Obituary: Malcolm Hardee

Comedian and club-owner dubbed `a south London Rabelais'

MALCOLM HARDEE was arguably the greatest influence on British comedy over the last 25 years. Almost every significant new comedian was agented, managed or promoted by him, or passed through one of his clubs in south- east London, the Tunnel Club in east Greenwich and Up the Creek nearby. The comedians he helped in their formative years include Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield, Paul Merton, Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz and Johnny Vegas.

As a performer he was best known for his naked balloon dance with his own ensemble, the Greatest Show on Earth; and his impression of President Charles de Gaulle using no props other than his own spectacles atop his semi-flaccid penis was unsettlingly realistic. But Hardee's other claim to fame was that he had the biggest bollocks in show business. He said that, at puberty, they did not drop, they abseiled. Everything about Hardee was larger-than-life - except his bank balance, because he did not care about money; instead he took an almost schoolboy delight in pranks, wheezes and escapades.

His friend and fellow comedian Arthur Smith called him "a south London Rabelais"; Stewart Lee noted that "in any decent country he would be a national institution". Yet Hardee's influence remained almost totally unknown outside the comedy and media worlds. At one BBC party in the 1990s, a Head of Television Comedy was heard to say: "He's not going to get on television because he keeps taking his willy out."

Everyone who saw him perform thought they knew him: outrageous, shambolic, disreputable. But, despite his image, Hardee was highly intelligent and gentle. He was born in Lewisham, south-east London, in 1950 and the schools he attended included Colfe's public boys' school (though he was soon expelled). He loved knowledge, and was very good at figures. But he tended to show off. He set the Sunday School piano on fire so he could make a joke about Holy Smoke and he later burned down two cinemas.

In the 1960s he worked as a mobile DJ, in between doing stints in detention centres. He once arrived on a stolen white horse to impress a girlfriend. Later he graduated to car theft - including a politician's Rolls-Royce: he spent much of the 1970s in prison.

In 1978 he joined up with his chum Martin Soan to form the Greatest Show on Legs, a troupe who toured an adult Punch and Judy show round the West Country. This led to a fixture at the Tramshed in Woolwich, in south-east London, and then regular slots at the newly opened Comedy Store in Soho. From the 1970s onwards, Hardee was well known for his stunts at the Edinburgh Fringe and during his annual appearances at Glastonbury Festivals he would wistfully reminisce: "I remember this when it was all fields."

He also turned up in several Comic Strip television films, often cast against type as a policeman, and he appeared in the first Blackadder series in 1983.

In 1984 he became proprietor and compere at the Tunnel Club. For fledgling comedians, the Tunnel was a baptism of fire, with unforgiving audiences and flying beer glasses. From the audience's viewpoint, they were firm but fair; from the stage, it looked like Custer's Last Stand. The reason acts kept going there was that they knew if they could play the Tunnel they could play anywhere. It sharpened their performance, and Hardee would and did help everyone. The Tunnel closed in 1988. He then ran Up the Creek, in central Greenwich, for 12 years.

A rather dishevelled figure with a mumbled conversational style Hardee was, astonishingly, a "babe-magnet". The first reaction he provoked was "not with a bargepole", but his underlying nature - kind, generous - soon became apparent and resolve melted. He was incapable of sexual fidelity, yet attracted enormous devotion and his several long-term relationships (often overlapping) were usually with strong, intelligent women. Although sexually rampant, Hardee was never sexist. I once asked him how he would like to be remembered. "As a good bloke," he told me:

Someone who won't let you down. I'm loyal. I'm unfaithful to women. But nearly everyone I meet I keep in some sort of contact with.

His autobiography, I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake, appeared in 1996.

Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock, in Rotherhithe, which he had often visited as a child with his father, a Thames tugboat captain. He fell from his dinghy on the way back from the Wibbly Wobbly pub, which he owned, to his home ship the Sea Sovereign, drunk, with horse-race winnings in his pocket, and very happy. He was found two days later and identified by a policeman - not for the first time. His own reaction to his death would probably have been: "Fuck it! That's the catchphrase tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Fuck it!"

Malcolm Gerrard Hardee, comedian, agent, manager and club-owner: born London 5 January 1950; married Jane Kintrea Matthews (one son, one daughter previously with Pip Hazelton); died London 31 January 2005.

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