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The mother of the father of alternative comedy...

John Fleming remembers Malcolm Hardee's mum Joan

Joan Hardee, the mother of alternative comedy godfather Malcolm, was 84 when she died yesterday. I met her over perhaps 25 years. She was feisty, redoubtable and with a mind so sharp you could cut cheese with it.

She doted on Malcolm and when he drowned in 2005, it – as you would expect – affected her greatly. She died from pneumonia, peacefully, in a nursing home near Deal in Kent.

In his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, Malcolm – pictured left with his mother – said: ‘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.’

Joan gave birth to Malcolm in 1950; then her daughter Clare ten years later; and son Alexander another ten years later.

Malcolm remembered: ‘I was born 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.

‘When my mother was released from the solitary confinement of the TB sanatorium, she came to collect me from the Hertfordshire orphanage. She said 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 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.’

Joan’s husband was a lighterman. He worked on the River Thames, as the captain of a tugboat, pulling lighters (barges). Malcolm told me: ‘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 Joan did not have it easy. Comedian Arthur Smith told me yesterday: ‘She had a kind of necessary but graceful stoicism.’

Malcolm, in particular, must have been a difficult son to bring up.

Malcolm’s friend Digger Dave told me: ‘Nothing could faze Joan. She just took everything in her stride.’

And she had to.

In his autobiography, Malcolm remembered what he was like as a kid: ‘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.’

I liked Joan a lot. She had more than a spark of originality and a keen, intelligent mind.

Comedian Jenny Eclair said: ‘Malcolm’s entire family are like him. They are rich, in the best sense of the word – there was so much love amongst the Hardees.’

As a surprise on her 70th birthday, Joan received a birthday card from artist Damien Hirst

Well, it was not a card. He sent her one of his paintings with ‘Happy Birthday, Joan’ on the bottom right hand corner.

Joan used to work at Goldsmiths, the art college in south-east London where Hirst had studied. When he was a student, she had sometimes let him and other impoverished students share her sandwiches.

Malcolm had bumped into Damien in the Groucho Club in London and asked him if he would create a card for Joan in time for her birthday party.

The Daily Telegraph quoted Joan as saying of the students at Goldsmiths: ‘I used to buy some of their work at the annual degree show although I didn’t know that much about art actually. I never bought anything by Damien Hirst. I think he did a cow for his degree show and I must have thought, “Where would I put it?”’

Malcolm’s son Frank – Joan’s grandson – says: ‘For me, Grandjo was another Hardee eccentric who loved life and enjoyed to socialise.’

Frank is coming back from South Korea and his sister Poppy is coming back from Palestine to attend Joan’s funeral, details of which have not yet been finalised.

Poppy writes from Palestine: ‘One of my fondest memories of Grandjo comes from the time when I must have been around 10 and she had sold the Damien Hirst dot painting.

‘She held a party to celebrate with the theme of “dress as a famous artist/piece of art work” The room was full of sunflowers, a strange take on surrealism by Steve Bowditch, if I remember, me as the Lady of Shalott and dad as a policeman (ie John Constable).

‘Joan roamed around the room in an outrageous Thirties flapper girl costume (she was over 70 at this point) enjoying life and the company of eccentric friends and relatives.

‘I will remember Joan as a true character – interesting, vibrant, artistic – and I think the person who has most influenced my vintage style and love of a charity shop bargain. She also gave me also my love of old films, celebrity memoirs and whiskey!

‘The last years of Joan’s life were incredibly difficult for both herself and the family. I think that, in sad reality, Joan never really recovered from the loss of our father Malcolm and it is a comfort that they will rest together at Shooters Hill in London.’

Posted: 30 Nov 2011

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