Let’s start with my prejudices: I’ve never been a massive fan of Simon Day’s work. Music hall bore Tommy Cockles is reasonably amusing, but although I appreciate the craftsmanship in characters such as Billy Bleach and Dave Angel, Eco Warrior, they’ve never struck a cord with me.
Yet Day’s memoirs, Comedy And Error, is the best comedian’s autobiography for quite some time. In an age when it seems that just about anyone who’s been on TV can get a cash-in publishing deal, Day stands out for the simple reason that he’s had an interesting – if frequently troubled – life, which he relates with frankness, warmth and humour.
From a respectable middle-class background in South-East London, Day went off the rails as a teenager. His dyslexia meant he didn’t do too well at school, and he developed an addiction to fruit machines, spending his young life looking at spinning cherries and lemons rather than engaging with the real world, an escape he funded by stealing from his friends and family.
Initially, there’s nothing too serious. Even when he ended up in front of magistrates for chucking stolen eggs and potatoes out of a moving car with his mates, you could put it down to teenage high jinks gone too far. But gradually dropping out became a lifestyle. He became homeless, crashing on friends’ floors, and drifting between casual jobs and the dole, stealing more and more to keep those reels spinning. And when he nicked cheques and tried to cash them, he found himself sucked into the prison system, with three months on remand in various jails followed by a stint in borstal.
‘Once arrested and in the system you often find yourself travelling across the country in police vans and prison wagons,’ Day writes in typically evocative style. ‘You can look out and see people going about their daily business; you can see them so clearly, sometimes hear them, but they’re people in a film, in another country. They’re living in normal time, but you’re not; you’re in black and white, they’re in colour.’
Inside, he revealingly describes the racism of prison life in the early Eighties, the forging of loyalties with fellow inmates and the sort of culture when the smallest slight can start a fight. It’s not quite Oz, but there’s violence and menace that once would have been anathema for the nice Blackheath boy. On his release, he continued to do little with his life, taking various labouring jobs so he could afford more beer and pot. His drug use led to emotional problems and relationships defined by self-loathing.
Although serious, the book isn’t always bleak. Day seems to be a magnet for larger-than-life characters, and, despite that cannabis use, seems to have retained a great memory for the details of various encounters, right back to his schooldays. Many of them make for entertaining anecdotes, such as the paranoia-fuelled trip to Glastonbury in 1983, and there’s often a mordant wit behind them.
He tried comedy after seeing Harry Enfield on Saturday Live. ‘I wanted to by Harry Enfield or something like him. But how?’ he writes. ‘Being on TV seemed a world away from where I was. I was the same skint idiot who put his train fare in the fruit machine and frequently went through the lost sock bag at the launderette.’
But thankfully he spotted a local talent night that was being judged by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and – in a move that would seem impossible in today’s more highly-structured comedy industry – they immediately invited Day on tour with them. It would be heartening to report that he found redemption through comedy…but it didn’t quite work out that way, and instead just proved another way to fuel his addiction.
As he progressed up the comedy ladder, he also progressed to harder drugs, becoming ‘a full-on coke monkey’. He got a role on the Fast Show, became friends with John Tompson – himself no stranger to addiction – and would spend his days on stage and his nights snorting lines of cocaine, often alone. And, when that stopped working, he turned to crack.
Day is not the only comedian to have gone down such a route. Russell Brand, for example, described similar experiences in his ‘booky wooky’. But, because he’s Russell Brand, there was always some vicarious, if misplaced, feeling of grungy glamour in the squalor. But because Day is not a flamboyant character, but a normal bloke, he makes his addiction sound not just bleak, but mundanely bleak – an everyday reality shorn of allure.
‘Everyone else in The Fast Show had by this point brought a large house and pretty much paid off the mortgage,’ he writes tellingly of his increasing success. ‘I was living in a drab, brown, rented flat.’
Comedy And Error ends with Day now on the straight and narrow. It was the love of a good woman that brought that redemption, in the end.
When applied to his previous experience, Day’s Tommy Cockles catchphrase, and the subtitle of this book – ‘They really were marvellous times’ – has a hollow, ironic ring. But the unsentimental frankness, and understated humour with which he describes those times makes for a compelling book.
- Comedy And Error by Simon Day is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £18.99. Click here to buy from Amazon fro £9.50