him and said:
“Hey, Geoffrey, can we borrow some Scout uniforms?”
“Well,” he said, “You’re not going to poke fun at the Scouts, are you?”
“Of course not,” I said.
I thought it unwise to mention the striptease.
“All we’re going to do,” I said, “Is that we’re going to have a little electric
fire and sit round it and sing Ging-gang-goolie-goolie and they’ll love it.
The audience will love it”.
So cousin Geoffrey lent us the Scout uniforms and, once again, I was
making money from being a Scout.
A few weeks later we were doing a gig at The Tramshed, near to where
Geoffrey lived, but I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want him to come
along. At the end of the routine, Martin was doing a striptease, waving his
socks about and all the business. Unfortunately, some old age pensioners
were in the audience and so was the local paper’s reporter. The pensioners
complained to him and, in Geoffrey’s local paper, he read the headline:
and there was a big picture of Martin with his socks off and me wearing
Geoffrey’s uniform, complete with visible Scout troop logo.
Cousin Geoffrey hasn’t spoken to me since.
At The Comedy Store, we were frowned-on a bit because we weren’t
cerebral. We were sort-of doing Variety and Music Hall sketches. Yet, even
with the trendy audience, we went down as well as, or better than cerebral
comics like Ben Elton or Pete Richardson because - I don’t know - we had
some spunk. We had a sense of irony. A bit like Spike Milligan, who was
accepted by his peers in the end, but wasn’t originally because he was just
lowly Gunner Milligan from Brockley, a working class area in South East
There was a University clique at The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip,
but not Oxbridge. Rik, Ade and Ben Elton had all been to Manchester
University. They were all from very rich backgrounds. I’d met Pete
Richardson five or six years before when I was down in the West Country
with Martin and we performed our Punch & Judy show to a lot of Swedish
drama students in Pete’s mum’s house on Dartmoor. She used to hire a barn
out to do a Drama School for various foreigners. She was very well-heeled:
swimming pool in the garden and all that sort of thing. The next time I saw
Pete Richardson, he was playing the working class wide boy down The
Comedy Store, as if he was from Sarf East London.
Ben Elton is from South East London, but his uncle’s Lord Elton and he’s
very well-connected. Obviously, I’ve never been part of his social world. I
know about his background because Alexei Sayle told me.
Alexei Sayle, wasn’t a University type. He was the son of a Liverpool train
driver and had got experience in Community Theatre. I remember seeing a
poster of him playing in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. So he had
a drama background.
We appeared with him a lot at The Comedy Store. Martin and I used to do
the Henry V sketch there almost every week. He once introduced us:
“Oh well, here they are. They’re just a couple of college kids.”
I felt this was over-stating my prison ‘A’ Levels and Martin’s three weeks at
Art School.
He didn’t like us, I think, because we weren’t doing straight stand-up
comedy at a microphone but were doing things with costumes, I think he felt
we were like drama students and not real comedians.
I recommended Alexei to The Albany Empire in Deptford. He got £8 and
died a death. He was too odd for them. They were into very ‘politically
correct’ comedy. They were into Marcel Steiner and The Smallest Theatre in
The World and they liked very strong political theatre rather than what
Alexei was doing, which was wearing a pork pie hat and saying “wanker”
and “cunt”.
Alexei’s breakthrough was really BBC TV’s The Young Ones with Rik and
The Greatest Show on Legs’ breakthrough was doing The Balloon Dance on
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
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 copresenter 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 . 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. Lennie 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
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. 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.
While we were doing that, Rik and Ade went on to TV success in The Young
Ones. Pete Richardson 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.
We even performed at a TUC Conference in Blackpool where Neil Innes of
the Bonzo Dogs (he didn’t recognise me) 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.
They loved it.
As a result of the publicity over OTT, we also got invited to perform at
Freddie Mercury’s 40th birthday party. At the time, Freddie Mercury was
one of the biggest international pop stars around - yesterday’s equivalent of
Michael Jackson.
We went to Club Xenon in Piccadilly,London and were in a dressing room
the size of a large cupboard - with another twelve acts. There was a Russian
acrobat on first, then a midget, then a mime act then it was us
There was a high window in the door of our dressing room and, by holding
the midget up, we could find out what was happening in the main club, but
they wouldn’t let us come out of the dressing room. All we could do was
hold the midget up to look through the window at all the famous people:
Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Princess Margaret - all that lot.
We were all ready to go on. We were naked. Then Freddie Mercury’s
manager came in and said to us:
“You can’t do the act”.
“What do you mean?” we asked. “Why not?”
“We don’t want you to go on,” he said.
“Why not?”
“We don’t want Freddie Mercury,” he said, “To be associated with anything
that might be considered Gay”.
“But,” I said, “We’re not a gay act. And, anyway, he is gay. He’s got a pink
suit on. The band’s called Queen”.
The manager just looked at me.
“It don’t matter,” I said. “I don’t care. But he is gay and everyone knows. It
doesn’t matter”.
They wouldn’t let us do The Balloon Dance, but they still paid us and we
pocketed £600. Well, not literally, because we were naked. But we got the
money and I said to the manager:
“Well, can we at least go to the party?”
“No,” he said. “Not until Freddie’s cut the cake”.
A few minutes later, this big cake got wheeled into the club. It was about 12
feet long and it was shaped like a big pink Rolls Royce with an FM-1
number-plate on it. They brought it in, put it across three tables, Freddie
Mercury posed with a big knife for the photographers and stabbed the cake.
That was it, then he buggered off into some other room.
“So,” I said, “Can we go to the party now?”
And we were told we could go to the party but we couldn’t go to the bit
where all The Stars were. So I started to feel a little bitter at this point. I had
wanted to do The Balloon Dance. I couldn’t. I had wanted to meet all the
stars. I couldn’t. We ended up in this big room, where there were a load of
hangers-on just hanging on and it was about £3 for a pint of beer. So I said
to the other two:
“Let’s fuck off”.
As we walked along the corridor towards the door, we saw Freddie
Mercury’s Birthday Cake.
“We’ll have that!” I said.
So we lifted it - heavy! - up a few stairs and put it in the back of our Luton
Transit van. A Luton was a Ford Transit but built higher and with an
extended box on the back. We put the cake in the back and there was still
about four feet of it sticking out.
I drove from Xenon in the West End all the way home to South East London
with the cake sticking out the back of the van. I lived in a top floor flat and,
when we got to my place, we couldn’t even get it through the front door of
the house. So we decided to take it round to Martin’s: he lived in a ground
floor flat.
We got there and the cake wouldn’t fit through his door either. We had to
take his window out. Eventually, at about 3 o’clock in the morning, we got it
in and there it sat in pride of place on his floor: Freddie Mercury’s Birthday
At 9.00am Louis Parker, the theatrical agent who had booked us rang up angry:
“You bastards! You’ve stolen Freddie Mercury’s birthday cake!” he said.
“It’s worth £4,000. They’ve told the police.”
“Oh dear!” I said. I was genuinely worried, especially with my record. So I
went straight round to Martin’s and told him:
“They know it was us who nicked the cake! What are we gonna do?”
Martin’s very bright and he’s a good lateral thinker. It was coming up to
Christmas so he said:
“We’ll give it to a local Old People’s Home. Old folks like cake.”
So we phoned up The Ranyard Memorial Nursing Home and offered them a
big cake and they said they’d have it.
Then, same thing in reverse. Window out. Cake in the back of the Luton
Transit. We drove off. But, as I drove off, a police car passed us going the
other way and I thought They’re going to look in their mirror and see four
foot of pink cake sticking out the back of my van.
Luckily they didn’t. They just pulled-up at Martin’s house ready to go in and
question him. We gave the cake to the old people and I went back to my
house and had a bit of a well-deserved sleep.
At about 4.00pm, two C.I.D. blokes came to my door and said:
“You’ve nicked Freddie Mercury’s birthday cake!”
“I haven’t,” I said. “Honestly.”
So then - and this is the God’s honest truth - they came into my house and
were crawling around the floor, both with magnifying glasses in their hand,
searching for crumbs.
To this day, I haven’t been caught.
Also as a result of The Balloon Dance and OTT, we toured Sweden, which
was another experience altogether.
Swedish culture seemed to be very dull. We played these massive big places
called Dance Restaurants. Everyone went to them - aged grandmothers,
middle-aged couples, teenage children. It was like a big wedding reception
and the bands were like extremely good wedding bands. But they played
every type of music. There would be a punk number followed by a waltz
followed by a rock’n’roll number.
Each Dance Restaurant had a Decibel Monitoring Machine like a set of
traffic lights. If a musician wanted to show any bit of originality, like
playing a bit loudly, the green light would go orange and then, if he kept
playing loudly, the light would go red and then all the music cut out. I saw it
happen a couple of times.
Each Swedish town seemed to have a choice of only two department stores
and, in each, all the clothes were exactly the same. Uniform was the word.
The Swedes are very dull and, to this day, I don’t know why they liked us.
There was a Swedish TV programme - like their version of Saturday Night
Live - called Noyamachine: The Entertainment Machine and they had
wanted to show the clip of our Balloon Dance from OTT but Central
Television had insisted they buy the whole OTT programme, none of which
would have made any sense in Sweden. So the Swedish TV producers had
paid about £40,000 just to show the Balloon Dance and, to get their money’s
worth, they had shown it every week on this Noyamachine as a sort of
running gag.
As a consequence, we were famous all over Sweden. They had ‘Ballongen
Dance’ competitions and they released a pop record with three lookalikes of
us on the front cover. Copied it even to the point that, when we did OTT,
there had been lots of rubbish on the floor from the previous sketch and they
did this same backdrop with this same rubbish and these people did a
Ballongen Dance to the music that we used and put words to it. The record
reached Number One in the Swedish Hit Parade.
I knew none of this before we arrived there.
When I’d accepted the booking in Sweden, I thought it was going to be like
our tour of Holland, but with hills and snow. We were only paid £3,000 for
the whole two week tour and I realised something was up as soon as we got
off the plane in Stockholm.
A red carpet came out, followed by the television cameras and then they
took us to the VIP lounge.
That night, we saw the news on Swedish TV, saying:
“Arriving in Sweden today was President Brezhnev of Russia and also the
Ballongen Dancers”.
And there we were on the telly, coming off the plane!
Whilst in Sweden, we shed our seed: at least I did. The only problem with
Swedish women is their names. In one week, I ended up with a Doris, Agnes
and Maude. They were all young and beautiful, but it still seemed like
shagging your grandmother.
The Swedes loved The Greatest Show on Legs and we seemed to appeal to
all ages. But we were unfortunate enough to have to judge a couple of their
Ballongen Dance competitions. They had big fat blokes getting drunk,
smiling a lot and doing it like a rugby club ‘mooning’ exercise rather than
the subtle and sophisticated thing we British know and love.
The Swedes didn’t understand the humour.
Today Mr Methane, a British ‘farteur’ is very popular in Sweden but I don’t
think they understand the eccentricity of his act either. They just like the fart
jokes. They think farts are funny in themselves just as they liked the
nakedness of The Greatest Show on Legs.
We did OTT in January 1981 then we did our first Edinburgh Fringe in
August 1982, before it became so commercial. .
That year, we were playing in a venue called The Hole in The Ground which
literally was just that: a hole in the ground. An ‘organisation’ called Circuit
had erected a 700-seat marquee on this piece of derelict wasteland.
Also performing in The Hole in The Ground was The Egg Man, who was
Icelandic years before Bjork. His show consisted of a two-hour monologue
performed, completely in Icelandic, to an audience of one in cave which was
one of the ‘natural features’ of The Hole in The Ground. He used to auction
the ticket for each show and a reviewer from the Scotsman actually had to
pay over £50 to watch a performance of this two-hour Icelandic monologue.
He couldn’t understand a word but, in a way, it was Art.
Today, this just wouldn’t happen as the big Agencies use Edinburgh to hypeup future short-lived TV ‘stars’.
In our tent in The Hole in The Ground were several other shows, the one
before us being The National Revue Company. This included Arthur Smith,
Phil Nice, Adam Wide and ‘Joy Pickles’ played by Babs Sutton. She ended
up living with Martin Soan for two or three years and she later got
concussed by a beer glass thrown at my London club The Tunnel. There was
also a woman called Maxine who married Phil Nice. She settled down to
breed kids so you don’t see her any more.
I became good friends with Arthur Smith. (His real name is Brian Smith.)
That first year in Edinburgh, we were both doing sketch-related stuff. In a
way, our paths are very similar. We are roughly the same age. Arthur now
lives in Balham, but he grew up near me and went to a school in Greenwich.
He went to the University of East Anglia to study drama. I went to prison.
So I suppose that's a bit of a difference.
After The National Revue Company broke up, Arthur formed Fiasco Job Job
with Phil Nice and then went on to become the living legend that he is today.
We both ended up being comperes. I'm more coarse than he is; I have
greater shock value. I think he's more talented than me, particularly because
of his playwrighting. He asked me to put £1000 into An Evening With Gary
Linaker years ago. I said Yes because, at the time, I was almost flush with
money. But he never came back to me. Next thing, it's a big success all
round the world. One minute you’re treading the grapes; next minute you’re
drinking the wine.
Arthur and I have been on the same bill many times, though we have never
performed as An Act together. We are too similar. Together, we would
probably not be funny because he would need an Ernie Wise-type straightman and I need a Martin Soan. Martin is not really a straight-man as such,
but he's surreal and the complete opposite to my stage character. Martin is
surreal; I'm the earthy comic. In a double act, you very rarely get two people
who are the same. And, for some reason, there have been hardly any women
double-acts. French & Saunders and that's about it.
In general, probably only about 10% of acts are women. This is probably
due to conditioning. Women are not taught to be laughed-at and all the
female acts I know use sex as a subject in their acts, whereas it’s not the
same for all male acts.
That first year, the Circuit tent in Edinburgh held about 700 people.
I had stupidly agreed we’d do it for a ‘wage’ of £500 a week. In the
meantime, we’d been on the OTT, we were popular and we were selling the
tickets out at about £5 a ticket. So they were making about £3,500 a night
and we were getting £500 per week between the three of us. So I felt bitter
There was another lot performing at The Hole in The Ground: a group of
feminists. They were called Monstrous Regiment. They were doing a play
about prisoners. About how it’s not the prisoners’ fault they’re in prison. It’s
Society’s fault. It’s all of our faults. All of that nonsense.
We were really poor that first year. We were performing in The Tent in The
Hole in The Ground and we were living in tents next to The Tent. Edinburgh
is always cold and it was even colder that year: it snowed.
Also that year, a German opera show had a pig in it and I had my tent next to
the place where they kept the pig.
So, I was feeling bitter and feeling bitter cold.
At, the end of the week, Circuit decided to have a Press Conference and they
put another tent up. They loved a tent. A big marquee. Commissionaire
outside. Posh. We turned up and they wouldn’t let us in even though we’d
been there a week and sold out our shows and everything. Well, we were
naked, which might have had something to do with it. And not entirely
wholesome. So we went and got dressed and eventually they let us in. But I
was still bitter.
We went to this restaurant in the marquee and it was a bit of a posh do. Wine
and all that stuff going on. Monstrous Regiment were there but their feminist
dungarees were off and their public school cocktail dresses were on.
Then one of the Monstrous Regiment women - one I particularly didn’t like got her handbag nicked. And she went berserk.
“Catch him!” she yelled. “Get the police! I want that man put in prison!”
So I said to her:
“It’s not his fault. It’s Society’s fault. It’s all our faults”.
At the end of all this, they asked one person from each show to get up on the
bar and give a speech to the assembled Press.
By now, the Monstrous Regiment woman had calmed down. She got up on
the bar and said:
“We’re doing a play. It’s about prisoners. It’s all Society’s fault and it’s a
scathing indictment of Society”.
Then she jumped off the bar and the German with the pig got up.
“We’re doing an opera with a pig,” he said.
So we were next and I stood up on the bar, having told Martin to tug my
trousers at the appropriate moment.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen of the Press,” I started saying: “We’re The
Greatest Show on Legs and we have a bit of a comedy show in that tent over
there, but this is no night for comedy because I’ve just read in the paper that
the great Glenda Jackson has passed away and, in the spirit of the Fringe,” I had a real tear came out of my eye at this point - “I’d like to ask for one
minute’s silence for a great actress.”
And they did.
A whole minute.
I looked at my watch and the whole minute went by.
A long time.
Then Martin tugged my trousers and handed up my newspaper to me. I
looked at it:
“Oh!” I said. “Not Glenda Jackson. Wendy Jackson. A pensioner from
Doesn’t matter then, does it?”
The tent fell even more silent than during the Minute’s Silence.
After a pause, a thespian in the front just looked up at me and theatrically
projected the words:
“Bad taste!”
The ironic thing was that he was wearing a pink and green shirt at the time.
This was the beginning - 1982 - of a beautiful, long-running relationship
between the Edinburgh Fringe and me.
We went back to Edinburgh the next year - back to The Hole in The Ground
- and this time Circuit had three tents. They loved a tent. They had a big one
in the middle, with a small one on one side and a medium one on the other.
Like Daddy Tent, Mummy Tent and Little Baby Tent. You could pay to see
one show and hear all three as the shows were running simultaneously.
We were in the Daddy Tent. Emma Thompson was in the little one with
‘The Emma Thompson Band’. And, in the medium one, was this American
creature called Eric Bogosian. He later starred in Oliver Stone’s movie Talk
Radio. I never got on with him. He was a prima donna. He upset everyone.
He upset Emma Thompson. She was in tears and I boldly told him to leave
her alone.
All the arguments and artistic friction came about because of the clash of
What we tried to arrange was to perform all our noisy bits at the same time
and all our quiet bits at the same time, so the audiences wouldn’t get too
distracted. But Eric was having none of it. One part of his show had Heavy
Metal music - very loud - in our quiet bit. His show was called Funhouse An Anarchistic Romp Through The American Way of Life. So, I thought,
well at least he’s a bit of an anarchist. He’ll like a laugh, won’t he?
Our show that year started with me entering on a tractor. I tried to leap over
ten toy cars but, of course, the tractor went off the ramp and squashed the
cars. Good opening. We had persuaded the manager of a local garden centre
to lend us the tractor for free and we advertised his business. He was a
typical dour Scot and was in the audience with his family the night I decided
to visit Eric Bogosian.
We had had about six days of Eric’s Heavy Metal music coming through
into our show, so I decided to go and see Eric in his tent. During a
It came to the part of our show where Eric was making a hell of a row with
his heavy metal tape. I screamed at our audience to make myself heard
above the noise:
“Look, we’ll go and see Eric. All of us. He’ll like it. He’s a bit of a laugh.
He’s an anarchist.”
I jumped on the tractor, naked. The stages were flat. So I drove out of our
tent on the tractor and straight in to his tent and onto his stage. Our audience
followed behind the tractor.
“Hello, Eric!” I said.
He was swaying backwards and forwards, ‘air-guitaring’ with a broom
handle in his hands and he was going “Brrrrrmmmmmm!” to this AC/DC
track that was coming out of the loudspeakers. Very witty, I presume.
When he saw me in the nude on the tractor followed by all our audience, he
stopped performing and flopped in a chair that was at the back of the stage.
We all filed past, then came out of his tent and back into our own and
thought no more about it.
After about two minutes, I heard the sound of a tractor being smashed up
with a sledge-hammer. Then I heard, round the back, all the dressing-rooms
being smashed up. Then he came running in. By this time, Martin Soan was
naked and I had clothes on. Eric saw Martin and thought it was me. So he hit
Martin and knocked him over and then ran out screaming. Martin got up and
carried on, because we’ve had worse than that.
The next day, all hell was let loose with the Circuit lot. Eric claimed it was
all my fault. Well, I suppose it was, really. They fined us £800 because we
had to pay for the refunds to all the people who walked out of his show. I
found out later that this included all the people who’d walked out of his
show even before the tractor episode.
So I was bitter again. We were still living in tents and he had this house with
thick carpets and I was made to go and apologise and I did a bit.
Two years after the tractor episode in Edinburgh, I was sitting at home in
Greenwich watching Channel 4 and heard the announcer say:
“Appearing live at nine at The Albany Empire on Loose Talk - Eric
The Albany Empire was about two miles from where I was sitting. So I
thought I’ll go and see Eric again!
I have a mate called Mad Mick who works for a fork-lift truck company, so I
phoned him up and said:
“Can I borrow a fork-lift truck because I have a friend who’s on at The
Albany Empire and I want to go and pay a visit?”
“Alright,” he said.
So I got the fork-lift truck and drove to The Albany. It takes about 20
minutes in a fork-lift truck. I poised myself outside The Albany at 9 o’clock,
ready to go in.
I took my clothes off.
Then, dead on 9 o’clock - whoosh - straight in with fork-lift truck. Into The
But I had got the night wrong and it was an aerobics class for the Over-50s.
The Fringe gets to you after a while. It makes you do funny things. The
funniest thing I ever heard in Edinburgh involved a coach driver.
It was the end of the Eighties and I was a bit depressed, because it was the
third or fourth week of the Fringe. Everyone gets the Fringe Blues around
then. You've done two or three weeks of constant shows and drinking and
going to The Gilded Balloon after your own show and partying. So I went
out, semi-depressed, one cold Edinburgh day - and that IS cold - and saw
one of those open-topped tourist buses.
Downstairs, it was full with old age pensioners smelling of urine, so I sat
upstairs. It was a pleasant tour and the driver had a microphone giving all the
old tourist nonsense:
"On the right there's the Castle and on the left is where wee Rabbie Burns..."
and so on until, halfway along Princes Street, a car cut him up and he forgot
about the microphone. So then it was:
"On the right there's the Castle and Fuck off ya fuckin' bastard! Ya fuckin'
cunt!" coming all over the coach.
Pity I wasn't downstairs. But I could imagine the faces of all these
pensioners sitting there hearing all this coming across. I just sat upstairs on
my own laughing in the cold.
Arthur Smith does his own guided tour of Edinburgh every year on the last
Saturday night of the Fringe and I'm always on it. It lasts from four o’clock
on the Sunday morning to seven o’clock or arrest by the police, whichever
comes first. On the Sunday night, I always perform in my London club. So,
I’m always paralytic but have to get the 9.00am Sunday train to London
which always takes longer than the normal five hours.
After one of Arthur Smith's tours, I ended up in a hotel with a well-known
older journalist who used to be the Fashion Editor of Vogue - she was about
52 and I was about 38. Wizo came and woke me up at eight in the morning
to get the train. When I got on the train. I was absolutely shagged-out and
luckily got a carriage where I was all to myself. I sat down and thought This
is it! I'm going to go to sleep. But, just as I did, a group of Scottish football
supporters came on the train because there was a game down in London.
About 200 of them, all with cans of lager, all shouting:
"Ye bastards! Ya English bastards!"
Then the traditional crying baby arrived.
On his tour, Arthur Smith offers various sums of money to various people
along the route to do various things. You might have to climb up the top of a
lamp-post and sing Scotland The Brave. I've somehow always got involved
in getting £25 for standing on something naked and singing Scotland The
The police have been called quite often, but what Arthur Smith doesn't know
- until he reads this - is that three times I've called the police myself. I've
used the phone box halfway down The Royal Mile, saying there's a madman
on the loose. Once I even got arrested as Arthur Smith in the road outside
The Gilded Balloon. Arthur was in the same group of us going off
somewhere. I was peeing up against the wall and the police stopped me and
"Right! we're arresting you for urinating in a public place. Name and
So I said: "Brian Smith (Arthur's real name)” and gave his address.
And I've never heard from them since. I don't know if he has.
Most people pay to get into shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. I don’t
encourage this. The thing to do is to get plastic sheaths from a stationers, get
a bit of card, get a bit of Letraset and write PRESS on the card in big letters,
then REVIEWER in smaller letters, then your name at the bottom. You put
the card inside the plastic sheath and then get access to a laminating machine
if you can - if not, a domestic iron does just the same thing. You press down
on the card inside the plastic, it’s laminated, you’ve got a Press Card and
you just go in anywhere with it.
I did a similar thing with The Snakebite Award.
The Perrier Award has been awarded at the Edinburgh Fringe for about ten
years. It is given to the best comedy/cabaret performance and it’s run by a
woman with the unfortunate name of Nica Burns. Unfortunate, because
‘Nica’ is pronounced ‘Knicker’.
Well, it can be if you feel like it.
My Snakebite Award was the opposite of The Perrier Award. It was an
award for the worst cabaret. I laminated up a few cards, gave them to a few
of my pals and we just went in any show we wanted for nothing. I went to
see a Japanese opera at the Playhouse Theatre. I didn’t understand a word.
But I didn’t have to pay to see it.
The Snakebite Award had a £500, and later a £1000, First Prize which was a
bit of a problem. So it almost always had to awarded to someone I knew
well or someone who I knew wouldn’t ask for the £1000. I won it a couple
of times; Chris Luby from The Mad Show has won it; and the London
Hospital Medical School won it the first two years running, once with a
show called Jean De Toilette, which is the worst show I have ever seen.
They did a musical number called Flush Gordon to the music of Freddie
Mercury and Queen. At this point in the plot, the hero, Jean, was sitting on a
toilet cleaning his teeth with a lavatory brush, surrounded by a bevy of
nurses in stockings and suspenders. Someone else sang a song about lentils
while members of the cast went into the audience scattering lentils. I
watched it with a bloke called Tristram Davies from the Independent who
said it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. We couldn’t stop laughing, but
we were laughing at rather than with. We almost had to be carried out. The
venue was the lecture theatre of a mental hospital in Morningside, on the
outskirts of Edinburgh, and it was packed. It was a Monday and there were
about 300 people there. My show was right in the middle of town and I was
performing to about 30 people each night. Proves something, though exactly
what I don’t know.
For their first win, I gave The London Hospital Medical School a £500
cheque that bounced and they were happy with that. Then I felt guilty
because they are a hospital, so I went and did a gig at the London Hospital I
was supposed to be getting £500 for and gave them the fee.
A lot of people thought and think ‘alternative’ comedy’ like some poetry,
preaches to people or is doing some worthwhile job in a vaguely Left Wing
But I remember playing a small place called The Comedy Boom at the
Edinburgh Fringe in the mid-Eighties. I was compering a show featuring
musical comedy group Skint Video, comic/poet John Hegley and Sensible
Footwear, a three-woman feminist group. The landlady’s daughter was about
23 and watched every show because she was there clearing glasses up. She
laughed very loudly and genuinely at each show. I used to do a joke
competition where members of the audience submitted their own jokes and,
after about a week of this, she came up to me and said:
“I’ve got a joke for you”.
The joke was something about “a nigger with a parrot on his shoulder”.
She thought I could actually get up on stage and tell that joke after watching
a week’s worth of right-on ‘alternative’ comedy.
I suppose The Greatest Show on Legs do veer slightly towards The Left on
stage. There’s no politics in the act but we veered towards the Left because
we didn’t do what Right Wing comedians did. We did not come on in frilly
shirts and bow ties. We’ve always come on in jeans, looking unshaven. And
we did lots of Benefits for Left Wing causes like Save The Whale. In fact, I
think we have saved the whale: I saw one the other day on telly.
We also perform at the annual Glastonbury Festival, which was originally
for CND, but now appears to have lost some of the original spirit by
becoming too big.
The Glastonbury Festival was the brainchild of Michael Eaves, the man who
owns the land. He gets accused of making lots of money out of it now. I
don't know if he does. But he's a Quaker and he says he doesn't need the
money: he gets a good enough income off his cows. I think he does it
because he likes the spirit of it. But it has changed out of all proportion. I
remember when it was just fields. The first time I went to Glastonbury, there
was just one tent with music and comedy and everything. Now there’s acres
of it.
We first went down there in 1978 with The Box Brothers, who toured
Holland with us. Their guitarist Mark Flanagan now plays with the Jools
Holland Band. Ronnie Box is sound mixer for The Jools Holland Band. And
Paul Fitzgerald lives in Norfolk where he has his own recording studio and
works a lot for the BBC.
Pip found out about my affair with Mandy because Ronnie Box - one of the
Box Brothers - told her. Ronnie fancied Pip and, before we moved back to
London, he’d been down to Canterbury to see her and pledge his troth and
said to her something like:
“So you don’t mind Malcolm sleeping with all these girls?”
Pip eventually confronted me with this at The Man in The Moon and I
owned up to the ongoing Mandy Moy affair though not to the two girls I
knew in Holland.
Pip threw a cup of coffee over me - no sugar.
The Box Brothers also had a drummer called Bootsie who was a bit of a
heroin addict. And there was a very attractive girl singer called Delphi
Newman whose dad was a famous record producer. After the Box Brothers
split up, she was living in Norfolk and fancied getting off with the singer Ian
Dury. But she didn't know where he lived. About five years ago, I gave her a
lift down from Norfolk to London and, two weeks later, she was living with
him. About a year later, I happened to go to a party that was underneath Ian
Dury's house and I heard them having a row upstairs.
The Glastonbury Festival’s cabaret and children's events are organised by
Arabella Churchill. She's a strange woman. She looks like her grandfather
Winston and is extremely laid-back. She married a juggler called Haggis.
Before her marriage I got off with her, simply because she had a big warm
house and I was fed up living in a field.
I remember putting on an American comedian at Glastonbury. He was called
Barry Diamond, a very sharp Los Angeles/Las Vegas comedy circuit mohair
suit act. He was a very good pre-Gerry Sadowitz act. Politically incorrect but
funny with it. His manager was Miles Copeland, who managed rock bands
Police and Squeeze and was the son of the man who helped found the CIA.
Miles Copeland and Barry Diamond turned up in a limousine at the entrance
to the Glastonbury Festival which, at that time, was just a hippy at a gate
with a straw bale. They didn't have a pass and the hippy said:
"Oh, wow! Hey, man, I'll have to go check".
So they just ignored him, revved up the engine, drove through the straw bale
and came down to the comedy tent. Miles Copeland and Barry Diamond.
Two American showbiz types. Completely out of place.
Arabella Churchill was lying on three bean-bags. Miles asked Arabella what
time Barry was on and she said:
"We-e-ll. We-e-e-e-e-e-l......Might be four. Might be five. Might be ten. I’m
not sure, man. Peace".
So Miles picked Arabella up by the collar of her dress and said:
"What time's he on, ya bitch!"
This made Arabella sharpen herself up a bit and Barry ended up performing
at four in the afternoon to a very unsuitable audience of six year old kids.
The Greatest Show on Legs have always been successful at Glastonbury.
Martin Clarke, who had appeared on OTT with us, was with The Greatest
Show on Legs for several years, then he moved to Hong Kong where he’s
now a radio disc jockey. So we recruited Jonty Wright from Norfolk and
Steve Bowditch from South East London.
Steve Bowditch was recruited when I was walking along the road by my
house and saw this bloke sitting inside a recording studio, where he was
making the tea. I just liked the look of his face. I went in and said to him:
“Do you want to be in a show?”
“Yes,” he said.
So he came round that afternoon, rehearsed about three numbers and next
day he was in Rhyl, North Wales, performing with The Greatest Show on
In 1983, the four of us went up to Edinburgh and linked up with Skint
Video, musical political parodists - a bit like The Barron Knights with teeth.
One of the members of Skint Video did the Balloon Dance with us and we
did a couple of their sketches. We toured together for about a year.
I didn’t particularly care about political correctness and Left Wing causes,
but some people did. Once, we were on a university bill and, when we got
there, it turned out there were strippers on the bill, too. Skint Video refused
to go on. In the end, The Greatest Show on Legs took a vote on it and we
didn’t go on either because it was with strippers and this was meant to be
demeaning to women and so on.
The irony was that we had been booked to do the Balloon Dance and one
member of Skint Video had been going to perform naked in the Balloon
Dance with us. But girl strippers were apparently different.
Another time, we were offered a South African mini-tour in the days of
apartheid and I said we should take it because it’s no good unless you go
there and see for yourself what it’s like. But I got out-voted on that one as
I have always felt slightly like an outsider. Even at the Edinburgh Fringe.
At the Fringe, I was the wrong side of the Fringe. And we were always poor
Once, when I was really poor in Edinburgh, I saw a wage packet lying on the
ground in the Circuit site and it had £200 in it. I went Whoosh - quick as a
flash - in the pocket. Then I had a bit of a conscience. I thought It’s
someone’s wages. There was a name on the packet, but we didn’t know him.
I should have handed it in, really. But we didn’t have any money. So I
I asked Martin what I should do and he came up with a very good idea
which was to go down to the bookmakers, put the money on a horse and, if
the horse won, we’d give the wages back. If the horse lost, we’d all have
So I went down to the bookies. This was before they all had telly screens.
They had a loudspeaker system with a voice that, of course, had a Scottish
accent. I mis-heard the Scottish accent and backed the wrong horse. I put the
money on a horse that I thought was 7-2. But it was actually 17-2. For a 7-2
you got £900; at 17-2 you got £1900.
But, by some miracle, it won.
So £1900 - minus 10% tax - in the pocket!
And, no, I didn’t give the money back.
At around this point Wizo, who had been off the scene for about five years due to marriage and a demanding career working in an exhaust & car spares
shop - turned up again as our roadie. He had settled down to a very standard
suburban life in Bromley and, whenever I went to see him, there was always
an element of Oh! Here’s Malcolm! I’m going to be in trouble!
He was only meant to be our roadie.
We had a spotlight on a stick and all he had to do was set the microphone
up. Then there was a bit in the show where he had to move the microphone
because we couldn’t do it as we were getting changed for the next sketch.
But, after about four or five shows, he didn’t just move the microphone, he
started speaking into it, saying:
“Hello. My name’s Wizo”.
And trying to tell jokes.
Eventually, he was actually performing in our sketches and appeared on TV
programmes like The Tube.
People get into showbiz in the strangest ways.
Before she became a comedienne, Jo Brand and her friend Sue used to be
big fans of Skint Video and used to go to lots of their shows. They used to
follow Skint Video and The Greatest Show on Legs about. They were a bit
comedy groupie-ish.
Jo and I had an 'affair' for a couple of years, when I was living with Pip.
Jo was a psychiatric nurse. At that time, my sister Clare went ‘radio rental’.
She'd gone mental once before but wasn't hospitalised. She has a hypermania
that triggers off about every four years. The second time it happened, she
was found walking round Victoria Station saying she WAS Queen Victoria.
We had to go to the doctor's, then to casualty and, when we were signing her
in to Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital, Jo Brand was there as the nurse
admitting her. I heard later that, when I came in with Clare, the other nurses
were more worried about the look of me. They thought I’d come in for
The last time Clare went mad, in 1994 - it's the World Cup triggers her off, I
think - she ended up in Hither Green Psychiatric Hospital and there were
patients in different degrees of madness. There was a patient there who
seemed reasonably normal. I was sitting in this room, chatting with him and
I said:
"Oh, this is my sister".
"Is it really?” he said. “That IS strange, a brother and sister both being in
here at the same time!"
While I was going out with her, Jo bought a piano which I took as a sign of
her being stagestruck. After I heard her play The Moonlight Sonata, I said:
"You should do comedy on stage".
I don't say that lightly to people because there's a whole host of people
who're The Funniest Person In The Pub but they just can't transfer it onto the
stage. I don't know exactly why I thought Jo could: maybe because she had a
certain confidence and there was that deadpan delivery. She was very
monotone when she first started. Still is, slightly.
But I didn't help her deliver her lines better. She did it herself. She became
very good very quickly. I didn't get involved with her professionally because
I didn't want her to feel I was latching onto her success.
I didn't see her first ever spot, at the Meccano Club in North London. She
did her second or third one in Greenwich and did very well. Always went
down a storm with a very rough audience. She once had the heckle, just
thirty seconds into her act:
"DON'T show us yer tits!"
She kept her job as a psychiatric nurse for at least a couple of years while
she started doing comedy, then decided to chuck the job in and become a
comic the moment she found she was making as much - or more - on stage.
I advised her to give up her job. I've advised a few people to do that. I told
Frank Skinner he wasn't going to get anywhere unless he gave up his job as
an Assistant Drama Lecturer.
When he was going to be on This Is Your Life last year, I got a message on
my answerphone on the Friday afternoon from a researcher saying they
wanted me to be at the London Palladium at 11.00 on the Sunday night.
That particular Friday night, I got a bit drunk, as you do. I brought a few
people back to my house, including a bloke called Tom from the West
Country. I told them all I was going to Frank Skinner’s This Is Your Life and
the comedian Jim Tavare said:
“Why don’t you just ring up Frank Skinner and tell him?”
It seemed like time to give Frank another bit of good advice.
I didn’t have Frank’s phone number but I phoned up Rob Newman at about
4 o’clock in the morning. Rob thought it sounded like a good idea because,
at the time, he wasn’t getting on very well with David Baddiel, who shares a
flat with Frank Skinner.
So I rang up Frank Skinner’s answerphone and said in a West Country
“Ello there, Frank Skinner. When that Michael Aspel comes up to you with
that big red book, tell him to Fuck Off!”
Next morning, quite early, about 10 o’clock, there was an irate phone call
from Dave Baddiel, who had heard the message and knew it had come from
my house because he rang the 1471 Last Number facility. This could have
been a bit of a problem. However, he stupidly said:
“I know it wasn’t you, because I know it wasn’t your voice”.
“Oh,” I said, “It must have been that West Country bloke Tom we were
putting up. I did mention I was going to be at the Palladium and - oh look my address book’s open by the phone at your number. It must have been
As far as I know, Frank Skinner heard my message, but they convinced him
it was a hoax.
When I got to the Palladium, I was going to go on and say:
“Frank Skinner? - Oh, yeah, he’s brilliant since he got rid of that beret and
stopped doing that Oooh, Betty! stuff”.
But they didn’t have me on: I just sat in the audience. So I had one of my
bitter turns again and, at the party after the show, I was a bit drunk. I
introduced myself to Michael Aspel and was talking about pressure points
and squeezed the back of his neck and he didn’t go right down on the floor,
but he buckled a bit. He didn’t say anything, he just looked a bit shocked and
then I wandered over to Jenny Eclair for some reason and got ushered out by
two big Palladium blokes in blue coats.
I tried to get a taxi home from Regent Street and I hailed two black cabs but,
each time, I was so drunk I couldn’t say the word “Greenwich”. They both
drove away. So I hailed a third cab and said:
“New Cross!”
Back in 1983, The Greatest Show on Legs got fed up with touring and we
split up as a full-time act, though we're still going. We're a bit like the folk
group Fairport Convention. We keep having reunions. But when we stopped
being The Greatest Show on Legs full-time, I started The Tunnel Palladium,
an early alternative comedy venue. It all started by accident.
Every year we did two Greatest Show on Legs Pub Crawls. We selected four
or five local South East London pubs where we’d go and give a show for
free. We did one Pub Crawl in the Winter, round Christmas; and one in the
One of these pubs we picked was The Mitre in a very rough area of
Greenwich, about 50 yards from the southern exit of the Blackwall Tunnel
under the Thames. Our show there was on a Sunday night and we couldn’t
give it for free because the landlord insisted it was part of his Licence that he
had to charge something to get in. So I think he charged £2.
When we did our show, a The Mitre was packed: about 300 people were in
there watching us.
The Mitre was split into two bars. The Greatest Show on Legs performed in
one bar and, in the other bar, there was a stag night for the local
constabulary. It wasn’t just a stag night. They had strippers who performed
full sex.
They were giving blowjobs and wiping the result on the beer mats and all
that sort of stuff. I went into this other bar and was sitting next to a copper
who thought I was part of the stag night crowd. In front of me was a stripper
sucking this bloke’s knob and I said to this copper:
“What’s that all about?”
“Oh,” he said: “That’s alright. He’s getting married tomorrow”.
After that night, I spoke to this very woman we’d been watching. She said
she recognised me because she used to go out with my mate Dexie Doug
Davies and it came back to me in a flash. I remembered their relationship
and I remembered Dexie Doug complaining that this woman Frances
wouldn’t go the whole way but spent 90% of her waking hours giving him
blow jobs. (I’ve heard other complaints about other relationships, but they
were the exact opposite.)
So there was Frances all these years later putting her considerable skills to
good use and presumably getting paid for it.
It was a very odd experience. Two different audiences. A lot of trendy
Lefties watching The Greatest Show on Legs in one bar. And, in the other
bar, a load of coppers being serviced by strippers.
The next Sunday, I went back and there was a Heavy Metal band on with
about four people in the audience and they were just friends of the band. I
“Last week, when we were here, there were 300 people. What’s going on?”
So the person who was rock promoter there, Steve Black, suggested I run a
Sunday comedy club at The Mitre.
I named it The Tunnel because it was next to the Blackwall Tunnel.
Strangely enough, the landlord had ‘tunnel vision’.
But that was just an odd coincidence.
Martin Potter, who had helped us on the pilot for OTT and the audition for
Game For a Laugh became my partner for our Sunday Night at The Tunnel
Palladium shows. We very quickly made some promotional flyers and the
club was an instant success.
Our first show on 8th January 1984 featured the cream of alternative comedy
talent. We had Steve Bowditch compering as a character called Wilbert, a
verbal precursor to Mr Bean. The acts were Ronnie Golden, Fiasco Job Job
(Arthur Smith & Phil Nice) and Skint Video, the comedy trio who, after that
night, quickly became a comedy duo. They actually had a row on stage.
The next week, Steve Bowditch couldn’t do the compering but he didn’t tell
me until the day of the show. So I decided I would be the compere and I did
it every Sunday from 1984 to 1989. I even flew back down from Edinburgh
at Festival time to do Sunday Night at the Tunnel Palladium.
It was a breeding-ground for lots of people like Harry Enfield and Jo Brand.
We paid Paul Merton £30 to contribute to his now millionaire bank account.
By that time, Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson felt they were
were too big to play the Tunnel. The only one of The Young Ones team who
did appear was Nigel Planer in the month he had a No 1 hit with Hole In My
Shoe. That night, there were people trying to get in through the windows and
all sorts. When I started running The Tunnel, I became a local personality
and enjoyed that.
I had been Inside - incarcerated - for most of the Seventies so I had missed
all that music scene. But my sister had been out with the bass player from
Squeeze and I met Jools Holland when I was invited to a party.
Jools knew that Martin and I did a Punch & Judy show, but he hadn't
actually seen the act. He didn't know it was an adult Punch & Judy show.
Quite soon after we met him, he said:
"I could do with a Punch & Judy show for my son's fourth birthday party".
That was a big mistake. We did have a sort-of children's version. The
children's version had Punch pissing, whereas the adult version showed him
having a wank.
At the beginning of the children’s version, I would say:
"We want to see Mr Punch!"
And Martin would say: "I'm not coming out!"
"Why not?" I’d say.
"Because I want to have a piss," he'd say.
"What did you say?" I’d ask.
"I want to 'ave a fuckin' piss!" he’d say.
Then Martin, inside the booth with a bottle of yellow Fairy Liquid, would
squirt it out all over the audience. The kids normally liked that.
What happened on this occasion was that I scared the life out of these poor
Martin couldn't be there, so I borrowed the puppets from him and I had to do
the puppeteering, the speaking, the whole lot. And I couldn't do it properly
because I'm not very dexterous. I squeezed the Fairy Liquid bottle and,
instead of a thin jet, the top came off and the whole lot spurted out. The
living room was soaked and a little bit went into the grand piano. The act
was quite loud and brash and the puppets were quite big.
When Mr Punch appeared on the playboard, the younger kids all ran out of
the room. Mr Punch is quite scary when you're three or four. His head was
nearly human size, made of foam. And it was quite noisy: the clattering of
cymbals coupled with the Acme Thunderer whistle. So the show ended up
being quite short. About five minutes. But Jools didn't mind. He still came to
The Mitre to see Sunday Night at The Tunnel Palladium..
John Rowlan, the landlord of The Mitre, wasn’t a brilliant businessman. I
originally paid him about £50 to hire the room out. Then, when he saw it
was successful, he started giving me £50. Then, without me even asking, he
started giving me 10% of the bar takings, which was basically the profit I
made on it.
John Rowlan was about 40. He lived above the pub with his wife Val, a
daughter who got married to some right herbert and a son called Simon.
They were like an inbred Gypsy family and Hell’s Angels motor mechanics
set up a garage round the back, which was all very peculiar.
They were so useless, this family, that the son was put in charge of
promoting the music and once he had hundreds of massive big posters
printed - cost a fortune - promoting a band that was on. Just the band’s name
and THE TUNNEL in big letters. No address. No date. No time.
His other triumph was Siouxsie & The Banshees. Her band was very
successful at the time. Her tour manager came in and said she wanted to do
an anonymous ‘secret’ gig at The Tunnel just before she went off on a big
European tour. So the son didn’t tell anyone. No-one at all. She turned up to
do the gig and there were about four people and her crew.
In the 1950s and 1960s, The Mitre had been a very well-known jazz pub.
One time, John Rowlan found a lot of photographs down in the cellar: Bing
Crosby, Duke Ellington, Spike Milligan etc. The photographs were signed
by all the stars, saying things like:
I saw him one week later and he’d thrown them all away. He said:
“I don’t want all those old photos”.
He’d probably been sitting on a goldmine.
It wasn’t that he was eccentric. He just didn’t really have a clue about
anything. He didn’t have any idea of alternative comedy. He suggested
putting on people like Jimmy Jones and Jim Davidson.
The pub was tied to Courage but whether he bought Courage beer or not I
don’t know because often when we went back to clear up on a Monday
morning, there were Whitbread lorries and shifty blokes delivering barrels.
Under John Rowlan and his family’s careful administration, the Mitre was
probably the worst pub in the world.
But, during the early days of alternative comedy, through The Tunnel passed
lots of acts who needed an agent to get work for them. I knew the various
venues because I'd performed at them with The Greatest Show on Legs. So I
put the two things together and I was an agent for loads of acts including
people just starting like Jeremy Hardy and Harry Enfield.
The first thing I had to do was make a brochure to send to venues.
Jools Holland agreed to go into my brochure because by now he was a mate
of mine. I did a couple of tours for him and put him on at Edinburgh very
successfully four times on the trot. Then he had quite a bad accident doing a
charity gig in Plymouth that I hadn't been involved in getting him. They
were driving back from the gig when it happened.
In the front of the car were John Lay, the tour manager, and Gilson Lavis,
the excellent drummer who was with Squeeze then Jools. In the back,
furtively, were Jools and Lady Christabel Durham, who now lives with him;
they can't marry because she'd lose her title. At the time of the accident,
Jools was living with someone else.
They had a head-on collision at about 70mph on the M4. Lady Christabel
broke her leg. The drummer and the tour manager were very badly injured.
Jools luckily got away with no injuries at all. They all ended up in Exeter
By coincidence, I was going down that day to see the Social Secretary of
Exeter University about putting Jools on as part of the forthcoming tour I
was arranging. As I arrived in Exeter Station, I noticed Jools in a train
coming out the other way. I found out what had happened and went to the
hospital. When I saw John Lay, he could hardly speak but muttered:
"Don't say anything about Lady Christabel".
This was a mystery to me as I was completely unaware of Jools’ liaison with
Lady Christabel, as was Jools’ live-in lover, who was on her way down to
Exeter, not knowing that Jools had left the hospital. She didn’t discover
Lady Christabel in Exeter, but it all came out in the wash eventually.
When I got back to London, I said to Jools:
"Well, that’s it! We can't do the tour now, because we haven't got a drummer
or a tour manager".
"Well,” he said, “Do you know any drummers?"
I mentioned a man called Rowland Rivron, who played the drums with a
parody band called Raw Sex. Jools auditioned him and they hit it off straight
away. But Rowland wasn't as good a drummer as Gilson, so they also got a
bass player in to disguise the fact.
Then Jools said:
"Do you know anyone who can do the tour managing?"
"I'll do it," I said.
Then he said:
"We'll need a support act".
"I'll do it," I said.
So I ended up being the tour manager, the support act as a stand-up comic,
the agent for the whole thing and I ended up playing the harmonica with the
band in the last two numbers every night. I did the lot. I earned more than
Being tour manager for Jools Holland was completely different from tour
managing The Greatest Show on Legs. He wanted hotels, time schedules,
sound checks - the works. Comedy will never be ‘The New Rock’n’Roll’
because all a comedian needs is one microphone, the clothes he stands up in
and a modicum of talent.
On that Jools Holland tour in the summer of 1986, we did a gig in Dartmoor
Prison, which was a bit unsettling. Although I'm no stranger to the World of
Prisons, I always feel a bit nervous when I see all those bars and gates and
dogs. It was an odd gig altogether because the whole thing was run by the
vicar, the one man in Dartmoor who shouldn’t have been allowed near live
comedy and music.
He was exactly like the tall, bald vicar in Dad's Army. He was almost his
double. They'd screened off the backstage area from the stage area in the
gym where all the convicts were going to go. So we couldn't see any of the
convicts, we just heard a rattling of keys and them all filing in. Jools said to
the vicar:
"What are the prisoners like as an audience?"
And the vicar, who was also going to be the compere, said:
"Well, I expect when I go onstage there will be a little bit of tittle-tattle, but
don't you worry about that. Then you'll be on".
The vicar went out on stage and said:
And all hell was let loose.
"Fuck off! Fuck off, you wanker! Fuck off!" came from 500 voices
This was what he considered a little bit of tittle-tattle and he carried on
saying, in a gentle, caring voice:
"Now, now, boys. Remember your parole".
He introduced the band and they loved Jools but they definitely didn't like
the vicar.
My first child, Frank, was born in December 1985. It wasn’t intentional on
my part but Pip, who was fast approaching 30, wanted one. I remember the
birth very well. She was in the audience at the Albany Empire in Deptford
and I was compering in a leopard-skin coat and a pair of white winkle-picker
shoes. Bob Jones, Head of Greenwich Leisure Services, was there. Halfway
through my act, he tugged my trousers and said:
“She’s gone into labour!”
He drove Pip to the hospital, then came back to The Albany to pick me up
and I went straight there without changing. It was about 11.30 at night.
I’d been to all the pre-natal classes, but I didn’t realise how long it took. I
was sitting wth Pip in the Delivery Room for a good two hours without a
cigarette. Eventually, I went downstairs, had a fag and when I came back up
there was all this screaming going on. I went back into the Delivery Room
and there were five people crowded round the bed. I was trying to peer over
their shoulders and I still had my leopard-skin coat on.
In the end, this baby was born and someone said:
“You’ve given birth to a lovely baby girl. Well done, Heather! ”
At that point, I realised I’d been watching the wrong birth.
It was a woman who’d been having a breech birth which was why there
were so many people round the bed and I couldn’t see.
I went back into the other room and eventually Pip gave birth to Frank after
about another eleven hours.
I was in the Delivery Room when Frank was born. I saw the whole body
come out and I thought it was dead because it was a bluish colour. But then
it started wriggling about and that was quite good. A very moving
Then I made loads of phone calls and got drunk.
That same week, my mother had a similar experience.
She had an old friend who had just died and my mother just missed the
cortege leaving the house but saw it travelling towards Hither Green
Crematorium. She tagged on to the end with relief and followed the
mourners into the chapel. She was there for about ten minutes before she
realised the vicar was talking about a different person who coincidentally
had the same forename. Like me, she shuffled out backwards. She went into
an adjoining chapel just in time to see the coffin of her old friend disappear
into the bowels of the furnace.
When Frank was about eight weeks old, Pip had gone back to work and I
was left in charge of him at home and I put him in the cot. I was hungry, so I
went down to Lil’s Diner, about 100 yards down the street. I was sitting
there eating and someone said:
“Malcolm! I hear you’ve had a baby boy!”
“Oh,” I said, “So I have!”
I got up slowly, pretending nothing was amiss, went outside and then ran
like hell back to the house. I had forgotten I had a kid.
When he was about three months old, Frank made his first stage appearance.
I used him as a ventriloquist’s dummy down at the Tunnel Palladium. He
had perfect timing. I was announcing who was on and he was gurgling as I
was saying their names. I got to the top act, a laconic Scottish comedian. I
“....and Arnold Brown!”
And Frank yawned and fell asleep.
When Channel 4’s rock show The Tube started, Jools Holland was one of the
presenters and, as we had become friends, he took me out for a meal to pick
my brain about acts. I got Harry Enfield on the show. At the time, there was
talk of him and me doing a double act. But it was only discussed very
briefly. He was doing his pompous Ooh yes! aristocratic character, which
he'd got from a record I had of Gerald Hoffnung. We talked about
performing as The Two Frankie Howerds. We were just going to sit there
and go:
"Oooaaargh, yeeees! No. Yes. Oooooh, Nooohh! Whhaaaatt?”
for about ten minutes, then get off.
I don’t think it would have worked because I can't do characters. I can only
be me. Some comedians can act; some can't. Tommy Cooper - who was a
brilliant comedian - couldn't act. Whatever he did, whatever clothes he wore,
it was always Tommy Cooper. People used to think that Tony Hancock was
a brilliant actor but he was that character. Arthur Smith is always Arthur
Smith. I am always me, whatever I try to do.
Anyway, Jools Holland took me out to Papillon restaurant in Greenwich and
the meal cost £196 for four of us. At that time, I used to go to the Terminus
Cafe opposite and get something for about £2.20p. So I was impressed.
The Greatest Show on Legs were on The Tube six or seven times, though
we never did the Balloon Dance. We did the Pop Musician's Lord's Prayer Our father who Art Garfunkel in Heaven 17 etc, an Indiana Jones parody,
several other favourites including The Human Fruit Machine and a Frank
Sinatra sketch.
It was Frank Sinatra's birthday on one of the days The Tube was transmitted,
so we wrapped Steve Bowditch from head to foot in bandages, put a Frank
Sinatra hat on him and said:
“Unfortunately, the great man has had a bit of an accident but here he is Frank Sinatra!”
Paula Yates, Jool’s co-presenter, wouldn't speak to us after this because she
said she was Frank Sinatra’s biggest fan. I sat next to her on the plane (back
from Newcastle where The Tube was recorded) three times and tried to
make conversation with her and she just stuck her nose in a copy of Vogue
or whatever and wouldn't say a word.
I got my own back a few years later when she interviewed me on Amnesty
International’s Big 30 show, screened on ITV. She started interviewing me
and I looked up and said:
“Hello, Paula”.
I paused.
Then I said:
“A serious case of mutton dressed as mutton”.
She scowled.
But generally I liked the attitude of the people on The Tube: Producers
Malcolm Gerrie and Geoff Wonfor were just Geordie lads really.
After I'd appeared on the show with The Greatest Show on Legs, they
auditioned me for a job as presenter on The Tube. I nearly got it. It was
down to me and a young kid called Felix. He was about 14, black, very
fashionable and sharp. He got it and he was fucking useless. No hard
feelings, Felix.
At the time, I did fancy being presenter of The Tube because it was just after
Jools was suspended for saying "groovy fuckers" on a live trailer for the
programme during children's television. Complaints flooded in. He denied it
and claimed he'd said "groovy fellahs", but unfortunately some bloke in the
Midlands had recorded it and sent in the recording with a letter of complaint.
So Jools was suspended for four weeks.
I got various acts on The Tube, but being an agent is a thankless task. An
agent, basically, gets bookings for acts and takes 15%. A manager normally
acts as an agent but offers a lot more guidance on the artist’s career and
takes 20%-30%. Sometimes an artist can have a separate agent and manager.
A lot of agents are not appreciated by their clients because the clients,
possibly quite rightly, think the agents don't do anything. Or, at least,
nothing involving any talent or hard work. The client always thinks he's out
there sweating away while the agent is just sitting there making two phone
calls. Nothing could be further from the truth, really.
There's all sorts of grief and endless things go wrong. Like people not
turning up. Wrong dates. It all happens. When I was being an agent, I did go
out and forage for work for my acts because, at that time, there were not an
enormous number of venues about and comedy wasn't sought-after. I
produced 5000 brochures and sent them off to various places and rang up all
the venues The Greatest Show on Legs had ever played. Mostly colleges,
universities and arts centres.
The first time I delved into management was with Gerry Sadowitz and, like
most managers, I was also his agent, although he did get some bookings
from other agents.
I first saw him when he came down to The Tunnel Palladium. His act was
brilliant. A breath of fresh air. He just launched into a tirade of abuse.
This was at a time when, to be considered funny, all an alternative
comedian had to do was to say that Mrs Thatcher was horrible and Barry
Manilow had a big nose - which is itself a Gerry Sadowitz line.
Gerry came on stage at the Albany Empire in Deptford, which had an
extremely ‘politically correct’ Arts Centre audience. And he started his act
"Nelson Mandela. What a cunt!"
But you had to realise he was deliberately doing it to upset that particular
type of audience. And they WERE upset. He was on for two nights and, on
the second night, they picketed the place. It was all water off a duck's back
to Gerry. I never knew if he really meant half of it or not. He is a very
complex character, to say the least.
When he's good he's very, very good, but he gets black moods. A year ago, I
saw him for the first time in ages in a curry house in the East End, which I'd
introduced him to years ago. He came in with this woman and just didn't
speak. He looked at me and went:
He just grunted and sat down. Another time he might go:
"Oh! Malcolm! Hello - How are you?"
Very strange chap.
He doesn't drink.
Sometimes, he'd do a really good show and come off stage in a really
horrible black mood. Another time he'd have one of the worst reactions ever
and he'd come off and be as happy as anything. I think he hated success,
really. I had to almost pull him out of cars onto the stage sometimes. He
refused to go on loads of times and his later agents Avalon had the same
problem with him.
Once, in Edinburgh, he was asked to perform five minutes on the Pick of
The Fringe programme on BBC TV Scotland. Michael Leggo was directing
it. I hadn't met him since we were childhood neighbours in Lewisham. When
I turned up, Arnold Brown was remonstrating with Gerry, who was refusing
to go on. We cajoled him and threatened him and, in the end, he agreed to do
it only if he could do what he wanted because he was obviously going to be
heavily censored. They filmed his act with the Cunts and Fucks and
everything in, then edited it with beeps. The result was like watching Gerry
Sadowitz but listening to jokes in Morse Code.
The first year I took Gerry up to Edinburgh, his advert in the Fringe
Programme was something like:
Bing Hitler was the stage name of Craig Ferguson.
Gerry had told everyone about Bing Hitler ripping-off his act and I quite
sincerely believed it.
Craig Ferguson was up there in Edinburgh, being represented by Vivienne
Clore, a big high-powered agent who later became my agent. Craig wanted
to sue the Fringe Society and Gerry for libel, which meant I was going to be
sued because it was me who'd put the advert in. As I dug deeper into it, I
couldn't find one example where Craig Ferguson had actually nicked any
They'd started off at around the same time at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow
and, at the time, Craig Ferguson was doing witty songs on the guitar.
Possibly Craig was influenced by Gerry's style and started doing things
where he said: I hate this... and I hate that.... but that was as near as it got.
Craig Ferguson had a record out as Bing Hitler and there wasn't one line of
Gerry's on it. He would have won his case but what was decided in the end
was that the Fringe Society fined Gerry and he didn't get his Fringe Club
ticket money, which upset him greatly. I think it would have been about
I arranged a meeting between the two of them at which Craig said he didn't
do it for the money and he agreed to give the money to a charity of Gerry's
I took Gerry up to the Edinburgh Fringe twice. He's a Glaswegian, so he
hates Edinburgh because of that. Or, at least, he feels and sounds
He was actually born in America and has an American passport. His dad was
an American who split up from Gerry’s Glaswegian mother. Gerry came
over to Glasgow when he was very young and later said he had hardly any
schooling because he had a serious medical condition which he insisted was
coprophilia. He spent a lot of time in hospital, which is where he started to
learn magic. He spends hours and hours perfecting magic tricks. He's written
books on it and writes for a monthly magic magazine about new tricks he's
invented. He’s a very clever bloke.
He was very difficult to handle but I stayed with him because he was so
good and everyone wanted him. There was a point where the phone didn't
stop ringing but a lot of the time he wouldn't do the work. One day it would
be because he wasn’t offered enough money; another day he’d travel the
length of the country for next-to-nothing.
It didn't make any sense.
Once, before he'd become high-profile, I had a phone call from Sheffield
University and they were offering him £300 for a show, which was good in
those days. Most comics were going out for £100. He asked if it included
travel or accommodation but it was an 'all-in' fee and he said:
"No! I'm not doing it!"
About two hours later, Sheffield Polytechnic rang up and offered him £200
plus travel and accommodation. In those days, travel and accommodation
came to £40-£50. I phoned him and he said:
"I'll do it!"
So he accepted the £240-£250 and turned down the £300.
The amount of money wasn’t the most important thing. They could have
offered him £3000, I reckon, and he'd have turned it down if it meant he had
to get on that train and fork-out money for his own ticket and sort out some
accommodation. He had a syndrome where small amounts of money seemed
an enormous amount, but enormous amounts didn't mean anything.
There was a point in his career where he was earning a lot. He earned £6000
for one Avalon gig at the Clapham Grand, got paid in cash, was in the car
with the bloke from Avalon, driving back and the car broke down. The bloke
from Avalon asked Gerry if he'd lend him the £12 cab money to get home
and Gerry wouldn't lend it to him. He had £6000 in his pocket that the bloke
had just given him. But the £12 seemed like a lot of money to Gerry.
One of the unsettling things about him was he didn’t seem to know the
difference between night and day and he’d ring me up at 4.00am to say
someone had nicked one of his lines.
He was also a very male-orientated comedian with much of his material
being deliberately misogynistic. He once told me he wanted to play to an
audience full of men and I said he probably would do if he ended up in Nick.
He wanted to fill Wembley Stadium with men. It was just one of his ideas.
He also wanted to do a show where the audience didn’t pay to get in: they
just all brought him presents. I thought that was quite a good idea.
He was never unbookable in live venues. There were always people willing
to book him. But on TV he was said to be unbookable. Eventually, he did
get his own TV series, but it didn't work. The whole thing about Gerry was
the shock and the outrage, which you can't do on TV - not to the level he did
on stage.
I heard recently that he is working as a shop assistant in a magic shop and
still living with his mum in a council flat. He has had a series of agents and
managers since myself, but has never been as good as his days at the old
Tunnel Club, before his self-destructive ways blacked his career.
When we started The Tunnel, by some miracle, we got a £3000 grant from
Greenwich Council to help set it up. I bought a car with it.
I told them the Tunnel was going to bring Art to the community. And it did.
It was cabaret comedy and the word ‘alternative’ was OK then. When they
came to check, I coincidentally had a woman on the bill called Lilly Wicked.
You couldn't get anyone more deserving of a council grant. She was a
woman, black, a single parent, a lesbian and that week she'd broken her leg.
She could just have limped past the council offices and they would have
thrown money out of the window at her.
Greenwich did OK from their grant. Through my agency Tunnel Arts, I
supplied them cheaply with lots of acts for the Greenwich Festival.
In 1987, I had the idea of putting a tent up on Blackheath. From my old
hippy festival days, I knew some people in Cornwall who had this tent for
hire really cheap. When they arrived, I put them all up in my house and gave
them baths just like a load of old hippies. In the tent, we put on Harry
Enield, Gerry Sadowitz and Jools Holland. And Greenwich Festival took the
When Jools performed, it was very packed because he's a talented local lad.
I was in the 'dressing room' - the back bit of the tent - when Jools' mum
came in and said:
"We can't get any tickets. They're sold out. Can we get in on the guest list?"
There was no guest list, but I sneaked about 17 people in. And this bloke
Bob Jones from the Council saw it and just went mad. He didn't speak to me
for years. But there was no way I couldn't have let in Jools Holland's mum
and a few of his relatives. It had sold out anyway, so the Council wasn't
losing money.
This Bob Jones was the same bloke who had driven me to the hospital when
my son Frank was born. Quite recently, he moved to a house quite close to
me and I've gone round with the kids a couple of times and knocked on the
door, but he's never let me in.
The Tunnel had an atmosphere of its own. It became known - I don’t know
why - for its ‘hard’ audience. It was called The Glasgow Empire of the
South. The audience at the Glasgow Empire hated Southerners. At The
Tunnel, they hated everyone. The audience in South East London doesn’t
suffer fools gladly, to say the least, and The Tunnel got known for its
I remember one particular double-act. They’d just put on Red Indian headdresses and were about to start beating their bongos when someone shouted
“Oy! Malcolm! There are a couple of tropical fish on stage!”
The comedian Jim Tavare’s first ever appearance was at The Tunnel. He’s
good now, but he didn’t used to be. He came on, stood in the middle of the
stage, and said:
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Jim Tavare and I’m a
Immediately, someone shouted out:
“Why don’t you both fuck off, then!”
A Welsh comic called Noel James tried an act which involved painting
himself blue. He painted his face and hands blue to give the impression he
was blue all over. When I saw him in the dressing room, I thought he was
going to be quite good. I thought that he was going to go out and say he was
a ‘blue’ comic. But he didn’t. He just talked a load of bollocks for about
thirty seconds, then someone shouted out:
“Oy! Fuck off, you Smurf!”
And he did.
He never painted himself blue again.
There is a mime artist called Les Bubb. I think mime is a tragic waste of
time, but he’s very good. He came out and he had an invisible balloon which
he blew up; then he had an invisible rope; and then the hands on the invisible
glass. All that business. After about ten minutes, he started to get a bit ‘arty’
with the mimes and someone shouted out:
“Oy! For fuck’s sake tell us a joke....I’m blind!”
And he did. That’s where he went wrong again. He was good at mime but no
good at telling a joke. So, after a few seconds, the same bloke shouted out:
“Oy, mate! Carry on with the mime! - I’m deaf as well!”
The Tunnel was very successful so, from 1986, I decided to try to take the
idea to the Edinburgh Festival and I called the show Aaaaaaaaaargh!
because, with all those ‘A’s I’d get first place in the Fringe Programme.
Once, I had to have 26 ‘A’s, when someone tried to catch up - The
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaardvark Theatre Company.
One year, we were playing at The Pleasance venue and, as normal, when
you open the first week there’s no-one there. All the other shows at The
Pleasance had been reviewed by The Scotsman newspaper. Again, we were
‘wrong side of the tracks’. They hadn’t come to review our show. I was
feeling bitter. So I thought I’d write my own review for them.
I got a copy of The Scotsman and picked out a reviewer’s name at random William Cook. I talked to someone I knew who used to write reviews for
The Scotsman and found out how to do it. All you do is type it out in doublespacing. That’s the trick.
Then, with Arthur Smith, I wrote a review of my own show, put William
Cook’s name at the bottom, folded it up, put it in an envelope and went to
the Scotsman’s offices at about 9.00pm when all the staff had gone home
and gave it to the porter. Sure enough, next day, they printed it. After that,
the show was full up.
Then The Scotsman went mad because someone told them I’d done it and
William Cook didn’t speak to me for years. I don’t know why. I presume he
got paid for it.
One problem about Edinburgh which I forget every year until I arrive is that
the audiences there tend to just sit and look at you. A lot of people just come
along and stare and don't react. I don't know what it is. They're just
'Edinburgh Festival Goers'.
It's not that they are surprised or shocked by my act in particular. I have seen
it with other acts who go down a storm elsewhere but an Edinburgh audience
just sit there staring. I’ve had audiences stare blankly at me for two weeks in
Edinburgh, then I came back to London on the Sunday night, did Up The
Creek and they showed they enjoyed me. I felt much better.
Edinburgh audiences don’t heckle the acts like they do in London. They just
sit and stare, which can be worse than heavy heckling. Heckling can be
creative or destructive.
I had comedian Keith Allen heckle me at the Glastonbury Festival the year
he'd been in nick for a week for smashing a mirror at the Zanzibar Club. He
is a big fan of The Greatest Show on Legs and used to come along to a lot of
our shows. I think it's wrong for a performer to heckle another performer,
but his was good-spirited heckling.
I've only once heckled someone - at a miners' benefit in Peckham Civic
Centre. This bloke got up and he just did Mark Miwurdz' (now Mark
Hurst’s) entire act, reading it off a bit of paper. He pretended he'd written it
himself. I shouted out:
"Oy! That's Mark Miwurdz's!"
The audience all looked at me as if I was mad and I got thrown out. I told
them I was meant to be performing there later on - which I was - but they
still threw me out into the street.
At The Tunnel, the main part of the heckling was for the Open Spot, where
people who perhaps hadn’t been on stage before were trying out material. It
never fails to amaze me how many people are keen to do this. I still get
about ten calls a week from people wanting to do an Open Spot. People like
Madame Poulet and Her Singing Chicken.
I booked Madame Poulet over the phone and, when she arrived, she tried to
convince me she was Madame Edith and that Madame Poulet would arrive
later. She left the ‘chicken’ under a cloth in my office. I lifted the cloth when
Madame Edith wasn’t there and it was a fake chicken made out of chicken
feathers, some of which were painted pink for no apparent reason. It was like
the Barbara Cartland of the Chicken World.
When she did her act, she had a little triangular screen about waist height on
stage, so she could kneel down behind it.
That night, I announced:
“Ladies and gentlemen. Will you please welcome Madame Poulet and her
Singing Chicken......”
And Madame Edith walked on having disguised herself as Madame Poulet
by wearing a hat with a black veil over her face. She went and knelt behind
the screen, the chicken appeared over the top and Madame Poulet started
singing Je Ne Regret Rien completely straight in her own voice with the
chicken miming to it.
This went on for about five minutes and then about ten blokes at the back of
the audience, as one, all went:
“Cluck-Cluck.....Cluck-Cluck.....Cluck off!”
Madame Poulet got up, almost flew off the stage, left the club without
saying a word, and I’ve never seen her since.
The best Open Spot I ever saw at The Tunnel was Phil Cool. It was his first
alternative comedy gig in London.
The worst Open Spot, I think, was The Tapdancing Swede. He was Swedish
and he had the most piercing blue eyes I’ve ever seen. He decided he had a
tap-dancing act but, unfortunately, the stage at the Tunnel was the only place
in the club that was fully-carpetted. So he came on wearing tails and looking
immaculate and he had this tap-dance backing-tape. He started tap-dancing
and no-one could hear him. He was doing all the smiling and he was tapdancing away in silence. In the end, people started shouting:
“Cab for The Swede!”
And off he went.
To this day, when another act is doing particularly badly, people shout out:
“Bring back The Swede!”
I’ve been heckled in other places, but I was never heckled badly at the
Tunnel, although there was one week when I was so bad I got them to heckle
me off.
The hecklers weren’t exactly the same people every week, but there were
some regulars. There was a bloke called The Pirate who wore a blue
handkerchief on his head with a knot in the back. Someone told me he
worked in the Stock Market. He had a very booming, Shakespearean-type
voice and he occasionally used to shout out sarcastically:
I did write a play once with a woman who used to come to The Tunnel. It
was a TV sitcom called Hellfire and Hecklers, set in a club, with backstage
goings-on. Then something very similar called Packet of Three was done on
Channel 4 a couple of years later and it was never taken up. Also, our’s
wasn't very good.
At The Tunnel, I used to talk to some of the hecklers afterwards but I never
openly encouraged heckling. In fact, I wrote several letters and left them on
the tables saying that the heckling was sometimes getting a bit too much.
But then they heckled the letters.
After one particular letter, they did realise they were getting a bit out of
order with the volume of heckling, so they decided to hum the acts off. If an
act was going particularly badly, they just started going
Eventually, some hecklers, not content with verbal abuse, started launching
missiles - bottles and plastic glasses and so on. The end of The Tunnel really
came when ‘Clarence and Joy Pickles’ (Adam Wide and Babs Sutton from
the old National Revue Company) appeared doing a parody of an old Music
Hall couple.
I wasn’t there that night; I was up in Edinburgh.
Joy Pickles got hit between the eyes with a glass, breaking her spectacles,
which I ended up paying £200 for because they were special 1950s ones.
Arthur Smith was on the bill as headline act. At the end of the show, he got
up, started doing his act and obviously - because he’s a very good performer
- went down very well with the audience from the start. After five minutes,
he just stopped dead, said:
“They are friends of mine. You are all animals”.
And he walked off stage.
Fair play to Arthur.
That incident with Babs was when it really started going downhill, but we
lasted about another year.
The Tunnel eventually closed because the landlord decided to put on Acid
House Raves every Saturday night and the police raided the place. They
closed off Blackwall Tunnel and hid in there, then came in with helicopters,
through skylights, windows, doors, all round the back.
There were about 300 kids in the pub at 3.00 or 4.00 in the morning - all
quite legal, because the landlord wasn’t selling alcohol. The police searched
the place and all they found was a bit of dope in the landlady’s handbag. It
was worth about £37 and they’d reportedly spent £250,000 on the raid. This
upset the police no end. So the next time the landlord applied for his
Licence, he didn’t get it. It took from 1989 to 1995 for new management to
get the Licence back.
There was nothing memorable about the last night of The Tunnel because I
didn't know it was going to be the last night. We ran Sunday Night at The
Tunnel Palladium, as normal. The following Saturday, The Mitre was raided
and closed.
Pip was pregnant again in 1988. Between pregnancies, I had left her and my
son Frank a couple of times and gone to live at The Tunnel. She had also left
me once. She had an affair with a bloke called Dave - nice bloke, except that
he kept borrowing money off me. He phoned me the other day trying to sell
me a car.
When she was pregnant the second time, Pip wanted to have the baby at
home. But, a few weeks before it was due, they decided she had quite high
blood pressure, so she had to go into hospital to have it. She went in about a
day before it was due and her blood pressure got higher and higher and
higher. So they decided to induce the baby.
That day, December 7th, the hospital was extremely busy, so she couldn’t go
into the Delivery Room. She had to go into a little side-room. I was trying to
get nurses and she was having contractions. She was suffering from
potentially fatal pre-eclampsia, but the staff were too busy to notice.
My daughter Poppy was born in this little side-room about 11.05 at night,
which was very inconvenient because the pubs had closed.
Then a horrible midwife came over and insisted Pip had an injection to
remove the afterbirth.
Pip didn’t want the injection but she was very weak and the nurse insisted on
giving it to her. I said goodbye to Pip at about 11.30pm because she looked
very tired and I went home and had a drink with Jools Holland, who lived
The next day, I went in to see Pip and took my young son Frank but she sent
us away because she didn’t feel well.
It was coming up to Christmas and I had a rare afternoon show at a college
in Bromley. When I came back from that, Pip’s mother was waiting at my
home and said the Intensive Care Unit at Greenwich Hospital had phoned
and Pip wasn’t very well. So I went down there and a doctor told me Pip was
probably going to die.
I went into the room to see her and she was on all sorts of drips, in a
comatose state and her liver and kidneys had packed-up.
After a day, she got taken by ambulance with a police escort to Dulwich
Hospital, which has a Kidney Unit. Her mother drove me in her car and
nearly killed us about three times she was so panicky. At Dulwich, there
were lots of top surgeons rushing around looking panicky too. There was
definitely an air of panic. Something seemed to have gone wrong, which
didn’t make me feel any better.
Pip was in a coma for about a week, during which I lived at the hospital. Her
dad came up from Bournemouth in tears. Her mum was in a state. And Chris
Lynam was very helpful. He used to come and stay at the hospital with me.
Eventually, Pip came out of her coma. She was on dialysis for a time and I
took Poppy home, looking after her for the first two or three weeks. Pip
came home just after Christmas but she still wasn’t well, so the
responsibility for our new baby mostly fell on me for the next 2 to 3 months
- bottle of milk in one hand, fag in the other.
Luckily, Pip eventually made a full recovery. She got back 90% use of her
kidneys and she sued Greenwich Hospital. They settled out of court.
She also decided, after all this, that she didn’t want to go through the
experience again. So she wanted either me or her to be sterilised. She
decided it would be her which was lucky because, when she went back in,
they found a massive non-malignant tumour on her womb which they cut
It was worrying, but now I make jokes about it, of course.
I brought up Poppy for a few weeks on my own, but Pip’s mother was there
some of the time. She is a Justice of The Peace in Bournemouth and one of
the cleanest women you could meet. It’s a Lady Macbeth complex. She
doesn’t like anything filthy. She hoovered and polished the inside of our
She slept in our main bedroom on the first floor.
One night, I went down to the local pub, got a bit drunk and met one of the
Hell’s Angels who had the garage at the back of the Tunnel. He’s one of
these blokes who are constantly covered in grease because he works with
cars and bikes and goes straight from work into the pub. Tattoos, long hair,
grease dripping off it. You name it. The whole works. Like a coal-miner
when he’s finished work. When I was talking to him, I realised I had
forgotten my front door keys. I said:
“I can’t knock up the mother-in-law. She’ll go bloody mad!”
“I’ll get you in,” he said: “I used to do a bit of burglary”.
I thought, between us, we should be alright.
We drove back to my house in his beaten-up old Vauxhall Cresta. I went
across to Jools Holland’s house and took some ladders I knew he had in his
side alley. We decided to climb in the front window where my mother-inlaw was sleeping. The Hell’s Angel went up first, prized open the window
and put his dirty, greasy head through the window about six feet from where
my mother-in-law’s face rested on the pillow. She turned out to be a light
She woke up, switched the light on and just screamed like a lunatic:
“Burglars!! Robbers!! Help!!”
I quickly ran up the ladder and stuck my head through the window, saying:
“It’s alright! It’s only me!”
She went home the next day and let me carry on looking after Poppy by
After The Tunnel closed, agent Addison Cresswell tried a similar sort of
thing at The Albany Empire on Sunday nights. He got me in to compere it
for a month because I was popular locally. Each week was incident-packed
and I only lasted three weeks.
On the first Sunday, there was a young comic called Alex Langdon. He was
about 15 and his dad was John Langdon, who wrote for Punch. Basically his
dad had written the script for him and it was an older man's words coming
out of a young boy's mouth. I thought there was something a bit sad about
that. He 'died' and I said to the audience:
"Well, he was shit. But he's still young".
While I was saying this, he was sitting at the side of the stage crying. I didn't
know it at the time. At the interval, I came off and saw him in floods of tears
and felt a bit bad about that.
The next week, there was a double-act that wasn't much appreciated by the
audience and they said:
"Don't throw your beer glasses at us. Throw them at Malcolm when he
comes back on". And they did.
On the third Sunday, I was doing my act on-stage and was dying for a piss
and - it seemed a good idea at the time - I had a piss on the stage. It wasn't
gratuitous. It called for it at the time. It wasn't that I just fancied a piss.
Someone shouted something out and one thing led to another and I had a
piss. It was at the back of the stage and it was only a little one and I cleaned
it up afterwards. But I was sacked as compere immediately afterwards.
Part of the problem was that the people who gave the Albany their financial
grant were in the audience that night, as was Teddy Kennedy, the Artistic
Director at the time. He was an American and presumably had no sense of
irony. The people who gave the grants didn't think my pissing was
Nobody’s perfect.
On the fourth Sunday, I was replaced as compere by Jack Dee.
I also had trouble at The Zap Club in Brighton. It was a very nice club under
some arches on the beach and they had just expanded it so they had a big
room for cabaret. There was another problem about my pissing on the stage.
Again, it called for it at the time but I can't remember which line led up to it.
The Zap’s cabaret evenings stopped fairly swiftly after the incident.
I've done thousands of shows and I've only pissed on the stage three times well, maybe four. That's not a lot.
The first time I ever urinated on - or, strictly speaking, from - the stage was
at The Tunnel. A bloke was sitting, hideously drunk, in the front row. So
drunk that he had fallen asleep and was snoring loudly through all the acts.
We didn't have bouncers at The Tunnel but he couldn't have been thrown out
anyway, because he was right at the front and right in the middle. At the end
of the show, I said to the audience:
"I've been dying for a piss. I don't know whether to go to the toilet or go on
"Go on him!" they shouted out.
He was still sleeping through all this. So I pissed on his head - and it didn't
wake him up. It was dribbling down his head but he slept through it.
At the end of the night, he got up and went off. I never saw him go. But he
came back the next week - he was quite a big bloke - and he came up to me
as if he was about to hit me.
He said: "You pissed on my head last week, didn't you?"
I said: "Yes. Sorry about that."
"No problem,” he said.” People have been talking about it all week. It’s been
And he shook me by the hand.
I normally go to the toilet before I get on stage. But certain things happen on
certain nights and you need to do something to get the audience on your side
or out of their stupor. A bit of shock value is called for. It's the liquid
equivalent of swearing.
Sometimes, when it gets really desperate and needs shock value - or
sometimes even when it has gone down particularly well - I do an
impression of General De Gaulle. Martin Soan started it.
You have to be nude, of course.
If Martin and I perform the impression together, I take my spectacles off and
hold them at the top of his knob. For some reason, anyone's knob does look
like General De Gaulle's nose. Try it yourself. With spectacles, it looks like
De Gaulle's face. Then we get the audience singing the French National
Anthem and off we go.
I found out about how to do this from one of comedian Spike Milligan's
autobiographical books. There was a bit where a guy did all sorts of
impressions with his testicles and his knob - including two eggs on a plate
with a sausage. And General de Gaulle.
The Tunnel audience was always very appreciative of General De Gaulle. I
never had much trouble with them.
One of the most popular acts with any Tunnel audience that enjoyed General
De Gaulle was Chris Lynam, who had been so kind to me when Pip was ill.
He was in The Greatest Show on Legs at one point and we were all sitting
round saying:
“How can we follow The Balloon Dance? We’re all naked. What can we do?
We just have to walk off stage. There’s no way to finish it!”
“Well,” I said, “You might as well stick a banger up your arse!”
“Good idea!” Chris said: “You do it!”
So I was the first one to do it. But I only did it once.
You don’t actually stick the banger up your arse, you just clench it between
your buttocks, then light it. I didn’t have the necessary muscle-control. It
drooped a bit and set light to the hairs on my testicles. I said to Chris:
“You’d better do it”.
So now the finish to his act involves putting a firework up his bottom, then
an extravagant version of There’s No Business Like Show Business starts
playing on loudspeakers, the firework is lit, goes off and he exits the stage
trailing glorious sparks. Sometimes it’s a three-stage Roman Candle
shooting forth increasingly spectacular jets of silver sparkles. Good finish.
Difficult to follow.
The first year he did it in Edinburgh, we were playing a little pub called The
Comedy Boom. It wasn’t very big, but we got the Banger Up The Bum
routine passed by a Fire Officer called Maurice Gibb. That’s his real name.
It just is. We did the routine the first night then the landlord said he wouldn’t
let us do it again. He said:
“You’re not doing that in my pub!”
I said we’d compromise. At the end of our show, we’d take the audience
outside and do it in the street. So we did that the second night and it wasn’t
just the audience from the show who were there: it drew a bit of a crowd.
The landlord said:
“No! You’re not doing that again. It’s bringing my pub into disrepute!”
So we had to video the routine and show the audience the video and it
wasn’t the same.
On the last night of our run, I decided we’d do it again for real. We’d been
paid already, so fuck the landlord. I was sick of it. We’d had other rows
about our act - obviously.
So Chris Lynam bought an extra-large firework.
That night - banger in the bottom - light it - No Business Like Show Business
- and it set the pub alight. Just the wall. A bit of plaster. It wasn’t much
damage. But some people.... moan, moan, moan.
The next year, The Greatest Show on Legs played The Assembly Rooms,
the big, prestige venue at the Edinburgh Fringe. Same thing again. The Fire
Officer passed it. First night went without a hitch. Lovely. On the second
night, for some reason, it set off all the fire alarms in The Assembly Rooms
and they had to evacuate the entire building - about 3000 people had to
evacuate, including our audience and some Russians who were doing a fourhour play and only had three minutes left to go.
We were all standing around outside The Assembly Rooms - a motley crew when the fire engines turned up with Maurice Gibb. He was there, ready
with the hose. Then he saw me naked, saw Chris Lynam, and said:
“Banger up the bum?”.
“Yes,” I said.
“Hoses away, lads!” he said.
And off they went.
The Russians - fair play to them - went back upstairs and did the last three
minutes of their play.
Another act who was always popular both at The Tunnel and in Edinburgh
was Chris Luby. We had met when we were both in The Mad Show. His act
was then - and still is - making noises with his mouth. He does loud oral
impressions of wartime aeroplanes, racing cars and the entire Trooping The
Colour ceremony. He does machines, drums, military people and that's his
act. It's 20 minutes long and, really, he's made a jolly good living out of it,
On stage, he has a military air - a bit Air Force - but he was never in the
RAF, only in the Army Training Corps when he was a kid. When I met him,
he had been a Civil Servant for about 15 years. A real boring, pen-pushing
job. He lived on a council estate in Bromley, South East London.
At the time, he didn't have a car, so I used to give him a lift home every
night after The Mad Show. And, every night, he'd make exactly the same
noises. I would start the engine and he would go:
"Chocks away!"
I would put the car into first gear and he would make first gear noises.
We would come to the first bend and he'd do the screeching of tyres and yell
"Bank left! Bank left!"
He did exactly the same thing every night for three months and I never hit
him once.
On one journey back from Manchester, Arthur Smith actually gave him £50
to keep quiet. Arthur had put up with it for 20 minutes, then he got his
money out.
Chris has two children and was married to a very nice Anglo-Indian lady
from whom he's recently split.
It's a talented act, but limited.
Just before the Falklands Conflict started, he was over there. And just before
the Gulf War he went over to Saudi Arabia to entertain the troops. I think he
probably started those wars off.
He could have made a fortune just travelling round Army and RAF bases
during the Cold War. I tried to get him into that circuit. There was an
organisation called CSE (Combined Services Entertainment) run by Dennis
Agutter, actress Jenny Agutter's dad - the only man with bigger testicles than
me. The problem is Chris is no stranger to the World of Drink. On stage he's
alright but, after the show, he becomes a bit of a nuisance around a lot of the
I think he likes the social life involved in showbiz. I don't think he has ever
thought he would be a star. There are some 'jobbing' comics who are very
good - like Phil Jupitus and Bob Mills - and if anything good comes their
way they'll accept it, but they aren't deliberately going for the big TV series.
Most of the new, young 'designer comics' are just going straight for their
own TV series and hardly do any work on the circuit at all.
The night I thought Chris Luby's career might not be a roaring success was
the night I saw him drunk at The Comedy Store.
At the time, Wizo was running a 'Fun Bus'. He had got sponsorship from a
lager company and had hired a double-decker bus. Every week during the
summer, he got various comics to perform on the bus and they could do
whatever they liked. The comics could tell the driver where to go or take the
audience off the bus or whatever. He asked me to do it one week and I took
Chris Luby along.
The bus was parked near Aldwych and Chris got the whole audience drilling
in the street. All in lines. He was shouting:
"Stand by the left! Quick march!" and all that.
Then he got them all shouting like American Marines:
"We-are go-ing on-a bus! We-are go-ing on-a bus!"
The he got them marching at double-quick time. We all got on the bus and
he started pretending it was an aeroplane:
"Fasten your seat-belts!"
There was a microphone on the bus and he started doing his World War II
aeroplane act, which was good. So I took the bus down to The Montague
Arms pub in New Cross, south of the River, where there was a talent
competition. I entered the competition - I played the mouth organ - but I
don't know if I won or not because we had to take the bus back to central
London. We got back about 10.30pm and, by this time, Chris had been
drinking some of the free lager provided by the sponsors. He wanted to carry
on celebrating, so we went to The Comedy Store. He got drunker and
drunker and, in the end, he was asked to leave. I think he was one of the first
comics to be thrown out of The Comedy Store.
It was now about 2.00 in the morning. I was a bit drunk myself, but not as
drunk as Chris. We got an N77 night bus which went from Charing Cross to
right outside my house in Greenwich and quite close to Chris Luby's house.
When we got on the bus, Chris couldn't manage to get upstairs, but I did. I
went upstairs; he stayed downstairs. After a few minutes, I heard him doing
his act again. He thought we were back on the original bus. He was shouting
at the bus driver:
"Engage thrust! Bank left! Chocks away!" and all the noises he does.
Eventually, the bus driver and passengers could take no more. We stopped at
New Cross and, as I looked out my upstairs window, I saw Chris being
thrown out the double-doors and lying flat on the pavement. New Cross is
about two miles from where Chris lived.
The next morning, I phoned his wife because I wondered what had happened
to him. She said she didn't know what had happened to him, but said he had
given a cab driver a cheque for £83.
Once, Chris was supposed to be doing a gig for me, but it turned out he had
to go to court accused of groping a woman's bottom on a train. He had been
arrested by the Transport Police. I went on the second day of the trial to give
him a character reference if he was found guilty. But he was found Not
Guilty. He was very pleased when he was acquitted.
The next day, the Daily Mirror published a picture of Chris Luby and his
agent Malcolm Hardee but they got the names transposed so it looked like I
had been the bloody person accused of being a groper. I had a suit on for the
court appearance; I can look remarkably normal if I put my mind to it.
After the court case, he took voluntary redundancy. He'd been in the Civil
Service for years so he got quite a huge chunk of money.
I was his agent for a while but, whenever I've been an agent, I've never done
it to make money out of people. I've really just done it to help people along
the way. That's completely true. I was there at the time, thought the acts
were good and could put them probably two steps up the ladder. Then, if
they started to succeed, they always moved on to someone else. I couldn't do
the third, fourth and fifth steps anyway because I've always been busy with
something else. To be an agent, you always have to be in the office. The idea
with me was never There's money to be made out of this person..
I don't want money as such. I'm happy with a regular income and, if more
comes along, it comes. But the pursuit of money isn’t the be-all and end-all
of existence.
I went round trying to ‘sell’ Chris Luby and Gerry Sadowitz because I
thought they were good. When I first started doing agency work out of The
Tunnel, I was one of the few people agenting 'alternative' acts and I thought
then that it would be another string to my bow.
Since then, I've more or less just helped people on their way as I'm currently
doing with Ricky Grover and The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper. Like I did
with Charlie Chuck. In fact, the only one who's been really grateful has been
Charlie Chuck. When he did come into a bit of money, he sent me quite a
large cheque in gratitude.
Gerry Sadowitz was the opposite. He phoned me up a couple of Christmases
ago and said I owed him £2000 because I never got him enough work when I
was his agent. Nothing could be further from the truth: he didn't want to do
most of it.
I agented for female ventriloquist Terri Rogers for several years and took her
up to Edinburgh several times. She says she's 50-odd but I think she's a bit
older than she says. One year, I was going to have her pretend to have a
heart attack and die on stage. The fireman friend of mine, Maurice Gibb,
was going to come on stage - fire officers' uniforms in Edinburgh look much
the same as ambulancemen's - and take her dead body off. Then I was going
to arrange a Benefit in memory of her and, at the end of the Benefit, I was
going to say:
"Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome Terri Rogers".
And she'd walk on stage.
But she wouldn't do it.
I think she found it beneath her dignity.
She hates the idea of being thought-of as elderly. She once had a review that
gave her a good write-up but called her "the brilliant 70 year-old
ventriloquist". She was mortified and came to the venue the next night with
her cases packed, shaking and quivering, saying:
"I'm going home".
But she didn't.
Another time, we were all staying in quite a small flat. Terri Rogers used to
do the show, come back, have a cup of tea and go to bed. But one of the
other performers, Angry Young Accordionist John Moloney, was having a
relationship with a girl. They were coming back late and making ‘noises’.
After about a week of all this shagging by John Moloney in the room next to
her's, I got up one morning and found Terri lying face-down across the
kitchen table, crying and kicking her legs saying:
"I can't go on! I can’t go on!"
In 1989, I was doing my show in Edinburgh with Chris Luby and Terri
Rogers. At the time, Noel Gay Television had a contract to make
entertainment programmes for the new BSB satellite channels. One of their
planned programmes was a rip-off of the bizarre American talent series The
Gong Show, on which the Comedy Store’s original Gong had been based.
Two Noel Gay producers came up and saw me in Edinburgh, then took me
out for the traditional Media Meal in London. They asked if I had anything
shady in my past. I said No. And they asked me to be the presenter of what
was then called The Cockroach Show: 65 half-hour shows which would copy
The Gong Show but with some changes to avoid breach of copyright. The
money wasn't so good - £500 per show - not Cilla Black proportions - but I
thought it'd be OK. And I also managed to worm my way in as a researcher
because they had to find all these bizarre acts. That was £500 a week, too.
I had met Noel Gay’s managing director Paul Jackson - who had produced
The Young Ones years before - at an Edinburgh Fringe, because he was
involved in a night with my sister and her two mates, which I've never got to
the bottom of except that all three of them got invited back to his hotel room.
I went round the country auditioning acts with the producer of the
Cockroach Show pilot, this old guy Cecil Korer, and some glamorous girl he
was taking round. Cecil was a TV bloke of the Old School. One of his
proudest clams to fame was as producer of the appalling 1980s Channel 4
series Mini-Pops. He liked young girls, did Cecil. Some of the acts we saw
were indescribably bizarre. You had to be there. One old woman sang to
backing tapes and danced about in a peculiar fashion. She tried her best to
look glamorous but everything was wrong: she had no co-ordination, no
glamour, nothing. Somehow, it was extremely funny and she should’ve got
on the show..
In the end, we selected enough acts to do two pilots: The Flip Show, which
had hand-held hooters instead of a gong, and Pull The Plug! where lights
were turned off progressively until the act was in total darkness and had to
stop. We recorded the shows in Gillingham with Jools Holland, Cardew
Robinson and Ned Sherrin on the panel. Cardew had been a judge years
back at Mr Looniverse on The Mad Show. The two pilots were not going to
set the world alight, but I thought they were quite good. They never got
taken up by BSB, though. We were never told exactly why.
By 1989, Wizo - following his non-career as a performer - had decided to
become an agent. He had been working as stage manager at The Tramshed
and he knew Addison Cresswell, who was agent for people like Skint Video,
Jeremy Hardy and Mark Thomas. They were all disillusioned with Addison
and Wizo just nicked the lot off him. He formed a co-operative with them
all, called it Stage Left and did quite well for maybe three years. He got most
of his acts on the Noel Gay/BSB shows.
When I started working for Noel Gay Television, Gerry Sadowitz and I had
an amicable parting of the ways. With the Noel Gay work, I couldn't devote
all my time to managing Gerry - which he needed. So my choice was either
to join forces with the then-fledgeling Avalon agency or just hand Gerry
over to them totally, which is what I ended up doing.
It was also while working for Noel Gay that I met Charlie Chuck. I
auditioned him for the Gillingham pilots, although he did not appear on
them. I was trying to help him on his way while I was working at Noel Gay,
but I wasn't managing him. Then, when the Noel Gay thing came to an end, I
thought I'd do some more management. So since Gerry, I've managed
Tommy Cockles and, with Charlie Chuck, for a while I was halfway
between agent and unofficial manager. He eventually chose as his full-time
agent Wizo’s former secretary.
The attraction of Charlie Chuck was that he was a very bizarre and unusual
act. The act is indescribable. He went goes round saying things like:
It's a lot more thought-out than that. Or maybe it isn’t. But it's a sequence of
His act started with him smashing an entire drum kit, then saying:
“Ey an beway, flippin de bow-wow...Donkey! Woof-bark...Donkey!...Woofbark...Donkey...Eee-aw. Eee-aw. Eee-aw.”
After that, he spoke in a strong North Country accent. He later told me that
he’d borrowed - borrowed! - the drum kit he smashed up from a music shop
round the corner.
The day I auditioned him in Nottingham, he was there with seven or eight
mainstream acts who came along with their agents. These people were doing
dreadful acts like impressions of Norman Wisdom and Michael Crawford as
Frank Spencer in Some Mother Do ‘Ave ‘Em: things you'd seen a million
times before. Charlie Chuck came along with a drum kit, started playing it,
destroyed it and I noticed these people's agents were looking at him agog
and aghast. They should have signed him up immediately, because all these
other acts were never going to get anywhere. Or perhaps they did. Perhaps
they are playing the cruise liners.
With Charlie, it’s not only difficult to describe his act, it’s difficult to
describe him. He’s 50 years old and looks like a Seventies-reject: a haggard
and demented pixie who’s just had 50,000 volts put through him because his
expansive curly hair stands out like a latter-day - and very white - Jimie
Hendrix. He just back-combs his hair for stage appearances and looks totally
different off-stage. He toured all over Europe for about ten years as drummer
with the mainstream Amazing Bavarian Stompers and discovered alternative
stand-up relatively late in life. He’s able to play summer seasons in Great
Yarmouth and Reeves & Mortimer tours - totally different audiences - with
equal ease. But, with mainstream audiences, half don’t understand what
they’re watching.
Charlie Chuck was and is unique. An original.
People wonder if he is really as mad off-stage. But it's just an act. He's a
fairly normal sort of bloke. In fact, he's over-normal. His real name is Dave;
he lives in a nice little house near Leicester; he’s married with children; and
he’s a Christian.
He was very easy to work with. He'd do more-or-less any gig offered to him,
he was always there on time and he didn't get drunk.
The only problem was that whenever I advised Charlie Chuck on his act, it
seemed he'd do exactly the opposite. In the end, I tried advising the opposite
of what he should do just so that he'd do the proper thing. But he seemed to
have a Sixth Sense in avoiding doing what I thought he should do. There's a
bit in his act where, if he's panicking a bit, he'll tell mainstream Doctor,
Doctor jokes which I don't think he should bother with. But he will still tell
some of those even if it's going down well with the surreal stuff and that can
throw the whole act out. For some reason, if I told him not to do that, he'd do
it; and even when I once tried telling him to do it once, he still did it.
I never knew what he was going to do when he went on stage. Perhaps
neither did he. It did follow some sort of pattern. He started by destroying
the drum kit, which was more-or-less the same every time - but not always.
Over the years, his act has changed, though not an enormous amount. He has
added bits to it.
It wasn't a difficult act to sell to bookers because, by now, people trust my
judgment. It is extremely difficult - almost impossible - to tell anybody
about any act unless it's very spectacular like swallowing rabbits. Years
before, I had tried to get Arabella Churchill of the Glastonbury Festival to
book Harry Enfield for £60. She said:
"What does he do?"
"He does all these characters,” I said. “One of them's a Greek character
called Stavros and another one's a posh character and he's extremely funny".
She’d never seen him. So she didn't book him. She was kicking herself the
next year. With some acts, you’ve got to have been there.
Charlie Chuck appeared with me on a TV pilot: a game show/variety show I
thought up for Noel Gay. I went to see Channel 4's Commissioning Editor
for Entertainment, Seamus Cassidy to talk about it.
The idea was to make a game show called Lose Yer Shirt! in which, if
contestants got the answers wrong, they actually lost their own goods. Their
washing machine would be smashed up in front of them. This took Seamus'
fancy. Lose Yer Shirt! was to be in the middle of a variety show called
Hardee's Half Hour.
Noel Gay did a pilot of that in Gillingham and again it never got taken up. I
don't know why. I thought it was quite good and the quiz could have taken
off quite well.
During my time at Noel Gay, I also started to run a Last Friday In The
Month comedy club in Suffolk. One of the Box Brothers - Paul Fitzgerald lives in St Margaret's, a small village near Bungay. It has a nice pub called
The King's Head with an ideal space for comedy. I had played there with
The Greatest Show on Legs. So I started monthly comedy evenings. The
first one was well-attended, then it gradually went downhill. Too
cosmopolitan for them, I think. An Oxbridge classical music comedy duo
called Miles & Millner succeeded there and so did Chris Luby. They loved
Miles & Millner because it was sketches involving music and anyone could
relate to it. There were no references to London. No jokes starting: "You
know what it's like when you get on the tube....." Chris Luby’s act is mad
enough to appeal across the board anywhere. (Once).
One night, Chris, Mark Hurst and Brenda Gilhooley (now known as Gayle
Tuesday) were all booked to appear at The King’s Head and they drove up
separately from me. I had gone up with Pip for the weekend and Paul
Fitzgerald was going to provide us all with a big meal before the gig. I told
Chris Luby to ring up when he arrived at the pub and I'd give him directions
to get to the cottage. He rang me up at about 5.30 in the afternoon and I gave
him instructions for the six mile drive.
The meal was ready at 6.30pm - no sign of Luby.
At 7.30pm - no sign of Luby.
The gig was due to start at 8.00pm.
At 8.00pm - no sign of Luby.
So we went off to the gig. On the way, we found him. Between the pub and
the cottage, Chris had spotted a private Aeroplane Museum where this mad
bloke collects aircraft and has put them in the back garden of another pub.
Chris saw missiles and old aeroplanes, stopped and went in the pub. He was
in Heaven. He had aeroplanes and alcohol and wasn't interested in the meal.
In the end we virtually had to drag him to the gig.
The King’s Head is one of those old-fashioned pubs with a courtyard where
they used to put the coaches. The landlord had about five kids between about
the ages of 8 and 12. After the gig, at about midnight, I looked out a window
and Chris Luby was drilling all these kids with broomsticks over their
shoulders, getting them to march round the courtyard:
“Eyes right! Quick march!”
The rural atmosphere of Bungay was friendly, in complete contrast to the
(apparently) sophisticated world of TV.
The most enjoyable TV I’ve done were my four or five Comic Strip films.
The first time, I was a builder. Then I was a policeman - I had to drive a
police car up to someone's house and I didn't have a driving licence at the
time - I was banned but I hadn’t told the producers. I raced down these
streets in Streatham. Then a real police car came up behind and stopped me.
Luckily enough, I got away with it.
The best of the Comic Strip films as far as I was concerned was The Yob. It
was filmed just round the corner from my house. I played a ticket inspector.
The Greenwich foot tunnel was supposedly a tube station and I lived 150
yards away. So I got up in the morning, put on a uniform, my lines were:
"Tickets please! Oy, you! Tickets please!"
Then this old lady kneed me in the testicles and that was it.
We did it in two takes and I was away by 10 o'clock with £600 in my pocket.
In GLC, another Comic Strip film, I was Beefeater Two to Keith Allen's
Beefeater One. I was in Edinburgh at the time and they were filming in
London in a house in the same road as mine. So I had to fly all the way
down from Edinburgh, do a day's filming in my own road, then fly back to
Edinburgh for the evening performance.
To me, it's not the quality of the part that's important, it's how far I have to
travel and how easy it is.
I appeared in the first series of Blackadder for about 30 seconds as an
Egyptian. The Greatest Show on Legs - me, Martin Soan and Martin Clarke
- were meant to be Egyptian mummers there to amuse the king. I was
painted orange and didn't have my glasses on. I recently met an American
comic who is a big Blackadder fan. She took one look at at me and said:
"Hey! You were the Egyptian!"
I keep getting cheques for that appearance, so I’m glad I did it. I got a whole
batch the other day, including £0.47p for a screening in Greece and £2.17p
for a Croatian screening. Things must be looking up in Croatia.
One good thing about working for Noel Gay was that, in 1990, I found out
about the annual Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.
In London, Wizo had met a taxi driver who had somehow got him two return
tickets to New York for £50 each.
Wizo said to me: “Why don’t we go over to Montreal via New York?”
He sold me his taxi driver’s special cheap ticket and then went over a week
before I did.
When I went to the departure desk at Gatwick, I discovered I had a one-way
ticket from New York back to London. I was stuck at Gatwick, having
arranged to meet a load of people in Montreal the next day. In the end, I
bought a £300 ticket from London to Montreal by writing a cheque without
showing a cheque guarantee card. The cheque bounced, but that’s another
I eventually got to the Delta Hotel in Montreal and said I was working for
Noel Gay. They had a big group of people staying there, all of whom I
worked with back in London. Everything was free for a week. The Noel Gay
people thought they were paying for me, though they’d never agreed to any
of it.
Wizo did exactly the same thing, said he worked for Noel Gay and got
everything free although he didn’t work for Noel Gay at all.
I was there as a ‘TV person’ but I did also perform the Banger Up The Bum
routine with Chris Lynam at The Club Soda - an event still talked about to
this day.
Afterwards, Wizo and I had to go to New York, where I could use my cheap
air ticket; I tried my hand at some stand-up there, but word had reached them
about the Montreal performance. They thought I was going to be outrageous
and stark bollock-naked and no-one would risk letting me go on stage.
Eventually, I did a small spot at a place called Caroline's and went down
very well. The Americans are surprisingly cautious.
A week later, though, Chris Lynam went to New York and they let him
perform The Banger Up The Bum at Caroline's Club.
It was on this trip that I began to realise how much Wizo exaggerated.
Montreal had set him off because all the Noel Gay people had been
‘schmoozing’ - trying to impress each other with how important they all
were. I never went in for all that, but Wizo fell for it hook, line and sinker. I
heard him telling someone he ran Noel Gay Television.
It got to such a pitch that, by the time we got to New York, he was sitting
there telling this woman he ran BBC Television and, being an American, she
believed him. He was only about 35 at the time.
The second time I went to Just For Laughs in Montreal, in 1992, we went
over as The Greatest Show on Legs and did The Balloon Dance.
We went down better than any other British act, despite the fact we weren't
actually part of the official British contingent. Channel 4 pays to send over
the British acts and we weren't part of that. We were invited over by the
Festival organisers themselves. So we were shown on French television but
not on Channel 4. I was a little bitter about that, but did nothing about it.
The audience liked it but a lot of American performers thought it was too
simple and that we were cheating a bit. The American stand-ups in particular
are big on honing their craft and spending hours perfecting each word and
phrase and pause. We just came on stage naked, shuffled a few balloons
about and they thought this wasn't right.
We were nominated for a Gemini TV Award (the Canadian equivalent of the
BAFTAs) as Best Performance on a Light Entertainment Programme. But
we didn't get it.
When I was over there, I heard the British Consul had invited the official
British contingent to the Embassy. We were not in the official contingent
and weren't invited. But we were British and we were there and I thought we
shouldn't miss out on it. So I went over the Embassy and it was very posh.
This bloke said:
"I'm the Consul".
"I had one of them,” I said, “But the gearbox went".
Nothing! Straight face. His wife was swanning about with little things on
The official British contingent in Montreal - Paul Merton, Jeremy Hardy and
all that lot - were getting courted by Hollywood producers and all we got
was some sad German bloke called Achim Rhoder. He’s a big agent. Big.
About 6'6" tall. He came over and said:
"We'd like you to perform at the Cologne Festival".
So we did. The German TV audience likes to see people falling over. We
deliberately do sketches in Germany which involve us falling over. That's
one of The Three Golden Rules of comedy:
No 1: If in doubt, wobble about.
No 2: If that don't work, fall over.
No 3: If that don't work, knob out!
In Germany, we fall over a lot. Not known for their humour, the Germans.
There's a British bloke called George Egg who's a giant showbiz hero in
Germany. He's just a basic old juggling act. He sticks a coat-hanger through
his ear. It’s alright, but nothing special. They love him. You could send a
straightforward street act over to German - the juggling act where he eats
the apple - and it'd go down brilliantly.
Juggling and mime are both a waste of time. Both skills - if they can be
called skills - don't take very long to learn and you're not going to get very
far if you want fame and fortune because you can't name me a famous
household-name juggler; and mime has been sewn up by Marcel Marceau.
That's it.
Anyone can juggle if you practise enough, so long as you can catch a ball. It
looks better than it is. You can learn to be a good juggler just by practising
but you can't learn to be a good comic just by practice. It's either in you or it
You can listen to, say, Jeremy Hardy's set and then go out and say that set
word for word, pause for pause, and it won't work. Some people can come
on stage, say:
and people will laugh. They’ll fall off their seats laughing.
Other performers can rush around the stage like lunatics, working very hard
- and people won't laugh.
Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper, my two great comedy heroes, made a
lot of doing nothing. But they were enormously funny.
The day the gravy train hit the buffers for me and many others at Noel Gay
was when Sky bought-out BSB. Many at Noel Gay got made redundant.
Wizo started dreaming about a new life. But I didn’t care.
It was 1990 and I started a new club in Greenwich called Up The Creek. My
new club was going to be called Malcolm’s, but someone said that sounded
like it was in Essex, so I changed it.
I had been looking for somewhere to replace The Tunnel and I chanced upon
a building which was originally a Seamen's Mission, then it had been an
Electric Cinema, then it was run as a soup hall. Three local brothers bought
the freehold in the 1980s, when the property boom was at its height. They
wanted to convert it into offices but they couldn't get permission: it had to be
used for leisure. So they had this big empty building and didn't know what to
do with it.
They tried running a teenage disco which caused nothing but trouble with
kids climbing over the roof into the pub next door. Then they hired it out for
two or three Raves. I was walking past one day, saw the sign saying:
I decided I was going to rent it with Wizo. We went to see an accountant
who advised against it and he must be kicking himself now. Then I was
going to get it with Jools Holland, but he became too involved with his
studio. By this time, I had shown my plans for a comedy club to The
Brothers who owned the building and they said they'd give me one-third
ownership of it if I provided my expertise and thought I could fill the place
up. I said I was sure I could and I did.
I have a bit of a knack for publicity. I stood for Parliament again in the 1991
General Election and put up my own money because you get a free mailout
to every constituent in the borough. That’s about 42,000 people in
Greenwich. I simply selected the addresses of people who might turn up to
Up The Creek and got a mailout to about 10,000 people for nothing.
Normally it would cost £2,500 in postage alone; it only cost me my £500
Election Deposit which I lost by standing.
Up The Creek was a success from its very start on Halloween 1990. The
opening month featured all the ‘big’ names - Squeeze for the opening Press
Night - Jools Holland, Vic Reeves, Jo Brand - all the old chums turned out.
And The Brothers - my business partners - have been very good with me.
The three of them grew up in poverty in Bellingham, near Lewisham. So
they were brought up fairly close to me in South East London and their
grandfather owned a scrap metal dealers in Lewisham. I remember when I
was a kid there used to be a garden out the front and pebbles in the grass like at the seaside - spelling out:
I used to think a real King lived there. I thought: We've got a King here! and
it turned out to be these blokes' grandfather.
They went into the gear box business, then they made a lot of money with a
'computer dating' agency just when computers started coming out and before
the big agencies started. Instead of a computer, they just had an old lady in
an office. It was £5 to join the agency and one of The Brothers told me they
had Ford Transit loads of fivers coming every day. The trouble was that this
poor old lady was matching up Jews with Catholics, atheists with born-again
Christians, 80 year-old women with 18 year-old men. It all went wrong in
the end, but they made a bundle of money over a very short time.
One of The Brothers in particular - John - made a lot of money out of
property and had a house next door to Starsky & Hutch star David Soul in
Hollywood. He also had a big boat moored at St Katherine's Wharf in
London and a Lear Jet and he married a model in America.
The Brothers are businessmen bitten by the showbiz bug. They have been
very good to me and have spent a lot of time at Up The Creek, considering
all the other things they have on the go.
When Up The Creek proved successful, they bought the old Willesden
Empire in North West London and turned it into another club The Comedy
Empire. It was only half the price of Up The Creek and ten times the size. I
was just the promoter; I didn't go in with them financially. I did my best, we
got a large amount of publicity and when we had 'Names' on it was full. Jo
Brand filled it. But it was in the wrong place and was too big.
I hated the journey up there. I hated going out of South East London.
It took me an hour to get there, whereas I can get from my house to Up The
Creek in five minutes and I know everyone round here. I go out my door and
someone in the street will say:
"Hello Malcolm!"
Normally it’s the bailiffs.
If I'm in Greenwich, I can't walk 200 yards without being stopped three
times. But, in Willesden, I didn't know anyone.
I like tradition, because then I know where I am. I like to know that the chip
shop opens at six o'clock. I still like travelling around. But no way could I go
away for a year. I would miss coming to Up The Creek on a Sunday. It's bad
enough when I go away for four or five weeks. I went to Australia for five
weeks in 1994 and I missed home.
When I was touring round the West Country, in the 1970s, I still came back
to South East London and always will. I can't see myself leaving South East
London. Part of the reason I split up with Pip was her desire to live in the
countryside. She almost persuaded me to buy a house in Norfolk. I lived in
the country for three years with her in Kent, but because it was only 30 miles
away, I must have spent three-quarters of my time in Greenwich. Pip wanted
the Old Country Cottage life, which she now has with her new man. But it
would drive me up the bloody wall.
When she and I did move to the little village near Maidstone, I couldn't sleep
for a week. It was too quiet. No cars going past. Also I'm quite a night-time
person. I normally can't go to sleep before about 1.00am or 2.00am. Where
can you get a kebab at 2.00 in the morning in Stoke-sub-Normal? Country
life is high on my list of things that sensible people shouldn’t subscribe to.
Another pet hate is dinner parties.
What is a ‘dinner party’? The two don't go together as far as I'm concerned.
Dinner is dinner - you eat and then you go out. A party is a party - you don't
eat anything.
It's like a 'walking holiday'. I can't be doing with it. Walking is walking and
a holiday is lying on the beach with a packet of fags.
If I had to skip South East London - for some dubious reason let's say - then
wherever I ended up I think I would become the local impresario in the
leopardskin coat, whether it was in Bungay, Suffolk, or Melbourne,
My split with Pip was amicable. We had been together thirteen years and we
drifted apart. I'm more cosmopolitan and she's more hippy-ish. Plus I was
always going off with loads of women.
I left Pip in 1991 and moved into a small flat in Greenwich with a flatmate
called Julia, who had just separated from her husband Barry Keefe, the
playwright who wrote the film The Long Good Friday.
The flat we lived in was at 1 Mell Street, Greenwich, probably the shortest
street in the world as the only building in it was 1 Mell Street. It was above a
shop selling paint, tiles and decorating materials but the flat itself was
completely undecorated.
It was the first time I had been single for 15 years so, after initially trying but
failing to shag my flatmate Julia, I was on the blower to all the old flames I
could muster. I had six months of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (I can’t stand
rock ‘n’ roll) including one week where I managed to copulate with eight
different women (two on Sunday).
Julia remained a flatmate but wasn’t into mating or at least not with me. We
did share many things, naturally; we even co-owned a long leather coat that
she had bought but which I decided looked much finer on me. And we often
mooched around together. When I was asked to screen test for a part in the
video recording of a live show in Newcastle of Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out
Julia was keen to come along on the jaunt.
The day before we were to head North I had gone into Ladbroke’s
bookmakers at Charing Cross with twenty pounds and, in a miraculous
series of drink-inspired bets, had won £5,200 by the end of the afternoon.
Ladbroke's didn't have enough cash in the office to pay me so I agreed to
pick up my winnings the following day. For some reason Julia and I
convinced ourselves that the most appropriate place for this vast booty was a
hat box she intended to take to Newcastle. So we turned up at King's Cross
for the train, Julia manically clinging to her hat box and me feeling like the
cock of the walk as I swaggered along in my favourite leather coat - though I
probably looked more like a raddled Gestapo torturer.
At Newcastle we were booked into the five-star Copthorne Hotel where Vic
Reeves, Simon Day, Jimmy Nail and assorted others connected with Vic’s
Big Night Out were staying. Julia and I scanned our room for a hiding place
for the five grand and the only thing even vaguely suitable was a tall vase on
top of the television. I picked the vase up, shook it and tipped out a pack of
very pornographic playing cards. There were pictures of people - mainly doing things even I wouldn't do. I pocketed the cards. In case the owner
came back in search of them we decided not to put the cash in the vase and
so it ended up divided between the pockets of the leather coat.
I failed to make it on to Vic's video but the live show was jolly. We trooped
back from it on Vic's tour bus - a sort of mobile hotel with bedrooms and
lounge area - and spent a liquid evening in the Copthorne bar. I was one of
the last to leave and when I was approaching my room I realised that Simon
Day, who had been chosen in preference to me for the video, was on the
same landing. He had been given the presidential suite - a very grand affair
with a balcony that ran along the front of the hotel. I suspected that Simon
had retired early to his room because he had lured some unsuspecting female
there and, all things considered, it seemed right that I should bid him a
congratulatory goodnight.
Wearing only the leather coat and a pair of socks I crawled along the
balcony of my room and clambered across to Simon’s. I hammered on his
window intending to flash open the coat when he pulled back the curtains.
Not a sound. Disappointed I eventually returned to my room to find Julia in
her bed, cowering under the sheets, and two men with guns pointed at me.
They were Special Branch. Anti-terrorism. And I vaguely recalled some
notices pinned in the hotel about a senior politician - Michael Heseltine, I
think - who was staying there and ‘would guests behave accordingly’ as the
Special Branch boys handcuffed me and marched me down to a Portakabin
in the car park that was both their headquarters and their prison cell.
I was asked to turn out my pockets: £5,200 in cash and a very pornographic
pack of playing cards. I was asked for my address, which I gave as 1 Mell
Street, Greenwich, which they ran through their computer. This told them a
fact that I had known but not been unduly bothered by before: that Mell
Street had been the home of Gerald Tuite, the convicted IRA bomber who
had been arrested there some years before.
Things did not look good. I was facing a charge that could have resulted in
life imprisonment had a jury been convinced that I intended to murder Mr
Heseltine with a pack of dirty playing cards. I spent an uncomfortable few
hours - what a waste of a night in a five-star hotel - until Vic Reeves' tour
manager could be found to confirm that I was there to not star in his video. I
was more than happy to return to Greenwich, though what little magic Mell
Street had was now extinguished.
My wild bachelor days and my link with Mell Street came to a sudden halt
soon afterwards when I met the future Mrs Hardee: Jane. Apart, that is, from
some early two-timing with the lovely twenty-four-year-old Lisa.
The first time Jane first saw me, I was naked behind Chris Lynam at Up The
Creek. During his act, Chris sings It’s a Wonderful World semi-seriously
and, while he’s singing it, I walk on slowly behind him naked except for a
pair of socks, a glass of beer and a cigarette. I just sit on a chair behind him,
smoking and drinking.
Jane left Devon when her marriage broke up and came to study Humanities
or something similarly vague at Thames Polytechnic (now The University of
Greenwich). She had been going somewhere else with her sister that night,
but they decided to give Up The Creek a bit of a try instead.
I went back to her house with Jane and her sister that night, had a bit of a
bash but didn’t get anywhere. Later, when something started happening, I
thought: This is all right. I’m in here! because her mum’s got this massive
big farm and I thought she owned half of Devon.
But it turned out Jane had two other sisters and a brother; and her mother
will probably outlive me anyway. Her mother’s mother’s still alive: ninetyodd and fit as a fiddle..
I got on well with Jane. The one tragic mistake I made was going to The
Time Out Awards For Comedy.
At the previous year's Time Out Awards, I'd announced my engagement to
my flatmate Julia - but it was only a publicity stunt. That must have been in
my mind: that the previous year I'd announced my engagement. This time, I
went back to Jane's house after the Awards and was in bed, drunk and said to
Jane in a slurred voice:
"Ooaargh, we should get married".
Jane, quick as a flash, got all her kids round the end of the bed and
announced she was going to get married and was on the phone to her mother
within the hour. So I couldn't get out of it then; but I never thought I’d ever
actually get married.
It was because I had got drunk in the afternoon. If the Awards had been at
night, I would have been alright.
Jane’s recollection of events is slightly different. She insists that I proposed
in the kitchen on bended knees.
The memory plays funny tricks.
The Time Out Awards were in September and we got married on April
Fool’s Day 1993.
I wanted to get married on the Cutty Sark, the sailing ship at Greenwich. I
went to see the captain. They have a captain and log book, despite the fact
they are in dry dock and can't go anywhere. About 25 years ago, they logged
a Man Overboard - someone fell into the dry dock and broke his leg.
The captain was quite good and agreed to my getting a 'blessing' on board.
You weren't allowed to get married in unusual places at that time. But then
they got a new captain and he would have none of it. He said I didn't have
enough nautical tradition, which was a bit of a cheek as my dad pulled the
Cutty Sark into her dry dock in the first place. I felt a little bitter about that.
I got married on a Thursday and The Bar De Musee in Blackheath had a
‘singles night’ on Wednesdays. This lulled me into making my second tragic
mistake - having my stag night in the traditional way the evening before the
The only female who came was Julia, to whom I'd announced my
'engagement' the previous year.
At the time, I had 'Annie The German' staying at my house. She had come
over especially for the wedding, but she didn't come to the stag night.
Annie is a very big, mad German - about 6'5" - and looks like a bloke.
Imagine a cross between Marlene Dietrich and wrestler Mick McManus and
you’re halfway there. She was my sister Clare's penfriend when they were
both about fifteen. She came over to England when she was fifteen and even
then she was drinking pints of Guinness and bottles of whisky and smoking
Players full-strength fags. She's larger-than-life in every way.
I remember back then I was lying in bed and she came in - she was fifteen
and I was about 25 - and in a clipped German accent she said:
"You vill sleep mitt me. Now!"
She just jumped on top of me. So I did - well, I had to. I was acting under
That went on for a couple of weeks, then she went back to Germany.
Clare, my sister, kept in touch with Annie The German, but I didn't hear
another word until she came over again and it turned out she'd fancied me all
these years. I still didn't realise it until the stag night party where I got drunk.
I came back home and she tried to get in bed with me. But I kicked her out. I
was too drunk and anyway it wouldn't really have been on to do it the night
before my marriage.
I'm not the best person to describe my wedding. I can’t remember much of
On the morning I was married, Julia was rushing around making sure the
wedding suit I got from Jonathan Ross was alright and Annie The German
gave me this bottle of German rum. It was about ten times the proof of
normal British rum. I only had a couple and then I staggered off to the
wedding at 11 o’clock. When I got to the Registry Office at Woolwich Town
Hall, I couldn't even say my name. I just mumbled. My mum and sister were
laughing like drains. Jane's mum had come all the way up from Devon and
halfway through she stormed out shouting:
"This isn't a wedding! It's a farce!"
I've somehow won her round since then.
After the Registry Office, I went back home and had four hours to recover
before the Church Blessing at 5.00pm - or so I thought. But Annie The
German gave me another rum and spiked it with some sort of hallucinogenic
drug. It's some liquid stuff they have over in Germany - a mixture of
amphetamine, hallucinogenic and some other stuff.
I suppose she thought she was doing me a favour.
We had our 'blessing' at St Alfege Church - a church in Greenwich designed
by Hawksmoor, a mate of Christopher Wren. There are only five of his
churches in London.
Gavin, the local vicar, presided over the blessing with a church full of guests
looking on. Pip and our children were there. Gavin was a young bloke and I
think he enjoyed having the publicity for his church. The shop where Julia
works - Emporium - kitted me out with tails and a top hat and all that game,
though I didn't wear the top hat. Didn’t look right on me.
Someone had painted HELP! on the soles of my shoes - which I didn't know
about - so that when I knelt down in church everyone in the congregation
could read it. I felt a bit faint halfway through, so I had to go to sit down on
one side. Martin Soan, the best man, took my place and it looked for a time
as if he was marrying Jane.
Arthur Smith gave a reading from the Bible. I'd told him he could read
anything he liked provided it was from the Bible. I thought we might as well
have a bit of religion. The passage he read was from Psalm 75:
We give thanks to thee, oh God, we give thanks.
We call on thy name and recount thy wondrous deeds
At the set time which I appoint I will judge with equity
When the Earth totters and all its inhabitants
It is I who keep steady its pillars
I say to the boastful
Do not boast
And to the wicked
Do not lift up your horn
Every time the word ‘horn’ came up, Arthur delivered it with Sidney Jamestype innuendo:
Do not life up your horn
Do not lift up your horn on high
Or speak with insolent neck
For not from the East nor from the West
And not from the Wilderness comes lifting up
But it is God who executes judgment
Putting down one and lifting up another
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
With foaming wine well-mixed
And He will pour a draught from it
And all the wicked of the Earth shall drain it
Down to the dregs
But I will rejoice forever
I will sing praises to the God of Jacob
All the horns of the wicked he will cut off
But the horns of the righteous shall be exalted
I didn't feel too well during the blessing. When I came out of the church I’m
told there was a photographer, but I was dying to go to the toilet, so I went to
this little vestibule toilet thing and I was apparently sitting there for a quarter
of an hour coughing.
Then we all went to Up The Creek for the Reception and, in the car on the
way, my sister set light to her red taffeta dress. She'd bought it specially for
about £200. She was having a quick fag in the car and it was all a terrible
At Up The Creek, there were lots of relatives, some of whom I hadn’t seen
since the Sixties. To perform at the Reception, I had booked a Russian
balalaika band (led by Madelaine Wood’s mother, Moth), a skiffle band
called Please Yourself and my adolescent heroes Geno Washington and The
Ram Jam Band. I had also booked a little-known performer called Eddie
Shit. He sings well-known tunes but changes the lyrics so they have the
word "shit" in them. One of the funniest acts I've ever seen and much
He was the drummer in The Macc Lads group and, as Eddie Shit, he was
also their support act on a tour but the other members of The Macc Lads
didn't know that Eddie Shit and their drummer were the same person. As
Eddie Shit, he performed in a leotard and a circus-style moustache and they
never saw Eddie Shit without his disguise on. Then he'd go off-stage, wipe
off all his make-up, change his costume, put on a wig and come back as their
drummer. For three months, they didn't know it was the same person.
He was meant to be performing at my wedding reception and turned up but
didn't do it. He just demanded £150 from my wife Jane and shot off back to
Liverpool. You don't hear a lot of Eddie Shit these days, but he’s out there
One conspicuous absentee from all these wedding frolics was Wizo who
had, a couple of weeks before, decided to get away from it all and return to
About a year before, he had gone to Australia for the first time in a state of
some collapse, after a particularly harrowing Edinburgh Fringe where I think
he cracked. His divorce papers came through at that Fringe. He went full-tilt
into exaggerating and ended up having a series of disastrous relationships
with women.
He stayed in Australia for about three months, then came back to Britain. By
this time, his marriage was dead and buried and he started staying at my
house. He said he’d met this glamorous model in Adelaide and got some
photos out but she was always in the distance and you couldn’t quite make
her out. Her name was Megan - pronounced Meegan in Australian
A few months went past and then he said:
“Megan’s decided to come over on holiday for two or three weeks. Can she
stay up in my room?”
“Yes,” I said, not wanting to refuse an old mate.
Up The Creek was doing quite well and I had a Jaguar XJ6. So he also asked
if he could borrow it to pick her up from the airport. I don’t like lending
Wizo any of my cars because it always ends badly, but I said OK.
He brought this girl back and she was quite fat and not over-endowed with
intelligence or looks.
Megan stayed at my house but never mixed with anyone at all. She just went
up to Wizo’s room and all they were doing was having sex all the time. This
was a terrible thing because I thought the upstairs floor was going to give
As the weeks passed, I discovered he had told her that the Jaguar was his
and my house was his. He told her not to take any notice of the mad old boy
with the spectacles who lived downstairs in the house. So she thought I was
taking advantage of Wizo and living in his house for free and using his
phone a lot. He also told her he owned Up The Creek.
He had also neglected to tell her he had been married.
He told her that his ex-wife was his sister and he hadn’t mentioned he was a
grandfather. He told her he’d never been married, so she thought she was
onto a good thing with an unmarried club owner who had a house in London
and a Jaguar XJ6.
Meanwhile, I thought she was only staying for three weeks and about six
months passed.
In the end, I had to tell her the truth.
“Well,” I said, “He doesn’t own the club”.
“But,” she said, “He must get a bit of a percentage”.
“Well no,” I said, “Actually he doesn’t”.
And her face dropped a bit at this.
She got her own back, though. She told him she had crabs.
After that, there were lots of rows on a regular basis and Wizo started telling
everyone he hated her and was trying to get rid of her. But then, when she
went back to Australia, he convinced me a computer he had was worth
£1000 and I gave him £800 for it. He’d paid £1500 for it three or four years
before but, by this time, it was obsolete and worth about £50. He, silly
bugger, used the £800 to go and join Megan in Adelaide, just a couple of
weeks before my wedding.
I found out in Edinburgh one year that I could sing opera. I went up to The
Fringe with comedian Boothby Graffoe and I had to wake him one morning
at 8.30 so he could go and do some TV thing. Although I’m in showbiz and
people in showbiz generally get up late, I can get up in the morning because
I’ve got kids. I’m used to it. So I got up early, heard Pavarotti on the radio
and woke Boothby by singing opera at him.
Boothby is from Lincolnshire. It is not his real name. He used to live near a
village called Boothby Graffoe. I think he saw a signpost when he was
looking for a stage name. It’s quite common to do that. I was going to form a
band once called Loose Chippings.
I first saw Boothby years ago, when he was a mainstream comic. He had just
stopped doing the Butlins circuit and was on a Granada TV pilot called
Stand Up. We were both on it. He was with the most horrible mainstream
agents you can imagine and he was still doing straight mainstream jokes though Joan Collins jokes rather than mother-in-law ones. Even then,
though, he had this hippyish appearance. He did his act in a duffel coat.
When I saw him telling these jokes, I didn't think I would get on with him,
because he seemed as if he was from that 'other' mainstream world.
But then I bumped into him when I was running The Tunnel, took him up to
the Edinburgh Fringe a couple of times and he is a good bloke. He was
living up in Leicester at the time. I had just started going out with Jane and
she had a Jack Russell terrier called Roly. It was called Roly because it
would look at you and then just roll over for some reason.
Roly was going blind and I took him up to see Boothby in the Leicester area.
I'd never been to Boothby’s house before and Boothby had never met Roly. I
just called in on the off-chance.
Boothby and his wife lived in a bungalow which didn't look like his taste at
all: it was the sort of house an old person would live in. I looked through the
window and saw Boothby out the back. So I put a little note in Roly's collar
I tied him to the door then knocked on the door and went and hid round the
side of the house. When they saw Roly and read the note, they were going to
keep him, which endeared Boothby to me.
He is just one of those performers who has got 'It'. If you analyse the
material, it isn't that good, but it's the way he delivers it - the casual
approach. He's one of those people who can stand up and talk for half an
hour on seemingly nothing and you laugh and have a great time. To move
from mainstream to 'alternative' he just cut out a few of the Joan Collins
jokes. He looked alternative anyway: a duffel coat and very long hair.
After his appearance at Just For Laughs in Montreal, a US TV company
gave him $50,000 not to work for anyone else because they wanted him to
star in two sitcoms.
For him, the rougher the audience the better, because he has something to
bounce off. There are limits, though. He got attacked at the 1994
Glastonbury Festival by some nutcase who got up with his eyes out on stalks
and was trying to do karate. Boothby, fair play, ran away and hid behind the
speaker but sensibly kept the microphone. So he was going:
"There's someone here attacking me....Hello out there.....He’s coming to get
Two or three years before that, I was attacked at Glastonbury by a bloke
called Bone, part of the anarchist lot Class War. He was going on about how
we were all rich. I must have been wearing a suit at the time. He had a
daughter called Jenny Bone, who was a brilliant 16 year-old comic, the
female equivalent of Gerry Sadowitz. I only ever saw her do about five or
six gigs and never heard of her again. She must have given up, which is a
great pity.
Some great comedians have given up when they might have gone on to
greater things. Others have gone on to gain that success.
Vic Reeves went on to gain success. He should have given up.
Vic was a very clever man. He used to perform in South East London
starting at The Goldsmith's Tavern, next to Goldsmith's University in New
Vic called his stage show Vic Reeves' Big Night Out and performed it with a
local alcoholic called Alan King. It was Alan King who was a lot of the
brains behind it, but he wasn't very good as a performer. He admits that he
isn't. He used to just get up on stage and tell a load of old Tommy Cooper
jokes very badly while he was ironing.
Because the show included Vic Reeves' name, Vic got the cult following. He
used to spin a fan round and the audience all knew his catchphrases like
Give it a spin! and What's on the end of the stick, Vic? Now and again,
though, he'd come into the alternative cabaret circuit and he did the Open
Spot a few times at The Tunnel.
Most times he died.
After Alan King left him, Vic teamed up with Bob Mortimer and, as a
favour, I got them a booking at Bracknell Arts Centre. It was an easy place
to play, about 90 in the audience in a little cellar. A nice audience.
But, after Reeves & Mortimer played there, people actually signed a
petition. They said they never wanted to see Vic Reeves or Bob Mortimer in
the building ever again. The whole audience. A year later, the bloke who ran
the place was ringing me up offering about £8,000 for them to perform in the
big theatre next door.
After a time in the Goldsmith's Tavern, Vic moved his show down the road
to the Albany Empire. Michael Grade of Channel 4 was in the audience one
night and that's how Vic got his first TV series.
Alan King is still about. He's a little bit resentful about the success that has
eluded him. He recently organised a weekly Quiz Night at Up The Creek,
which was really just an excuse for him to get up with his band and play. It
finished after two weeks to a serious lack of audience.
I was at a club he was tempted to run in Camberwell. He'd had so much to
drink he was sick into the empty beer glass and then a little later on he
proceeded to drink his own vomit.
As for Vic Reeves, success hasn’t really changed him. He was arrogant
before he was successful. I get on OK with him, but he's difficult to get on
with because the surreal nature of the show is actually what he is like. You
can have a conversation with him that's straight out of his show:
"I saw two cabbages walking down the road....."
It’s a bit like schoolboy jokes where only he and his mates are in on the joke.
I didn't understand it or think it was funny when I first saw it but, if you're
told it's funny long enough, then it becomes funny.
I now do find Reeves & Mortimer funny, though not hilariously funny.
There are some comic moments there. I certainly find it funnier than most
mainstream comedy.
I think Michael Barrymore is the best of the current mainstream comics.
He's a South East London boy from Bermondsey. I saw him years and years
ago when his act involved standing on his head doing impersonations of an
Australian John Cleese. Early in his career, he was heavily backed by the
Daily Mirror. They did a story in which they followed an unknown comic
and they were going to report on his progress at yearly intervals, which they
did. I think that helped him along. He is extremely good at what he does,
including interviewing ordinary people. He has just that right tone of
cynicism but, like me, he genuinely likes 'naff' acts, end-of-the-pier acts.
He's encouraging yet, at the same time it's rather tongue-in-cheek.
I have sometimes been asked who is the most talented 'alternative' comedian
who never made it.
The most talented performer who never made it is probably Gerry Sadowitz,
because he is a genuinely gifted magician-comedian. I recently read Alexei
Sayle quoted as saying he thought Gerry was the only current comic genius.
But I don't think any of the alternative comedy circuit comedians have
actually really 'made it'. Certainly not Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.
They're not on the Michael Barrymore/Bruce Forsyth/Cilla Black level.
Living in big houses. People like Reeves & Mortimer are about five rungs
down that ladder, still slightly fringe comedians. Possibly Lee Evans has
done best. In his feature film Funny Bones, he had equal billing with Jerry
But Lee Evans started as a mainstream comic and he linked up with the
alternative acts probably mainly due to his youth. He was doing the Butlin’s
Holiday Camp circuit before he latched onto the Alternative circuit. Lee
always gets compared to Norman Wisdom and there are similarities: both
were boxers, both became fitness fanatics and they’re both very physical
comedians. But Lee was never particularly ‘alternative’.
There are three types of comedy. There’s Mainstream - your bow tie and
frilly shirt Jim Davidson show. There’s Alternative - which has some sort of
intellectual or even Art content. And there’s just plain Weird.
Some of the Alternative acts latch on to the public consciousness and gain
some Mainstream success by changing slightly. None of the really
alternative comedians have made it. The very nature of ‘alternative’ means
there is a limited audience. The mainstream audience is the people who
watch BBC1 at 8.30pm on a weekday. So Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson
have drifted across from alternative into the mainstream. So have French &
Saunders, who started off in the Comic Strip club.
Charlie Chuck is a Weird act who should theoretically never make it. But he
might if he goes the Freddie Starr route and tones down his act - which he
has already started doing to try to appeal to a wider audience since his
appearances as ‘Uncle Peter’ on The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer.
Weird is funny, but the general public generally aren’t ready for it. About
the nearest you can get to a Weird Mainstream act is Freddie Starr or Spike
Some acts, of course, are just too weird to ever make it. Like Ian
I heard about him years and years ago, even before I started with The
Greatest Show on Legs. Someone asked me:
"Do you want to go and see this bloke called Ian Hinchcliffe who eats
I never went to see him but, years later, I bumped into him when he was in
his Fifties and saw him in various pub shows where he threw bits of liver
around. He was, he said, a performance artist and in one part of his act he
pretended to disembowel himself. He had liver and bits of offal in a bag that
he pretended was coming out of his stomach. Then he started throwing it at
the audience.
One show I saw was in an East End pub with a particularly rough landlord.
The liver and offal flew right over the audience's head, hit the landlord and
knocked the optics off behind the bar. The landlord came over to beat him
up and Ian Hinchcliffe jumped out of the first floor window. He landed on
the landlord's car, putting a big dent in the bonnet. He didn't perform at that
pub again.
At another gig in Birmingham, a member of the audience got up halfway
through and left. Ian Hinchcliffe stopped the show and followed him home.
Quite what the audience felt, I don’t know.
Audiences, of course, vary.
In 1994, The Greatest Show on Legs went to the Melbourne Comedy
Festival. We appeared on the long-running Australian TV show Hey! Hey!
It's Saturday! Our Balloon Dance got more complaints than anything else
they’d ever screened. They did criss-cross squares over our testicular area,
where we'd slipped a couple of times, so you never saw anything except our
bums, but the complaints said it was tasteless.
We also met up with Wizo. He had been working at the Adelaide Festival
but turned up in Melbourne to meet us. He said he had just broken up with
Megan in Adelaide and he was off with some actress. But he seemed to be
using the hotel phone to ring Megan up every ten minutes. He’s very lucky
in Australia because his exaggerations don’t get found out so easily. Or they
didn’t until we turned up.
A couple of the Melbourne acts told me they’d met a mate of mine called
Wizo who had been in the British commandos.
He hadn’t even been in the British Boy Scouts.
The audiences at the Melbourne Comedy Festival itself were expecting the
wrong thing from us. Because they knew we did 'naked dancing', our
audiences were largely middle-aged, blue-rinse women thinking they were
going to see The Chippendales. When we came on doing something else,
they didn't understand it. It wasn't until the end of our run that we started
getting the real comedy audience.
You can have a good act and just have the wrong audience for it.
The rock star Sting once invited Tommy Cooper to support Police at the
Milton Keynes Bowl. It wasn't the right audience for him because there were
about 40,000 rock fans waiting for Sting in this big auditorium and you had
to see Tommy Cooper close up. The fans just hated him and were shouting
"Come on Sting! we want Sting!"
Eventually, they started throwing beermats. But Tommy Cooper ploughed
through his act for 25 minutes and, as he came off, Sting was walking on. As
they passed each other, Tommy Cooper looked at Sting and said:
"Follow that!"
I once did a gig for a Disabled College somewhere in the Midlands. It was
North of Luton somewhere. These people were so physically disabled that
they seemed mentally disabled as well although, in fact, they weren’t. My
brother had somehow got the contract to supply this College with comedy.
That month, it was myself and Harry Hill.
Harry Hill did his normal routine, including:
“You know what it’s like when you’re travelling on the tube....You know
what it’s like....”
And, of course, they didn’t, because they were all sitting there in
wheelchairs and groaning. So he went off to muted applause...Well, not even
that, because most of them couldn’t applaud.
I saw this and thought Well, you gotta give the audience what they want, so I
went out and started:
“You know what it’s like when you’re running in the Marathon....”
and then I played the mouth-organ for fifteen minutes.
They liked that.
Another example of a good act with the wrong audience was Jenny Eclair. In
the early 1980s, she was on at The Elephant Fair, one of the hippy fairs in
Cornwall. There was supposed to be an act performing called The Vicious
Boys who, at the time, were quite popular as children’s TV presenters. So
the audience was 14 year olds who had come to see The Vicious Boys plus
all the normal casually-dressed hippies and leather-clad Hell’s Angels.
I was compering but the Vicious Boys hadn’t arrived and, at 11.00am, the
organisers decided to put Jenny Eclair on instead. All these children, hippies
and Hell’s Angels were sitting on the grass, disappointed that The Vicious
Boys hadn’t turned up. So I went on and said:
“We’ve got someone to replace The Vicious Boys. Will you please welcome
Miss Jenny Eclair....”
She came out in an evening dress and her opening line was:
“You know what it’s like when you’ve been invited to a dinner-party....”
And they didn’t like her.
Sometimes small audiences are better.
Last week, I was lying in bed with my wife Jane and leant back to read the
paper. It's a brass bed and I got my head stuck in between the two
stanchions. Jane was about fifteen minutes laughing at me. I was in agony,
really. We tried everything to get my head out. In the end, Vaseline did the
trick. My head was covered in Vaseline and it just popped out.
But the point is that my Audience of One gave me a better reaction than I’ve
sometimes had performing to an audience of thousands.
Recently I was in Amsterdam with Jane and we went to see a live sex show
as you do when you’re in Amsterdam - you have to, really. There was a
building with a big front and lots of colour pictures of sexual goings-on and
a bloke standing outside. I said:
“How much?”
It was equivalent to about £30 each. So I gave the bloke the money but that
wasn’t where the sex show was going on, so we followed this bloke for a
mile across Amsterdam to where the real sex show was happening. There, I
noticed, it was only about £15 to get in.
It was an old church with pews in it and we sat right at the back, being shy,
retiring types. Halfway through I went to the toilet, as did a lot of people - I
don’t know what they were doing in there but I went for genuine toileting
As I came out of the toilet, I passed the next sexual performer, who was a
massive big-bosomed black woman - a bit like comedienne Brenda
Gilhooley, but in negative. I went and sat down on my pew again and the
show got to the Audience Participation Spot. I thought I was safe at the
back, but this big black woman went right round the whole audience and
picked me out and Jane made me go up on stage.
This woman danced about a bit and I had to copy her dancing movements.
She was probably the only black woman - ever - without any sense of
rhythm. Then she asked me to sit down on the stage, which I did, and she sat
down in front of me and opened her legs and stuck a banana up herself. She
beckoned me to try and eat the banana.
As I bent down to do it, the banana shot out and hit me in the face.
Jane, bless her, tried to get me a booking for the next night.
The most bizarre live sex show I ever saw was in Hamburg. The Greatest
Show on Legs were performing at the same place The Beatles used to play:
it had been converted into a TV studio.
One night, we decided to go on a sex tour and we saw the sign:
It was semi-circular outside and there was a series of doors. So Steve
Bowditch, myself and Martin Soan all put our 2DM in the slots and went in.
Inside, we found ourselves standing next to each other. It had looked like
you went in and there would be little individual cubicles. That’s the whole
point of a Peep Show. But not this place. We were just standing there in the
open together, watching this woman on a bed that moved round in a circle
and she could see us standing there right next to the bed.
She somehow took a shine to Steve but he always says the wrong thing. As
she was lying there with her legs open on the rotating bed, she struck up a
conversation with him. She said:
“You nice English boy”.
She said she’d see him afterwards if he went to the man at the door and gave
him money. She was Brazilian. She said she was from America and Steve
“Grand Canyon?”
She didn’t laugh.
People come to shows for all sorts of reasons.
Johnny 'Edge' Edgecombe sometimes comes along to Up The Creek, but
mainly for the disco music at the end of the evening. He goes to jazz clubs
normally and, in fact, he's a jazz promoter.
In 1963, he was Christine Keeler's pimp and fired the gun at her door, which
precipitated the court case in which the Minister for War, John Profumo,
was named as her lover. He's written his own book now, because he was
very upset when the film Scandal came out. He didn't like the way he was
portrayed. For one thing, they made him a Jamaican and he's from one of the
other islands.
1995 was the 25th anniversary of the Glastonbury Festival and the year I
billed as my last Edinburgh Festival show. Neither was altogether true.
It was 25 years since the Glastonbury Festival started, but the Festival did
not happen on a few of those years and I might still appear occasionally at
the Fringe, though probably not every year from now on.
As usual, I was compering in the Comedy Tent at Glastonbury and the last
act on was a bloke called UltraVision who, basically, was a juggler. But he
used dayglo luminous paint on his props. So, if you were watching in the
dark and you'd had a bit of dope, it must have looked quite good.
Personally, I thought it was bollocks and I was thinking along those lines in
the dressing room at the back where he kept all his dayglo paint. The
comedian Sean Lock walked by and I said:
"Here, Sean, do us a favour, can you paint my knob?"
So he did. I ended up with a yellow dayglo knob and red testicles. He
painted little red circles on my nipples. And my belly-button was a yellow
When UltraVision finished his act, I went on and said:
"Thankyou very much ladies and gentlemen. That was UltraVision. Twenty
five years of Glastonbury. My tribute......"
Someone turned out the lights and put on a Bon Jovi record. I took my
clothes off and I was away. I threw one of his clubs around, threw some of
his dayglo confetti up in the air, started having a wank and walked off. That
night, I dreamt I had some sort of sex with Mrs Hardee and we went off to
one of those Rave Tents with ultraviolet lights and she was going around
looking like Al Jolson.
The dayglo testicles also proved a useful addition to my act in Edinburgh
that year. It was the climax of my show, which lost £4000: the first time I
had ever lost money on the Fringe.
1995 was, all round, a year of near death and destruction.
It was the year the Observer sent a young bloke called Sam Taylor to review
the comedy on the Fringe. But he knew nothing about the comedians or the
history of it or anything. He was going to do the normal press thing of going
along to the ones that the big agents had sent press releases for. My wife
Jane's brother-in-law is a photographer for the Observer, so I was introduced
to Sam Taylor and I said:
"You can come and review my show, if you like".
"Do you know anything about Edinburgh?" he asked me, not realising I was
the self-styled King of The Fringe.
I didn't get on with him very well although, fair enough, he did eventually
turn up for my show. But he turned up about three days before the last night
and, because the Observer publishes on a Sunday, the review was not going
to come out until after our show had finished its run. So it was no use to us.
He hadn't seen the show so I explained to him that I did a bit of fake karate
in which I got a volunteer to hold a bit of wood. He said he'd do that. So
during the show - I'd never done this before - I said:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I used to do a bit of karate and I'd like a volunteer
from the audience to hold this plank of wood".
He came up and held it and I did all the karate-style moves and then just ran
towards him and kneed him in the bollocks.
He fell down and crawled off the stage.
I went up to the microphone and said:
“Sorry. I haven't done that for a long time”.
He crawled up the stairs out of the venue and the bloke at the door asked
"Did you enjoy the show?"
"No," he said.
"Are you going to give Malcolm a good review?"
"No," he said.
And, sure enough he didn't. He said I was a balding, myopic lunatic. I wasn't
that myopic when I kneed him in the bollocks, though.
In Edinburgh, I was performing with Ricky Grover and The Bastard Son of
Tommy Cooper.
I'm not Ricky Grover's agent, just helping him. I advised him to sign with
the Avalon agency for one year. But they are now signing everyone up for
five years, which sounds a bit like a sentence to me.
The Edinburgh Fringe is now working on the Supermarket Theory. You get
big agents like Avalon and Off The Kerb who go up there with about 15 or
20 shows like a conveyor belt of comedy. I normally went up there with one
or possibly two shows. I’m like the little corner shop to their supermarkets. I
supply the quality but don’t necessarily get the customers in.
Ricky Grover is a bit like a male Jo Brand.
When she started performing as The Sea Monster, nearly all Jo’s material
was about being fat. She still gets accused of that but, in fact, very little of
her material is now about being fat. A lot of Ricky Grover's material is about
being fat.
He’s an ex-boxer in his mid-30s who was illiterate until about three or four
years ago. He used to be a hairdresser and a criminal, part of an East End
gang in East Ham.
On one robbery, they had been watching this bloke in a shoe shop and they
were going to nick his money - about £15,000 - when he tried to put it in a
Night Safe. They followed him for about three weeks. He had a pouch with
the money in. Ricky's job was to go up to him - because Ricky looks quite
threatening - and say:
"Look, give us the money, behave yourself and you won't get hurt".
He did this, grabbed the pouch, ran away, got in the car and off they drove.
After each robbery, they used to go to the home of the mum of one of the
gang members. She used to give them a cup of tea in the kitchen. So they
went round to this man's mum's house, sat round the table, opened up the
pouch and inside were four ham sandwiches. The gang leader didn't bat an
eyelid. He just went:
"One for you...One for me...One for you...One for you..."
Ricky eventually went on a course to learn how to read. He wanted to be an
actor and wrote a play about boxing: Punch. He performed part of it at the
Edinburgh Fringe. Very powerful. The whole audience went quiet. It was a
short play about boxing and was recently filmed by a Swedish TV company.
He tried to lose weight to act in it. When they originally saw him and cast
him, he was about 5 or 6 stone lighter. By the time they filmed it, he had lost
his boxer's physique. But he couldn't lose the weight, so they had to do it
with camera tricks.
He became a comedian because, when he originally wrote his boxing play,
he performed it to all his chums at a boxing club. The play was so full of
pathos and there were so many tears being shed by these boxers in the
audience, that he decided he'd better get up at the end and tell a few jokes to
lighten the atmosphere.
I took him to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1995 but, as he said afterwards, it
wasn't really his sort of audience. He'd prefer to play the more mainstream
Circus Tavern in Purfleet, Essex, near the M25. He says he likes 'thick'
people like himself (his description, not mine). He goes down particularly
well in Southend.
In the main, the Edinburgh audience just came in and sat and stared at Ricky
Grover. He almost lost his confidence. You do, if you haven't been in the
game long and people just sit and stare at you.
I put him on with The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper, whose real name is
Sebastian. His father is Sicilian and his mother is English. He is small and
wiry and speaks with a Welsh accent, because he was brought up in
Swansea. Most people just sat there and stared at him, too. But he is not an
act for the squeamish. We had a couple walk out because they said they felt
He's basically a sword-swallower, but he trained as a musician. He went to
Dartington College. There are three bits to Dartington: a drama bit, a music
bit and a 'progressive' school. After he left the music bit, he learned to be a
sword-swallower. It takes about a year to have your gullet open up enough
so you can poke a sword down it. You have to practise every day for about a
When I took him up to the Edinburgh Fringe with Ricky Grover, The
Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper - or 'The Bastard' as we called him - was
getting fed up with his relationship with his girlfriend. Halfway through the
Fringe, he phoned her up in London to say it was all over. We asked how the
conversation went and he said:
"Oh, she took it quite well".
This was at about 2.00pm. At 5.00pm, she was on the phone again and he
was sheepish talking to her. Then she phoned again about five minutes later
and, after that, he decided to put on the answerphone and pretend he was out.
We were all in the kitchen when the phone rang again and we heard her
slightly Welsh voice on the machine saying:
"I'm going to tell the whole world what this Bastard's like, what he's done to
So we all stood there in the kitchen listening. Ricky Grover, me, Steve
Bowditch and The Bastard, who was looking sheepish.
"Before he left for Edinburgh," her voice continued. "He smashed up the
kitchen. He broke the living room window. And he kicked me in the cunt."
Then she slammed the phone down.
Ricky said: "What was wrong with that? That's what I do with my wife if
she don't get me breakfast on time. I thought I was going to hear something
good like you were a paedophile!"
About three days later, I was rounding off our show on stage. I got to the
"......and let's have a big round of applause for The Bastard Son of Tommy
and I heard the mieow of a cat.
I thought this was a bit strange. I mentioned The Bastard again and the cat
mieowed again. I couldn't see where the cat noise was coming from, but we
ended the show with no problems.
At the Fringe, you have to pack up very fast to let the next performers
prepare for their show.
When the lights went up, there The Bastard’s girlfriend stood, in front of the
stage, holding a rather worried cat, saying:
"He's a bastard!"
There was also a woman from Latvia there - just a member of the audience.
She wanted to take photos of me, Ricky and The Bastard to show her friends
back home. We were trying to clear up and get out as quickly as possible,
while this massive argument started between The Bastard and his girlfriend.
The woman from Latvia was trying to get us into a group for a photo
involving the three of us plus her and her boyfriend.
The Bastard's girlfriend was called Louise, so I said:
"Nice cat, Louise".
"Yes," she said. "And he's got very sharp claws".
With this, she threw the cat at The Bastard. The cat flew through the air and
scratched me on the shoulder as it screeched towards him.
"Well,” I said, “You'd better sort this out outside".
I shovelled Louise, the Bastard and the cat into the street. We packed
everything up but the Latvian woman then started screaming about the
photos. My friend Maurice Gibb, the fireman, had been in the audience and
looks a bit like The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper - or at least he was the
nearest I could get at the time. So I got Maurice to pose for the photos with
Ricky Grover and me. And the Latvian woman never noticed the difference.
That night, Louise and her cat started staying in our Edinburgh flat. Things
got a bit tense - Louise wasn't speaking to any of us and the cat was a bit
neurotic. Which, I suppose, is not surprising.
After about four or five days of this, I came home with Jane and told The
Bastard that Ricky Grover was a bit upset. He'd said “Hello” to Louise that
morning and she'd completely ignored him.
Then Louise came back and went completely mad and ranted on and on
about The Bastard being a bastard and called Ricky Grover a pimp and said
Jane was “a Man-Pleaser". Jane was quite flattered.
At this point, Ricky started going mad about being called a pimp, because he
said he’d only ever worked in a brothel and he’d never been a pimp and his
little kid was in the flat with us. It was two in the morning and The Bastard
was crying, so things came to a bit of a head. Jane told The Bastard and
Louise they'd have to leave the next morning or, if they kept at it, they'd
have to leave immediately. Louise stormed out, shouting:
"I'm going to go to the papers!"
“I wish you would,” I said. “We could do with the publicity".
After she'd left, The Bastard came in a bit tearful and asked us:
"Can you feed the cat for Louise?"
Feed the cat? We'd have fed a lion to get rid of Louise.
She went back to London and, when last heard of, she had moved to a
caravan in Devon and started having therapy.
The next night, having rid ourselves of the disastrous Louise, we went to a
Latin American club for a bit of relaxation. I left alone at about 2 o'clock
after someone at the club gave me three Ecstasy tablets. I went back to our
flat and took one. I thought I'd give it a go and see what happened. I had had
one a long time ago at the Glastonbury Festival and it had been alright there,
out in the fields. But, this time, the effect was completely different.
Jane arrived back at our flat with some lunatic bloke who'd heard I had three
tabs of Ecstasy. He wanted some, so I sold him one and made a profit. They
were going off to a Rave and I said:
"I'll come!"
But I was in my dressing gown at the time and, by the time I'd got ready,
they'd buggered off and I couldn't remember the address where the Rave
was. So I was left in the flat alone and I took another half tab of Ecstasy.
The effect of Ecstasy is to make your heart beat faster so I just wandered
about the flat like a lunatic with my heart thumping madly and then I
"That's it! I'm going to die!"
So I lay down on the bed.
Jane got back at about 6.30 in the morning and I said:
"I'm going to die. I'm definitely going to have a heart attack."
She tried to be all calm and said: "You're not. Just breathe properly."
"I am!” I said: “I’m going to have a heart attack! Definitely!"
My heart seemed to be beating faster and faster and I was just getting more
and more paranoid. I told Jane:
"You've got to phone an ambulance! You've got to phone an ambulance!"
And, eventually, she did.
"They're on their way, aren't they?” I asked: “I'm definitely going to die!"
Panic is the word.
According to Jane I was lying there on the bed fiddling with my genitals
with my pants on, but I don't remember that.
I was panicking about the ambulance not arriving.
After what seemed like a lifetime, the doorbell rang.
"Thank God!” I said. “They're here!"
It was the postman.
Eventually two blokes did arrive in green paramedic gear. Apparently my
pulse rate was 30 beats over, which isn't bad. They said they’d had people
with 150 over who still lived, but they had to take me to hospital just in case.
They had a chair with wheels on it to take me down the stairs. They sat me
in that and put a blanket over me and tied me in. I looked like Hannibal
Lector from Silence of The Lambs. It was the most frightening thing I've
ever experienced in my life. They took me down two darkened flights of
stairs tied to this chair.
I told them I'd taken a tab and a half of Ecstasy - they don't have to report it
to the police - and a fair amount of drink. I found out later it was the drink
that caused the problem.
In the ambulance, one of them asked Jane how old I was and she said:
"Forty five".
"He should be old enough to know better," he said.
Then they asked Jane: "Is he his normal colour?"
"He is now," she said, " But he looked a bit grey earlier on".
I pulled my oxygen mask down and said:
"But I've got luminous testicles!"
The two paramedics looked at each other and I looked at them and I said:
"But I have! I have!"
I pulled my trousers down and my testicles were painted in dayglo paint
because it was all part of the show. They thought I was mad.
But they took me to hospital and it was like having an MOT. They did all the
tests and said I was remarkable for a man of my age. Later that day, I felt
fine. We did a good show that night and I went out again until about 4.00am.
Ricky Grover also had trouble, though.
On his very first night, the show went well and, afterwards, we did what a
lot of performers do after their shows - we went to The Gilded Balloon.
There's a show there called Late'n'Live but, basically, all you do is hang
around in the bar and talk bollocks.
An excellent performer called Ian Cognito was there and he was very drunk,
as is his wont. When he's drunk, he gets aggressive. Part of his Italian
upbringing, I think.
Ricky had worked with him before, so said hello to him and Cognito
grabbed him by his collar and said:
"You're a fat cunt!"
Ricky doesn't mind that sort of thing at all. He’s used to it.
So, not getting a reaction, Cognito continued:
"You're a fat cunt and you're not funny!"
Ricky still didn't react, so Cognito added:
"And your wife's a fat cunt as well!"
This upset Ricky, because he's one of those traditional people.
"Did you mean that?" he asked.
"Yeah," Ian Cognito said.
"Can you repeat it?" Ricky asked.
Cognito said: "Your wife's a fat cunt”.
And, with one blow, Ricky just knocked him out. Unconscious. Displaced
his jaw a bit. The lot. Ricky's a professional, so he knows exactly where to
hit someone.
Standing three or four yards away was Jon Thoday, who runs the Avalon
agency. I looked over at Jon and said:
"Oh, have you go that £500 you owe me?"
Funnily enough, the cheque arrived in the post about two days later.
While Ian Cognito was still unconscious another well-known agent rushed
over and told Ricky Grover he shouldn't hit comedians and that he, the
agent, could have people killed.
This bloke's gone a bit funny.
He behaves as if he's a 'villain' for some reason. His father is actually a
distinguished academic. He comes from a very posh family but he likes to be
‘laddish’ and he's gone one step further now. He's got the black crombie, the
waistcoat: everything the well-dressed villain should have.
I met a real villain who had seen him walking about in the West End of
London and the agent told this bloke he was one of the Brindle Brothers. At
the time, there was a bit of a feud, including occasional shootings, going on
in South East London between the Brindle Brothers and the Arifs.
One of the Arifs’ friends, Ahmet Abdullah, got shot dead at a betting office
in Walworth. Five months later, David Brindle was shot dead at the Bell pub
in Walworth. His brother Tony was put under armed police protection.
Later, Tony came out of his house and, even though he was under armed
police protection, a bloke managed to shoot him and then the police shot the
bloke. The police got double bubble there.
It was probably also linked to the Frankie Fraser shooting, 'Mad Frankie' got
shot in the head but survived. When I saw him in Edinburgh doing his show,
he said he was convinced he had been shot by undercover police who didn't
want him to publish his autobiography.
In his show, ‘Mad Frankie’ was talking about how he'd cut people up and so
on, but there was no charm about him. He was very cold. You have to have
charm. You have to see the funny side of anything.
Anyway, Ian Cognito was lying on the ground in Edinburgh, unconscious
for about ten minutes and, once he came-to, the bouncers threw him out into
the street because Ricky was still there and the bouncers were about half the
size of Ricky.
I arranged for the two of them to meet up the next day at the Assembly
Rooms and Ian Cognito admitted he deserved what he got, which most
people seemed to agree.
I get on OK with Ian when he's sober. I bought my current boat from him
before the Edinburgh incident. He sold me the boat because, after splitting
up with his wife, he moved down to Bath and it was no use to him there. I
knew he wouldn't like it down there because, like me, he's a city boy.
The boat only cost me £1000 but then I had to go and pay his mooring fees
and my cheque bounced. When I eventually got back to the mooring the
engine had been nicked so I had to buy a new engine and had all sorts of
engine traumas. Then I sailed down the Thames flying the Jolly Roger. And,
as usual, I was stopped by the River Police. They told me it was not just
illegal for me to fly the Jolly Roger, I could get hung for it. It's one of the
three offences you can still get hung for: Treason, Arson in a Royal Naval
Dockyard and Piracy, which includes flying the Jolly Roger. One of those
quaint British laws administered by those quaint British police.
The bloke who lives over the road from me was on holiday in Turkey and
the police broke into his house - there were fifteen sledgehammer marks on
his door. They suspected him of dealing drugs which, as far as I know, he
doesn't. They didn't find anything except a police helmet and they arrested
him for possessing a policeman's helmet which he bought off a stall in
Camden Market as a joke.
I am happy when I’m out on my boat. The River is part of my family
tradition and I love a bit of tradition.
Recently, I was taking my boat from Greenwich to Runnymede for repair. It
was going to take two days because the engine was only firing on two
instead of three cylinders.
At Hampton Court bridge, I was passing a pub which fronts onto the River
Thames. As I passed, I heard the voice of comedian ‘Nobby Shanks’.
It turned out to be a comedy club called Screaming Blue Murder. So I
stopped, moored-up for the night and went in. The bloke running the club
seemed to know who I was, so I said:
"Can I do five minutes at the end?"
He said I could.
Unfortunately, during the course of the evening I got a bit drunk. I went on
stage at the end, did about 4 or 5 minutes of my normal stuff and it went
very well. Then I decided to do a magic trick and said,
"I need two volunteers from the audience”.
One of them had a £5 note and the other a £10 note, so I got them to sign the
notes and put them in an envelope.
"Thankyou very much.” I said, “Goodnight".
I walked out of the pub, got in my boat and fucked off.
The bloke who runs the club, Pete Harris, later demanded the £15 back when
I saw him at the Edinburgh Fringe, because he had to give the money back
to the punters. I didn't give it to him. The incident was reported in Time Out
magazine and got him more publicity for his club.
A few weeks later, someone stole my boat’s engine and I did a Boat Engine
Benefit at Up The Creek. All the people who had been on the boat
performed for free to raise money for a new engine. Then - because it had no
engine - I got my boat towed up the River from Greenwich to Runnymede,
which is a whole day’s trip. We left it there while the bloke fitted a new
I went back the next day. It’s a cabin cruiser, which is only meant to travel at
about 5mph. But I had decided to have a 60 horse power engine installed so
it could go at about 30mph - very fast for a boat.
I took the boat with its new engine out for a trip with Ricky Grover, my wife
Jane and her 15 year old son William. The bloke who had installed the
engine hadn’t been able to fix the gear and speed control on the side of the
boat because there wasn’t a panel. So he said:
“Just put it on your lap for the time being and, when you get back to
Greenwich, put a panel on the side so you can fit the control on.”
At Runnymede, the boat repair yard is on a little inlet, by a bridge, and then
there’s the main River Thames. The River is completely different from what
it’s like at Greenwich. At Runnymede, it’s non-tidal and it was full of very
posh boats with very posh people sitting out on the decks drinking tea on
this very sunny day.
I turned the engine on and pushed the control forward and it went full
throttle. We shot out and there was a canoe race happening on the River. I
saw our bows heading straight for this canoeist and he started paddling like
mad like he was in the Olympics.
Because the control wasn’t attached to the side of the boat, the throttle cable
had jammed on Full. So I didn’t turn right, towards the lock and the weir. I
turned left. Ricky Grover was standing at the stern and William was on the
bow of the boat, prone, holding on for dear life and screaming. The whole of
the Runnymede River Community seemed to have come out and were
standing on their decks shouting out:
“Slow down!”
But I couldn’t stop the thing.
One bloke cried out in a very posh accent:
“My crockery!”
He had all these very delicate little china cups on his shelves and he was
trying to catch them as the wash of my boat rocked his boat. Ricky Grover
didn’t know what to do, so he just stood at the stern looking very aggressive.
I went up the River for about a mile and found there was another lock and
another weir. I still couldn’t slow the boat down, so I decided to turn it
round. Back in Runnymede, things had calmed down and the bloke was
putting his crockery back on the shelves. I came past his boat again at full
speed and he again yelled out:
“My crockery!”
Luckily, in the end, I found where the key was - because of the position of
the new control I hadn’t been able to see it - and I turned the engine off. I
looked round at Ricky and said:
“It’s just common sense, isn’t it”.
According to the bloke in the boat repair yard, people in Runnymede are still
talking about this incident.
I feel at peace on the River.
And I’m happy living in Greenwich, running Up The Creek.
If anything else comes along, that’s fine too.
I’m thinking of running for Parliament again and think I have a bit of a
chance this time. Someone once called himself the Literal Party at a byelection and he didn’t lose his deposit because a lot of people voted for him
thinking he was the Liberal Party. He had used the same typeface as them on
his election literature. He got loads of votes. Nearly got in. The real Liberal
candidate complained because he reckoned he would have got in if this
bloke hadn’t ‘stolen’ his votes.
So I’m going to call my party Old Labour.
I’ll do whatever comes along.
I've got all the normal vices: smoking, drinking, gambling, womanising.
I drink at weekends and sometimes on Wednesday nights but, by and large, I
don't drink on weekdays and I don't drink during the day. I smoke between
twenty and forty cigarettes a day, but I'm quite healthy, quite strong - maybe
because of all that exercise in Borstal, detention centres and prison when I
was younger.
I’d like to be thought of a good bloke. Someone who won’t let you down.
I'm very loyal. I'm unfaithful to women. But the friends I've got I've had
since school and I always like to keep in touch with people. Most people
move on and go through different groups of friends. But nearly everyone I
come into some sort of contact with I keep in contact with, even if it's not on
a regular basis.
Last year, Dexie Doug Davies phoned me at Up The Creek, desperate, but I
was compering. I was just about to go on stage and I couldn't quite
understand what he was saying. Something about how he had a girlfriend or
a wife and she'd gone mad and run away with four or five kids and she was
about to be put in a psychiatric hospital and he wanted to come up and see
me. Normal for him. But he never appeared so, after a few months I
reckoned he was either mad or dead or had sorted it out for himself.
Then he turned up at my annual Birthday Show. He was living down in
Devon, hadn’t worked for months, had fathered another couple of children.
So nothing much had changed. He wanted to stay at my place but he’s the
sort of bloke who, if he stays one night, will end up living with you for
months. My wife Jane said he was the most normal bloke she’d ever met.
I know all sorts of normal people.
I admire Martin Potter, who was my partner at The Tunnel, best man at my
Registry Office wedding and who handles the sound at Up The Creek. He's
regular and calm, though he's very secretive. I've known him for years and,
recently I was with another mate who's known him for years. Martin came
walking along the road with a 5 or 6 year-old kid. And it was his kid. Noone knew about this kid. He’d never mentioned it.
I have a brother, but I don't really know him very well, because he's 20 years
younger. I hardly saw him at all when he was a baby because I was in
prison. When he started going to school, I was in my mid-20s and I was
briefly an ice-cream man and used to sell ice-creams outside his school. He
was quite proud of me then, because I was The Ice Cream Man. By the time
he was growing up, I was living away from home so, really, I didn't see
much of him.
He sat his 'A' levels and passed those, then sat the Oxbridge exam and
passed that, but he preferred to go to Manchester University. He wanted to
do aeronautical engineering. About a year into the course, he decided to run
a club, so I sent him a list of all the performers and he got the showbiz bug.
Then he got a partner and ran a comedy agency called Hardee Arts. That
lasted 3 or 4 years and was quite successful. But then he split from his
partner and moved to London after signing a contract saying he wouldn't get
involved in comedy for the next five years as long as the partner took on the
debts of the business. Now he's got a job with Louis Parker at the Concord
Agency - the bloke who was The Greatest Show on Legs' first agent. My
brother's in the jazz-funk area of music and has been all over Japan.
But I am happy where I am in South East London.
I am respectable now. I have trousers, a house and a wife.
While I was writing this book, I took part in one episode of a Radio 4 series
called Sentimental Journeys. After the broadcast, the producer received a
letter from a listener, which he passed on to me. It says:
I was very interested in the last episode with Malcolm Hardee in
which he talked about the 40th birthday party for Freddie Mercury.
His explanation of what happened to the cake has helped to clear up a
mystery for me.
At the time of this party, I was working as a chef in a Michelin
rated restaurant in Covent Garden, The Boulestin. The chefs at
The Boulestin used to help out on occasion with the catering at
Xenon, a night club in Piccadilly. We were doing the catering on
the evening of Mr Mercury’s birthday party.
After Freddie Mercury had posed for photos with a knife held
over the pink Rolls cake it was removed to the kitchen. We were
then told to cut and serve just small portions to the guests as the
rest was going to be auctioned the next day for charity. After we
had served the cake we moved it to the corridor where it was
cooler and balanced it on the backs of two chairs.
It was some time later we found it gone, but assumed it had been
removed for the auction. we didn’t realise it had been stolen until
the following Monday when the police turned up at the restaurant
to ask questions to which we had no answers!
I was glad to hear it went to a good home.
Two final points. The cake was only decorated on one side as it
was delivered to me at Xenon undecorated 20 minutes before it
was presented, and after Malcolm had been told he could not do
his act with his balloons, two “local” girls were found along with
a lot of jelly and a plastic swimming pool!
Yours faithfully,
Simon Gibbs
It’s good to be remembered.
Two days before the publisher’s deadline for this manuscript, the National
Film Theatre in London ran Another Night With The Bonzos: an evening of
films and reminiscences with surviving members of the Bonzo Dog Doo
Dah Band. I thought about going, but didn’t. It would have been nice to meet
Neil Innes again, but I suppose he wouldn’t have recognised me.
I think I'm popular with most people. But not everybody.
Every year, I send out Christmas cards and, last year, I sent one based on a
Renaissance painting in which the Virgin Mary is holding the baby Jesus.
Instead of her holding Jesus, she had me in her arms with a pint of Guinness
in my hand. It said:
I rang up my mum to get a few old relatives’ addresses and I sent one to my
cousin Geoffrey, the one who had provided us with Boy Scout uniforms
many years ago. On Christmas Eve I got a letter from him addressed to
M.Hardee Esq, with my card enclosed. It said:
Dear Malcolm,
Your apology for a Christmas card is returned although one
is fearful of the consequences of dispatching such unseemly
material through the Royal Mail. Whilst appreciating your
probable aim of sending Christmas greetings to members of
your family, neither my mother nor I appreciate receiving
blasphemous and disrespectful communications at any time,
even from relatives.
Yours sincerely,
Geoffrey E.Morriss
Like Bob Hoskins says, I think it’s good to keep in touch.