The birth of alternative cabaret

Part 2 of Liam Lonergan's history of the circuit

In the second part of his series, Liam Lonergan looks at the early days of alternative cabaret in London.

Part one: Stand-up’s first impresarios >>

Part Two

With the new London Comedy Store, Peter Rosengard and Don Ward were looking for their own Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce or Richard Lewis or someone with enough cultural capital to know who any of these people were. They, too, wanted to mimic the success of his American counterparts and reinvigorate the UK scene. Instead, in a dark room down Dean Street while holding auditions for new comics, they watched a conveyor belt of London estate agents telling their one joke (punctuated by a shit-eating grin and a nervous adjustment of their tie) or labourers with fat, red arms promulgating racism and misogyny as their flabby deltoids wobbled in time with a self-congratulatory chuckle. These were the people that Friedman was talking about; the people that should stick to their day job rather than try to make a living making people laugh.

Rosengard recalls: ‘The procession was sometimes enlivened by the odd “speciality” act – the 60-year-old housewife who sang, I’m Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage with her head in a bird cage. She followed it up after a quick change with Any Old Iron in a dress with bits of iron and lumps of metal hanging from it.’

Thankfully, a swaggering Communist with a Biffa Bacon physique (or, as Ian Hamilton wrote in a cover story for London Review of Books in 1981, ‘a portly, spring-heeled Liverpudlian with convict haircut, a Desperate Dan chin and an Oliver Hardy silkette suit well-buttoned at his bulging gut’) stepped into the spotlight. His name was Alexei Sayle and he came equipped with an arsenal of cunts, fucks and fucking bastards wedged in between absurdist anecdotes about violence in cake shops; basically, a Futurist manifesto attached to the ‘wonk’ of Dadaist performance and conceptual idiosyncrasy.

The Dadaist label has been applied to Andy Kaufman’s metacomedy stunts and Robin Williams’ carbonated chaos but Sayle stripped it of its childlike playfulness and squared up to the world. He spoke in yob and performed ‘destructive gestures’. He was the Punchinello of the modern commedia dell’boy disguised as a white-van ‘Av-A-Go. Overreaching? Possibly. This assessment would be dismissed by Sayle.

Anyway: after his initial monologue in the gloom of the The Gargoyle, he also stepped into the role of compere at The Comedy Store. Rosengard wrote that ‘Alexei was […] a terrific success, handling comedians and audience alike with equal contempt, whilst unleashing his maniacally threatening stream of violent invective at both parties throughout the evening.’ ‘Alexei came on and absolutely fucking stormed it. He didn’t care if there were two or two hundred in the room’ corroborated Don. 'This was no raw beginner.'

Tony Allen, who is sometimes fondly referred to as the ‘Grandfather of [UK] Alternative Comedy’ - even though people like Billy Connolly, Victoria Wood and John Dowie had been erecting the tent poles a few years prior - moved into Notting Hill with a coterie of arty students and theatre people who needed a base.

He had already met Sayle at the new Comedy Store and they ‘immediately connected’. They turned The Elgin pub on the corner of Westbourne Park and Ladbroke Grove into a fiefdom for what would now be referred to as The Creative Class (with stand-up comedy identified as Street Level Culture).

Allen wanted to eschew Arts Council funding as he thought ‘the economics should determine the style, and I couldn’t understand how you could get these large amounts of money from the Arts Council and then put on something with 30 people in the audience – if you were good and it worked, you should fill the place and be able to make a living out of it. So we formed The Alternative Cabaret’.

This was the kind of generic, bookable title that club promoters liked: not too esoteric or politicised. On the surface, it was loose cabaret for a marginalised audience and it was all there in the name. What it actually represented was a strange bricolage of experimental stand-up, dialogue, mock-violence and people shouting, over and over as if they were a glitch in a computer game, ‘the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked!’ The principals who attended the first meeting in the West London Media Workshop were Tony Allen, Keith Allen, Alexei Sayle, Andy De La Tour and Pauline Melville.

CAST (Cartoon Archetypal Slogan Theatre), which had been formed in 1965 by Claire and Roland Muldoon, helped to build a circuit in the UK that wasn’t just a collection of art centers (who didn’t care about getting the audiences in) but also took in small theatres and large pubs where they would stage plays fronted by the Andy De La Tours, the Alexei Sayles or the Tony Allens.

The comedic element was well received by the patrons of the profitable Northern working men’s clubs, who were a world away from the countercultural audience in America: large, beery men with a constellation of burst capillaries spread across their cheeks – the kind of men that were reared on Bernard Manning, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club and the white books (for club sets) and blue books (for blue sets) of frilly shirted comedians.

They were the kind of men who made their wives sit in the back seat of the car. The straightforward stand-up went down well but the bingo nights that integrated Marxist economic theory didn’t land as smoothly. They were met with the same silence that Albert Brooks - a progenitor of the deconstructionist comedy practised by Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin and Stewart Lee – heard in his Beverly Hills High School when he did his impersonations of theorems to a class full of jocks.

The Alternative Cabaret took this assembly of cheap rooms-for-rent but, despite being in absolute opposition to her, they put a Thatcherite spin on it. They ignored the state hand-outs (Arts Council funding) and opted for self-reliance.

Allen says: ‘So we formed Alternative Cabaret, which is what I called the thing – and then we became “alternative comedians”, although I called myself a “cathartic comedian” at the beginning, and thought we’d open up lots of pub rooms in London, get ourselves a circuit and then just do it.’

Part 3: Finding a voice

Published: 13 May 2014

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