I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake by Malcolm Hardee with John Fleming, 4th Estate pounds 8.99.

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The Independent Culture
What could a man who has built a career around the public display of his genitalia (albeit occasionally shielded by a hard-pressed balloon or three) possibly have left to reveal? A fair bit, it turns out. This characterful and not overly ghost-written autobiography contains a feast of scabrous reminiscence. It is also a great deal more fun than Malcolm Hardee's act - but then again, so is having your appendix removed.

Garlanded as it is with emotional tributes from his peers ("If Malcolm Hardee is as good between these covers as he is between the sheets," erstwhile intimate Jo Brand observes fondly, "put this book back on the shelf"; Arthur Smith calls him "the South London Rabelais"), I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake goes a long way towards explaining the curious degree of reverence Hardee inspires in those whose job it is to be irreverent. It is not so much for any one single impact on the British comedy boom - for founding the infamous Tunnel Club, for his influence on the careers of Harry Enfield, Gerry Sadowitz, Vic Reeves or Jo Brand - that he is regarded as its spiritual father; rather for a lifetime contribution. In a nutshell: the construction of a permanent bridge between the worlds of pub anecdote and top-flight showbusiness.

Some of the stories recounted here - the titular-Queen-singer's-gateau- larceny outrage, the one where Malcolm escapes from borstal dressed as a monk - might seem to challenge this book's right to a "non-fiction" classification, but it would be a brave man who would commit to disproving any one of them finally. And Hardee can hardly be blamed for editing out the litany of embarrassing failures and scams gone off half-cock that is the shameful secret of every shameless opportunist, since this book is certainly no whitewash.

Its subject has, by his own admission, done more than his fair share of very bad things. Malcolm's multifarious misdemeanours range from carol singing for personal gain, through car-theft and house-breaking to a vicious unprovoked assault on an Observer comedy critic (well, anyone can make a mistake). But his accounts of such misdeeds are admirably free of the self-justificatory whinging that is the usual stock-in-trade of the criminal memoir - "When it suited me I would claim that I'd fallen in with a bad lot," Hardee observes of his life as a teenage reprobate in darkest Deptford, "but the truth was that I was the bad lot."

Like all the most entertaining autobiographers, Malcolm Hardee is an inveterate namedropper - not without good reason is the first chapter headed "Near Someone Famous". His dearest memory is playing bridge in prison with now-you-see-him-now-you-don't Labour MP John Stonehouse, and the crucial first step in the warping of his psyche seems to have been growing up next door to Val Doonican. What exploits are to be expected of those who have grown up next door to Malcolm Hardee, few would dare to contemplate.