© John Fleming
Malcolm Hardee was one of the most colourful legends of alternative comedy.
He was best known for running some of the toughest clubs in London, especially the notorious Tunnel Club at Greenwich, where most of today's biggest names died in front of the aggressive crowd, before going on to run Up The Creek in the same London district.
He died on January 31, 2005 - falling off his dinghy as he made the late-night trip from the pub he owned, the Wibbly Wobbly, to his houseboat on the other side of the dock in Rotherhithe, South East London.
As a performer, he was known for getting naked at every opportunity. He was the founder of the Greatest Show On Legs balloon dance troupe, and used to do a unique impression of Charles De Gaulle, using his penis as the nose.
He was a much-loved regular at both Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Festivals. On one occasion he drove a tractor through a show in a tent, and on another he daubed his genitals with fluorescent paint and performed a bizarre juggling act. Another year he wrote his own glowing review for The Scotsman, posing as critic William Cook, and they published it.
He had a unique approach to hecklers urinating on them on more than one occasion but encouraging them when it came to new open mic comics he was introducing.
He took to comedy after a number of run-ins with the law, including arson and stealing a Cabinet Minister's Rolls-Royce. The title of his autobiography reflected one of the less serious incidents: I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake.
Hardee was born in Lewisham, South London, on January 5, 1950, the son of a tug-boat worker on the Thames.
At school he became involved in petty criminality, stealing Coke from the local bottling plant, burgling a pawnbrokers and setting fire to the Sunday school piano because he wanted to see 'holy smoke'.
In the late Sixties he was a mobile DJ, going by the name of Wolf G Hardee, in between stints at various detention centres. Over the years, he was jailed for several offences, including cheque fraud, break-ins and for escaping custody.
In 1977, he came out for the last time and decided to go into showbusiness, joining with Martin Soan to form the Greatest Show On Legs at the time, an adult Punch and Judy act.
It got them a regular booking at the Tramshed in Woolwich, alongside the likes of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. Soon afterwards, the Comedy Store opened in Soho, and they became regulars there, too. Their breakthrough came in 1981, when they did the balloon dance on Chris Tarrant's TV show OTT.
Malcolm Hardee Videos
10 Years On: The Malcolm Hardee Show
© John Fleming
Malcolm Hardee was never diligent in wiring material, preferring an armoury of catchphrases to the tyranny of disciplined writing. ‘could be good, could be shit,’ was one of them, his way of introducing new acts in honest defiance of the convention of hyping everyone as brilliant. Certainly, that phrase was a fair reflection of the line-up of oddballs on parade at the Up The Creek gig to mark the ten years (plus a day or two) since he drowned, drunkenly, in his beloved Thames.
Where else would you see a woman in a flesh suit and ringmaster’s jacket singing opera; a man with a lobster outfit made from a toilet seat singing My Way, and a lot of exposed penises. I mean, a lot… Hardee did actually book straight-up comics for his gigs, but in death, thanks in part due to the Edinburgh award set up in his name, he’s come to be an icon for all the weird and wonderful acts that take his ‘fuck it’ credo to heart.
And our host for the evening? None other than the shambolic Hardee himself – in the form of Terry Alderton, donning a wig, NHS specs and occasionally a fag to recreate his look. It was a convincing approximation, especially in the distinctive ‘eerrrms’ between the familiar old lines, a sort of phlegmy static as his brain tuned in. An affectionate and well-judged tribute.
Another throwback came as the audience proved the subtle art of the well-placed heckle, at its finest at Hardee’s Tunnel Club, was not entirely dead. As Darren Maskell, not a slim chap, baffled the audience by dancing to 2 Unlimited’s No Limit with a giant bucket on his head and a foam hand. Up went the predictable cry: ‘Cab for the fat geezer!’ followed impeccably with: ‘Two cabs!’ Later Joz Norris, he of the lobster face, remained cheery as his act bombed. ‘I was thinking of a way to end this set…’ he pondered. ‘Suicide!’ came the instant response.
The night started with Hardee’s old mucker Martin Soan attempting to recreate one of Hardee’s finest moments – pissing on a member of the front row. Although the audience at Up The Creek weren’t quite so compliant as the dozing punter Hardee originally pulled the stunt on, and fled. They needn’t have worried, performance anxiety meant the naked Soan struggled to deliver what was needed. Still, with the aid of stand-ins Nick Revell and Dan Lees, a couple of daft Greatest Show On Legs sketches were more successfully recreated. And one of the finest moments of the night when, with the aid of rubber bands, Soan reprised his cheap, ingenious and hilarious impersonations of Michael Jackson.
Smearing her face with lipstick and barking ferally, the psychotic Candy Gigi is normally one of the more insane acts on the bill; here her unhinged performance fitted right in. More shoutiness ensued from Aussie showman John Robertson, producing a sort of Schrodinger’s box of meat, containing either a cat or Jesus. Perhaps fittingly, neither the contents of the box, nor really his set, were resolved. Jayde Adams was our opera diva, recreating how she sang Nessun Dorma on an overnight bus in response to the youths playing music on their mobiles, aptly since none could sleep because of their lack of consideration.
Owen O’Neill had a great story about being struck by lightning while scrumping apples from nuns – likening it to a sort of divine taser gun from a god more occupied with punishing small-scale theft than genocide. That was as normal as it got in a section in which oddity triumphed over funny, from Maskell’s dance to Liberty Hodes with her Stabilo-yellow hair introducing us to animals badly made out of polystyrene to Annie Bashford as a scary-looking widow offering free hugs. Alderton had a perfect put-down after Maskell’s awkward performance: ‘There one voice Rory Bremner won’t have to learn.’ If that was Hardee’s, I don’t remember it.
Bob Slayer said the only way he could stand out among such oddballs would be to go mainstream and tell Russell Howard jokes – but instead opted for his usual rambunctious audience-teasing. And finally opening Robertson’s box..
Spencer Jones’s The Herbert got the balance of eccentricity and humour just right; with a sympathetically dim persona, brilliantly creative prop work and a tight routine that segued seamlessly between set pieces, showing it to be far more considered and inventive than the initial silliness. Cheekykita, a fellow finalist in the NATY new act competition last month, also found the funny in her recreation of Black Beauty, her hooves proving something of a drawback for mic technique. It may be a one-gag character, despite her efforts to make it otherwise, but that one gag is undeniably funny.
Malcolm’s sister made an appearance as part of The Can't Can't Girls, with an enthusiastic rendition of Montparnasse’s famously exhausting dance. But the choreography for the wonderfully inevitable balloon dance was far more sedate than usual – and with far more participants, as most of the male performers of the night gamely got their kit off for the sort of commemoration Malcolm would have wanted.
There were, of course, a few anecdotes about the man himself scattered through the night, as well as rushes from a new biographical film that the evening was raising funds for. One clip from Hardee’s funeral, held just yards from here, summed up the man perfectly, as Arthur Smith noted: ‘Everything about Malcolm – except his stand-up material – was original.’ Oy! Oy!
Malcolm Hardee Dates
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Malcolm Hardee tribute show