Legends of the comedy terrorist

Malcolm Hardee, hard-drinking King of the Fringe, is still ripping his clothes off in the name of showbiz anarchy.

It is 4am outside the Gilded Balloon venue in Edinburgh, and a drunken man is attempting to leave the premises while at the same time spectacularly failing to make his legs function. Someone thoughtfully provides a chair for him on the pavement, and he sits there cheerily waving and nodding at the passers-by, for all the world as if greeting his subjects from his throne. Which he might as well be, since this is Edinburgh and he is Malcolm Hardee, self-styled King of the Fringe and comedy legend among fellow stand-ups, yet a virtual unknown to the world at large (unless you can remember his naked balloon dance on OTT circa 1981 - and let's be honest, you can't).

Hardee started out on the comedy circuit with Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Alexei Sayle at the dawning of "alternative cabaret" in 1980, yet singularly failed to become the household name that the other three did. Fifteen years later, he's still playing the Fringe, this time plugging excerpts from his freshly published autobiography, a rambling series of often unbelievably tall yet blindingly funny stories of his life in crime and showbiz, and crimes against showbiz.

Hardee's on-stage showings, particularly when urinating or painting his unfeasibly large testicles with luminous red paint, are shambolic affairs. At his show on Saturday, his wife was so unimpressed with his mumbling, she started heckling from the back of the audience. "Diction Malcolm, diction. Lips, tongue, teeth." But she was missing the point. Because his act has always been secondary to the scam-mongering stunts he pulls off once his show's over with. Why else would he book an afternoon Edinburgh slot, if it weren't to avoid the show clashing with his night-time drink- up and wind-up sessions?

This is, after all, the man who stole a government minister's Rolls-Royce, who stole Freddie Mercury's 12ft pink birthday cake and gave it away to an old people's home, who gatecrashed a Chris Tarrant party and stole a jeroboam of champagne, arousing his host's wrath to the extent that Tarrant delivered the killer line: "You'll never work in TV again." (He wasn't far wrong.)

And he's still up to his tricks. On Saturday night he attempted to sabotage American ventriloquist David Strassman, one of this year's hit shows, by kidnapping his hi-tech dummy. But he was rumbled at the death, and the plan to hold the dummy to ransom, and send it back piece by piece in return for hard cash, fell through.

If they ever did a This Is Your Life on Malcolm Hardee, he'd probably nick the Big Red Book beforehand and sabotage his own show. But hey, you don't have to take my word for it on the quasi-mythical life of Hardee. Take these people's:

Joe Norris (comedy promoter): "We had him on at Vegas SE8 down at the Albany Empire, and there was one night when things weren't going that well and three of the four acts had died, so Malcolm thought he'd liven it up a bit by urinating over the front of the stage, but unfortunately it was in front of half the members of Lewisham Council, who were giving us the grant to run the club. The next day the grant got withdrawn and the Albany Empire got shut down a couple of months afterwards, and I'd like to lay the blame fairly and squarely at Malcolm's door. But that's no big deal. It was a good night."

Jo Brand (comedian and ex-partner): "I was working in a psychiatric emergency clinic in south London and one of his relatives had some sort of acute psychiatric problem, so he brought them in. I was on a break when they arrived and when I came back they'd been put in a room, so I hadn't seen who it was. The doctor came out and said, 'We've got this woman in, but I'm actually a lot more worried about her relative. I don't know whether we should be assessing him psychiatrically. It's someone called Malcolm Hardee.' I had to confess that I knew him. I think they were a bit upset that I actually knew this appalling, trampy old mess."

Mark Thomas (comedian): "When he used to tour with The Greatest Show On Legs, they used to get the audience to put them up for the night. They were playing in the West Country and stayed in this old Tudor farmhouse, and one of the other members got back later than the rest at three in the morning. He didn't want to wake these people up, so he's standing there thinking what the hell am I going to do, when suddenly the window opens at the top of the house and Malcolm's head pokes out like a cuckoo clock and is sick down the side of the house. Next morning they left and were saying goodbye to these people who were standing at the door, not realising that there was this huge Guinness-stained puke down the side of their white Tudor house. It's all puke and piss with Malcolm."

Malcolm Hardee (Malcolm Hardee): "My favourite was the year I was on in a tent next to Eric Bogosian, the American performance artist. He'd been upsetting everyone all week, so one night I decided to visit him during his show on a tractor that I'd been using to open our act. I jumped on the tractor, naked, and drove out of our tent straight into his with our audience following behind. We filed past and thought no more of it, until a couple of minutes later I heard the sound of a tractor being smashed up with a sledgehammer and all the dressing-rooms being wrecked. I had to refund all the people who walked out of his show. I only found out later that that included all the people who'd walked out of his show before my intervention."

Arthur Smith (playwright and compere): "Malcolm is basically a one-man PR company with no talent."

n Malcolm Hardee plays the Pleasance, 2.50pm to 25 Aug (not 22). His autobiography, 'I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake', is published by Fourth Estate at pounds 8.99

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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