The Funny Side of London

The history books say that alternative comedy was born at the Comedy Store in 1979. Go on, try to find a library that hasn’t been closed in Cameron’s Britain and look it up yourself. Even if it’s true, there is case to be made that it grew up in South London’s pubs. You want proof? Then follow this cut-out-and-keep history of London comedy on the funnier side of the Thames.

Knob Out

You have to start at the gaping maw of the Blackwall Tunnel. It was here that legendary ne’er-do-well, Malcolm Hardee, ran the Tunnel Club in the early 1980s. You could write a book about Hardee’s exploits. In fact, between escapades Hardee did – it was called I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake.

The Tunnel Club made the Comedy Store look like tea at the Ritz. The audience was the toughest this side of the Glasgow Empire. Of course they would heckle you, but they could be even crueller. They could hum you off, which would chill the best to the bone.

The trouble was that back in the ’80s there weren’t many comedy venues to play, so everyone played there. Harry Enfield in his duo Dusty & Dick (Dick went on to invent C4’s Skins), Camberwell resident Jenny Eclair, Vic Reeves (more later), Mike Myers when he was in a double act with Neil Mullarkey. Double bass virtuoso Jim Tavare once opened with: ‘Good evening, I’m a Schizophrenic.’ Someone shouted back: ‘Fuck off then, both of you’.

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Jenny Eclair at the Tunnel Club

And then there was Hardee, who was said to have the biggest testicles in the country apart from Jenny Agutter’s father. He had a unique way of introducing new talent: ‘Could be good, could be shit.’ He pissed in a sleeping punter’s pint or pissed on a sleeping punter’s head. I’ve heard various versions. All are probably true. He pissed a lot. If in doubt, he got his knob out.

When the Tunnel closed Hardee went on to open the relatively sedate Up The Creek in Greenwich, which is still going strong. Though sadly without Hardee. He drowned in the Thames in 2005. As Deserter has noted previously, when Hardee’s body was found by frogmen he was clutching a bottle of beer.

The Hardee spirit lives on in the experimental monthly club, Pull The Other One, which was at the Half Moon Pub for a while before it closed and currently resides at the Old Nun’s Head in, erm, Nunhead. PTOO is run by Vivienne and Martin Soan. Martin was in The Greatest Show On Legs, the naked balloon dance troupe featuring Hardee and chums. In fact Soan still appears naked. Though, understandably, not with Hardee any more.

Unfortunately I’ve never made it to PTOO for the simple reason that it always coincides with a longstanding end-of-the-month commitment to drinking heavily and listening to old vinyl records with Dulwich Raider. But it is strongly recommended if you like your laughs with a garnish of anarchy.

What’s on the End of the Stick?

Hardee certainly had an eye for talent. Or maybe it was just the law of averages. But he championed, among others, Jerry Sadowitz, Jo Brand, Vic Reeves and Simon Day. Reeves mastered his trade in south London’s boozers, doing shows at the now defunct Winstons wine bar in Deptford, then on Thursday nights at Goldsmiths Tavern on New Cross Road, now known as The New Cross House.

Around 1987 Vic started to work with solicitor-by-day Bob Mortimer, but also did gigs on his own. I remember him compering a show at the Greyhound in Sydenham when Jerry Sadowitz nearly caused a right old rumpus with his non-PC humour.

Malcom Hardee The Tunnel Club 1985
Malcolm Hardee

Eventually Vic and Bob got too big for Goldsmiths and decamped to the Albany Empire where the BBC and Channel 4 schmoozed them, resulting in Vic Reeves Big Night Out coming to C4 in 1990 and pretty much rearranging the face of comedy.

Yuppie Central

While Malcolm Hardee had been carving out a niche for himself as the lord of misrule of South London comedy, the ying to his yobby yang was going on in Clapham. Maria Kempinska had seen comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and decided to stage some in London. She borrowed a few hundred quid and launched Jongleurs in Lavender Gardens in 1983.

Comedy is all about timing and Kempinska got it spot-on. Clapham and Battersea were establishing themselves as Yuppie Central – if this was a TV documentary we’d now cut to footage of that City dicksplash holding a mobile phone the size of a house brick – and Jongleurs turned out to be just the kind of place they wanted to blow their wad at.

If you could get a table away from the braying twats, however, there were some great shows to be seen. Household names learnt their trade fending off wine-quaffing scum here. Ben Elton, Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan, Alan Davies. They all paid their dues at this former roller skating rink.

Keep the Red Flag Flying

There were other thriving venues in South London. Old leftie hippy, Roland Muldoon, used to run Cast (Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre – I warned you he was a leftie hippy) and then formed New Variety with the help of a GLC grant which put gigs on all over London.

A favourite haunt was the Old White Horse, now Jamm, on Brixton Road. Back then you could get a cab there, see some stars from Saturday Night Live such as Julian Clary and Paul Merton, have a couple of pints and still have enough money left over from your dole cheque to blow at the bookies in the morning.

The Movable Feast of EDC

When is an East Dulwich comedy club not an East Dulwich comedy club? When it’s in Forest Hill. East Dulwich Comedy has been putting on brilliant comedy nights since 1989, but the gentrification and gastropubisation of SE22 gradually pushed Ron and Emma Emslie further south. Starting at the East Dulwich Tavern at Goose Green they worked their way down Lordship Lane, having a stint for a while at the Magdala (later the Magnolia and the Patch, currently with the shutters up again and soon to be The Lordship).

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Pull the Other One at The Old Nun’s Head

Ron and Emma finally settled at The Hob opposite Forest Hill Station and seem to work 24/7, running both the pub and the comedy gigs in the room above. Recently big acts such as Stewart Lee have played there to raise the profile. All-round genius Daniel Kitson – go and see him if you want to be my friend – regularly tries out new material there too.

It is a pity EDC had to move. There is surely as big an audience for live comedy in SE22 as there ever was. In fact others have had a crack. Just last month the Gut Rocking Comedy Club started running shows on the last Thursday of every month. Where are they doing this? Back at the EDT.

And so, as you can see. Comedy is alive and well and living in South London. What I’ve written about here is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also the Banana in Balham which has been going for three decades. The Always Be Comedy mini-empire runs gigs at, among other outposts, the Tommyfield in Kennington, the Avalon in Clapham and the Prince of Wales in Brixton. Innovative promoters Show & Tell are also putting on gigs at the POW. The Camberwell Arms is starting its Up In Arms comedy nights from April.

The Ritzy Cinema has gigs upstairs. One-offs are always popping up. Laugh Out London has formidable bills at the equally formidable Dogstar. There are occasional comedy nights at the Bussey Building in Peckham and the nearby Peckham Liberal Club. Comedian Holly Walsh runs the fabulous Happy Mondays at the Amersham Arms in New Cross on, yes, you got it, Mondays…

Don’t come sobbing to me if I’ve missed something. It’s a funny old world out there.

Update: May 2016

The Hob is no more, having morphed into The Signal. The pub still hosts comedy nights, however they’re no longer run by Ron and Emma.

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Bruce Dessau is the founder of comedy website, Beyond The Joke.

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Black & white photos by Bill Alford, including main image (Arnold Brown).

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