Spike Milligan, Bob Hope, Alexei Sayle, Victoria Wood Ė each of these comedy giants could be defined as Britainís most influential comic, and few would argue about their inclusion in any arbitrary list, like the one that recently named Billy Connolly at its head.
So whoís the most influential stand-up comedian youíve probably never seen? Ė ladies and gentlemen, John Dowie.
Iím not alone in citing John as the finest stand-up of the Ninetiess, bar none. Arthur Smith, Simon Munnery and Barry Cryer are big fans. Addison Creswell, who manages Jack Dee and Michael McIntyre among others, talks regretfully about John as the stand-up he always wanted to sign but never could. And Rory Bremner did everything in his power to bring John to the nationís attention. As well as performing in the sketches, Dowie had a weekly guest spot on Roryís popular mid-80s BBC2 series Now Someone Else.
Any working comedian can instantly reel off five amazing gigs theyíve ever been at or part of. None of us who were there are likely to forget Jerry Sadowitzís first ever English gig, at the Comedy Store in 1985, five minutes of 2am explosives blowing away everything that had gone before it. And Iíll always remember a rain-sodden Glastonbury that same year, when the real threat of violence between 50 comics and a bunch of persistent anarchist hecklers was successfully diffused by, of all men, the peopleís firestarter Malcolm Hardee.
Those are two of my top five. My other three were all performances by John Dowie. Nothing unusual marked those gigs out, except Iíd never laughed harder before, and I havenít since. Iíd been performing for a couple of years before Iíd seen Johnís one-man show, there were some good acts on the circuit but John was in a different league to the rest of us. Seeing John live in the 1980s was the nearest equivalent for me to those exciting American stand-up movies Iíd caught featuring Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and Steve Martin, only now I was in the room to witness it.
I had long been a committed Dowist. My obsessive fan worship began in my teens when a friend played me his single hit, British Tourist. In 1978 I bought the EP A Factory Sampler featuring his comic songs, which I recently discovered is now worth hundreds of pounds, since it also contains the first ever recordings by Joy Division. But Iím not selling, I still listen occasionally listen to the delightful Jim Callaghan.
I first saw John live at the Bristol Locarno, where he was appearing on a bill that included XTC and Nico. These bizarre music show combinations were not uncommon in the late 1970s. Around that time I also saw Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias (an anarchic comic band that John was also occasionally involved with) once headlining with support by Blondie, and a year later supported by The Police.
John began performing in 1969, and became a popular presence on the Birmingham music and poetry scenes, as well as an accomplished actor. But it was punk that first established John beyond the Midlands. John played piano, although his songs essentially consisted of gags that sometimes rhymed, and he didnít so much sing as deliver the lines with his finest stand-up skills.
Johnís comedy was all about pain. He suffered, and you could tell that he suffered, so that we could laugh. Of the current crop of stand-ups who may never have seen him perform, Iíd say Russell Kane and Simon Amstell are closest to carrying on his tradition.
But just because his material was often bleak and painful didnít limit his audience. Like the TV comedy shows of Galton and Simpson, and Clement and Le Frenais, the humour was dark but the appeal was universal. I remember my gran, after listening to an Edinburgh radio show John and I had both appeared in, failing to recall a single thing Iíd said on the show, which I put down to her old age and failing memory. At which point she told me how much she had enjoyed the Ďfunny Birmingham maní, and proceeded to quote his whole act back at me.
So why did John never become a comedy superstar? One of the main problems Dowie faced was that he was difficult to label. Alternative comedy was supposedly born in May 1979 at the Comedy Store, and thatís as fair a date as any to cite. But John was already established on the music circuit by then, even though his act was far more comedy-based. He was never a part of that small group that completely transformed British comedy Ė Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Peter Richardson, Nigel Planer, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. If he had begun performing at the Comedy Store when they did I donít doubt for a moment that he would have become an important part of that scene.
For such a brilliant comedian, in terms of his career John had terrible timing. Johnís performing peaked around the mid Eighties, and there was really no one else around who came within a mile of him. But during that period when John was the only solo comic worth seeing, several other acts like Paul Merton, Harry Enfield, Jo Brand and Jack Dee were learning their craft by playing hundreds of gigs a year on the expanding comedy circuit.
At the same time, John was running out of places to perform his one-man show. Apart from the Edinburgh Festival, which he had already stormed many times, there was no established circuit for solo comedy shows. So John began performing 20 minute slots on bills with other comics. It must have been hard for someone so used to having the room to himself having to share a bill, perform for less time, and see comics not yet in his league but with greater experience of playing those rooms, doing as well as him.
In 1991 John performed his last stand-up show, entitled Why I Stopped Being A Stand-Up Comedian. The show (yes of course I saw it, once a nerd always a nerd) still managed to be funny, although he was becoming more comfortable with the poetry, which had always suited much of his melancholic material.
John has, as far as I know, never stopped writing. In the late 90s he created a remarkable one-man show, Jesus My Boy, which transferred to the West End where it was performed by Tom Conti. By the end of its all-too-short run it was playing to packed houses, and Iím amazed it didnít run for longer. And his childrenís storybook Dogman, also became a successful Edinburgh play, directed by Victor Spinetti.
The last time I saw John perform was ten years ago, in a back-to-back show with Neil Innes, another music/comedy hero, my perfect wet dream of a double bill. There were maybe 15 or 20 of us at the Canal Cafe Theatre, watching two brilliant great performers, talent undimmed by age.
So why mention John now? No particular reason, I just thought with all these lists and labels and programmes about stand-up comedy it was time to bring his name to a wider audience. Although now I think of it, the last time I saw John was 2002, the time before that 1991, so mathematically maybe I can help push for a 2013 comeback?
Dowie is not easy to track down on YouTube, and as with so many comics the TV fails to properly convey his live prsence. But here are a couple of clips from the Rory Bremner show:
And hereís a short clip that gives the flavour of Jesus My Boy, starring Tom Conti as Joseph: