Memories of the Tunnel Club | by Nick Revell

Memories of the Tunnel Club

by Nick Revell

I thought I was pretty resistant to nostalgia but l then I looked at this set of pictures from The Tunnel Club in the mid-eighties and discovered I was wrong.

And surprised: it was hard not to feel at least a little pulse of dread across your guts whenever you saw The Tunnel coming up in the diary. The audience at Malcolm Hardee's club near the mouth of the Rotherhithe Tunnel in South London was volatile and unpredictable. Often they’d be good as gold, but if they decided to heckle, you could expect anything from brilliant and witty to mob aggression or flying objects.

The trick was to understand the heckling would not necessarily be directly connected in any logical or justifiable way to what was happening on stage. Of course, it might be - the time a terrible open spot was working in terrible silence until the terrible question came - all the more terrible for being phrased politely, sympathetically, with a vestige of mercy, even: 'What is it you want from us?'

They could turn from love to hate at one tiny stumble or ill-timed breath, but often you got the feeling they had simply all agreed to heckle at a precise prearranged time regardless of how the act was doing, who was on, or indeed if anyone was or not. I don’t recall ever seeing the interval being heckled at The Tunnel, but it would not have surprised me. Once you understood that, you could relax. Sort of.

These pictures bring back all the energy and joy of the place, with none of the fear. Of course that’s partly down to distance, but I think it’s also seeing even more clearly now how the venue and the whole experience was bigger than any one act. Or punter. In fact, that’s probably what killed it in the end; the audience eventually came to believe in its own myth and to consider themselves bigger than the performers. (Specifically, in my opinion, when a comic was hit full in the face by a beer glass)

But in the period when the synergy was right between the anarchy and the artistry on and off stage then The Tunnel couldn’t be beaten. The secret of doing well there was rolling with whatever happened and being in the moment. Of course, that’s true generally, but nowhere else was it more apparent. And peculiar to The Tunnel, it was difficult not to be thrown if you started off killing and continued to do so through the whole set; the only place I’ve played where could you smash it, maybe get an encore and yet still suspect it might all be a trick.

Of course Malcolm Hardee was the embodiment, the spirit, the essence of it all, along with The Greatest Show on Legs. Plenty of stories about him and them elsewhere online; enjoy the research if you don’t know them already. But before you do that, check out these pictures; look at the people, look at the energy and debris and chaos and the life everywhere. I could comment on just about all of them - but just two observations - look at Malcolm, naked on stage and the audience totally ignoring him, obviously watching something much more interesting and outrageous which is happening out of frame. And is that a revolver in Mark Hurst’s waistband? I don’t remember him usually packing heat on stage, but this was The Tunnel, so who knows?

One incident I was there for: Jerry Sadowitz on stage. Young man asleep in the front row all through the set. Jerry outraged. Yelling in the guy’s ear but the guy’s too pissed to notice. Jerry finishes set by raging unsuccessfully at the sleeper for about three minutes. Malcolm comes back on, remarks that sleeping through Jerry Sadowitz is a bit of a first. (Malcolm registering slight surprise? Rare) Audience suggest Malcolm should piss on the guy’s head. (Of course they do.) Malcolm says all right (of course he does), asks for a pint. Drops trousers, does his always reliable impersonation of Charles de Gaulle (by putting his spectacles on his penis) to kill time. Pint arrives. Malcolm drinks, and pisses on the guy’s head. Malcolm calls interval. Guy still asleep.

During the break, I’m having a drink with Malcolm and Jerry. The guy comes up to us. With wet hair and shirt. I’m thinking, this might turn nasty. I step back. (If nothing else, in case he shakes his head.) Guy says: “Malcolm - It is true what my mates just told me?”

Malcolm - very nonchalant: 'What?'

'That you pissed on my head when I was asleep?'

Malcolm shrugs. 'Yeah.'

Geezer: 'Oh fucking hell! I’ll have to go and wash me hair now!' Goes off laughing.

Finally and most importantly, hats off to the photographer, Bill Alford, for capturing the spirit and the times of a unique venue. Simply brilliant. Thanks Bill.

Published: 18 Nov 2013

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