Malcolm Hardee tribute show
Show type: Misc live shows
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He may now be exposing his famously pendulous testicles in that great comedy club in the sky, but the anarchic spirit of Malcolm Hardee was very much in evidence at the benefit in his (or, more accurately, his many creditors’) honour last night.
The acts were eclectic and bizarre, the technical side shambolic, the hecklers sometimes feral, the jokes bad and the middle-aged men butt-naked, save for their fraying grey socks. Oh, and Johnny Vegas shouted aggressive nonsense at a befuddled audience. Yet when it worked, it worked brilliantly well, successfully bringing variety back to Hackney’s famous Empire music hall.
In this world of slick, corporate comedy and demographically targeted TV shows, this four-and-a-half hour epic was a throwback to a world of oddballs and freaks that existed long before Malcolm did, and deserves to go on even as his bottle-lens glasses erode on the bed of his beloved river. What Malcolm did was pioneer a revival in the celebration of the strange and the unexpected (with his usual introduction: ‘might be good, might be shit’) and the truest tribute the comedy world could pay him would be to continue that legacy.
But for now, another commemoration show – this one roughly coinciding with the first anniversary of him toppling, drunk, off that tiny, unstable boat in Greenland Dock. Many such tributes have already been paid: a brilliant night at his Up The Creek club in Greenwich, some less successful segments in the Glastonbury comedy tent, the Radio 4 documentary, the Edinburgh shows – and, to top them all, a unique funeral that can never be equalled. For a while, you couldn’t escape Hardee tribute nights, and Arthur Smith, who compered last night’s first section, was in danger of becoming a professional mourner for his much-loved friend.
But this was the biggest, with a bill that combined those who were proud to say they knew Malcolm well, all armed with their near-endless supply of anecdotes, performing alongside those acts of whom he would surely have approved.
Closest to his ethos were, perhaps, Brian Damage and Krysstal, hosts of the second section and proprietors of ‘London’s second worst comedy club’ Pear-Shaped, which also celebrates the deranged and the hopeless on the fringes of the fringe. Though grumpy, chaotic and a touch sleazy, Damage cheerily celebrates his limitations as Malcolm himself did.
Similarly in that anything-goes spirit, The Bastard Son Of Tommy Cooper performed cheap conjuring tricks in a Fez, trunks and nipple tassles; Phil Zimmerman clucked like a chicken, Frank Sanazi crooned lounge numbers as Adolf Hitler might have sung them, Charlie Chuck was, well, Charlie Chuck and, of course, there was the naked balloon dance of The Greatest Show On Legs.
Musically, Alessandro, the Menace From Venice, sang a booming Nessun Dorma; Jools Holland played piano; his ex-Squeeze associate Glenn Tilbrook played first unplugged, strolling around the auditorium when the amplification failed, then Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile with his guitar behind his head; John Hegley set his poems to the musical accompaniment of The Popticians and Andrew Bailey, a rubber glove on his head and a plastic tube in his mouth; and Clare Hardee’s wild-spirited Can’t Can’t girls brought welcome a blast of energy – and a rapturous ovation - towards the end.
Then there were those friends of Malcolm who have made a more conventional career in stand-up. Ricky Grover, whose performance triumphed over modest material to dominate the theatre; Jeremy Hardy who reminisced about Hardee’s unforgiving Tunnel club and expertly recycled some of Malcolm’s greatest hits; fellow Tunnel club survivor Jim Tavare, the perennial victim of the weekly ‘Get Jim Tavare Off In Under 30 Seconds’ competition, who added to the bad joke count; and a shaven-headed Boothby Graffoe who compered the third section with recollections of Hardee urinating in the foyer of the Manchester Comedy Store, among other tales.
Not everyone quite so well: Johnny Sorrow, with his weak delivery and weaker jokes lasted little over a minute before the calls went up for ‘Malcolm’ to rise from the grave and remove this offending act from the stage as he had done so often in life; German comic Henning Wehn, a relative newcomer, went down well when sticking to the exaggerated national stereotype of efficiency and National Socialism, but often baffled the audience too; even Tunnel Club veteran Hattie Hayridge, struggled to connect with her low-key, nervous deadpannery, as did Simon Day with his long-winded Tommy Cockles music hall reminiscences.
The most aggressively hostile reception, though, was reserved for Jimmy Carr, who braved a barrage of boos and hisses as he took to the stage. Nobody, in Malcolm’s world, likes a smart-arse, although this particular one won around the majority with a typically well-crafted joke about rape (‘and that doesn’t reflect well on you,’ he admonished). Although he gave as good as he got when it came to heckles – some with the devastating panache of the Tunnel Club’s mob, but rather more that were just thuggish abuse – the end result was probably a no-score-draw.
The list goes on: Stewart Lee performed his languorous, repetitive and still-funny ‘The answer is Jesus, now what is the question?’ routine he first rendered for Malcolm 16 years ago while brassy Janey Godley stoked the stereotype of tough Glaswegians, though to better effect in genuine anecdotes than in her shoutier, swearier, attention-grabbing one-liners.
Of all the bizarre moments, though, Vegas’s was the strangest. Intimidating, disturbing and combative, his impassioned rants have long left behind any conventions of comedy to become disconcerting snapshots of a breakdown you can only hope is fictional. He ranted despairingly about how he was again down on his luck, reduced to a pathetic bed-soiling loser fighting for access to his child. The uncomfortable picture he paints is of an emotional car-crash falling apart on stage, oblivious to any heckle, however mean-spirited, as he’s already at the lowest point a man can get.
He tried to get everyone to stand for a rendition of Jerusalem, with all the grace of a tramp shouting at the pigeons. When few did, even after evoking Hardee’s name to shame people into participating, a member of the audience came on stage and took temporary command. Not that Johnny would easily relinquish the spotlight. As he overran desperately, interventions from Graffoe and one of the Can’t Can’t dancers failed to remove him from the stage – only The Greatest Show On Legs coming on during the rant finally succeeded.
Vegas provokes a genuine reaction: whether it be pity, disgust or fear for a man whose emotional collapse you have to watch through your fingers. Laughter doesn’t feature on his list priorities, which makes for a very odd addition for a bill celebrating a man known for his joie de vivre, even if it was a particularly unique one.
While Hardee’s credo was ‘fuck it, let’s have a laugh’, Vegas’s nihilism shows itself in bleak despair – and that’s very awkward to watch on a variety bill. Still, even if it was for all the wrong reasons, Vegas’s set was the most unforgettable performance of the night, which is quite an achievement following a bill of can-can dancers, neon light-swallowing, two Nazi tribute acts and male full-frontal nudity. Oy! Oy!