Malcolm Hardee, the founder of the Tunnel Club in south-east London, which played host to some of the most unforgiving comedy audiences ever assembled, was also a prodigious talent spotter. Yesterday, however, British comedy was mourning the loss of the nihilistic and uncompromising performer after the 55-year-old was found drowned in the Thames.
Venerated in the business, he helped revive the fortunes of British comedy in the late Seventies - bringing a freshness and audacity that chimed with the punk spirit of the times. He was not averse to urinating over persistent hecklers.
Those who followed included Ben Elton, Paul Merton, Harry Enfield and Mark Steel. Others, such as Jack Dee, Jo Brand and latterly Johnny Vegas, he helped spur on to national stardom.
Hardee, who was separated from his wife and had two teenage children, was reported missing on Monday night.
A prodigious drinker, it is believed he fell from the dinghy he used to travel between the floating pub/restaurant he owned, called the Wibbly Wobbly Boat, and his home on a houseboat called the Sea Sovereign, moored on Greenland Dock near Surrey Quays. His father was a tugboat pilot and he often spoke of the comfort and peace he felt around the river and docks of south-east London where he lived and worked.
His body was pulled from the water by two police divers on Wednesday morning. An inquest was due to be opened and adjourned at Southwark coroner's court. A Scotland Yard spokesman said: "There is no evidence to suggest the death was suspicious." Yesterday friends and family gathered on his boat and poured his favourite drink, rum and coke, into the dock in his memory, followed by a packet of cigarettes and white lilies.
Those who worked with him paid tribute yesterday. Mark Steel, a regular at the Tunnel, said: "For my generation of comics there were two ways of looking at him. He created the Tunnel Club which after the Comedy Store was the most influential gig in London. But then there was another side that you cannot document which was his crude presence. This amazing, nihilistic, debauchery. If you took anything seriously he could be a hard bloke to deal with. He simply destroyed pomposity. He just didn't care. Unusually for a comic he didn't seem to have any ego."
Don Ward, who founded the Comedy Store in 1979, recalled him at the height of his comic powers. "He was in at the very beginning, he was a compere here and he also did a set that was absolutely hilarious. He was fond of his bevvies, as we all were, but this was before the wicked drink got to him. He was at the top of his form. His death is a profound loss."
The stories that surrounded Hardee were legion. He grew up in one of London's toughest neighbourhoods, becoming involved in petty crime at an early age but eventually gravitating towards comedy after going to prison. He was jailed in 1977 for stealing a Rolls-Royce belonging to Peter Walker, a Tory MP. Friends say he only received a jail sentence because of public fears over the activities of a terrorist organisation called the Angry Brigade.
He founded the Tunnel Club in 1984. Its white, working-class audience rivals the Glasgow Empire in the collective folk memory of entertainers for hostility. But it failed to phase Hardee, who regularly appeared there - to widespread adulation - completely naked, except for grey socks, or with his testicles covered in luminous paint.
He once invited a student review from Cambridge University to appear, drafting in his comedian friends to heckle and throw things at them. The Tunnel was eventually closed after a performer was injured by a flying glass. For 12 years he ran Up The Creek in Greenwich, eventually handing over control to his partner Andrew Tearle three years ago.
His own act, The Greatest Show On Legs, is best remembered for the balloon dance performed on Chris Tarrant's adult Tiswas spin-off, OTT. Performed naked, it remained within broadcasting guidelines only through the dextrous application of balloons. In the clubs he performed a more risque version, which included an impression of Charles De Gaulle using his penis as the late president's nose.
Always fond of duping journalists he once reviewed his own show and filed adulatory copy to The Scotsman in the name of its critic William Cook. It was duly published. His 1996 autobiography, I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake, also recalled the time he pilfered the Queen frontman's 40th birthday cake, and handed out slices at an old people's home.