I have worked with some wonderful fellow acts the last few weeks and most of them extremely sociable. However, I can’t help but notice that most weeks I am now the senior member of the group of entertainers. At dinner now it’s me with the stories that involve long gone days of working on Canberra, Victoria and QE2. My name dropping can include names from many moons ago like Arthur Askey, Dickie Henderson and Tommy Cooper. I have also noticed it’s now me who before 11pm say’s ‘Im going to call it a day guys, have fun in the night club’. It’s me that slopes off mid afternoon for a nap. I still feel like I am a young comic in my mind but I am now starting to feel my years. The sensible voice in my head say’s ‘slow down’ both off stage and on stage, the problem is I still love performing. If I slowed down what would I do, go on a cruise? The thought of retiring to the sun does nothing for me, last month I got so bored with the sunny weather in Australia I spent more time inside watching movies, lectures and reading than I do back home in London.
I started thinking the other day about how long I have been performing and I suddenly realised that next month I will be celebrating forty years as a professional stand up comic. I actually started as a child actor 42 years ago this September when I appeared as a teenager on a bike in a Piggy Malone sketch on ‘The Two Ronnies’ (RIP Ronnie C)…..however as a professional comic my first proper paid gig was at The Manor Club in Merton, a social club I believe is still open near Wimbledon. I was booked by an agent called Terry O’Rourke who ran a small agency called Apollo Entertainments. Terry was a lovely old man, he was a part time agent and booked a few clubs in London. Terry and his wife Dolly were great supporters of mine along with club booking agents like Billy Gee ,Jonny Laycock ,Benny Palmer, Jimmy Winder ( Book an act) and the much missed Wally Dent. Billy Gee and Terry O’Rourke used to run shop windows or showcases in The Tottenham and Edmonton area of North London and my mate Kim Smith and I would regularly appear on them just to get experience and stage time. ( if you are out there Kim, call me….would be good to catch up) When after two years of doing these shows as well as countless charity shows for senior citizens I finally got offered a paid booking it was the best feeling ever. In those days the procedure was this. The agent would call (on the phone not on email….happy days!) to ask if you were free on ‘what ever date’….if you were then he would ask you to pencil or hold the date. Then he would usually call you back to confirm, tell you what the fee was on offer and what was required time wise by ‘ I will put the contract in the post’….three days later the contract arrives by pigeon mail usually saying ‘act as known.’ There was a circuit of clubs in the London area consisting of working mens clubs, British Legion, Conservative, Liberal and Labour clubs. Some clubs had a reputation for being particularly hard to work. I can remember Hayes WMC in Pump Lane and Willesden WMC in Villers Road being at the top of the list. It’s sad now to think that these clubs are no longer regularly booking acts but that’s the way the business moves on. Young comics now work comedy clubs, university’s and festivals to get their experience and even that circuit is beginning to suffer with big chains having to wind up and close their clubs.
I was thinking the other day how many gags are still in my act from those days and there’s only one and that’s the opening gag I have used for years. It’s really weird as if I don’t do that opening gag I feel like I’m a trapeze artist without a safety net. The line is ‘ Last time I was at this club many years ago there was a bloke in the front row and he didn’t laugh once….(look at man in front) Nice to see you again sir’……It’s a crap line but for me it always settles me down as it’s a quick laugh within seconds of coming on. A few years ago I was first on at Jongleurs Battersea (sadly long gone). The MC was my old mate Simon Fox and as usual he opened the show in his inimitable style and got big laughs. When he went to introduce me, he told the audience that there was a bloke in the front row who never laughs every time he comes to the club and greeted him with ‘ nice to see you again’……I could not believe it , he had blown my opening gag just as I was about to go on but I did see the funny side and he made a comment to me as I walked on ‘ Now your f****d.’ I was reminded of this when someone published two picture’s on Facebook of an audience in a comedy club….one of an audience loving the show and laughing and one saying ‘ This is what a comic can see’ and in amongst all the laughing people ONE straight faced miserable audience member. Simon Fox was on Facebook and added the comment ‘ This bloke has followed Jeff Stevenson around for years’ or something like that….It made me laugh and took me back to that night in Battersea. It also made me think it was time to drop the gag but oh no, I went on the other night and I opened with the gag and a voice in my head said ‘ Remember what Foxy did….drop the gag.’ The tag to this story is that Simon is no longer opening his act with a stand up gag, his opening now is probably ‘Thats the way to do it’ as he is now one of the worlds leading Punch and Judy performers. I wonder if Mr Punch is telling Judy about the man in the front row not laughing?