Alternative Cabaret was a London-based collective of politically motivated performers central to the birth of Alternative Comedy in 1979.
The Roots of Alternative Comedy
(Excerpt From ‘Attitude - wanna make something of it - the secret of stand-up comedy’ by Tony Allen published by Gothic Image 2001.)
I was standing pretty close to 'down stage centre' at the birth of Alternative Comedy, struggling to get an act together. I kept a fairly consistent personal diary documenting all my gigs as well as getting feedback from friends, lovers and comrades. Most pertinently, I also had two audiotape buffs recording whole evenings of what I was involved in. Although it was little more than 20 years ago, I've yet to read an account that bears anything more than a passing resemblance to what I experienced. Alas, best leave Max Miller, Dan Leno, Joey Grimaldi and Robert Armin with the bones of poor Yorrick, who knows what they really got up to.
My interpretation of recent history starts in London, south of the river at the end of the nineteen seventies
10.pm. Monday April 2nd 1979, I am standing alone in the wings, just about to go on at a makeshift cabaret club, upstairs at Oval House Kennington. There are fifty people in the audience including a small support group and some fellow performers, who are almost as anxious as I am about what I'm doing. I'm wearing my best grandpappy vest, a jumble sale evening suit held together with safety pins and sporting a lapel full of badges; my hair is a mop of black shoulder-length ringlets tinted with burgundy henna, a black star dangles from an earring. I'm not in character - I always look like this when I'm out for the night. I'm an over-typical post-punk hippie squatter, I haven't done a serious day's work in six years and I am about to deliver my first stand-up comedy set. In my pocket is a toilet roll with the complete script written in longhand. I've been trying to learn it all day and for the previous few months; I've been assembling it for a lot longer. It's a montage of personal anecdote, opinion and witty political slogans plus a few updated old jokes. Most of it is original; I've hardly nicked a thing.
Although I'm only vaguely aware of it, there's other fringe performers out there also toying with the idea of radical stand-up comedy. I have no idea that I am 'one of a group of innovative new comedians who are about to change the face of light entertainment', my sights are set higher - I want to be local shaman in a performance-led, grass roots, flowering tops, anarchist revolution.
Despite knowing who I am and what I want to say, I'm horribly wobbly. I feel naked, vulnerable and unprepared. Yesterday I made the mistake of trying to rehearse the whole thing from the top at Speakers' Corner. I got ripped to shit by hecklers. I should've known better. It's a very different medium. I won't do that again.
Meanwhile, I've just learned that the pungent smell that permeates the whole Oval House building is due to a broken sewer pipe. That's why the toilets aren't working. I know this much about live performance - You have to 'address the now' - 'give voice' to what is going on in the room for the audience.' So, at the last minute, I decide to think up a new opening line and comment on the drains.
And now, please welcome Tony from Rough Theatre…
When Lenny Bruce walked out on stage for his marathon 3 hour 1961 Curran Theatre gig, there was an audience of only 300 in a venue with a capacity of almost 2000. He spent the opening five minutes improvising a sustained piece of inspired nonsense about giving away free tickets to the local drunks, who then heckle him, disrupt the show, refuse to leave the theatre, participate in the concert the following night and get great reviews. In the late sixties long after his death, I got the album out of the library archive along with the two other Lenny Bruce seminal concert recordings 'Berkley 62' and 'Carnegie Hall 63'. I'd always harboured a fantasy about being a comedian, but it wasn't until I heard this stuff that I knew what sort of comedian and how serious the fantasy.
So it's a rather ignominious kick off to my career, when the best I can come up with is a straight lift from Ken Dodd.
When I arrived here tonight the Oval staff all came out and cheered me - they thought I was the man from Dynarod.
It hardly gets a laugh, and I am so busy worrying if I've actually said the line correctly, that I forget the next line and then fluff the following one. Two many agendas will scuttle your concentration. I know nothing of such subtleties, but I do know that 'the show must go on'.
I plough into the prepared silly stuff to warm them up:
I'm waiting for a 36 bus to come here tonight. I'm waiting and I'm waiting. Not a 36 in sight. So in the end I get two eighteens!
And yes, they laugh. I like the sound of it. I have a complete 20 minute stand-up comedy set in my head and I'm about to deliver it to an audience who are going to hear me out. Apart from a ten-minute slot in an am-dram variety show at the Hillingdon Youth Theatre in 1969, when I'd performed a composite impersonation of Max Miller and Frankie Howard (nicking their best lines) this is a first. It's not been easy, but at last after 10 years, I'm actually doing it.
In the early seventies I'd stumbled onto various stages and slowly learned how difficult it was going to be. MC and token poet at my local folk club in Hayes Middlesex was the closest I came to experiencing anything like the right context - live intimate cabaret. While audiences would tolerate some of the established acts wittering on for a few minutes by way of introductions to their songs, they weren't about to let me do the same, particularly when all I promised was a few rhyming couplets, a joke they'd heard before and an announcement.
In November 1972 I moved into a squat in Westbourne Park and joined West London Theatre Workshop, a radical community theatre group run by Bruce Birchall. The following summer I got to play the part of Dennis the Menace in a production that toured 28 different adventure playgrounds across London; great training if you want to learn how to crowd control pre-pubescent kids. They would demolish the fourth wall on a daily basis. A year later I joined up with fellow dole-sponsored thesps, John Miles and Farrel Cleary and we founded Rough Theatre, adding yet another experimental theatre group to the London fringe.
The London theatrical fringe had emerged in the years that followed the abolition of theatre censorship in 1967. Beyond the pub and studio theatres, and the worthy 'Theatre in Education' stuff going on in schools, a clutch of innovative independent theatre companies emerged. Many of the actors were directly involved in the political and cultural events of the late sixties. Some of their work was inspiring - a gang of Santa Claus's giving away presents from West End shops - now that's what I call performance art. Although very little of their work reached Johnny and Jo-anne Punter, it did however redefine the actor's role. By the mid-seventies these groups had multiplied and there was a substantial sub-culture of left wing and radical theatre exploring a whole variety of styles ranging from Agit prop to public spectacle. Central to the political ethos of much of this theatre was its commitment to finding a popular theatrical form to reach, and then to politicise, the prized working class audience. Their initial aim coincided with the liberal bureaucrats at the Arts Council, who under a Labour Government had initiated a policy of directly funding projects, which played to 'non-theatre-going audiences'. Some of the experiments were delightfully ludicrous. The daftest one I eventually walked out of, was by a theatre group in South London who staged a series of bingo nights which somehow managed to include Marxist economic theory.
Among the uppity ranks of Comrade Thesp in the political theatre groups there was always something to squabble about. So it was no surprise when less-politicised jobbing actors with talent, won auditions over Trotskyist activists, whose idea of dramatic conflict was to get the audience arguing about the date of the next general strike. Theatre groups without funding formed and split up as regular as rock bands without a record deal; but many of those committed to either art or ideology survived.
Inevitably a pecking order emerged. Top of the list and brand leader was the 7/84 Theatre Company (7% of the population owns 84% of the wealth) which featured the work of Scottish socialist playwright John McGrath.
Also, although they were not the favourites of the Arts Council, hard-core political outfits like CAST, Red Ladder and Broadside, managed to pull a bit of funding and fulfil (more than most) their mandate to find new audiences. They played in colleges and community centres, as well as playing a fair sprinkling of solid 'working class' gigs organised by younger elements in the trade unions and local trades councils.
Rough Theatre was committed only part-time and down the scruffy unfunded end of the yard. Our sporadic offerings lampooned Comrade Thesp, and were aimed not at the working classes but firstly at our immediate tribe - the political activists and the lively squatting sub-culture. We were entertaining the troops and occasionally writing and performing some very good local jokes. "7% of the political theatre groups get 84% of the fringe grant" being my particular favourite.
But I rarely felt totally comfortable on stage, for the best part of six years I convinced myself I could overcome the problems of style and technique by simply writing even better material. I never came to terms with the fourth wall. I never knew when I was allowed to break ranks and come off script; when ever any of us did successfully 'address the now', it was seen as a major triumph of taboo breaking proportions; but a practice that carried a severe warning. We also attended political meetings and were only too aware of the shambles and uproar that could ensue once our sort of audience sensed the opportunity to argue about politics.
I probably reached a larger audience with the one-liners that I wrote on walls than I ever successfully cracked on stage. 'Squat Now While Stocks Last' graffitied across the front of a prominent boarded up building in Westbourne Grove had an elegance and immediacy about it that was worth hours of street theatre.
John Miles and I developed alter-ego characters and were groping towards a double act; Ormskirk Arthur and Cyril Sleazby were our pair of skip-dwelling dossers: John's repressed northern manic street preacher was straight man to my larky amoral cockney. I spent a lot of my time on stage standing at John's shoulder listening to his demented lyrical rants and mugging my confused reactions to the audience. Gradually I dared myself to add asides. But it was always theatrical. No-matter where we performed and how much we deconstructed what we were doing, we always produced 'plays' and they invariably worked best in studio theatres.
(See roughtheatre.co.uk for more.)
The Benefit Circuit
Meanwhile, there were other elements shaping the style and content of live entertainment during the seventies, Rock Against Racism, invigorated by the punk explosion of 76, had spawned a nation-wide benefit circuit of fund-raising gigs and socials for all manner of political causes. At first only po-faced comrades ventured out on stage in the change-over intervals between bands; making announcements of demos or perhaps a brief anti-fascist speech before quickly getting off. Soon these difficult performance slots were being occupied by ranting poets, agit-prop buskers and fringe performers.
Rough Theatre had sporadically been braving these sort of audiences with the 10-minute play of the graffiti, Squat Now While Stocks Last. It was a scripted piece with only token acknowledgement of the audience; and despite the talents of actors like Maggie Ford and Stuart Golland we were still struggling to find a style that successfully cracked the fourth wall.
It would be another five years before I would eventually have a 30 minute solo set of strutting combative stand-up comedy for rock events, but in 1977 I was nervously attempting to MC them and having panic attacks before, during and after performing.
In 1978 I teamed up with Jonathan Graham a trained actor and a gent, and Rough Theatre irregular Tom Costello a clowning, juggling, punning, sweet jazz saxophone playing delight of a man. Both of them had recently done a bit of knockabout Commedia dell' atre'; so with very little rehearsal we started accepting gigs for the Rough Theatre Roadshow. I had come up with a structure that I believed would solve the Fourth Wall problem. The fifteen minute play was set in the here and now and was a brief explanation of how the three characters - an actor down on his luck, a drunken escapologist and a would-be radical comedian, came to be in front of the audience. It involved acting, busking and stand-up, some knockabout inter-action and a three-way snatch-juggling routine. It expressed our dilemmas and our options and was also heavily influenced by a style of street clowning from Europe.
The Festival of Fools in Amsterdam seemed to operate as an on-going street theatre festival and had its echo in several major European cities, notably Christiana - the squatted city within a city - in Copenhagen; and the Tempadrome circus settlement by the wall in West Berlin. A diverse sub-culture of experimental and knockabout theatre mixed with circus and rock music was forging a circuit and producing its headline attractions. Jango Edwards, an American based in Amsterdam, was front man and founder member of Friends Roadshow and best described as a 'rock clown'. Although he played to packed thousand-seater venues on the continent he was unknown in Britain; he was nevertheless a strong role model for channel-hopping street performers.
In the more restrictive climate of the UK, the West Country summer festivals of - Hood, Elephant and Glastonbury offered annual venues for Festival of Fools style acts including home-grown ensembles like Welfare State and Footsbarn.
Busking and Covent Garden.
In Central London the spirit of the Festival Of Fools was most evident in and around the Covent Garden Development area, where there was plenty of opportunities to squat empty derelict property for both homes and rehearsal room-cum-venues.
Throughout the 70s there had been several campaigns to establish and legitimise busking and street theatre in Central London. In 1978 Rough Theatre Roadshow got involved with performance art activists Demolition Decorators plus a large ad hoc group of street entertainers, and we attempted to run an alfresco cabaret in the newly pedestrianised Leicester Square. There was a very larky and rowdy scene when the event was stopped and police rounded up the ringleaders and marched us off to Bow street police station. The street party atmosphere continued outside for a further two hours forcing our premature release on bail.
I made several court appearances as one of The Leicester Square 3, which played to packed houses at Bow St Magistrates Court throughout the year. The case was finally dismissed, helped by among other things, my arresting officer contradicting his own evidence - unable to remember whether I was strumming a unicycle or stunt-riding a ukulele banjo. The experience I gained from carefully heckling the procedures of British Justice whets my appetite for more solo performance, but not in the courtroom. I wasn't much taken with all the hours of waiting around in corridors.
When the squatters were finally evicted and redevelopment of Covent Garden was eventually completed, a concession of several legalised busking pitches was granted to a promotion group called Alternative Arts, run by Maggie Pinhorn. These performance pitches grew in status and were booked like cabaret slots. Nowadays they feature the top crowd-pleasers of international street entertainment.
The only other live performance to get me arrested was at Speakers' Corner. I'd been a regular heckler there for some years; I loved the place and longed to be speaker; but for all my public front, I could never quite muster the gumption and get up and do it. I regularly abused the good will of Barry Roberts the Seeker by habitually over-contributing in his meeting. As a last resort, in an effort to shut me up, he would invite me to speak. I would always decline, concealing my sheer terror with seeming nonchalance. Finally one Sunday early in 1978 I was heckling him and accused him of not taking enough risks, of saying nothing dangerous or forbidden. When he inevitably offered me his podium - an old milk-crate, I had no way out; I knew my moment had arrived. I confidently stepped up and delivered a taboo-breaking diatribe on free speech. In less than five minutes the police had ejected me from the park for swearing, (they can't do you for stupidity or arrogance). The last words of my debut speech were: "Even this person tugging at my sleeve came out of a cunt." For the following 12 months I enjoyed considerable notoriety; I held lively meetings and managed to get myself thrown out a few more times; twice landing up in Marylebone Magistrates Court charged with "Language and/or behaviour likely to occasion a breach of the peace." A law brought in to curb the racist oratory of Oswald Mosely; I was talking about making love. Your honour!
I was found 'guilty as charged', despite the fact that the magistrate had appeared to be on my side. It was as if he wasn't allowed go against the police and find 'not guilty' in a public order case. He made this much clear by giving me a moral victory - There was no fine to pay and no costs.
On stage at the Oval I simplify the complexity of all this to the following.
I'll tell you what happened at Speakers' Corner. I was arrested about a year ago for saying the word 'cunt' while talking about sexual intercourse. And I pleaded not guilty and the thing got adjourned. Two months later a Marylebone Beak threw it out.
Three weeks ago I got arrested under the Public Order Act again, for saying the word 'prick' while talking about masturbation. Once again I appeared the following Monday and pleaded 'not guilty' and it's been adjourned for two months. Now, if I'm found 'guilty' for saying prick and 'not guilty' for saying cunt; then I'm going to sue the magistrate under the Sex Discrimination Act.
The audience laugh, but I instinctively don't like it - I've smudged the truth of what actually happened for the sake of a fairly glib joke. I'm also having problems with the ghost of Lenny Bruce. It's not just the 'obscenity charge' subject matter; it's his voice, it's in my default mode. I've not actually said anything of his yet, but I know it's there, I can hear the albums. I can also hear the albums of three contemporary comedians…
Crutch Guitar Style
Back in the folk clubs the intros to songs became longer and more polished. A style of rambling joke telling mixed with personal anecdote had evolved. Its leading exponents had outgrown the clubs and were playing big theatre venues. As an aspiring comedian I found Billy Connolly, Mike Harding and Jasper Carrot very frustrating role models. Mainly because there was no practical way to emulate them without first doing an apprenticeship as a folk musician in the folk clubs; but also because everything about them had failed to acknowledge the punk revolution and the heightened social and political awareness that was all-pervading in the radical arts. It's only in retrospect that I can acknowledge the so-called folk comedians as being the direct forerunners of the alternative wave, but at the time they had no street-cred and were considered provincial and passé. I listened to their albums of course and I learned a lot, but it was hard to forgive Connoly in particular, his penchant for stag night gags.
Meanwhile, the legacy of Lenny Bruce and the work of subsequent American Stand-ups like Woody Allen, Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Richard Pryor all influenced and contributed to the breakthrough that I was about to become part of. But it was the sad state of traditional British stand-up and its total irrelevance to the post-sixties generation (never mind the post-punk generation) that was probably the most important element. There was an enormous vacuum and it had to be filled.
In the late seventies live stand-up comedy in Britain was a very seedy and deeply unfashionable business. In London it could be tracked down to a handful of weekly venues in East End pubs - two of them in the Old Kent Road. There was also a smattering of working men's social clubs in the suburbs. The variety club circuit had always been stronger in the North of England but even there, its fortunes were on the wane. Granada Television may have twice repeated the weekly mid-seventies show 'The Comedians', but it never made a new series. It showcased mostly Northern club comedians, like the cheeky racist Stan Boardman and the deliberately offensive Bernard Manning. They performed sanitised versions of their xenophobic, woman-hating live stage acts in front of a studio audience. Their acts looked and sounded the same. Dressed in frilly fronted shirts and garish evening jackets, they told jokes, old jokes, often the same old jokes. They appeared to be petrified in a state of self-parody.
In 1976 I saw 'Comedians' an oddly prophetic play by the left-wing playwright Trevor Griffiths, which attempted to deconstruct this sub-culture and its approach to comedy. Two years later, I discovered it for myself…
The only way into the world of down-market traditional showbiz was as an amateur act on what was an irregular circuit of agency showcase-cum-talent nights, held anywhere with a liquor license and a functioning stage. These gigs were advertised in the classifieds section of the Stage newspaper and it was generally understood, by all concerned, that they were rigged in favour of acts from the host agency. I spent many an evening in late 78 travelling by tube to Hainalt or Ruislip to reconnoitre these events without ever daring to declare an interest. The bills were noticeably short on comedians and usually comprised a conveyor belt of solo vocalists singing familiar old standards and backed by two jobbing musicians on Casio and drums. Sometimes the only stand-up comedy all night would come from the MC. These guys were on the bottom rung and going down. They went through the motions of simulating showbiz pazazz while at the same time sending it up in such a yawn of a style that it had only a genetic memory of irony.
Apart from summer seasons at Butlins and the like, working comedians of this period played two circuits - alongside this fading variety circuit, and slightly in the shadows, existed the stag circuit where comedians could earn regular money working with strippers and playing to men-only audiences.
Hosting an agency showcase or a pub gig one night and supporting a couple of strippers the next; they had to have two sets of material - a club act and a blue act (echoing Max Miller's white book and blue book). A struggling comedian on a club stage could always dip into his blue book and shock the audience into laughter and submission; on a stag night playing to an all white, all male, drunken mob, they opened by scraping the bottom of the barrel. A stag set started off with racist generalisations - 'they come over here shagging our women' - with gags against stupid inept Irish; culturally hapless Asians; and lazy, horny West Indians - often performed in character and wearing a black stocking with holes for eyes and mouth. It then moved on to nagging wives and monster mother in laws (our women); and finished off with a barrage of hard-core rape and whore gags. Follow that - bring on the strippers.
At the Dueraggon Arms in Homerton, I sat and watched every Thursday for about six weeks before I finally walked out heckling a stocking-face never to go back. When I heckled a racist in the Old Kent Road, I felt obliged to leave soon after for my own personal safety.
Bernard Manning and racist comedy
Sometime in the seventies, Bernard Manning was interviewed on telly by Michael Parkinson and responded to a question about racism in his act with an apparent honesty and worldliness.
"Michael, all joking apart, I believe that white people, black people and Chinese people should all live in peace together, and unite as one community... and beat shit out of the Pakistanis!"
Beyond the obvious offence of this joke, there was also a subtle barb, that was aimed, not at Pakistanis, but at Parkinson and the ease with which celebrity chat show guests can slip into mouthing liberal clichés. That Manning had the nous to do this intrigued me. That particular clip was repeated as an example of 'classic Manning'. Other similar Manning "classics" occasionally turn up as quotations in the Guardian and the like, but they are not typical. For sure Manning knows a good subtle gag when he hears one and is probably capable of creating his own, but given the magpie nature of the sub-culture and his status within it, many of the 'best' gags will inevitably end up attributed to him.
The truth is that Manning's joke structure is rarely subtle and depends mostly on blunt unashamed bigotry, with an attitude almost wholly motivated by cynicism.
Lenny Bruce once observed that a lot of racist abuse was targeted not at racial minorities but at the liberals who leapt to the defence of minorities. Often Manning's humour will appear to be very naughty - calling a spade a spade in defiance of the mealy mouthed liberal establishment. But this has little to do with smashing taboos; it merely masquerades as saying the unsayable. In his own club, in front of his own audience, there are far more pressing taboos to be explored than the one of taking yourself and the world too seriously. Manning rarely took on that job; preferring to feed prejudice rather than question and confront it. Nevertheless I learned an important lesson about 'addressing the now' from the Manning / Parkinson interview and would apply it to my own comedy:
So the booker for Oval House rings me up and says. "Tony Allen?" I say "Yes" He says "Good. I'd like to book you for a gig. But before we go any further I have to ask you one or two questions. Is what you do in any way racist? Is it anti-ethnic minority group?" "No," I say "course it ain't. No worries." "...And is it sexist? Is it anti-women?" "Well No" I say, "Not so it notices - I'm working on it. Yeah?" "…And is it... " And I thought "oh for fuck sake!" "Listen..." I said, "...what I do is broader than all that, I'm more sort of 'anti-life'!" And it all goes quiet at the other end of the phone - while he confers - and then he comes back on and he says "Oh that'll be alright, that's not a sensitive area.
This was when I heard the laughter of recognition. Three big ones in the space of a few seconds. This joke in particular really made them laugh. Interestingly, it had nothing to do with the Oval House cabaret booker Belinda Kidd, but was, almost word for word, a conversation I'd had, punting for Rough Theatre gigs from a Student's Union Ents Sec'. It was a very tasty gag. I got to state my case on racism and sexism, plus I'm mocking the new orthodoxy. More importantly, it was my truth and I had said it in my own authentic voice without Lenny Bruce or Billy Connolly hovering in attendance. I follow this with more original material - stuff from life that I'd honed in confessional mode at Speakers' Corner. It starts with a re-jigged heckler exchange and then a blatant steal from a George Carlin album.
Masturbation? You know what they call someone who doesn't masturbate yeah? - A liar! If God didn't want us to masturbate he'd have given us shorter arms. But we believe now, that we've got a more liberated attitude towards masturbation, sex generally, don't we. Remember all that heavy guilt trip stuff that was laid on us?
"You keep on doing that and you'll go blind!"
"Oh! Can't I just do it a little bit, and wear glasses?"
"Don’t do it!"
"Oh go on. I'll eat a lot of carrots! Please!"
But we feel that we've transcended all that! Don't we? Now when a kid says
"So, it's alright to do it then is it?"
You'll say "Yeah. Er. Sure. Go on and do it, it'll relieve a lot of tension."
"Can I do it a lot?"
"Yeah. Er yeah course you can. But not in here! Take the book and go in your own room."
"Can I do it every day?"
"Yes yes yes!"
"Do you do it?"
"Er. Yes I do it. I mean we all do it. It's not just me."
"Do you do it a lot?"
"Er. Yes umm!"
"Look! Just go and do it. Alright?"
Maybe you can do that - be that open. But can you… never mind you. Me. Yeah? I was lying in bed the other day; making love to myself - a bit of autoerotic sexuality - and my mate walked in. Immediately, I hook the duvet up over my groin. My clothing's askew; I'm blushing, sweating a lot. He says "Oh, what's up with you?"
"Er. One day flu."
"Eeurgh! What's that?"
Now. If I'd been in bed with somebody else - making love with a lover - and he'd walked in. He'd have said.
"Oh. Sorry." And I'd have smiled - a bit pleased with meself "See you later yeah?" So just how liberated are we?
I carry on in this confidential first person vein and I'm getting big laughs; much of it coming as a release from embarrassment. There's a couple sat up the front - silent throughout - they're having none of it. Eventually after a longish routine about censorship in the cinema, I stop, laugh to myself and say to them ironically. "You're really enjoying this aren't you?"
I'm improvising. I'm addressing the now. And I'm inwardly congratulating myself and I'm not paying attention. I lose my rhythm and now I'm stumbling on through a whole bunch of stuff about drugs, street crime and the police. I'm trying to reach a punchline as if that's going to be any use without a set-up. Finally I lose my way after messing up my best political insight.
What I want to know is: Where is the cop on the beat, when it comes to arresting the real criminals - the multinational corporations; who move the economy of one part of the world, to another part of the world, and waste whole communities?
Where's the cop on the beat, when it comes to arresting them? "Well I was walking in a north easterly direction in the board room of Amalgamated Conglomerates, when I notice the accused, and several other 'persons unknown' making a dubious decision, as to the economic future of Latin America. I cautioned him, arrested him, and bunged him in the back of the transit. That's when he must've hit his head".
Doesn't happen does it?
But I don't say it like that. I get it all wrong. I say the punchline first and work back. It’s a botch. Now the embarrassment is mine. I blank out completely. It is very lonely. But it doesn't hurt, because I've prepared something. Something very silly - very Rough Theatre. And it works.
Now what was I gonna say next? I didn't think I'd get this far, as it happens. No hang on, look! They said to me. "Just in case you get into trouble with it. Go and sit down somewhere quietly and write down what comes next."
I produce the toilet roll. There's a laugh. I unravel yards of it, trying to find my place. When I read out "Masturbation, Speakers' Corner, Multinational corporations" there's a bigger laugh as they realise that I have, actually bothered to write it all down on a toilet roll. There's giggling. I play with it. "You thought all this was off the cuff didn't you?" I'm almost back in control. To finish with, I have two lateral-thinking homilies on the subject of avoiding arrest. It should be plain sailing. "How does all this affect us." I read out from the roll.
Police numbers are 22,000 Should be 28,000. They're 6000 short. Plus there's also a massive turnover in the police force - they've gotta bigger turnover than the SWP - it's a thing you do when you're eighteen. The courts are chocka block - There's on average, a 4 - 6 month waiting list to get on. Worse than this club.
So, even if you're caught on a liberating spree in Tescos, And the tinned salmon is there. And the cop's hand is there. Always plead 'not guilty'. In court the following morning - 'Not Guilty'. Case adjourned. By the time your case comes up in 4 to 6 months, your arresting cop will have left the force - On an oilrig somewhere.
Rattling off statistics and flaunting my familiarity with police and court procedures is clearly Lenny Bruce territory. But I'm still surprised when I hear myself confidently say -
Store detectives. Dig where they're at… they've either been chucked out of the police force or they couldn't get in, in the first place.
"Dig" Dig is Lenny Bruce argot. I rarely used the word. It certainly wasn't written on the toilet roll. I wince inwardly, and try and keep it together, only to repeat it immediately.
And dig what they do for a living. They hang around all day in supermarkets watching other people do their shopping. And listening to Tony Blackburn. They're busting innocent people just to break the monotony.
How to get out from under a store detective? The reason a store detective can bust you is 'the citizens arrest law' but they can only bust you, once you have left the premises 'with the goods about your person' If you're on your way out and you've been spotted. You can't leave. You have to hang about by the door. You know he's there. But he can't make his move. He's just standing there behind you. And you wait. You wait until the biggest, beefiest, straightest, have-a-go type citizen comes marching along. And just when he's about to come alongside. You leap off on to the pavement in front of him, turn to the store detective, put your hand on his shoulder and say, "This is a citizen's arrest!" Then turn to the have-a-go bloke and say. "I've just made a citizen's arrest on him. You look after him. I'll go for a cop." And then you split! And that's what I'm gonna do now. Thank you.
I've finished my set confidently, there's a big laugh on the final punchline and I come off stage to sustained applause after 16 minutes of having stumbled and soared, dried and sweated, plunged and finally succeeded. I'd never experienced the like - I was elated.