A Funny Old Evening

In which The Author has a strange night in the theatre

In Connecting People and Nothing Ever Happens I told you about the piss-poor way in which our local authority promotes events at our local venues. I should have told you about the short run of comedy shows that we had at Trecynon Coliseum for ages, but I haven’t got around to it. Then again, I moved into my house fifteen years ago this very weekend and I still haven’t tidied the place up. Time is an illusion…
Anyway, when I was browsing in the Tŷ Hafan charity shop in Aberdare on Friday, I took full advantage of their ‘three books for a pound (unless they’re children’s books, Mills & Boon books, or books already priced at over a quid) offer.’ I bought The Magus by John Fowles (the only novel of his I haven’t read), an interesting diversion called The Science of Sherlock Holmes (I studied Forensic Science for a while, remember), and a book called Love All the People – a collection of letters, lyrics and routines by the late great American comedian Bill Hicks.
If you haven’t come across Mr Hicks already, then I really don’t think this particular blog entry is the right place for you. There’s plenty of material on YouTube which you can check out for yourself. I’ll just say that he was confrontational, scatological, iconoclastic, and exercised his First Amendment rights to the fullest extent. He was totally open about his use of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and pornography; he fulminated against commercialization, militarization, and the inexorable rightward swing of American society; he sold out huge venues across the US and the UK; he recorded scathing sets of free spoken rants against the system; he went from being a cult figure (excluded from mainstream TV) to a major hero among freethinking individuals; and he died in 1994 of pancreatic cancer, aged 32. Here’s a little clip of Mr Hicks, reaching the end of his live act. I’ve never done drugs (except for alcohol), as regular readers will know, but that’s not the point. What is important is what he has to say:

I never saw Bill Hicks live. By the time his star shone brightly in the constellation of British humour, it had already burnt out. He was a brilliant supernova: by the time his light reached the majority of observers, the fire had died. We only got to see the afterglow of the explosion.
However, he was one of many performers, starting with Lenny Bruce and continuing through the Alternative Comedy scene – both at home and abroad – who was brave enough to stand on a stage and say what he saw, and tell us about the way things were.
I sent a Tweet earlier:
Bill Hicks’ routines make my blog seem like Watch With Mother. Found my own style at last, mind you.
I’ve done the Kurt Vonnegut pastiche (see Skirting the Issue), the Dennis Potter pastiche (see A Brief Interlude), the Michael Moorcock pastiche (I dare you to try and see The Great Unpublishable Novel), and umpteen other second-rate attempts to try and emulate the writers I admire. Tonight, listening to Radio 4’s Feedback programme, I heard Marcus Brigstocke on a panel debating radio comedy at the Edinburgh Festival. The peculiar juxtaposition of Mr Hicks and Mr Brigstocke three days apart makes me think that the time is right to share this story with you.
I want to tell you about two extremely surreal experiences, a month apart, which made me think that possibly – just possibly – this fucking backwater was starting to embrace the Twenty-First Century. Names haven’t been changed; they’ve just been blurred through time and alcohol.
About seven or eight years ago, the Coliseum – yes, that very same theatre/cinema where I once watched The Winslow Boy (in a film starring Sir Nigel Hawthorne) in the company of a lone usherette – decided that it was time to attract a larger audience.
[A digression: Yes, regular reader, I know this might sound familiar. The reason for this is that the whole fucking story is very familiar. Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council veer randomly from booking top-notch performers (who play to a tiny audience) to programming kids’ films for a fortnight on end (see A Letter to the Editor 4.) In the dead space between, they give their venues over to tribute bands, male voice choirs, pantomimes, and plays by Frank Vickery (who, let’s be honest, is never going to make Alan Ayckbourn or Sir Tom Stoppard lose any sleep.) In the meantime, the so-called Publicity Manager doesn’t have a fucking clue of how to network these bookings, relying on word-of-mouth and the ghosts of the local papers to do the hard work. If you really haven’t already read the entries I referred to earlier, then now is the time to bite the bullet!)
Anyway, Adrian (the manager) decided to launch a monthly comedy night in association with Jongleurs. Jongleurs is a group of comedy clubs in cities across the country. There’s one in Cardiff, but I’ve never been there – the last train home isn’t late enough to make the trip worthwhile. When the Coliseum started hosting Jongleurs on the Road, I decided it would be worth a look.
At the time, the Coliseum was having a reasonable stab at hosting live comedy. Dad and I had seen the Cornish comedian Jethro there a few years before Dad died. For the most part, they were old school comedians – a bit blue, a bit hackneyed, a bit ‘adults only’ – and they pulled in an older audience who were used to seeing these guys on TV. Their gigs were always a success, and Adrian was obviously looking to build on the Coliseum’s reputation as a decent live venue.
Jongleurs is a completely different scene. Its roots lie in the Alternative Comedy movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The core audience would be younger, more switched on to current events, more ‘hip’ (as we used to say.) And this was part of the problem. When the posters went up outside the venue, I popped my head around the door and warned Adrian about the content of the show.
‘If I were you, mate, I’d make sure there’s a warning on the poster. Something like “contains material that some people may find offensive.”‘ Adrian thanked me for my concern, but the posters remained unchanged and Jongleurs on the Road was ready to rock and roll.
I missed the first one, as I’d worked late in Cardiff and would never have got there in time. Soon after the show, a couple of disapproving letters appeared in the Cynon Valley Leader. I was walking past the Coliseum a few days later and Adrian was outside, so I walked over to him.
‘I told you you should have put a warning on the posters, didn’t I?’ I admonished him gently.
‘Yeah, you did, to be fair,’ he conceded. ‘I’ll make sure it’s on the next lot.’
However, the warning clearly hadn’t filtered through to the staff of one of the many nursing homes in the area. It appears that a party of pensioners from one of the homes had gone to see one of the old-school comedians, and had had such a good time that they’d asked if they could go to another one. Thus it was that when I walked into the Coliseum on the Wednesday night for the second instalment of Jongleurs on the road, the entire front row of one half of the auditorium was made up of elderly people (one of whom was in a wheelchair.)
Across the aisle, the great and the good of the local community had made sure they had prime seats for the evening’s performance. Behind them, the seats were occupied by a youngish audience – couples in their twenties and thirties, some groups of students, a bunch of girls out for a birthday party – and in Row J (well away from the front, and out of sight from the stage) you’d have found me. I knew exactly what I was doing, because I’d been to live comedy before. I used to operate the follow spot at the Alternative Cabaret nights at Brunel University during the winter of 1984-5. I’m not stupid …
At just before eight o’clock the house lights were dimmed, a voice over the PA system introduced our host for the evening, we all started cheering and clapping, and on to the stage walked a tall, well-built youngish black guy named Miles Crawford. From that moment on, the night descended into the one of the most surreal nights of my life so far.
Miles greeted the audience in time-honoured comedy club fashion:
‘Good evening Aberdare!’ (Cheering from the audience.) ‘Welcome to Jongleurs on the Road! Are you all well?’ (Another cheer.) ‘Are you ready to have fun?’ (Cheering.) ‘Are you ready to party?’ (A huge cheer.) ‘I’m in a party mood – who’s got something to celebrate?’
At this point, one of the coffin-dodgers in the front row put up her hand. Miles spotted her, and without missing a beat, he crossed to her side of the stage and leaned forward.
‘What are you celebrating, my love?’
The woman’s reply, delivered in a slightly cracked Wenglish accent knocked everyone sideways – including Miles himself.
‘I’m expecting my third child.’
Totally flummoxed, Miles looked into the wings and said, ‘Lads – start the car.’ He regained his composure slightly, and turned back to the elderly heckler.
‘Really? Congratulations. What’s your name, my love?’
‘No – Dilys!‘ came the sharp reply.
‘Dilys?’ Miles repeated slowly. ‘That’s an unusual name.’
‘It’s a Welsh name.’
‘Oh, right – there’s lovely. Anyway—’
‘And I’ll tell you my husband’s name as well.’
‘Dilys, I’d love to stop and chat, but I’m working.’ Miles straightened up and looked into the wings again. ‘Fuckin’ ‘ell, lads, get me outta here.’ Then, back on track, he addressed us all again. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, go wild, go crazy for our first guest, Mr Brendan Lovegrove!’
He and Brendan passed each other at stage right, and exchanged a few brief words (quite possibly words of warning) as we welcomed the newcomer. Brendan was a small, nervous-looking chap with mousy hair. From the moment he opened his mouth he was doomed.
‘Hello, my name’s Brendan Lovegrove and I’m from New Zealand. It’s my first time in Wales.’ (Cheering.) ‘It reminds me a lot of New Zealand. We play rugby, we fuck sheep.’
Amidst the laughter, four people walked out.
I can’t remember much of the rest of Brendan’s set. That’s not a reflection on his act, it’s more a reflection of the fact that I was expecting one of my comedy heroes on stage after him. The evening already had the potential to turn into a complete nightmare. Brendan was funny and entertaining, but the fact that people had left so early in his act filled me with trepidation. When he finished, Miles took the stage again. Nobody was prepared for what happened next.
‘Okay, ladies and gentlemen, before I introduce our next guest, I’m going to sing.’ He looked deliberately into the front row. ‘Now, don’t get excited, ladies. Don’t throw your knickers at me, Dilys.’
‘I’m not wearing any!’ came the cracked voice.
Miles was lost for words. Having lost his train of thought entirely, he struggled to get back on track. I can’t remember what Miles sang, or even whether he sang at all. I think he was glad to get off the stage again. Without much further ado, he introduced the next act, the man I’d been waiting to see – Marcus Brigstocke himself.
He’s a regular on radio comedies like The Now Show, so I was keen to catch his live act. In fact, I’d swapped a late shift and rearranged a quiz date, simply to make sure I was free that night. He didn’t disappoint.
He strolled onto the stage, wearing a mustard-coloured corduroy suit, and addressed us all casually.
‘Now, I know what you’re all thinking,’ he began. ‘There’s an escaped geography teacher on the stage.’ (See A Postcard from Airstrip One. Now you know where I got that line from!)
Mr Brigstocke rattled through a sharp, satirical set which was perfectly calculated to alienate most of the remaining old-school comedy audience. At one point he targeted a young chap at the end of the front row, somewhat out of place amongst the blue rinses.
‘What are you doing there?’ he demanded. ‘I thought those were the disabled seats.’
‘I am disabled,’ the guy replied, sounding a bit offended.
‘Well, you don’t look disabled. What’s wrong with you?’
‘I’m registered blind.’
‘Well, what are you sitting there for? You could have sat anywhere – it wouldn’t make any fucking difference to you.’
Mr Brigstocke continued in this vein before he got to what is quite possibly the World’s Funniest Joke (non-Classical version.) I can’t remember the exact words, but I’ll paraphrase it for you as best I can. (Be warned – it goes way over the top.)
On Judgement Day, Saint Peter is standing at the Pearly Gates when two people rock up outside together. One is the leader of the Indian self-determination movement. Mohandas K. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi. The other is the street magician, self-publicist, and favourite Brigstocke target, David Blaine. Both ask to be admitted to Heaven.
St Peter looks through his book and then looks at the two men apologetically.
‘I’m sorry, gentlemen, but it seems that there’s been a bit of a snafu with the paperwork. Would you mind waiting here just a couple of minutes while I have a word with the boss?’
He vanishes through the Pearly Gates and returns presently, looking a bit worried.
‘Right, I’ve had a word with God, and he says there’s only room in here for one more person. So, you’ve got tell me what you’ve done to merit a place inside. If I think you’ve lived a good and worthy life, you can come in. Mr Gandhi, would you like to go first? It appears that you starved yourself for a long period of time in the full view of the press. What were you hoping to achieve?’
Gandhi peers at the glowing figure through his round spectacles and takes a deep breath.
‘I hoped to use my own personal suffering as a metaphor for the suffering of my people under the brutal rule of the British Empire. By focusing the attention of the world’s media on my sacrifice, I was able to highlight the injustices we were experiencing. This meant that I was able to bring pressure on the British government to free my people from the shackles of colonialism.’
St Peter takes this all in and says thoughtfully, ‘Well, that’s very commendable, Mr Gandhi. Well done.’ He turns to the other new arrival. ‘Mr Blaine. You starved yourself for some considerable time in front of the world’s media. Tell me, what were you hoping to achieve?’
David Blaine thinks for a moment and then replies, ‘I thought it would look good on the television.’
And all the saints and angels in Heaven wept, as it was the first time God had ever used the word ‘cunt.’
Anyway, having alienated everyone in the old-school comedy audience, Mr Brigstocke left the stage. Miles came back on, outroduced him, and announced the half-time interval. I made my way into the bar, where I’d had the presence of mind to order my pint before the first half started. The bar was packed, mostly with the younger contingent of the audience. I tucked myself into a corner and sipped my pint, looking around for anyone I knew. To my amazement, I caught sight of Miles and Brendan at the other side of the room with glasses in their hands. I managed to catch their eyes and gave them a ‘thumbs up.’ They smiled and returned the gesture. Unfortunately, Marcus Brigstocke didn’t join them. He was doing a gig in Cardiff later that night, so he’d headed off as soon as he came offstage. That was a pity, as I’d hoped to shake his hand and tell him how much I’d enjoyed his set.
I confess that I can’t remember who the headline act was. After Mr Brigstocke, the rest of the evening was a bit of an anticlimax. When I returned to the auditorium, it was obvious that a good portion of the audience had done a runner. The care home party had left, and most of the front row was empty. I got the impression that the first half had been too much for a lot of them, and I envisioned another batch of letters in the Leader the following week.
There’s an unexpected sequel to this story. The following morning, I arrived at Aberdare Station at about quarter to eight, and spotted two familiar faces among the crowd waiting for the train to pull in: Miles and Brendan. We recognized each other from the bar the night before, so I went over to say hello. I thanked them for the entertainment, and they both agreed that it been the most surreal show they’d ever played. He and Miles had stayed locally overnight, before heading off to their next gigs – Brendan in London and Miles in Manchester. Brendan had fancied a bite to eat after the show. He’d made his way into Aberdare, found a takeaway, and then called into a pub.
‘I can’t remember the name of the place,’ he told me. ‘But I met this mad bastard in there – it was pissing down and this guy was wearing fucking shorts.’
I said, ‘Was it the Conway?’
‘That was it!’
‘Oh, that’s Dai,’ I reassured him. ‘He’s always wearing shorts.’
We got on the train and chatted until Brendan dozed off. If comedy really was the new rock’n’roll, these guys were living the rock’n’roll lifestyle. I’m not surprised he crashed out. For the rest of the journey Miles and I entertained each other. He told me about some difficult audiences he’d faced in his career. In return, I told him some daft experiences I’d had in the bookshop. Before I left the train, Miles told me that he was going to construct his entire show that evening around the weird gig he’d played the night before. I often wonder whether he really did, or if he was just saying that to be polite. If he did, I just hope he got Dilys’s name right.