Godfathers Of Comedy

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

There’s been a small but growing reappraisal of the club comics of the Seventies in recent years, prompted in partby the likes of Mick Miller venturing into what once would have been considered ‘alternative’ clubs beyond his reach

Quite right, too. For although comedy took a dreadful turn into the cul-de-sac of stolen jokes, lazy stereotypes and vile racism at that time, to lump every comic of that decade together is a travesty. The inventive, original likes of Les Dawson – and even lesser names such as Freddie ‘Parrotface’ Davies or Norman Collier – certainly don’t deserve to be lumped with the other lazy hacks of their generation.

What of tonight’s line-up, then? Performing in the Comedy Store, which would once have been unthinkable, Miller introduces Jim Bowen and Duncan Norvelle, before closing with a set of his own.

Bowen’s set is less stand-up than an after dinner speech, which is probably where most of his work lies nowadays, giving him a chance to reminisce about past glory days. It’s a canny reinvention – they’re not just old jokes any more, it’s nostalgia. And by recounting well-known anecdotes about the likes of Tommy Cooper, Bowen subconsciously tries to place himself in the same bracket.

He’s not. He’s a decent delivery boy for jokes you’ve heard a hundred times before. But there’s really no fun to be had with shaggy-dog stories when you know, line-for-line, how they are going to pan out from the very moment they start.

‘Political correctness didn’t do comedy any good,’ he laments at one point. ‘It made us think about what we wanted to say.’ Yes, what a terrible thing that must have been…

His demeanour is somewhere between grumpy and downright mean-spirited. ‘I’ve never seen a healthy vegetarian,’ he opines. ‘They all fart and have spots.’ And that’s supposed to pass as a joke.

It’s Bullseye that people want to hear about, of course, not his pervious, undistinguished club career. Once he starts talking on the topic, the audience leap in with catchphrases, and Bowen’s downbeat style starts to sparkle as he chuckles along at the memories.

But he rather wastes the momentum, spending most his set on another longwinded and predictable anecdote, based on the rather odd premise that a contestant in a wheelchair wouldn’t have wanted to win the star prize of a three-piece suite. Why ever not?

There’s so much goodwill towards him for this unselfconsciously cheesy quiz show, that he can’t really lose – but you wonder why he bothers talking about anything else.

Duncan Norvelle is a name that won’t mean much to a lot of people. Add his catchphrase, ‘chase me’, and a lot more memories will be jogged.

He was one of those oddities of light entertainment. Briefly, ubiquitously famous, popping up in his safari suit to deliver his ultra-camp cry on every variety show going, before disappearing to obscurity with his national catchphrase. Is he bovvered? It’s hard to tell.

Norvelle’s continued to work, now boasting 33 years in the business, but Manchester’s Comedy Store was a first appearance in this new sort of arena. Cruise ships, you suspect, are his usual workplace.

He minces on – and that really is the only word – to Teddy Bear’s Picnic, skips gaily across the stage with a couple of unwilling volunteers, then encourages one to chase him backstage. Is that his entire act over in three minutes?

Well, it’s a fair sample. But he banters away for the full set with a barrage of gags, that John Inman-camp knocking the edge of some of the cruder knob jokes, turning them cheeky rather than crude. Again the problem is that you’ll have heard all the material before, but Norvelle can certainly work a room – even one like this, that he doesn’t consider his natural habitat. But that he can still do it is proof that the core skills o comedy are unchanging. Is his style really so different from Alan Carr?

Norvelle, still looking youthful but now in tailored suit rather than camp costume, is also an impressionist, it says on his CV. His subjects date him, mind: James Stewart, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas… The joke is not so much in the impressions – imagine Paul Daniels as Phantom Of The Opera! – but in his struggle to get into character.

For all the old nonsense, Norvelle exudes an inectious sense of fun. The man’s a showman, and you can’t fault that.

Mick Miller, who did some perfunctory compering for the other acts, is not a complete stranger to today’s circuit, performing rapturously-received sets at Manchester’s XS Malarkey and the Ealing Comedy Festival, on the back of his performances on Channel 4’s Kings Of Comedy.

He doesn’t exude much energy, but he remains in quiet control of the audience, sure in the knowledge that the sheer number of jokes at his disposal will see him through. Strangely, a minor scuffle breaks out in the audience as he starts his set, and he just sits back and lets the bouncers do his job. He has got material about being thrown out of clubs – but chooses not to do it here, which seems an odd decision.

He’s got so much experience under his belt, his presence is faultless. The man knows how to deliver a joke perfectly, that’s obvious. Shame he doesn’t know how to write them.

He has updated his set in so much as he’s now stolen it from modern comics as much as he has from the pub jokes of old. And he hasn’t even nicked the good stuff. Anyone familiar with stand-up will be bored senseless by his tales of airport security questions, of posh pilots, of peanut-allergy sufferers playing Russian roulette with Revels….

Old habits die hard, and there is old material thrown in the mix. His comedy Japanese accent makes modern sensibilities bristle, and of the French he ‘jokes’: ‘I hate the French – disgusting horrible race of people.’

But every so often in this stream of heard-it-all material comes a moment of pure brilliance. A joke, usually a silly one, that makes you laugh out loud. He probably didn’t write it, but when it’s fresh to your ears, his perfectly-timed delivery absolutely nails it.

His technique is to have so many gags, so tightly packed, that everyone will love at lest some. It may be an Infinite Number of Monkeys approach to stand-up, but the laughter that resonates around the room suggests it works.

Mention must be made of his calling-card finale – telling a Noddy story in the guise of an increasingly drunken children’s entertainer. It predates Jeremy Lion by a generation and is just as hilarious. It’s a tour-de-force performance that sends everyone home happy. Job done, even if his joke-stealing methods cannot be condoned.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Manchester, October 2007

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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