Harry Hill vs The BNP? Fight!

Dave Cohen recalls alternative comedy's finest hour

I’ve written a few pieces for this section of Chortle and the last thing I want is to become the Grand Old Bore and Ranter-In-Chief about ye goode olde dayze of right-on left-wing stand-up comedy.

But with the European elections just a couple of weeks away, and the very real threat of serious gains for the BNP, it felt like a timely moment to recall a sunny Sunday in May 1994, shortly before the local council elections, when a whole bunch of comics got together and decided Something Must Be Done.

Between the demise of the GLC and the creation of the London Assembly, the capital was run like a giant local council. By the early 1990s the BNP were trying hard to disguise their fascist intent and get elected to these councils, and in 1994 there was a real chance they would get their first seat in the Isle of Dogs.

This was considered a big deal. London’s East End has always been known for its famous fascist victories, and for its equally spectacular defeats. A bunch of comedians with local knowledge organised some benefit gigs for anti-fascist groups in the community, then some went further and decided to leaflet the Isle of Dogs, and urge people to vote for anyone apart from the BNP.

A group was hastily constituted, and 5,000 ‘Comedians Against The Nazis’ leaflets were printed for the exercise. At which point the terrible truth dawned. Comedians would have to organise another bunch of comedians to walk around the area to distribute those leaflets. Benefit gigs? No problem. Nothing to stretch us too far out of our comfort zone. And hey – that’s a great bill for me to be on.

This, however, was something different, it involved being seen in public, admitting you don’t like Nazis. That’s fine on stage, but what would it be like if confronted by a gang of skinheads in the street? Was this campaign over before it began?

A meeting was called at the Comedy Store’s spanking new premises, and several more followed. These attracted a whole range of comics, not least some who had failed during their open spots at the old Store, and knew this was the only way they’d get to see the new venue without paying.

As you may imagine, the combination of a bunch of egocentric comedians, politics, and an attempt to construct a serious plan of action, meant that progress was slow. But progress we did, thanks in particular to the brilliant organising skills of John Mann, whose passion and commitment to the day made all the difference.

When the day arrived I was, I’ll admit, shit scared. We really had no idea how things would work out, how many comedians would turn up, whether in our leafleting frenzy we would encounter phalanxes of bullheaded swastika-wearing rottweiler-toting fascists, and whether we would be able to appease them with a few gags about D:Ream and the opening of the Channel Tunnel.

On every count, we needn’t have worried. A total of 60 comedians gathered at Crossharbour DLR station that morning. I don’t know how many people make a living as stand-ups these days but I doubt if there were more than about 250 at that time. So that was maybe a quarter of the entire stand-up population, prepared to give up their Sunday for a political cause.

And you’d be surprised at the roll call of people who attended. There were a couple of the usual suspects, although surprisingly and disappointingly few given the nature of the activity. But that famous political firebrand Harry Hill was there: Jim Tavare, minus double bass, and, if I recall correctly, Al Murray - a fact that might surprise his alter ego the Pub Landlord, along with much of his audience.

We were split into four groups of 15 and managed to leaflet the entire Isle of Dogs constituency. For all the talk of a BNP landslide, and all the stoked-up fear of fascists on the march, their activists were remarkably few in number. They may have been intimidated by seeing our 15-strong gang, but I doubt that.

There was only one point when we were greeted with anything resembling hostility. A bloke who looked about 23, going on 50, stormed out of his Dockland pad and vented his fury at a group of us who’d dared to put a leaflet behind the windscreen wiper of his Porsche 911. He grabbed the offending scrap of A5 and threw it to the ground. We could have been offering cheap pizzas or cleaning and ironing for all he knew.

The result, much to our amazement and joy, was a massive defeat for the BNP candidate. He did pretty well – in any other election, in any other constituency, the number of votes he secured would have swept him in to power. But the turnout was huge, as big as any witnessed in a local election, and from what I remember he barely scraped into third place.

Now I am not, of course, suggesting for a moment that those ‘Comedians Against The Nazis’ leaflets singlehandedly defeated the fascist hordes. Our response was part of a much wider community-led action to defeat the BNP. No one can ever know what made all those people, who never normally vote in an election, come out on polling day.

But the idea that a principle is important enough that even though you might not be personally affected, you are prepared to come out and show your face, may have persuaded a few more people to break their non-voting habit of a lifetime and turn up on polling day. (Although maybe if one or two of them had witnessed me dying onstage at the Orange Tavern in Greenwich the night before they may have decided to vote for the BNP out of spite).

The circuit is, I know, much bigger and more disparate now. It’s less political which in many ways is a cause for celebration – but I also know that the BNP is far stronger, and that trust in our government is at an all-time low.

I’m not expecting comics to go on stage and rant against the BNP. One of the cringiest moments I ever witnessed was at the Edinburgh Playhouse in the mid-80s, sitting through 40 minutes of wall-to-wall knob gags from a man in a spangly suit, and his final line ‘yes indeed ladies and gentlemen, support the miners, my name’s Ben Elton, goodnight.’

But if there is a more cohesive group of alien outsiders who benefit from celebrating peoples’ differences than stand-up comics, I’ve yet to meet them. And as the saying goes, ‘All that is required for evil to happen is for good men to do nothing.’ So go on folks, fulfil the first part of your job description, stand up and fight a fascist today.

Who knows, you might end up with a career like Harry’s.

Published: 15 May 2009

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