'This was comedy's version of punk'

Arthur Smith recalls the early days of alternative comedy in this chapter from his memoirs...

I am a stand-up comic. Even now, after a thousand gigs, making this statement gives me a bristle of pride and a bump of self- importance. ‘That must be the hardest job in the world,’ people say routinely to stand-ups. It is not, of course, but it is the most singular job in show business and, in some ways, the most glamorous. The stand-up comedian is a solitary warrior, ignoring the theatre’s fourth wall in a direct Brechtian assault on his (or her) audience, the one performer whose success or failure is determined instantly and audibly. He does not sit down in timid informality, he stands up, like you stand up against bullies or for your rights. He has come to banish cant, bullshit, hypocrisy and the straight face. He does not hide behind costumes, music, cameras, props or masks, he relies on no one but himself, he is not edited or enhanced after the event, he strides onto the middle of the stage and addresses the crowd, like a politician with no party on his back, like a preacher without God, a gladiator come to slay a roomful of lions and Christians. He ‘kills’, he ‘rips the room apart’, he ‘storms it’ and the world applauds at his feet. I am a stand-up comic. Who would not be proud to be such a creature?

But when he fails, when no laughs come, when he ‘dies’, ‘goes down the toilet’, why, then he is an arse and he must get the first train out of town. The stand-up is a con artist who will dance to any tune that gets him a gig and pander to any prejudice that keeps him in the spotlight. He distributes prejudice with a smile, disseminates the lie that laughter redeems or that it is, as Nietzsche said, ‘the one true metaphysical consolation’, when really it is a way of hiding from the serious business of life – the tragedy of existence.

The first time I tried stand-up I died. I also went down the pan at gigs numbers five, twelve, thirty-seven and so on, until just a few months ago when, in a large, bland businessmen’s hotel near Derby, my quips left a roomful of car salesmen indifferent to the point of belligerence. To add to my shame, the shape of the room meant that after my public humiliation, when every part of me screamed to get out quick, I had to skirt around the edge of my former audience to reach the exit. They turned in their seats to consider me. Every comic knows this walk of shame. You try to avoid eye contact with anyone. You know what they are thinking: they are thinking that you are a useless, unfunny cunt. They are wondering how much you’ve been paid for pissing them off and how the hell you ever persuaded someone to book you. Like the golden-duck batsman’s long walk back to the pavilion, or the defendant’s grim passage from the dock to the cells, the cry of ‘Take him down’ pounding in his ears, it is a head-down procession of despair.

In stand-up comedy when you die you are a zero but when you kill you are, briefly, immortal. Mostly, though, it’s somewhere in the middle.

In the Revue company’s first appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1977, I had done a turn impersonating the stand-up comedian Max Miller, ‘the Cheeky Chappie’, a massive music- hall star in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, so famous and popular that they would hold the London–Brighton train for him if his show came down late. Wearing an outlandish suit, plus fours, co-respondent shoes, tilted trilby and a seductive twinkle in his eye, he delivered a brilliant patter of jokes and songs, laced with racy innuendo. He had been a hero to my Grandad Jim, and remains one to Tony, the elegant cove who works at the porter’s lodge where I live. Maxie’s catchphrase was bold and true: ‘There’ll never be another.’ The routine I learnt came from a record that belonged, of course, to Adam but it was only when I came to write this book that I realised Miller’s breakneck pace and cockney Jack-the-lad pose might have informed the stand- up style that I eventually evolved. Max was hugely talented, famous and rich in a way that I will never be (though I notice they do hold the train for me and frequently long after I have boarded it). But by 1977 Max Miller had cracked his last gag and variety was dead. As far as I was concerned, my tribute to ‘our Maxie’ had no bearing on my own performing aspirations (whatever they were).

There were twenty-four revues – similar to what we now call sketch shows – in the Fringe programme in that eye-opening year at Edinburgh, but zero stand-ups – nor would there be for four years. The template for the British stand-up comic then was the sort of act you saw on telly in The Comedians, the show which gave us Bernard Manning, Stan Boardman, Frank Carson, etc. This genre of performer did not play Edinburgh, just as Edinburgh-flavoured acts were not seen in Blackpool. I felt no affinity with these chubby blokes in their frilly shirts and glittering jackets, slickly marching their jokes by in single file. ‘Sparklies’, a TV booker I knew called them. Jokes to me then were for old blokes in the pub, ready-made narratives displaying no individuality, belonging to everyone, and so to no one. They told of a world I did not know, of nagging wives, stupid Irishmen, seaside boarding houses and salesmen travelling in ladies’ underwear. They might once have been the staple diet of my grandad’s era but now they were the laborious weapon of pub drunks.

Unlike some comics, I was not a comedy obsessive as an adolescent but I absorbed what was around. On TV, the performers I admired were to be found among the Oxbridge set – Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe, Pete and Dud. I was also fond of Hancock, The Goons and, especially, Spike Milligan (I once put on his song ‘I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas’ twelve times in a row on the jukebox of a pub and left after the second playing). These guys did sketches and monologues, they did not lower themselves to cracking cheesy gags at a microphone – indeed, they parodied the performers who did. Eric Morecambe, it was hard to deny, was the funniest natural comic of that and possibly any other era but the archetypal comic at that time was, to me, a conservative, uninteresting figure.

Stand-up, then, was not initially a form that it crossed my mind to try, though, as the Edinburghs went by, I became increasingly frustrated with the Revue material – it was the 1980s and we were still doing a dance at the beginning, for Christ’s sake. Adam always succeeded in spurring me into action, but his muse was a 1940s musical film star whereas by now I had my tight red trousers and pogoed to The Jam. I had been the lead singer in a band that had played in hip London venues, shouted loudly at CND demos and Rock Against Racism concerts – how could I wear my pencil tie and my Elvis Costello sneer with any conviction when I was still to be seen on stages around Britain in a big yellow curly wig exhorting people to wave their shoes in the air and sing ‘Monopoly – the Wondergame!’? How could I, who wrote poems in the style of John Cooper-Clark and had once snorted cocaine, be performing whimsical parodies of Stanley Holloway poems?

Within thirty seconds of seeing Alexei Sayle step onto the stage at the Comic Strip in the Raymond Revue Bar, Soho in 1981 I finally knew I wanted to try stand-up comedy. What ferocious attack he had. (‘I don’t just do this. I’m also the editor of a newspaper called What’s On in Stoke Newington. I don’t know if you know it, it’s a big sheet of paper with “fuck all” written on it.’) He swore masterfully through tirades about social workers, muesli, Marxists, Mrs Thatcher and real ale – polemics which frequently span out into demented whimsy. The antithesis of the Sparkly stand-up guy, whose persona tended to be genial and straight- forward, Alexei was also scornful of the privileged Oxbridge types who dominated TV. He was angry. Fuck you. This was evidently comedy’s version of punk and it even came to adopt the terminology used by bands; comics didn’t do shows, they did a ‘set’ at a ‘gig’, while ad libbing became ‘riffing’.

In his shiny undersized suit and his pork-pie hat, Alexei looked to me the coolest dude in London. Scarcely less impressive were the other acts: the charismatic Rik Mayall with his shrieking side- kick Ade Edmondson; the dry, laconic Arnold Brown – a Jewish Glaswegian (‘two stereotypes for the price of one’); Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson in a weird double act; and Pauline Melville, who played an extremely right-on old lady – she wasn’t especially funny but, like Alexei, her subject matter was refreshingly contemporary. It all seemed so modern. Every sketch, every song, every monologue I had ever performed suddenly acquired the odour of formaldehyde. Stunned by what I had seen, on the night bus home I announced to Kath, who had forgiven me for the wrestling incident, my intention to try stand-up. She nodded encouragement and looked doubtful. When we got to hers, I sat down, synapses firing, and wrote a routine which by morning had congealed into a thin pastiche of one of Alexei’s.

Nevertheless, I was at last motivated to ring the Comedy Store, ( The Comic Strip was made up of successful Comedy Store acts who had formed a collective and moved round the corner) opened a year earlier by Don Ward with charming insurance agent, dentist, dude-around-town Peter Rosengard, which had become the first arena for what was soon to be known as ‘alternative cabaret’. I booked a five-minute try-out spot for a month’s time on a Saturday night and sat down to consider what I might do. I had been on stage on my own many times, but only within the comforting confines of the Revue Company or the band. At this, the first Comedy Store, on the third floor of the Gargoyle Club in Soho (a strip club during the rest of the week), accessible only by lift, I felt exposed and terrified. I arrived at eight, to be told that open spots went on at two a.m. at the end of the second show. In the interim I went round to Richard and Lin’s in Clapham, always a haven in my chaotic life; I ate glumly, tried not to drink too much – and failed, which was the first of several basic errors made on this maiden stand-up outing. The others were: poor microphone technique, a glazed look born of concentrating too much on remembering my lines, an overreaction to a heckler and an inappropriate script. Phil came to cheer me on but ended up consoling me.

Tony Allen, the man who invented the term ‘alternative cabaret’ and acted as its unofficial guru, was the compère that night. A regular speaker at Hyde Park Corner on Sundays, Tony – tall, stooping and wild-haired – was an anarchist and a natural contrarian, whose take on the world was unfailingly provocative. For example, he would not endorse the imprisoned Nelson Mandela – an obvious hero to the left – on the grounds that he was a politician, and politicians, by definition, were corrupt. During the miners’ strike he refused to join all the other comics in doing benefits because he did not wish to help send men back down into those dark dangerous holes. He set the tone (a comic I knew called him ‘Lofty Tone’) and it soon became unacceptable to do material that was casually sexist or, one of the Sparkly staples, racist. Swearing onstage was de rigueur but for several years the word ‘cunt’ was outlawed unless it was used to denote the beautiful genitalia of woman. Tony’s namesake Keith Allen only did stand-up for a couple of years but his fearless modernity was also a big influence on the early cabaret scene. His most daring monologue, delivered in skimpy leathers, mixed two disparate contemporary iconic figures as he strutted on stage as a gay miner.

A compensation of my debut death was a first sighting of the great John Hegley – then in his early glasses period, when every quirky poem and joke returned to his love of spectacles. (‘I’ve got my glasses on my face/I haven’t got my glasses in my glasses case/I’ve got my glasses on my face/I’ve got my glasses in the proper place.’) John is a one-off – a raw, multi-talented troubadour and one of the genuine originals of comedy. But that night I did not appreciate this. That night I could only be jealous of the comics who had done well. The gong that ended my act sounded in my head for four months before I tried stand-up again.

By then the Comedy Store had closed while its owner, Don Ward, sought out newer, bigger premises to house these increasingly popular shows. In its wake a number of other venues opened; as more new acts appeared and audience numbers grew, I was booked to compère the Hemingford Arms in Islington, on the strength of my Edinburgh appearances. My opening spot was, initially, a disaster; any humour in my first line was undermined by the microphone not working. Except that it was working. A member of the audience shouted helpfully, ‘Try turning it on’ and when this proved to be outside my range of skills he kindly came onto the stage and did it for me. At the Comedy Store, I would have already been gonged off but here, in the relaxed back room of a small pub, with an audience of polite urbanites, my vulnerability worked in my favour. ‘You’ve got to say that is an undistinguished start,’ I said and when they laughed, my confidence ignited and I took my first step forward, standing up.

My success that night earned me a run of Saturday gigs at the Hemingford where I began to learn, imagine and improvise the arcane art of the compère. It is a peculiar job and a peculiar word with its irritating accent (it sounds French – yet they hardly know the word). The Americans say MC or ‘host’, and so do we more and more. The traditional British version did ten minutes at the start of each half and otherwise briefly introduced the performers, but I chose to do less at the front and more between acts so that I would be constantly engaged throughout the evening. As a kind of liaison officer between audience and acts, the compère sets the rhythm and tone of the evening and is therefore liable to be extrovert and upbeat. His job is akin to hosting a party – he introduces people to each other, makes sure guests and performers know what’s going on, where the toilets are, when the interval is due and, as the last performer on stage, he has the final word of the night. At the Hemingford, when some audience members assumed that I was the manager of the pub who’d got up to have a go himself and ended up being quite good, I was pleased. Low audience expectation and the knowledge that I need never be on for longer than five minutes gave me the courage to ad lib and experiment, to chat to the audience and tease laughs from their responses. In pursuit of this I invented games and quizzes that I could, if I wished, return to (‘Who can name five people with the initials JC?’ ‘How many men can you name called Shane Atwoll?’).

Most of the acts I introduced at the Hemingford Arms had, like myself, a background in fringe theatre. There was a French mime artist who actually did do ‘inside the box’ and ‘walking into the wind’; Pierre Hollins was able to juggle apples and eat them at the same time; Fascinating Aida was a formidable trio of women in sequinned ball gowns who looked thoroughly incongruous on the tiny dusty stage in the back of a pub – but their witty, scurrilous songs (written by the divine Ms Dilly Keane) had the crowd slobbering for more. The cabaret scene was flour- ishing, but was still so small and poorly paid that no performer yet considered playing it to be much of a career move. The Edinburgh revues offered me the best route out of the nine-to- five vortex. We had evolved a style by now that reflected our personalities: loud, warm, clean, tuneful, witty, old-fashioned, inventive – a curious synthesis of Adam and Babs’ camp and mine and Phil’s more modern sensibilities. Max stood brashly between the two, often in a pair of fishnets.

At our second Festival we had met a tall, stooping, itchy young man called Rupert Gavin, who, I was astounded to learn, was earning eight thousand pounds a year as an advertising executive. Rupert was laconic and fun, a man with a department of showbiz in his businessman’s heart, and one of those people who arrives at his office at seven a.m. and leaves twelve hours later, having done more work than most people manage in a month. In subsequent visits up north he was our producer and fifteen years later, by which time he had been head of BBC Worldwide, owned several London theatres, become the boss of Odeon Cinemas (etc.), Rupert was still producing shows of mine.

It was Rupert, or maybe Adam, who had the outstanding idea of changing the name of our troupe to the ‘National Revue Company’, using the same type font as the National Theatre. In these more litigious times we would probably be gagged, sued and made bankrupt, but we went unchallenged then. There is no doubt that some people were seduced into thinking that the company was, in some way, attached to the big theatres on the South Bank. The ‘alonga’ shows became bigger and bolder, if not more contemporary, and we did little tours, requiring interminable hours spent driving back at night from venues far afield so that we might slumber for a few hours before commuting to our day jobs – in my case seventeen long stops (two changes) from South Wimbledon to a language school in Turnpike Lane. And, finally, we earned the Actors Equity cards. Being a member of a union, I felt, validated me, even though I nearly ended up as Captain Wanker and did not yet bother to advertise that Brian Smith had become Arthur Smith.

The persistent enthusiasm and popularity in Edinburgh of the National Revue Company, the show we did (without Adam) that dispensed with camp, and some fine flirting by Babs and Max, at last made the producers at the BBC take a look at us and eventually commission a radio series. There was whooping and kissing in the back of our old yellow GPO van when we heard the news. Maxine dug out the paper cups from our Famous Five sketch and we toasted each other in lemonade. It began to seem plausible for us to turn properly professional soon.

I was now ‘gigging’ more in London in the expanding collection of venues which had become known as ‘the circuit’ and earning myself some small renown as a specialist compère. As MC you see a lot of acts and I began rapidly to find my place among them, as well as to sleep with one or two. I generated more workable material, some of it culled from sketches we had done, some that I had written, others I had just ‘found’ or relocated from their original context (‘Always heed the words of Lothian Council: “Tuesdays and Fridays are rubbish days.”’) Like many male stand-up debutants, I was aggressive – during a parody of a punk poem I twice nutted the microphone with such commitment that blood ran down my ranting face. I was confident enough to perform a solo spot but it was a long time before my set was more than a ragbag of compèring conventions. There was no time to rectify this because now, if I wasn’t MC-ing, I was performing with Fiasco Job Job, the new double act that Phil and I had formed. At the Hemingford I appeared several times in both guises – ‘Ladies and gentlemen, that was Fiasco Job Job with Phil Nice and er, me.’

The double act was more formal, more artful than my early knockabout MC act. Phil’s and my stage relationship was an extreme version of our real friendship with me the aggressive self-important wide-boy intellectual to Phil’s put-upon man of reason whose wanky sleeveless jumper turned out to be knitted from his collected belly-button fluff. Having spent much time on stage together in the Revue, Phil and I had an easy rapport, the act coalesced rapidly and soon Fiasco Job Job was known as one of the best double acts in town, an accolade easily earned since there were only about ten.

The essence of the double act is bickering status disputes . . .

ARTHUR: . . . I’m sorry, Phil, I can’t do that. I’m going to my handsome classes.

PHIL: (Incredulous) Handsome classes? What, you’re learning how to be handsome?ARTHUR: No. (Pause) I teach.(Comedy nerds may note that this exchange is based on a Woody Allen line)

At this point I instructed Phil to pretend to be female so I could demonstrate to him how to talk to women.

PHIL: I can’t be a woman. I’ve got a penis. ARTHUR: Well, give it here then. (Phil produces sausage which Arthur pockets)

This sophisticated conceit meant that before every gig Phil and I had to consult over which of us would purchase a sausage. Buying them individually was not possible, so after the gig I would arrive back in South Wimbledon on the last Tube, half-pissed, gee’d-up by the applause, clutching three or four sausages. I fried these up into a Phil-penis sandwich in our greasy kitchen before picking my way through the socks, newspapers and half-eaten chips that lay between the kitchen and my bed. One night an article protruded from the litter. Gary had placed it there for my attention before turning in. It was a review in that day’s London Evening Standard which, I’m afraid, I’m going to quote from: ‘Alternative Comedians take it in turns to compère the shows. At the Hemingford Arms it was Brian Smith’s turn. He is a formidable and aggressive comedian of immense assurance. No one ever dared tell HIM he was boring.

He fixes his audience with a lopsided grin, demands names, introduces everyone to everyone. ‘Jeremy, Tim, Vicky?’ he said, ‘You can tell we’re in Islington . . .’ and moved at break- neck speed into a joke in French, a Rastafarian on Wordsworth, a Shakespearean knock-knock.

He cropped up at the Earth Exchange too this time as half of an excellent duo Fiasco Job Job. Yes, they are good but don’t sit in the front row. I suspect a young man called Ralph wished himself far away . . . Fiasco Job Job were a smash but the star of the evening was young Mr Hegley again . . .’

My ‘material’, such as it was, was clearly not in the mould of the great Alexei who never really played the comedy circuit, despite his influence on it. The ‘Rastafarian on Wordsworth’ to which the reviewer referred was another piece I’d done in a Nat Rev Co show. Adopting the Jamaican accent of Napthali, a smoking Rastaman chum, I intoned:

‘I . . . and I wander lonely as a cloud, Him float on high him move and dance when all at once me see a cloud – a host of golden ganja plants!’

At a left-wing benefit gig there was an uncomfortable moment when someone shouted ‘Racist!’ at this; I sensed immediately that a white man impersonating a black man (a favourite device of the rabid comedian Jim Davidson) was not on any more and I never did the joke again. The phrase ‘politically correct’ had entered the English language, followed not long after by ‘It’s polit- ical correctness gone mad.’ Comedy was an arena where battles over language and ideologies were being fought out. At another benefit – for John McCarthy, the journalist who had been taken hostage in Beirut – I referred to the people ‘manning’ the infor- mation desk, provoking the heckle, ‘That should be staffing!’

An Australian feminist comic at one of our gigs was outraged into heckling at the Fiasco Job Job penis/sausage exchange.

‘Just because he hasn’t got a penis that doesn’t make him a woman – he should have a vagina! ’

This seemed a reasonable point so, following a discussion with the audience, we continued with a peach representing Phil’s vagina. The debate over what was ‘acceptable’ and what wasn’t continued (and still continues). I had a little run of one-liners based on well-known scraps of language, e.g.:

‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning. Red sky in the afternoon, shepherd – stoned out of his head.’

‘Tyger tyger burning bright – vandals set the zoo alight.’

‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it throw Princess Anne in.’ (These days, pleasingly the joke can be revived with Zara Phillips in place of her mum).

One night I essayed a new one: ‘The Grand Old Duke, he had ten thousand men – he got AIDS.’

This received a small laugh, but a big heckle: ‘That’s horrible! I have friends who are dying of AIDS!’ It was Simon Fanshawe, the only openly gay comic in Britain. Any attempt to confront him would have looked as though I was anti-gay, which I most certainly was not. And he was right: it was a cheap shot that tapped into a national homophobia that had grown more virulent since the appearance of the AIDS virus. Again, as when I was challenged about the Rasta joke, I crumbled and mumbled an apology. Simon was brave that night and, if I didn’t thank him then, let me do so now. I was given pause once more to consider my attitude and my material. I didn’t want to get laughs at the expense of some poor bastard with AIDS.

Attitude, according to the American David Letterman, whose TV chat show various people attempted to emulate on British TV throughout the 1980s and 1990s, was everything. If there was a consistent strong attitude fuelling your perform ance, you could talk about anything and get away with it. Whilst I felt that if your ‘attitude’ was racist, sexist or homophobic and you did it as yourself rather than as a character comic, you were playing a sad or dangerous game. It was the attitude I observed in John Dowie that inspired me. Dowie was a Brummie comic and to my mind the funniest stand-up in London at the time. His anger at the world was genuine, unlike, say, that of Jasper Carrott, whom he resembled. Dowie’s fury was not manufactured, even when he was talking about everyday stuff: ‘I see now you can buy milk in boxes, and it says ‘open this end’. Listen, it’s my fucking milk, I’ll open it whatever fucking end I want.’ I looked up to John and his invigorating cynicism; in later years, I was chuffed to collaborate on shows with him.

Yet more clubs were opening, and by the time I returned to the new Comedy Store in Leicester Square I was a paid act called Arthur Smith (unless, of course, there was anyone in from Streatham tax office, in which case I was Daphne Fairfax). The Falklands War was under way and the Comedy Store was one of the few public places where you could escape the outpourings of jingoism that accompanied it. The Falklands provided a lot of weak material for comics although, mercifully, I cannot recall any of my own. Phil and I attempted a kind of childish squabble, inspired by Borges’s description of the conflict as ‘two bald men arguing about a comb’, but it didn’t play well.

It is hard now for young people to understand the fierce divisions that existed in British politics in the 1980s when Thatcher and her followers pursued their brutal agenda, when Tories felt no need to be touchy-feely, when dockers, miners, shipbuilders and a multitude of other workers were discarded and there were three million unemployed, when greed became heroic and City boys swanked their wealth around the West End. ‘Is he one of us?’ Thatcher liked to ask, and so did those on the left. Thatcher once remarked that ‘Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of thirty can count himself a failure.’ We hated the woman and all Tories and we took the bus. One of my own sacrificial gifts to the Labour Party was a refusal to sleep with any Conservative voters, however sexy and alluring they might be. It was a resolution that was only tested once but, amazingly, I held my nerve, and went home to pleasure myself in a socialist way.

There is an irony about the comics’ opposition to Thatcher, of course. What could be more Thatcherite than a stand-up comedian? Self-employed, un-unionised, unsupported by any namby-pamby arts grant, he has got on his bike and got a gig. As she won the next two elections, the jokes and the vitriol continued, but I am not persuaded that the routines of a small number of obscure comics troubled Conservative Party ‘think- tanks’ for long. Alternative cabaret’s tiny contribution to the left was the shaking up of the cosy conservative world of 1970s and 1980s light entertainment.

None of this affected the Nat Rev Co, marooned as we were in the 1940s. Our style was an oddity, inhabiting a different showbiz universe from the one to be found on the London comedy circuit – or anywhere, really, except on our radio shows. Nostalgic, dotted with mid-century pastiche, the shows were nevertheless ‘tirelessly inventive’. In one, we gave the audience scratch-and-sniff cards to enhance the sketch they were watching. In another, an audience member sounded a buzzer dictating an immediate improvisation, long before Whose Line Is It Anyway? did the same thing on TV. In the awfully titled Piccalongadillygo, performed at the newly opened Assembly Rooms, a comic or musical item existed for every square of the Monopoly board and was performed in the order dictated by a throw of the audience dice. We yodelled, tumbled, introduced the Intensely Experimental Theatre Company, sang in Norwegian, Hawaiian and French and learned to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ backwards – a trick I still dine out on.

At Edinburgh, if nowhere else, we had a following but we were still concocting wacky publicity stunts to boost numbers further. We played golf down the Royal Mile, performed a Kung Fu version of Gone With The Wind on top of an empty plinth outside the Fringe Box Office – competing with the youthful Ian Hislop of the Oxford Revue – and then there was the painful Batman incident.

The hook from which we hung Satalongamatinee was the local morning picture shows we had all attended as children, so to raise press interest we performed at the one cinema in Edinburgh that still ran one. It was soon apparent that even our sketches were above the heads of this restless audience. Dressed in my Batman outfit, I determined to save the day. Super-heroically, I laid down the challenge, ‘All right! Who wants to fight Batman?’ A dozen small arms shot up. They formed a queue on the stage and then took turns to punch me, very hard, in the guts. This would have been a good story had there been any TV crews or journalists in the auditorium but, alas, the only adults watching were the manager of the cinema sniggering into his moustache and Rupert, smiling wryly. I acquired a stomach-ache and the wisdom never again to invite violence from ten-year-old boys.

An extravagant approach to audience participation was the signature dish of every Revue Company show. Thousands of people were persuaded to wave a shoe in the air and sing ‘We are the Gaumonteenies’, to impersonate farmyard animals or to rub their tummies and pat their heads while repeatedly chanting, ‘Rumpty Tumpty-Tum’. We infiltrated the audience even as they were entering the auditorium – ‘slick mingling’, as we called it – which was potentially dangerous for Babs who, despite being an excellent dancer, is so clumsy and gaffe-prone that she earned one of Adam’s fizzing soubriquets – ‘Clitter-fingers’. During one slick-mingle, ‘Clitter’ inadvertently pulled out a man’s tracheotomy tube and, later in the run, harried an old chap onto stage with the line ‘Come on! What’s the matter with you? Have you only got one leg?’ ‘Well, actually,’ he said apologetically, ‘I have.’ ‘Still,’ he added gamely, ‘it is the year of the disabled.’

The radio series was recommissioned but as we reached our late twenties enthusiasm for the live shows was diminishing, and enthusiasm was our strongest suit. In a shopping centre in Swansea, where we were seeking to drum up trade for our show at the local fringe festival, an old lady had delivered a stinging, heartfelt heckle, ‘Why don’t you go back to London and leave us all alone?’ Agreed, Madam. Stand-up comedy had begun to colonise the Edinburgh Fringe programme and the festival would never be quite the same again. We all had, as they say now, ‘other projects to pursue’, and while none of us regretted the end of the era of the live Nat Rev Co, we knew it had been a robust episode in our lives, that the intimacy born of hours spent in the back of cheap vans, frantic scrambles from rubbish job to gig, anxious minutes searching for costumes backstage, sunny afternoons rehearsing bad acrobatics by the river in Hammersmith, cramped dawns in caravans, sexual escapades uproariously recounted, we knew that these shared adventures would create a bond between us that would not be broken. And it never has.

And now I was going to have a go on TV. One afternoon in Edinburgh, during the run of the last-ever National Revue Company show, ClapalongaCurtaincall, I was visited by a London Weekend Television researcher who told me that they wanted me to appear in a new late-night stand-up comedy programme called Pyjamerama. Good gracious.

– How long will my spot be? He smiled. – No, we want you to present the whole series. Blimey. It was barely three years since I had first stepped on

stage at the Hemingford Arms and my reaction to the news was less delighted than horrified. I wasn’t ready for this – I had barely twenty minutes of material; I felt more apprehensive than I had since those schoolboy Saturdays waiting to go in to bat. But I did it and they didn’t ask for the money back. You may judge the impact I made on Pyjamerama (why did these ghastly titles follow me around?) from the one offer of work that resulted from it: I was asked to be part of a re-enactment of a murder for a TV crime programme, on account of my resemblance to the suspect. The character monologues I performed at the front of a late-night Thames TV (London only) chat show caused a similar lack of fuss among agents. Acting seemed an area I could explore. I saw myself as a ‘character actor’ (as Nicholas Crane, the eminent thespian, points out, this actually means ‘ugly actor’) although I knew that the only real character I could play would have to be rather like me and, given my inability to do accents, he would have to come from South London too.

The Nat Rev Co was no more and my teaching career was ending too. The appearances on TV of ‘Mister Brian’, their teacher at the Language School, amused my students, whose ribald reactions led me to introduce them to the idiom ‘take the piss’. Many nationalities filed through my classes but I never found one that lacked humour and my years of teaching emphasised for me the essential similarities between cultures, the sameness of us all. My income from comedy now outstripped my wages from teaching and it was time to become a professional, if not full- time, comedian. After handing in my resignation at the language school, I took my favourite class out for an evening in the West End to say goodbye to them and, I hoped, to teaching. A photo records the evening: Mansour, a lanky Iranian with a flashing, mischievous smile, is standing in Trafalgar Square, beaming away like a lighthouse, with six struggling pigeons shoved up his jumper and all my class, from all over the world, are laughing around him.

Writing and performing comedy on stage and radio had allowed me to achieve a major ambition. I did not have to get up before I wanted to any more. Oh most wonderful! For months after my retirement from teaching I set the alarm for seven a.m. in order to savour the thought of all those poor saps, slogging it out on the Tube. And then, hmmm, turn over and back to sleeeep. Laughter, marvellously, had offered me a lie-in. I am a stand-up comic. I do not get up early.

  • My Name Is Daphne Fairfax by Arthur Smith is out now in paperback from Arrow Books, priced £7.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £4.99.

Published: 13 May 2010

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