When pressure gets too much for me and I realise that I am on the point of either apoplexy or apathy, I almost always go for the second option, and I turn to my wife and I say: ‘Well, in the immortal words of Malcolm Hardee’, and she says "You mean - f*** it?’, and I say, ‘Exactly. Fuck it.’
Because Malcolm Hardee was a comedian who, when he got himself into a position where there was no way from him to the punch line, or where he introduced the next act, and there was no next act, or when he couldn't think what to say next, he would say simply but very meaningfully, ‘Well, fuck it’, and there was a joyfulness in the way he said it which made it sound different from the way everyone else said it, which is banal or dirty, but with him it was almost grand.
If that was all there was to him, I wouldn't mention him now, and to be honest I only ever came across him in Edinburgh in a period about fifteen years ago, when I was involved in acts on the Fringe for several years running, and he was a resident comedian at the Pleasance and indeed an impresario of sorts. He not only ran comedy clubs but ran comedians. I knew this, because this was the time when Communism was collapsing in Eastern Europe, and Mr Gorbachev was emerging as the first world leader ever to have a large dark blotch on his scalp, and Malcolm Hardee's reaction to that world crisis was to fly up from London a comedian who was the spitting image of Mr Gorbachev and put him on straightaway in an act called something like: ‘Gorbachev Sings Rock 'n' Roll’.
‘Where on earth did you find a Gorbachev lookalike so fast?’ I asked Malcolm.
‘Well, he wasn't always a dead ringer for Gorbachev,’ he told me. ‘In earlier days he was a very good Elvis imitator. But then he started getting balder and fatter and looking very unlike Elvis, and he couldn't work again as an Elvis lookalike. However, he started looking more and more like Gorbachev, and suddenly that's paid off and that's why I got him up here. The only snag is that he doesn't have a Gorbachev act. That's why he's singing rock 'n' roll. It's his old Elvis act, intact. Makes you think, though.’
‘What does it make you think?’
‘It makes you think that if Elvis hadn't died young, he might have come to look like Gorbachev.’
Another act he brought up from London was not topical at all, or alternative, or fashionable, but still remains in my mind as one of the funniest things I ever saw. It was a ventriloquist act, done by a middle-aged matron of a lady called something like Terry James (I think the Terry bit is right) who had a little boy puppet on her knee, and she was quite proper, and he was Cockney and cheeky and foul-mouthed, so the dialogue went something like this. . .
‘Say hello to the ladies and gentlemen.’
‘But this is your first trip to Edinburgh.’
‘I hate Edinburgh.’
‘But you wanted to come to the Edinburgh Festival.’
‘No, I didn't. You put me in my box in London, and next time you take me out, I'm in fucking Edinburgh.’
‘Please don't swear.’
‘My God, have you seen the funny-looking bloke in the front row ? The ugly one with the toupee?’
‘It's not a toupee. . .’
And so on, and so forth, and what was so funny was that intellectually you knew that she
was saying everything, but on another level you also believed that she was horrified by almost everything he said although it was actually her saying it, and the fouler it got, the funnier it got.
I saw Malcolm performing several times, and when he was good he was very good, and when he was drunk he was not so good, and sometimes naked, which didn't always make it funnier, but even when it didn't quite work I envied the danger he brought to the act. I could never do anything like that. I could never, as he is reputed to have done, get a tractor and drive it (also naked ) into the tent of a rival comedian who was making too much noise.
I hadn't realised, till I read the Guardian obituary of Malcolm Hardee in early February, that he was in prison early on for petty theft. ‘Jail,’ he is quoted as saying, ‘is like mime and juggling; it's a tragic waste of time’. He seemed to have had it in for mime - he had a story about a blind punter who came to his comedy club once, and happened to come in during a mime act, and sat there for ten minutes, with only the occasional gust of laughter audible. Eventually the blind man got up and cried out: ‘Tell us a joke, for God's sake!’
I once found myself in a taxi in Edinburgh with Malcolm Hardee and a taxi driver who he swore was the funniest man in Scotland, and they were planning to do terrible things, and I can remember that all I wanted to do was get out and go home, which tells you all you need to know about me, but I am glad I met him briefly, and I am not totally surprised to learn from his obituary that in later years he ran a floating pub and was latterly found drowned in the Thames. Those of us who are only funny in our heads are dangerously attracted to people who act it out in real life, the Malcolm Hardees and the Vivian Stanshalls. . . . .
Ah, Vivian Stanshall. I met him as well. Some other time, perhaps.
Friday Feb 4 05