'Don't worry, they'll love you here'

Tony Schumacher recalls the highs and lows of gigging

About five or six years ago, when I was full of vim and vigour, I was rung up by a mate called Dave Purdy to play his gig in Manchester. Now I had heard about this place, many comics spoke of it in hushed tones as being a bit of a hellhole.

Only a few weeks before a punter had been thrown out of the pub for threatening to beat up one of the acts, he'd then thrown a bottle through the window after his ejection and had caused a massive fight in the car park. So all in all it's fair to say I wasn't much looking forward to the gig and should really have made some excuse and not gone.

But Dave was a bit of a comedy guru, not just to me, but to just about every comic who came out of Manchester around that time. At some point in your early open spot phase you would end up sat opposite Dave with a bottle of red between you as he smoked a rolled-up cigarette. Occasionally he would jab his tab at you like some sort of drunken smoking wasp as he ripped you to bits, that rolly and the words that huskily followed it were worse than any wasp. I remember him pouring some wine into my empty pint glass as he offered me the following piece of advice:

'You were shit, but you didn't have to be, don't be such a lazy fucker and get your finger out.'

Now those of you who know me will know that I'm not the kind of person who takes kindly to be called shit, but, as usual, Dave was right, and it's hard to take umbrage with someone who you know is right. So I drunk my lagerwine (he hadn't noticed I still had half an inch of Carling in the bottom of my glass) and nodded and took it on the chin from someone who knew comedy.

So the day Dave rung me to ask would I do his gig I have to be honest I really wanted to say no.

So I did.

'You are a lazy fuuuucker Shoey, I knew you were, I fuuuucking told you the other day.'

'I know Dave, but to be honest it sounds like a terrible gig and I can't be bothered driving for an hour to do a terrible gig.'

'You aren't driving to do a terrible gig, you are driving to do a brilliant gig.'

'But everyone has told me it's terrible.'

'Yeah, but you'll make it brilliant if you want to.'

On that note I ummed and aaaahed for a bit and then said: "All right, but if it's crap I'm not doing it again, and I don't want to hear you moan about it, okay?'

'It won't be crap... it'll be brilliant.'

On that note, later that night, I found myself driving around deepest darkest Manchester searching for the pub the gig was held in. This was pre satnav times, in the days when reading an A-Z on the motorway was part of your driving test.

I finally turned up at a pub that looked like Hitler's bunker in Downfall. A truly bleak edifice that even its architect couldn't love.

I opened the door and wandered past more tracksuits than were at the Montreal Olympics and found Dave and some other comics at the end of the bar. Dave was pissed but in good spirits and quickly introduced me to some of the comics and the pub manager. He went onto tell me that seeing as I had come furthest he would put me on first. He pointed to the stage (which was a few beer crates and some hardboard) and said: 'They will love you here Shoey, they like people who are like them.'

I tried not to take offence as I glanced around the bar

'Don't worry I'll give you a big build-up. Come on, let's get going.'

The other comics nodded support as Dave made his way to the mic. I watched as my colleagues swallowed nervously, their Adam's Apples bobbing like it was Halloween, each one of them glad they weren't me.

I told myself that I should just get on and get it over with. How bad could it be?

Dave did a few minutes and then gave me tiny nod of the head as warning I was about to go on,

'Our first act is a great comic, he's new to the circuit but I'm certain you are going to like him... He's from Liverpool…' Cue massive jeers and my Adam's Apple joining in with everyone else's in a synchronised bobbing session

'No! come on! He's a cracking lad, as I said, he's a Scouser and he is also a copper…' More jeers, more bobbing '…so let's have a warm welcome for Tony Schumacher!'

To say that I got a cool welcome was an understatement. You'd get a warmer welcome at Reykjavik Jongleurs on the night the boiler packed in. I can remember glancing across to the bar at one point and seeing the barmaid watching, she had her hand to her mouth and looked like someone who was watching a puppy get run over.

All in all it was a bit like an out of body experience, like one of those people who calmly watch doctors pound on their chest from the corner of the ceiling.

Except I wasn't calm... I was shitting myself.

Poor Dave died a few years back, that night I think knew how he felt.

Why, you ask, are you telling me this?

Well, the other week I turned up at a gig and had a similar feeling. Except this one was in Liverpool and I am no longer a copper – I now drive a minicab – although I am still a lazy fucker.

The gig had been organised by a comedy mate, who keeps encouraging me out of the cab and back on to the stage. It was being held at the Bleak House Pub in Dingle, Liverpool. For those of you who don't know it, Dingle is a rough, old-fashioned, working- class neighbourhood in Liverpool.

Most of the people who live there come from families who have lived in the area for generations. They have had it tough and are tough. It would be fair to say that Capital Of Culture didn't venture out this far from the city centre because it would have been too scared of being mugged.

The Bleak House pub looks just like its name suggests, local folk claim that Charles Dickens lived in the area when he moved to Liverpool with the intention of sampling the underbelly of the city. I don't know if he did or not, but if it was underbelly Chas was after, underbelly was what he would have found. This place had more underbelly than Michelle McManus.

The landlord looked (and probably was) a real hard case, but he was welcoming and enthusiastic, as was John, the guy who had organised the gig.

'Shoey you will rip it here, they will love you because you're like them,' said John

'Where have I heard that before?' I thought 'Purdy will be pissing himself if he can see this.'

'I'm putting you on first mate, you'll get them going'

'Only thing going will be me,' I thought, 'to the toilet.'

The time to go on came, the compère had done a stellar job battling against the noise and boisterous crowd, I say boisterous, it was like a Munich Beer Hall just after they found out Mike And Bernie Winters were the cabaret.

Up I went, heckles abounded, noisy talkers gabbed, tills slammed and glasses chinked and I worked my arse off. After a couple of minutes I got into that place only comics know, the place where you feel like you are surfing a wave and every word is met with a nod and a laugh.

I danced around heckles like Errol Flynn did with Basil Rathbone, darting and parrying and swinging from chandeliers of dazzling wit.

My time drew to a close and I pulled my act around me like a matador would his cape, my closing line delivered like a sword to an exhausted bull's spine... deadly, precise, final.

When I stepped from the stage I felt as if on air, hand clapped and shoulder patted I rested against the bar to watch the rest of the show.

A lady at the bar turned to me, smiled and beckoned me closer, I leant in close and smelled her perfume, 'I've worked the old magic,' I thought. 'Women love men who can make them laugh.'

She drew her mouth close to my ear, I felt her hairspray-stiffened hair brush my cheek and smelt the Blue WKD on her breath. She breathed huskily and whispered: 'You should tell more jokes.'

The cow.

Published: 23 May 2011

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