The wrong man in the right place at the wrong time

Dave Cohen remembers the legendary Wizo

Ask any comic of a certain age, who was the maddest, drunkest, most reckless, over-the-top person they’d ever met on the circuit - nearly all would answer Malcolm Hardee. But if Malcolm were still with us, and sober enough to answer that same question, who would he have chosen? Almost certainly his old Deptford chum and partner-in-crime ‘Wizo.’

Paul ‘Wizo’ Wiseman, who died recently in Melbourne, was, if anything, the crazier of the two – as far as I can remember he was drugs-free and sober most of the time, so he lacked Malcolm’s excuses of acting under the influence.

Wizo was like a giant puppy dog, with seemingly boundless enthusiasm and a cheeky sense of humour. Like Malcolm he found, in comedy, a world where he could still be himself without having to go back to his prison ways (for a while). In the early 80s, when almost everyone involved with stand-up was a maverick, and career was merely something you did when you fell off the badly constructed stage, Wizo was just one more ex-con who’d come along for the ride. His exploits as the driver and tour manager in the early Off The Kerb days were legendary, and some of them found their way into the recent Chortle news item about his death.

Wizo’s 15 minutes of glorious catastrophe, alluded to in that article, came when he was asked to head up Stage Left, an agency of stand-ups which was, with the benefit of hindsight, an absolutely ridiculous idea. It’s a small episode from our collective past that nonetheless illustrates well how ‘alternative’ comedy became mainstream.

By the late 1980s the London comedy scene was commercially successful. Jongleurs and The Comedy Store were pulling in hundreds of punters every week. The circuit had already thrown up its first TV superstar – Harry Enfield – and there were plenty more working their way through the ranks.

Off The Kerb Promotions, which had been around for years, was growing too. Launched in the early Eighties by Addison Creswell, it was by now largely comprised of political performers, though not necessarily by design. Mark Steel, Skint Video, Mark Thomas and Mark Hurst were OTK’s main acts, not least because they were the most popular live performers. But Addison could see that the audience, and the circuit, were growing exponentially, and with his first serious rival promoter appearing in the shape of Avalon, he’d signed the more mainstream Jack Dee and Julian Clary.

It wasn’t the arrival of these new, less political acts, that pissed off the political wing of Off The Kerb, so much as the fact that they felt they were being overlooked. Famously, on being told that his own career was being put ‘on the back burner’, Mark Hurst said to Addison ‘I don’t want to be on the back burner! I want to be in the microwave like Julian!’

And so one day Addison turned up for work, to find that more than half of his clients and his chief tour manager had exited, Stage Left. Skint Video, and the three Marks formed the core of the group – and any comic who was still vaguely left-wing was invited to join. Which was how I found myself, along with Jeremy Hardy, Linda Smith, John Moloney and a bunch of others, in the ranks of Britain’s first right-on comedians’ agency.

Suddenly, what seemed like a great idea at the time had to be implemented on a boring day-to-day basis. In a crash course on agenting, we discovered that gigs didn’t just book themselves, someone had to actually organise publicity, and money had to be found to pay for it all. What followed were a series of meetings – attended by all of us, of course – and a feeling that we had travelled back in time to some Seventies communal house set-up. Only, instead of arguing about whether we should be allowed to eat meat, we looked at each other blankly and wondered what the hell was happening to our comedy careers.

Everyone had to pitch in, so I ended up on numerous occasions in Wizo’s front room in Bromley, manning the phones and licking envelopes while his kids watched Grange Hill on the telly in the corner. This was not showbiz, but it felt pure and good.

Wizo lived in an unassuming suburban semi in an unassuming suburban street in Bromley - although I doubt if many of his neighbours had photographs of themselves hanging in their toilet, naked, riding a motorcycle around a wall of death.

Somehow an autumn college tour was fashioned from nothing: 24 dates across the country - more like six by the time we actually went out and did it – plus our own driving as the in-house driver had other business to attend.

But the whole enterprise was, of course, doomed from the word go. As soon as some sense of order had to be imposed, it all fell apart. Wizo’s puppydog enthusiasm was replaced by a pitbull sternness, and even the arrival of Eddie Izzard’s manager, the well-organised Pete Harris, failed to stop the rot, or the steady but inevitable trickle of chastened performers back to Off The Kerb.

Looking back on the adventure we all seem a bit foolish. Wizo was the wrong man in the right place at the wrong time. It would have been a big ask for the most experienced agent, let alone a man whose sole qualification for the job was that he drove the comedians to their gigs. Addison could hardly be blamed for wanting to take on acts who would soon become well known TV faces and big earners for his agency. He’d been on the scene longer than anyone so could hardly be accused of jumping on the bandwagon.

Mark Thomas told Chortle: ‘Paul was a good bloke to have around but the worst person to choose to manage a performers co-op, which is what a group of us did. We put a man with a nickname of Wizo in charge of the money. Needless to say it went tits up.’

Yet wasn’t that part of the adventure? From what I remember it wasn’t Off The Kerb they were leaving so much as the direction the circuit was heading. Nobody expected to turn back the commercial tide of stand-up, but here was a group of comics keen to maintain the sense of adventure that had brought them into comedy in the first place. From that point of view, Wizo was an inspired choice of leader. Imagine what would have happened if he had pulled it off.

Because for a while, when the money was rolling in, he did pull it off. There was a growing appetite for stand-up, and TV producers loved being in the company of Wizo. When things were going well he was the most delightful, charming and hilarious geezer to be around.

Linda Smith remained in Sheffield after joining Stage Left, but moved to London soon after it fell apart. Touring with the agency was surely one of the spurs for her to head back south and really give her comedy career a go. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have come anyway, but it helped.

So for his small part in that move alone, I’ll retain my fond memory of mad Wizo.

Published: 30 Apr 2009

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