The last curtain for the Earth Exchange cabaret | ...and promoter Kim Wells' clashes with the feminists running the venue

The last curtain for the Earth Exchange cabaret

...and promoter Kim Wells' clashes with the feminists running the venue

In the fourth and final part of his series about the Earth Exchange – a  vegetarian cafe in North London that was a significant venue in the early days of alternative comedy –  its promoter and compere Kim Wells, above, tells of his run-ins with political correctness and the feminists who came to run the venue. Part one is here, part two here and part three here.

Try-out spots 

Poster with cooganTry-out spots’ involved unknown entities. I gave Steve Coogan a try-out spot on October 17, 1988. His manager promised a comic prodigy who was destined for stardom. He claimed Coogan was  scheduled to perform at Sunday Night Live at the Palladium the day before. Coogan did impressions that didn’t impress the Earth Exchange audience (or me) so I assumed the manager was full of bullshit. It just shows how wrong you can be. 

Another try-out spot was a young Harry Enfield performing as part of a comic duo. Again I didn’t recognise his talent. Eddie Izzard did a try-out spot in October 1988. Izzard did a joke competition when I invited her back in February 1989. She was relaxed on stage and confident but I didn’t think she was outstanding. But she was just starting out.  

Running the gauntlet of PC: the legs have it 

I booked one try-out artist before I realised the non-PC nature of her act. This involved her appearing as her father, removing her father’s clothes to become her mother and then, in a Freudian tour de force, removing her mother’s clothes to become herself, dressed in a very scanty black negligee and lacy black stockings. 

Being fore-warned by someone who saw her act at another venue, I got very anxious about how an act stopping just short of striptease would go down in such a feministic, PC hotbed as Earth Exchange – so anxious, in fact, that, when she performed, I hid round a corner, so I couldn’t see the anticipated disaster unfold. To my surprise, the audience greeted her final guise with awe, the women loyally marvelling at her amazing body and even more amazing legs, and the men sitting spellbound despite their best ‘politically correct’ attempts to look disinterested.  

What is sad is that I never allowed myself a glimpse. She later told me she was doing try out spots on the fringe comedy circuit to get her Equity card so she could model tights on TV. She made a point of apologising for her lack of theatrical skills, humbly affirming that the talent she did possess was purely anatomical.  

Taboos and ‘isms’  

I had (wrongly) anticipated moral outrage on the part of the Earth Exchange workers and the more politically correct audience members. The PC stuff did, however, sometimes go over the top. One particularly unfair instance occurred when Ian MacPherson, an Irish comic who was caricaturing Irish characters, was heckled by a couple of audience members who accused him of racism. What was he supposed to do? Caricature only English characters?  

By far the most problematic ‘ism’ was sexism. Some of the staff and clientele of Earth Exchange had strong feminist views. This put pressure on me to police the cabaret for sexist content in particular. 

The taboo on sexism wasn’t applied to anti-male gags. These could be quite vicious. At Earth Exchange, one female comic once sang a song about boiling up male genitalia in a saucepan which I thought was wincingly close to the bone. Jo Brand also did a vicious gag: ‘The best way to a man’s heart is through his chest ... with a knife. But it was redeemed by its wittiness which also took some of the sting out if its tail. It also didn’t hit below the belt! Knives through the heart I can cope with.  

Simon Fanshawe was an openly gay comic who went on to join Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life! team.   He was heckled by one irate female audience member (speaking on behalf of at least several others) who blurted out: ‘I resent being put down for being heterosexual.’

He had managed to contrive something remarkable in a liberally-minded venue: being heckled for prejudice against heterosexuals, effectively inventing a new ‘-ism’ - heterosexism. In this case guilt-tripping backfired,  making some members of the majority group (heterosexuals) feel the victims of prejudice too. 

This feeling was probably partly triggered because that night because Fanshawe crossed the dividing line between the trivial and tragic levels, coming across as judgemental rather than humorous as the anger and hurt he normally kept in check came to the surface.  

Magician and caustic comic Jerry Sadowitz once came to the Earth Exchange, in 1986. Here was a man known for his aggressiveness and very risqué – and deliberately offensive – material, a man who viciously challenged every sacred cow including the taboos on sexist and racist language. After he was cancelled at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe, The Telegraph described him as ‘the UK’s most foul-mouthed and hilariously unguarded contrarian’. 

I was very apprehensive about how the most non-woke, aggressive comic on the circuit, would go down at what was the most gentile and sensitive venue. My fears seemed borne out when he started to violently shake a chair for dramatic emphasis. However, the audience sitting only a few feet away didn’t seem threatened. I suspect he toned down his normal act for my sake, sensing the difficult situation I was in. 

The humorist Miles Kington reported that the year he was a Perrier judge at the Edinburgh Fringe, ‘the best performer I saw was Jerry Sadowitz and he didn’t even make the shortlist because he despised the whole Perrier Award set-up and wouldn’t let them have complimentary tickets to the show’. Kington told a friend of mine that what Sadowitz had actually told the Perrier judging panel when they arrived at his venue was if they weren’t prepared to pay, they could ‘fuck off’. You’ve got to respect that.  

Surprisingly, one ‘-ism’ that didn’t present problems was vegetarianism, even when the comic duo, The Port Stanley Amateur Dramatic Society (Cliff Brindisi and Andy Linden), featured cans of Argentinian corned beef in their act at the time of The Falklands War in 1982. 

No one complained but on the several occasions I have bumped into Cliff in the last 40 years he has insisted on telling everyone within earshot that he’d been banned from the Earth Exchange Cabaret for sacrilegiously bringing meat into a vegetarian restaurant. This was not true. 

I have tried to disillusion him but it’s been a case of ‘don’t confuse me with the facts: my mind’s made up’. It was just too good a story to let go of. This story has been further embroidered. The British Comedy Guide reported that the act was ‘allegedly banned from the legendary Earth Exchange ... for throwing meat into the audience’. Now that would have been something! If only it were true. 

The wrong genitals 

The Earth Exchange was eventually taken over by feminist separatists. Such was their animosity  towards the male gender (in particular myself) and their non-cooperative attitude that I decided to stop organising it in early 1989. 

Every Monday afternoon several very long, heavy wooden tables had to be carried out of the restaurant into the garden to make sufficient space for the cabaret audience. The feminist separatists refused to help. Luckily one surviving male worker kindly helped me. He told me they wouldn’t get rid of him because he was gay. But they did. Although aligned in a benign direction (at least not in theirs), they were evidently still the wrong genitals. This left me to drag out the tables alone. 

Meanwhile the separatists stood smugly by, watching me with arms folded while struggled to move them, damaging them in the process. It was as if I had been set this degrading ordeal as a form of penance, to expiate for the centuries-long catalogue of sins perpetrated by my gender. It left me wondering who would do the heavy lifting in a separatist utopia.  

After I left, the separatists, missing the relatively high takings from the cabaret evening, asked an aspiring female comic (who rang up hoping to get a try-out spot) to take over organising the cabaret. A few years later, Doon Mackichan, by then a well-known TV and radio comic, wryly told me about the disconcerting way in which the collective’s members monitored her compering. Apparently they used to stand at the back taking notes. At the end they would come up to her with a list of critical remarks along lines of ‘I don’t think you should say that…' They had clearly felt unable to do that to me, thank God. 

The Earth Exchange Collective only survived a few months after I left, before going bankrupt. 

Well before that, I had a strong sense its days were numbered when a male friend asked for a cup of Earl Grey tea. The separatist serving him replied ungraciously: ‘Look mate. We only serve tea, right, bog standard ordinary tea! OK!’

The separatists found it exceedingly hard to be civil to male customers – I suspect some customised rudeness as a weapon in their ideological crusade. The problem was males made up half the target clientele. Add to this the males accompanied by females and that depleted even further the pool of potential patrons who would be greeted with a modicum of politeness.

They even resented having to work hard on Monday nights. There seemed to be a failure to grasp the first principles of running a successful catering venue. Their business model would have sent the Dragon’s Den’s panel into a paroxysm of derision.  

They had been so hostile to me – in a passive-aggressive way – that I was surprised they hadn’t asked me to leave. They certainly seemed to resent the very existence of the cabaret. They had complained to me about the hard work of catering for the large audience and the rough manners of the same. But I think they enjoyed the have-your-cake-and-eat-it luxury of being able to indulge in a good old sulk and moan whilst still enjoying the bumper revenue from the cabaret evenings. 

Just after the final cabaret I organised took place, Malcolm Hay, Time Out’s comedy critic, commented: ‘What is intriguing is Wells’ claim that the restaurateurs found many of the acts objectionable and the audiences rude and impolite. Presumably they’ve never been to Jongleurs or The Comedy Store.’   

My West End career (or how I got up Angus Deayton's nose) 

In the mid-1980s, I was described by Norman Lovett as ‘a gifted amateur’, put to shame by the increasingly polished and professional acts that started to emerge. The best review I ever got was Time Out's ‘Kim Wells is compere and last week he was the funniest act too"’ in 1985.

I did have my moment (in 1981) when I performed in the West End as part of the cabaret that The Comic Strip was then presenting at The Boulevard Theatre in Soho. The team had hired this theatre from Paul Raymond who ran his upmarket striptease venue in the same premises.

 I did an act (which I had field tested at Earth Exchange) in which I was supposedly an out-of-work actor on benefits, keen to evade the snoopers of the ‘SS’ (DHSS - department of health ad social security). Dressed in nothing but a very skimpy floral dressing gown, sitting at a table and eating a breakfast of Rice Krispies, I did a parodied Shakespearian monologue: ‘To work or not to work: that is the question.’ I camped it up – unashamedly playing to the stereotype of male actors as gay or affected, earning some extra cheap laughs. It was hard to play it any other way in a dressing gown like that.  

I followed this monologue with a rap about Margaret Thatcher’s crusade to destroy British industry (crudely playing a guitar and lunging like a demented rock star towards the audience to spit out the rhyme at the end of each line): 

   "When Margaret sat on her father’s knee, you’d never guess she’d turn out to be ... so sinister, 

    That she would get so uppity, leave the petty bourgeoisie and get to be ... prime minister. 

    While at school she kept to the rules, a credit to her father, he was  ... a grocer,  

    When all the young men tried to get their end away, she’d say all prim and proper ... No Sir!" .... etc. 

I went on to rhyme ‘Dennis’ with ‘menace’, blaming him for the "frustration she took out on the nation in her cuts to curb inflation’. Well, you probably get the drift. ‘Cutting-edge’ political satire seasoned with a traditional dollop of juvenile sexual scurrilousness (and borderline sexism). A very non-Marxist, sexual as opposed to materialist interpretation of history in which it’s not bread but bed (the ruler’s, that is) that drives political change.  

As well as regular Comic Strip acts, the bill that night also included the Hee Bee Gee Bees, a take-off of the Bee Gees. After the show Peter Richardson, rhe Comic Strip’s founder, came round to pay us. I got £10 and the three-piece Hee Bee Gee Bees £20 in total. The soon-to-be-famous Angus Deayton, the group’s spokesman, snorted forcefully with righteous indignation. (When Deayton snorts there are no half measures.) He complained that I was getting a lot more than each of them even though I was ‘crap’. A stinging and possibly well deserved insult for which I have since repeatedly found great consolation in the fact I had got paid nearly twice as much as he did.  

Peter Richardson saw promise in my act (if not necessarily much actuality) and offered me some coaching sessions with a director in the Boulevard Theatre. After a few sessions, my director said: ‘Normally performers get better with coaching and rehearsing: you are getting progressively worse.’ So ended my West End career. The more I thought about it, the worse I had become.  

The last curtain

The final Earth Exchange cabaret I promoted was on March 201989. Earlier, I blamed the female separatists for my decision to pull out but to be honest I needed a pretext to end it. I was struggling to get a varied, interesting line-up every week and to get enough audience when those on the bill weren’t so well-known. There were many more venues, all competing for punters and performers. The cabaret was also suffering from my not putting enough energy in, a consequence of my pressured life and the fact I was losing interest.  

I wasn’t consistently good enough or temperamentally suited to be a professional comedian. I was well placed to be a promoter, being in near the start of new wave fringe comedy and having a good relationship with many performers. I did promote a few gigs outside of Earth Cabaret (including a few charity benefits and one failed attempt to start a new pub venue in Kentish Town in 1984) but these never led anywhere. 

I had a chance to make a living from comedy when in 1985 the manager of The Red Rose (Labour Party) Club in Holloway offered to make it available to me as a venue. But I was busy and put off by the logistic challenges such as sourcing a PA system. I wasn’t a risk taker. I offered the venue to Ivor Dembina who made a great success of it. He was lucky to start it just as the craze for live comedy was taking off. But without his tremendous drive and talent it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as successful as it was. The next generation of comics like Eddie Izzard, Jimmy Carr, Harry Hill and Al Murray cut their teeth there. 

Looking back, I find it hard to believe that so many remarkable artists – some who subsequently became internationally acclaimed - appeared in such an incongruous setting as a veggie basement restaurant in a rundown licensed squat in the Archway Road. 

The Earth Exchange benefited enormously from being around in the early days of ‘alternative comedy’ when there were few others venues. Though very much secondary to the Comedy Store, it did play, at the very least, a modest role in its development. John Hegley, Julian Clary and (although this is disputed) Paul Merton, for instance, played their first solo gigs there, and it inspired Bill Bailey to take up a career in comedy. It certainly provided a much needed platform for budding comics to develop their skills and ‘attitudes’, especially in the early 1980’s. 

At the time of Earth Exchange’s eighth anniversary, Time Out's comedy critic, Malcolm Hay, kindly said: ‘... this diminutive Highgate venue.... has been played in the past by Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, French and Saunders, Fascinating Aida, The Oblivion Boys, Ivor Cutler and many other big names. The current shows are invariably a judicious mixture of established acts and interesting newcomers. What are the odds on Earth Exchange carrying on to the 21st century?’

Nil as it turned out. The take-over by the separatists combined with a car crash of a business model would have put paid to that possibility even if I’d have clung on. The separatists not only had an undisguised aversion to the bearers of male genitalia but to customers in general and particularly to being extra busy on cabaret nights as this involved too much work of the menial variety. 

Although the cabaret was losing momentum towards the end, there was still the odd occasion when the venue was well-attended and everything came together to produce a truly magical evening. 

On January 30, 1989, I put on a special show for its the ninth anniversary with Arthur Smith, juggler Colin Francome and Michael Redmond. On March 20, 1989, I presented my last ever Earth Exchange cabaret with another class line-up: Jo Brand (as ‘The Sea Monster’), Barb Jungr and Michael Parker, and Alan Davies. On both occasions, the venue was packed out. I wish it could have been like this every week but there just weren’t enough acts in the talent pool of sufficient quality, variety and drawing power to attract audiences of a reasonable size every week.  

Flyer for the last ever gig
Flyer for the last ever gig

Although I could pay performers more money on these crowded nights, it wasn’t what they deserved or even anywhere near a living wage. Most seemed happy to come for a free meal and little more than pocket money. 

To a large extent, though, I was relying on their goodwill. The time to lower the metaphorical curtain had come. But its demise wasn’t a damp squib. In its final few weeks it went out in dramatic style with not one but two big bangs. 

On the final night, the separatists made a point of not looking happy about cleaning up afterwards, directing hostile stares at the departing audience and, in particular, myself. But their sour faces were no match for the general mood of joy, good will and fellow feeling (tinged with sadness) shared by the rest of us as we walked out into the night - myself for the final time. 

• Anyone with Earth Exchange memories or mementos they would like to share with Kim can contact him on

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Published: 22 Jun 2024

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