A Brief History Of South London Comedy Clubs

Up The Creek

At the start of March I wrote this feature below about the history of South London’s comedy clubs for the website Deserter. When I was putting a draft together I deliberated about whether to include Battersea Arts Centre in it. I’ve seen some fantastic gigs there. Daniel Kitson of course, Al Murray, Will Adamsdale, Stewart Lee in his wilderness years. But despite its longstanding commitment to laughs it didn’t really qualify as a comedy club and I was so swamped by comedy clubs that it didn’t make the cut.

The feature appeared and a week later, On Friday, March 13, the Grand Hall of BAC went up in flames. It was a devastating event, but the playful devil on my shoulder couldn’t help thinking that the blaze might have been started by disgruntled Daniel Kitson fans who had been unable to get precious tickets for his warm-up (no pun intended) gigs the following week. If that was the case there would be no shortage of suspects. I also couldn’t help noticing that one of the other acts due to play there shortly after the fire was Cardinal Burns. Again, no pun intended.

The Battersea Arts Centre will rise again. Smaller rooms in the building are still running and the Grand Hall gigs have been moved to the Four Thieves pub over the road. That also raised a chuckle. One of the first acts to relocate was Josie Long, who once appeared onstage with the phrase “Fuck Jongleurs” scribbled on her arm. The Four Thieves is in the building where Jongleurs started three decades ago. Anyway, never mind that. Buy tickets for the benefit gig for BAC at the Royal Festival Hall on April 18 hosted by Arthur Smith and featuring Bridget Christie, Stewart Lee, Mackenzie Crook, Forced Entertainment, Toby Jones and Will Adamsdale. Tickets here.

 

 

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’.

jennyeclairJenny 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 1985Malcolm 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.

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