Arthur Scargill was my knight in shining armour

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The Independent Online

Apart from Billy Connolly and Woody Allen I can live without stand-up comedians, but my heart went out to Lee Hurst, the stand-up comic who thumped a heckler for spraying him with a water pistol in a Yorkshire club the other day. The fact that the heckler was a foot taller and five stone heavier than Hurst gives the story an added twist.

It was probably the surprise element that had the water sprayer on his back. There's something womb-like about a darkened auditorium. When you're part of an audience you feel safe, the last thing you expect is for the little guy up there on the stage to jump down and thump you.

I wish I'd thought of that when I was mercilessly heckled by drunken audiences in my early days as a stand-up comic. You didn't know about my showbusiness career? Why should you? It didn't last long. It was when I first started writing a column in a Sunday newspaper in the days when (if you can possibly believe this) there weren't that many young women writing columns in national newspapers. Out of the blue I got an invitation from the Durham University Student Debating Society inviting me to defend the motion that "Britain has a free press", or words to that solemn effect.

I was deeply flattered. I'd never done any public speaking before but, with all the self-assurance and hubris of extreme youth, I thought this a detail.

So off I went to Durham with my beautifully typed speech on press freedom, which I reckoned I knew something about, having spent a year as a reporter on the Tehran Journal where there was practically no freedom at all.

I was briefly introduced to the other speakers, the only one I can now remember being Arthur Scargill who, not surprisingly (this was the middle of the miners' strike), was opposing the motion.

I rose to speak. To my surprise I found I was tongue-tied. I rifled through my notes, dropped them, put them back in the wrong order and tried to speak again. I have a naturally high-pitched voice, but surely these squeaks weren't coming from me. Someone at the back of the hall began a slow hand-clap, someone else began to sing "Why Are We Waiting?".

I took a deep breath and started gabbling my text at the same speed racing commentators describe the last furlong. It was no use. I'd lost the plot and the audience knew it. Whistles, catcalls, bits of bread roll were coming at me from all directions. My hands were clammy, my cheeks burning - in the circs I'd have welcomed a squirt from a water pistol to cool me down.

With a little more experience I could have stopped them with one of Jo Brand's famous putdowns. When hecklers interrupt her act, she turns her vast bulk towards them, jabs a pudgy finger menacingly in their direction and says: "Just you shut up mate or I'll come and sit on your face." After that they're putty in her hands. Unfortunately Jo Brand wasn't around 20 years ago, so I didn't have that role model.

So what, you wonder, did I do in the face of this tumult? The only thing I could do in the circumstances: I burst into tears. How long I would have sobbed and the catcalls continued I cannot tell, but it was at this point that St George, in the shape of Arthur Scargill, came to the rescue and slayed the Durham dragon.

He sprang to my side, put a protective arm around my shoulder, produced a large white handkerchief, which may even have had a red cross on it, to mop up my tears and told the students to stop being so bloody rude and they should be ashamed for treating a young lass so discourteously. He then read my speech for me and, what's more, made such a good job of it that we won the debate. Arthur Scargill is the best putdown in the business. If I were a stand-up comic I wouldn't leave home without him.

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