People: Bong! You're off. Only joking

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I DON'T think I would care to undergo Don Ward's gong treatment. But then I have no desire to take the stage at the Comedy Store - the now legendary club for stand-up comedians that Ward runs in the West End of London - and try to make 400 people laugh.

For those that do, the gong is like the sword of Damocles - sounding the death knell as soon as the compere decides that your act isn't funny. Bong! That's your lot, mate. Off you go.

When Don took me on a tour of the club last week - the comedy equivalent of going backstage at Radio City Music Hall - he recounted how the gong system worked, in all its mercilessness.

"I had this act. He wore a complete evening dress and had a violin and music stand. He spent half an hour just getting ready and made up. Then he got on stage and started arranging everything. Somebody in the audience decided they were bored with that and shouted "Gong!", and then everyone in the room went "Gong!", and the gong was duly sounded. So the guy picked his things up and totally bewildered just shot off and we never saw him again. It's a very cruel business."

Too cruel, it seems, for the generation of comedians that Don is hoping will follow where Paul Merton, Eddie Izzard, Harry Enfield, Jo Brand, Jack Dee and just about every other comic you can think of have been heckled before. Because when Don takes the Comedy Store on a talent-scouting British tour next month - for the first time since he founded it nearly 20 years ago - the gong will be left behind. "You've got to give these people a chance," he told me. "I don't think I'd get out alive if we started kicking them off the stage after a few seconds."

Each of the 21 dates on the three-month tour will feature a compere, four established comedians and four so-called "open-mike" slots which will give untried acts a guaranteed, gong-free four minutes in the spotlight and the chance to win the Hooch Young Comedian of the Year award.

Of course you may well feel, as I rather do, that the country's need for more stand-up comedians is less than pressing. But you can't deny Don Ward's enthusiasm, or his right to keep in the vanguard of the comedy business when it was, after all, his club that spawned the monster - sorry, launched the modern era - of stand-up as long ago as 1979.

The sense of history that you feel as you scan the photographs that line the walls of the Comedy Store comes as a surprise. Is that prep-school boy with the floppy hair really the young Clive Anderson? Surely Alexei Sayle was never as trim as that? Good grief and there's Robin Williams bringing a touch of American glamour to this sweaty, basement scene.

To the 55-year-old Ward - a dapper, twinkly sort of chap in tidy slacks and a sports jacket - these now super-rich giants of light entertainment are still the brave, vulnerable young men he helped nurture through the early days of the venue, when it set up in rightfully insolent opposition to Margaret Thatcher, mother-in-law jokes, and everything that the likes of Jimmy Tarbuck stood for.

"Ben Elton perfected his style at the Store," Don recalled, "because he doesn't handle heckling at all well. So he did this rapid business. If anyone tried to heckle, he just spoke over them louder and louder, faster and faster, and he was into his next gag and the heckler had gone. Whereas Alexei Sayle would take it and make very good use of it."

And as the heavily politicised "alternative" stuff has given way to more observational comedy, Ward's feeling for who can cut it is still as sharp as ever, and the Comedy Store remains the true testing ground for anyone who fancies their chances of making 'em laugh. "The Comedy Store is a point of reference," Ward said. "I've started something from absolutely nothing and turned it into an industry. I'm booked for most of this year already. We're strong enough, solid enough, and I thought, let's go out and take a show around the country, and see what we can produce."


THE habit - I suspect a peculiarly male one - of returning to work after Christmas wearing the clothes you have been given as presents was, I gather, taken to extremes by no less a figure than Dominic Lawson, the editor of the Sunday Telegraph. And it's earned him and his paper new nicknames.

The sight was one to behold: Mr Lawson dressed from head to foot in brand- new yellow. Yellow sweater, yellow trousers, yellow socks. So it's Eh- Oh! to La-La Lawson and the Sunday Teletubby!

Lunar landing

eclipses tragedy

IT'S official. Neil Armstrong's one small step for man has made the giant leap to the top of Rex Fontaine's readers' poll of the century's most enduring events.

Let me remind you. In his Christmas Day sermon the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, the Very Reverend John Moses, cited the Christmas Day football match between British and German soldiers on the Western Front as one of the six most memorable images of the century. I then invited readers to nominate their own top half-dozen.

From a post-bag that produced no fewer than 72 separate nominations - from the Turin Shroud to the cover of the Sex Pistols' album Never Mind the Bollocks - it was an uplifting moment that narrowly triumphed over evil and tragedy. Close behind the lunar landing of 1969 came the mushroom cloud caused by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, with the image of German concentration camps in third.

There was a tie - an appropriate one - for fourth place, between the death of President Kennedy and the death of Princess Diana. And a certain topicality surely influenced the choice that came out sixth: the sinking of the Titanic.

I felt that the Right Rev Moses, the inspiration for this exercise, should be invited to nominate his five other most memorable images, and they included both Neil Armstrong and the mushroom cloud as well as another popular choice, the fall of the Berlin Wall. But he was on his own with Nehru's "Midnight's Children" broadcast on the eve of Indian independence in 1947, and, perhaps more surprisingly, with the image of famine in Africa.

Many thanks to all who took part. Bottles of champagne were on offer to three readers whose entries were drawn out of the hat, and they are: Paul Ingram of London E5; Angus Wolstenholme of Leeds; and WL Batt of Sunderland.

MANY happy returns to Pipedown, the organisation that campaigns to rid the world of piped music, which celebrates its fifth birthday with a party in London this week. "We haven't won the war, but we've won a lot of battles," the Honorary Secretary, Nigel Rodgers, tells me.

Pressure from Pipedown has led to the withdrawal of piped music at branches of the Woolwich, on buses in Southend, and in some Tesco stores. Now attention is being turned to the scourge of piped music on the telephone. "The problem is that often the people who put you on hold aren't even aware of it," says Mr Rodgers, a writer on art and history who lives in Wiltshire.

Certainly Pipedown can draw on some influential people among its 2,000- plus membership, notably from the world of music. Richard Baker, Lesley Garratt, Christopher Hogwood, John Lill, Julian Lloyd Webber, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, George Melly, Yehudi Menuhin and Simon Rattle all support the cause.

Will there be any music at the birthday bash? "I very much doubt it," Mr Rodgers told me. "There'll be far too much talking for that. But I suppose it's possible that John Lill might play us something on the piano."

Fancy a game,

Devil Fish?

THERE'S something a bit unsettling about Dave Ulliott, even when he's talking down the phone from somewhere no closer than Las Vegas. But then Dave is arguably Britain's leading poker player, and intimidation is the name of the game. "Most of my opponents are a bit scared of me," he says.

Still he might have sounded a bit more cheerful considering that he had just won $40,000 at the gaming tables of the Rio Hotel, where Dave is warming up for the first-ever European poker championships taking place in Paris next month. "Devil Fish", as Dave is endearingly known, will be one of the more dangerous creatures doing battle.

It all started when Dave, who is from Hull, was 15 and he found he was trouncing his friends at three-card brag. He soon graduated to strip-deck stud poker, and the card-table world was at his feet.

Now 43, he has a jewellery business in Hull but his real job - earning him hundreds of thousands of pounds a year - is poker. "It's a good life," he says. "The key to it is being aggressive."

PERHAPS you recall the exploits of one Colin Bodill, a microlight pilot, as recounted by him in our '5 Days' column last month. Colin, from Nottingham, had just completed a pretty hairy week one of his flight from London to Sydney, and it continued in that vein with unscheduled stops on tropical islands and brushes with shark-infested waters. But yesterday, I am pleased to report, Colin touched down safely in Sydney. He won't be coming back the same way.