In Remembrance of ‘Alternative Comedy’

Jeremy Hardy, who has just passed away at the young age of 57, was part of a generation who captured British comedy for the left in the 1980s. He was also one of the few never to sell out in the years that followed, writes Mitch Mitchell and Brian Mulligan.

Jeremy Hardy in 2006. Photo: Andy Davison (via flickr)

In the 1970s, comedy in Britain was a sad mess. ITV had sitcoms based on the ‘ain’t foreigners funny’ dictum. There were shows like The Comedians which featured stand-ups with material that was racist, sexist, homophobic and downright unpleasant.

As a backlash against this sort of ‘comedy’, several young people, many straight out of university, came together to devise new forms of entertainment that had none of the old trappings. Then in the early ’80s, a club near Leicester Square called The Comedy Store opened with a lot of help from the American Robin Williams, who frequently appeared there in the early days.

Comedians such as Ade Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall and several others, including Jeremy Hardy, were given their breaks into show business at the venue. 

The alternative scene was basically left wing. Some of the acts later defied that and here I’m thinking of Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson who later ‘took the king’s shilling’, as it were. The comedians were helped considerably by basing much of their acts around anti-Thatcher, anti-Tory rhetoric. The Thatcher government was particularly disliked by large sections of society, especially the young who were the main audience. I vividly recall Alexei Sayle spitting venom at Tories generally, and Thatcher specifically, as part of his very funny routine.

The emergence in 1984 of Channel Four television also helped. Some of their programmes at the start featured many of these same comics. Many of them became household names because of this TV exposure. Harry Enfield, who at the time described himself as a ‘Marxist comedian’ was one such. However, some of his ‘character roles’ backfired, especially his ‘Cypriot Chip Shop Owner’ which was quite (unintentionally?) racist. Similarly his ‘Loadsa Money’ persona ended up being liked solely by the people he was satirising.

One of the ‘vows’ taken by most of this group was never to appear in commercials or to advertise products in any way. Gradually, over the ’90s, many succumbed and let the side down.

Only Mark Steel, Mark Thomas and Jeremy Hardy really held out. When I worked with Mark Thomas, he turned down £80,000 to advertise Heineken. 

He did say to me that he was pleased to be in the position where he was able to turn down that sort of money without it hurting too much.

The late Jeremy Hardy had also turned down some potentially lucrative offers. Jeremy had been raised in Surrey and appeared very middle class, which defied his actual position politically.

He would often be seen supporting people like the Guildford 4 or Birmingham 6 when the miscarriages of justice had finally been exposed. He would also use his appearances on Radio Four panel shows such as The News Quiz to amplify his support for Jeremy Corbyn.

Both Jeremy and Mark Steel wrote short columns for The Guardian for a time, but a change of editorship led to them both being dismissed for ‘sloppy journalism’. Quite ironic as a couple of years ago, Mark Steel won the Columnist of the Year award at the National Press Awards for his regular work in The Independent who had snapped him up after his Guardian demise.

Jeremy Hardy was one of the few of these comedians who I never worked directly with. I did however meet him once. My wife and I had gone to the Brixton Academy with Mark Thomas to see The Alabama Three. Also there was Mark Steel and his then partner, Bindy and Jeremy Hardy.

I later caught his stage act at the Cochrane Theatre which was absolutely hilarious, although maybe not if you were a Tory.

So, the passing of Jeremy Hardy is very sad indeed. He was a man of great integrity and solidarity with the left. Above all, he was extremely funny as well. He is survived by his wife and daughter.

Mitch Mitchell

 

“I’ll make you laugh, make you cry, play your cards right I’ll make you breakfast…”

(Jeremy Hardy’s opening line circa 1985)

When I think of the nascent alternative comedy scene of mid 1980s (of which I was a part alongside my double act partner Steve Gribbin in Skint Video) I sentimentally paint it in the same light as the folk scene of Greenwich Village twenty years previously. In this scenario Jeremy Hardy was our Bobby Dylan.

Although most of us poets/musicians/actors chasing Equity cards could keep a few people gathered in a dingy room happy enough in one of the dozen or so ramshackle venues that made up the alternative comedy circuit – from Vegetarian Restaurants to Trade Union clubs all united by their poor lighting, makeshift stages and variable PA systems – Jeremy could soar above the conditions along with a few others, like his friend of thirty-five years Mark Steel.

The pen is mightier than the sword but mightier still are Jeremy’s scathing judgments on the powerful for over thirty years on live stages, Radio 4 and infrequent TV appearances, There should have been far more of the latter if there was any justice in the world which Jeremy knew there was precious little of, He set out to change the bits he could with a commitment few could match. It is relatively easy to appear at a fundraiser for a safe cause like Amnesty but to stand upon a platform for controversial causes (Ireland, Palestine)  opens you up to both verbal and physical assaults. A well received stint at the Princes Trust might boost your profile; appearing with Martin McGuiness back in the day in London often involved pre-gig cabin crew-type instructions on what to do in the event of an attack by fascists. I always found this speech reassuring as they were invariably delivered by a 6ft 5ins guy who would have struggled to get into an Aer Lingus uniform or in truth one of their planes.

The Miners Strike 1984-5. Neasden Power Station – 7 am onwards picket line – Claire and Roland Muldoon’s CAST have set up a comedy stage for the cream of the circuit to show their support. In Band of Brothers there was an episode where the troops have to dig foxholes in the woods of Bastogne and the temperature drops to well below freezing.Years later the soldier now living in rural Nebraska recalls nights when his wife would complain of the cold. Nothing like Bastogne he’d reply. I can feel that Neasden chill even now:  Steve can barely finger the chords with his frozen digits but we manage our Laughing Policeman song, then off.

Enter Jeremy: “I have a message from my Union for you all today…” (crowd anticipate a cliche ridden PR statement) “…this gig directly contravenes Equity temperature regulations.”

Jeremy, We’ll always have Neasden… You made me laugh, had a cry today and I’ll see you and the wonderful Linda Smith for that breakfast…

Brian Mulligan

 

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