The comedian who vanished

You probably haven't heard of the comedian Ted Chippington. Even in his 1980s heyday he was hardly a household name. So how come, nearly two decades after he told his last joke in public, some of the biggest names in the business are holding a gig in his honour? Ed Caesar goes in search of the lost genius of British stand-up

"Do you want to hear a joke?" asks Ted Chippington. "I'll tell you a joke. I was walking down the road the other day, this chap drove up beside me and said: 'Excuse me, mate, I'm in a dilemma.' I said: 'Aye, good motors, Dilemmas. I was thinking of buying one myself. A red one perhaps.'"

Are you laughing? Didn't think so. Ted Chippington, it's safe to say, has never been a master of the pithy one-liner. His humour is more of an acquired taste. Which is not to say that it hasn't been acquired. Indeed, Chippington's deadpan, morose performances in the rock venues of 1980s Britain made him a hero - a Lenny Bruce, an Andy Kaufman, a Woody Allen, even - to a whole generation of comedians.

Never mind that legions of other punters thought he was the worst act they had ever seen. One woman, called Katy, once scrawled a note on Chippington's door that read: "This is the laziest most unprofessional performance (?) I have ever seen. You must have a good agent - what's her name?" Many were so offended by his inability to locate their funny bones that they threatened to break Chippington's. But for the cognoscenti who took him to their heart, that was precisely Chippington's appeal.

Word spread. The cult grew. Yet as fame, fortune and the big time beckoned, Chippington retreated from the stage. He had, in his own words, become "too popular". Choosing, instead, to opt out, he found work driving trucks along America's Pacific Highway, before returning to a life of peaceful, uneventful obscurity in the West Country.

So he was gone, but he was certainly not forgotten - and his reputation only increased with every passing year. And with a special benefit gig, TedStock, next Monday night, his small army of fans in the comedy world are bringing him back to the spotlight, 16 years after he walked away.

Stewart Lee - who has since become a big hitter himself, both on the alternative comedy circuit and with his hugely successful West End show Jerry Springer: The Opera - leads the chorus of support for Chippington. Lee saw Chippington for the first time on 28 October 1984, supporting those equally cultish rock miserablists, The Fall. He was instantly smitten.

"It was at the Powerhouse in Birmingham," recalls Lee. "I saw him entirely unexpectedly. I'd seen Peter Richards supporting Dexy's, I'd seen Phill Jupitus supporting Billy Bragg, and I'd seen Ben Elton on the telly. I'd also seen all the comedians like Bernard Manning when I was growing up. The great thing about Ted was, he wasn't like any of those things. It wasn't racist bigotry, and it wasn't social commentary either. It was more like a weird performance art."

Now, Lee is raising money for a four-CD box-set of Chippington's complete works - stretching from his first gigs in 1981 as "Eddie Chippington", to his final gigs in 1990 - by putting on Monday night's gig at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. Lee will join Richard Herring, Simon Amstell and other Chippington disciples, and Chippington may, or may not, perform himself. But this latest flush of attention has had one notable effect on the dour Midlander - it has persuaded him, after 16 years out of the game, to get back on the road.

Chippington (born Francis Smyth in 1960) is in Torquay's oldest pub, the Hole in the Wall. He moved to the West Country five years ago - he was sick of London and had always enjoyed visiting his aunts in Devon - but didn't visit the town centre until almost a year ago. What was he doing? "A bit of gardening. You know, this and that."

Now 46, Chippington is a man of unexceptional appearance. The out-of-time Teddy Boy image that he adopted in the mid-Eighties has been replaced by a middle-aged checked shirt and windcheater look. The lank, greased-back hair of his youth, meanwhile, has long since joined the wig-maker in the sky. But the Midland monotone remains as flat as ever.

What does he think of this latest rush of attention? "I am, frankly, baffled by it," he says. "I don't know who half of the people are on the line-up [for TedStock], it's quite amazing. I still don't quite get it - but thank you very much."

Why did he, as a man with ostensibly little ability, start to do gigs in the first place? "I'd left school at 15, and had got into a few bands, who I followed around the country. I did my first gig in 1981, supporting a friend's group, and supported a load of groups you've never heard of. I thought of myself - and this might sound a bit weird - as more of a band than a comedian.

"Soon, I was on with better-known bands like The Nightingales and The Fall, who I really liked, and still really like. They were just a bit different, and that's what I wanted to be. I suppose I never classed myself as a stand-up. I'm an orator, or something like that - more of an anti-comedian than a comedian. And, when I started off, I only did it to annoy people. It worked."

So why did he want to annoy people?

"I've always been a rebellious type of character. It made it more exciting, more fun for me. When I do gigs, I'd sooner play at venues that have bands on, because I prefer the audiences who stand up - it's a bit more confrontational."

Over his 10-year career (during which he estimates he earned on averaged £30 a week - "which was just, but not much, better than the dole") Chippington has had his fair share of confrontation. One notable occasion will forever be remembered as the "I'm Ted Chippington" gig.

On a breezy night in the autumn of 1985, on the Royal Irish Ferry on the river Mersey, Chippington had been booked as the support act for the Manchester post-punkers, The Farm. The DJ was the most revered man in popular radio, John Peel. The crowd was made up of hundreds of football fans, most of whom had been drinking all day. But when Chippington came on, the crowd threatened to throw him overboard.

"It was just brilliant," recalls James Brown, the founder of Loaded magazine, who was in the crowd that night. "All these guys were screaming 'Who the fucking hell are you?' over and over. It went on for ages. And every time, Ted would just respond, 'I'm Ted Chippington... That's me name.' They'd sing it again - 'Who the fucking hell are you?' - and he'd say it again. 'Ted Chippington... I'm Ted Chippington.' In the face of this mass of violent young casuals, he held his own. And in that moment, he became a legend."

The truth was that Chippington loved the tension - and exacerbated his audience's annoyance by staying on longest when he was least wanted. The latent violence of Chippington's crowds seeps out of many of the recordings on the box-set. And his eyes light up when he remembers the most dangerous occasions.

"We did this other place in Liverpool called The Royal Court. I dug the cassette out the other day, and there was this group at the back who were shouting: 'F-off Ted! You're rubbish,' all night. Other people started to join in. You could hear it from all over the place. And, just as it was getting really raucous, my fans start singing 'Chippington, Chippington, Chippington!' and you can hear them arguing in the stalls. It was amazing."

Was he ever worried about actual violence?

"Yeah, I've had a few people threatening to do me over," he says. "I've ended up chatting to them after the gig and they've turned out to be some of my biggest fans. Which is handy, having the psychopaths in the room on your side."

What's interesting about the collected works of Ted Chippington is that material, such as it is, never changes. All that changes is the crowd's reaction. And, Chippington is just as happy to publish the times when he died painfully next to the times when he was applauded to the hilt.

"If it was up to me," he says, "I'd have had no applause and laughter, and only the real dying moments. It's a weird thing, and quite hard to explain - but you should have all the bad stuff on the recordings because that is, essentially, the act. I didn't set out to be a laugh a minute act. I set out to be an annoying sort of character."

This "annoying sort of character" won the hearts of many in the 1980s. But what was the unique appeal of Ted Chippington? Why fête a man whose only achievement was to whip up a rabble into a feeding frenzy of annoyance? Phill Jupitus - who, at the same time as Chippington, was plying his own brand of stand-up as Porky the Poet - has a theory.

"It was this strange time in British culture where [John] Peel was deliberately championing all these wilfully obscure acts," says Jupitus. "And you'd have a battle between your mates to see who could get into the weirdest thing. So, it wasn't good enough to have listened to The Fall's single. You needed to have listened to Ted Chippington. He had that cachet about him."

"[But] as you listened to Ted's records, you saw he had a great deal more dignity than other comedians. He was pre-Vic Reeves, but he ploughed a very similar furrow - the old-style variety comic, or the family entertainer. There seemed to be a real sincerity to what Ted was doing.

"By the time Ted came along, there was already a slickness and a verve to stand-up. The whole London scene was impressive to watch - these slick young men with their rolled-up jackets holding fort about Thatcher - but Ted was just telling jokes. To me, that opened doors. It meant you didn't have to worry, because going down well wasn't important. In that sense, Ted was probably the only punk stand-up."

Indeed, Stewart Lee believes Chippington represents a revolution in comedy. "Most metropolitan comedy types have no idea who Ted Chippington is," he says. "In London, you're led to believe that 'comedy' was The Comic Strip, then Newman and Baddiel, then Reeves and Mortimer. There's another way of looking at it, which is that in the 1970s there were all these punk poets like John Dowie and John Cooper Clarke, and then all these people who supported bands, like Ted and Frank Sidebottom.

"Those people were just as important to us as kids because we weren't in London. I grew up in Birmingham, and when I saw Ted that night, I realised I could do whatever I wanted. He made me realise that as a stand-up you didn't have to have a big personality. And you didn't have to have a point of view. You just had to occupy space in a confident way."

Lee and his old college friend Richard Herring came together through their shared love of Chippington. Indeed, they were both part of a group of comedians who met at the Edinburgh Festivals of the late 1980s and early 1990s, who had all been inspired by growing up with Ted's records, particularly his 1984 album, Man in a Suitcase.

"Ted was way ahead of his time," says Herring. "If you want to be highfalutin about him, Ted was the jester who shows up the stupidity of everyone else through his own stupidity. At the same time, I genuinely think he is a bit rubbish. It's a thin line. There are a lot of people who do characters who are meant to be rubbish. With Ted, you're not quite sure. There's an artlessness to him that is very charming."

By 1986, the charm was already starting to run out for Chippington. His hardcore of fans used to write to him in the hope of receiving one of his coveted "Good Mate of Ted's" badges. But he grew tired of turning up to performances where everyone was a Good Mate of Ted's, and, in 1991, he gave up gigging altogether.

"I suppose I started to enjoy it less when I started to get a bit of a following," says Chippington. "John Peel had played Man in a Suitcase on his show, as had Janice Long and Andy Kershaw. For some strange reason, Steve Wright heard my version of "She Loves You" and played it for weeks. And Warner Bros, in their wisdom, got in touch and released it as a single. They were obviously trying to cash in on a one-hit novelty thing." ("She Loves You" made No 42 in the charts, which Chippington calls a "minor miracle".)

"That's where it all started to go wrong for me. I lost control of it. I ended up having to do things I wouldn't have dreamt of doing. That was part of the downfall - even though the single got me on Pebble Mill, which was fantastic."

Chippington's performance on Pebble Mill, when the presenter Paul Coia said he scored "pretty highly on the naffometer" might have seemed, at the time, like an odd moment for the comedian. But the joke, quite clearly, is on Coia (something for him to reflect on while he fills in presenting shifts on QVC). Even so, it makes uncomfortable viewing. Jupitus, a Chippington fan, says the incident is still "quite upsetting to watch" - but perhaps that's the point.

At any rate, that period was, in Chippington's mind at least, the beginning of the end. His gigs became less raucous. He enjoyed a light tailwind of support. And when, in 1990, he toured America with the band Fuzzbox - with whom he had recorded the novelty hit, "Rocking with Rita" - he liked the place so much he decided to stay. In between gigs in and around Los Angeles, he would drive a truck for money.

"I wanted to start again, because no one in America would have a clue what the act was like," explains Chippington. "I wanted to try and recreate the bit I enjoyed doing, and, to some extent, it was a really good experience. But LA's so big, it's pretty hard to get around, unless you can afford a car or a $200 taxi ride. I ended up living there for about a year."

Why did it come to an end? "It was just too hard to organise. I was starting again from scratch, and I ended up not being able to fund myself. I came home at the end of 1991 and got married."

What happened next has been complicated by some purposeful misdirection on the part of Chippington. His wife, Marjorie, says that the newlyweds honeymooned in Arbroath - a romantic, Ted - but much of the intervening decade and a half lies unaccounted for. There were rumours that Chippington's truck-driving job in America came to an abrupt end when he shed his load on the Pacific Highway, and that he worked as a chef in Mexico. Meanwhile, Robert Lloyd of The Nightingales recalls Ted and Marjorie living in the Edgware Road area of London before moving to Torquay. But all Chippington will say is this: for the past 15 years he has been doing "the usual".

The usual? Could he be more specific? "I don't know... the usual. A bit of truck driving. Whatever I've needed to do to get by... What have I been doing?"

Marjorie chips in: "You sit and shout things at the television."

"Yep," says Chippington. "I've turned into an old bloke."

Of late, though, the old bloke has been doing a few gigs - six, to be precise - in his new persona as The Reverend Ted Chippington. He is now "The Reverend", because, apparently, it lends him more "gravitas" on stage, and not, as is reported on one website, because he found God in Mexico. So has he enjoyed his comeback tour?

"Yeah, I have actually. Every one's been really good, and really different. I don't plan it. I just go on, and whatever happens, happens. It's not scripted, so every night is completely different. That's why I do it - for that edge. And if it became repetitive again, I'd pack it in."

It's good to have Ted Chippington back. In the 1980s, when Ben Elton and Paul Merton and the rest were creating what would become known as "alternative comedy", Chippington provided a genuine alternative. And, when he returns to London for the first time in almost two decades to support his old mates The Nightingales at The Bull and Gate in Kentish Town on Sunday night, it will be to a comedy scene that needs him more than ever.

Because in Britain, there are now more comedians than ever vying for your attention and your money. And they don't just want to entertain you - they want the sitcom, the radio show, the stadium tour. Ted Chippington never wanted any of that, and he doesn't want it now. All Chippington wants is gigs, and the chaos that a surreal evening with the most irritating man in comedy can bring. And, for that, he deserves high praise - or, at least, a clumsy heckle.

A TASTE OF TED

* I was walking down the road the other day, this chap comes up to me and says: "I've just got back from 'Nam'. I said: "What d'you mean mate, Vietnam?" He says: "No, Cheltenham."

* This chap said to me: "D'you want some LSD?" I said: "No thanks mate, we've gone decimalised now. Pounds, shillings, pence - no use to me any more."

* I was walking down the road the other day, this chap drove up beside me and said: "Excuse me, mate, I'm in a dilemma." I said: "Aye, good motors, Dilemmas. I was thinking of buying one myself. A red one perhaps."

* I was walking down the road the other day, this chap walked up to me and said: "Do you want to buy some grass mate?" I said: "No thanks mate, I've got crazy paving. Haven't got a garden, you see."

* I look forward to when I've got a car and I can drive down the road, so I won't get all these characters coming up to me.

Ted Chippington plays The Bull and Gate, London NW5 (020-7093 4820) on 4 February, and The Hare and Hounds, Birmingham on 24 February (0121-444 2081). TedStock has sold out. To order his box set from Bit Print Records, e-mail bigprint@hotmail.com

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