I have never read Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography, “I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake”. Such a beguiling & worthy title surely demands the attention of us all. Malcolm was a pivotal figure in London’s (particularly South East London’s) comedy domain. He was a comedian, compere, club promoter, manager, parliamentary candidate & (my favourite) “amateur sensationalist” (The Guardian). He may have been a King of Comedy or a court jester, I’m not sure & Malcolm would not have given a toss. I do know that, while I have not been keeping score, I have seen Malcolm’s impressive genitalia more times than any other man’s ever.
When I moved to London I was lucky enough to live around Greenwich & Deptford. The River Thames provided a natural border to the North which kept out the crosstown traffic & meant that if anything socially or culturally interesting was going on then pretty much the same crew showed out, I liked this, friendly, funky but not chic. . Malcolm was around this scene. His youthful petty crimes had led to prison sentences but he decided that “Prison is like mime or juggling – a tragic waste of time”. He hooked up with Martin Soan, an actual real-life Punch & Judy Man, in The Greatest Show On Legs, a comedy trio. At this time “alternative” comedy was becoming a thing. There were many new acts performing in the upstairs rooms of pubs & GSOL’s random, even surreal, humour not only fitted right in but was a delight. I’m sure it beat working for a living.
By the time GSOL performed on the comedy show “O.T.T.” in 1982 I had seen the Balloon Dance a few times. I knew it as the “Romans In Britain Cha-Cha” after a Howard Brenton play which was unsuccessfully prosecuted for obscenity when the solicitor of a noted puritanical busybody, sitting at the very back of the theatre, thought that he may have seen something which may have been a penis. It really is amazing how memorable the TV appearance was. The Greatest Show On Legs were never a big name, you would explain that they were the most enjoyable night in London to blank looks. Drop the Balloon Dance though & a light would go on.
Malcolm & TV were never a perfect fit. In his work with Martin there was a lovely art to the near-chaos. Their Red Arrows display to the theme from “Dambusters”, the properly nuts parody of a game of snooker, were both shambolic & hilarious set pieces with a beginning, a middle & an end just not always in that order. Television with its precise time slots just did not suit Malcolm’s approach to comedy. Similarly you will have to trust me that his putdown of a heckler, “F*ck off, you’re the c*nt”, was genuinely funny if you were there. It was the spirit of the thing, the casual catchphrase “F*ck it” was not said aggressively but genuinely stressed that whatever it was it was not that important.
Similarly many of the stories about Malcolm involve him exposing himself. I have seen people shocked by such a splendid sight but (this may say something about the type of person I hang with) never appalled. On a sunny afternoon on the Crossfields Estate in Deptford the balloons were replaced by A4 posters of our Lady Prime Minister. The sight of a naked Malcolm, his unit protruding through Thatcher’s face, is a permanent memory, but in a good way you know. There was a night at the stylishly retro Rivoli Ballroom in Brockley billed as a “farewell” when all GSOL’s former members participated. On the way home Carol announced that she had seen more cocks tonight than she had in the last 5 years. Oh how we laughed. That night we approached Malcolm to tell him how much we enjoyed his work. It was not a goodbye but it might have been so it had to be said.
I never went to the celebrated Tunnel Club which Malcolm started in 1984. It was not the bearpit reputation, an act was likely to be booed off but could also be booed on. A comedian who began “Good evening, I am a schizophrenic” was heckled “Well, you can both fuck off !”. It was just too far away from my new manor in Camberwell. Stuck out on the arse end of Blackwall with no tube it would be a long late night trek to get home. But, as any fool in South East London knew, the Albany Empire in Deptford was the best place for music, theatre, comedy, drinking, dancing or hanging out. The weekend cabaret shows became The Fez Club, startlingly random evenings overseen with a lightness of humour by Mr Hardee. Guests for the weekend ? A day traipsing around the tourist “attractions” & a night out at the Albany, 100% good time guaranteed. That 2.40 a.m. night bus got you home at 3 a.m. whatever state you were in. Win-win.
Next it was “Up The Creek”, his club at the Greenwich end of Creek Rd. He had tartly described the Albany as a club for social workers from Blackheath, only in Deptford. There was a touch of this on the packed weekends at the Creek. it was the less crowded Sunday night, open mic slots, a loose, more extemporary set from the headliner, which was the scene to make. An hour of Johnny Vegas’ seemingly drunk, possibly deranged, certainly dangerous Butlins Redcoat gone wrong act is the funniest thing I have ever seen. Malcolm drank in the Lord Hood before the show. Once a month he ran that pub’s quiz night, not to be missed. I knew him well enough to be on nodding terms by now. After beating him at pool I returned to my friends & claimed I had just beaten a comedy legend. There was no dissent because it was true.
By 2005 he was running a floating pub, living on a houseboat on the Thames. Malcolm loved the river though stories from those who visited him do seem to involve both drink & an element of jeopardy. In February of that year his body was discovered in Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe close to his home. A verdict of accidental death was recorded. Greenwich without Malcolm…unthinkable.
There are memoirs of Malcolm round the Internet written by people who knew him very well. So many comedians testify to the help & encouragement he provided & to the money he owed them. Everyone has a story involving drink, recklessness & laughter. There’s an absence of spite, nastiness & regret. I just want to remember a man who contributed to many happy nights out with my friends & one of the funniest men I have ever seen on a stage. Oh yes, he did steal the £4,000 birthday cake off of the lead singer off of Queen. he gave it to a local nursing home so the police were unlucky when they showed up at his home…looking for crumbs ! Oy Oy, Knob Out !