Friday, 28 October 2011


Phil Nicol is not the sort of act to headline a gig masquerading under the title of  “the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society” He is a misogynist, rabble rousing, reductionist, old school, dick-head and should be heckled off stage wherever he shows his smug, too-clever-by-half fucking fizzogg. But ‘hey’ I’m jumping ahead. When I first saw the so-called misappellanated Alternative Comedy Memorial Society advertised in Time Out I vowed to organise a works outing of the Performance Club to go check it out.

In 1979 with Alexei Sayle I founded Alternative Cabaret with a bunch of comedians and musicians at the Elgin in Ladbroke Grove and went on to promote and perform in a series of regular gigs at venues around London. At the same time we moved in on the newly opened Comedy Store and, with the arrogance of youth, attempted to impose our punkier, more socially relevant Stand-up comedy on the so-called mother-in–law comedians. The clash of comedic cultures made us tougher and more outrageous - Alternative Comedy was born.

When in 1994 I finally stopped seriously performing, I set up the The Performance Club to promote and support innovative performance with gigs and workshops. 12 months later in June 1995 a group of friends set up a Charity – New Agenda Arts Trust - to formalise what I was doing. I subsequently became the Artistic Director. That’s how I ended up buying 9 tickets to see the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society at the New Red Lion on City Road.

Our ages range from 16 to 66 and all of us aware that stand-up was once again in the doldrums and dominated by the variously irrelevant - slick smug or whimsical and all of it so safe especially the would-be taboo-breakers endlessly exposing the obvious.

Was there the faintest echo of the sort of thing I was involved in 33 years ago? I spend the first 90 minutes of the gig trying to keep my guests quiet; Sir Gideon Vein, a Comedy Store veteran, couldn’t contain himself “Fucking vacuous middle-class students! Who brought me to this shithole?” It was me; and he was right, and expressing exactly my feelings but I just wanted to hear them out before I started heckling. Another of our party – also a class-act alternative veteran (who shall remain nameless) - left early, looking at me and shaking his head.

I must admit to some interest in the attempts on stage at group work and also their critique of generic stand-up comedy, but unfortunately none of it was going anywhere. There was simply no art in it – hardly any of the performers had a thing to say about anything. There was so very little self-expression and absolutely no politics or social comment.

Eventually, and after an excruciatingly indulgent piece of ensemble sketch reading, the brash and blokey Phil Nicol was left on stage. Someone else – not me – heckled immediately and it was me who was told to keep quiet. I replied that to remain silent was to condone the crap entertainment, but by now I was clearly drunk. One of the gang gave me the price of a cab home and so I left with a little dignity and the knowledge that the state of stand-up comedy was in an even worse state than I had previously thought.

Monday, 25 July 2011


Speakers’ Corner Diary. Sunday (10th June. 2011)

Why I chose to lose face and concede my pitch to an attention-seeking moron and a handful of jeering Hooray Henrys.

The story might have panned out very differently… To be honest I had already finished speaking and was chatting to a mate, having spent the best part of the afternoon successfully laying my version of anarchist sedition on the populace. I had finished off with a lively debate based on the proposition that most people most of the time had no need of law and order and were quite capable of negotiating their own temporary rules and regulations.

So when a frail bespectacled little oddball dressed in a short green kilt, a Star of David T-shirt, and a Robin Hood hat arrived and commenced to set up a portable PA system close to where we were standing, I was presented with the dilemma of how to deal with him. Amplified music is not allowed in the park, although the pertinent by-law is waived by the Park authorities on various occasions throughout the Summer months and rock concerts are
held immediately adjacent to Speakers’ Corner all but drowning out the oratory. I had been particularly irked two weeks previously by a concert featuring Bon Jovi and had made myself hoarse trying to shout through them. I’d packed up early and made a fruitless complaint to two beat bobbies as I left. They had informed me that a license had been issued and that was an end to it. Also they gave me a friendly warning that next week the amplification would be even louder for Rod Stewart.

What I could never logistically do to Rod Stewart, I could certainly do to the little dingbat who was now dancing a jig to music emanating from the nearby portable PA system. I took the law into my own hands and walked over and started arbitrarily twiddling knobs and pulling out plugs. He and his ‘techie’ start arguing with me and putting right my spoiling. “You’re just jealous of him!” Screamed his minder - a large Irish woman with tufted ginger hair. And to my surprise she was supported by a group of what I know from experience to be hooray hangers on; who were only warming up when they repeated her jibe back to me and laughed with each other as they passed round a bottle of plonk.

At this point a regular whispered in my ear that someone had gone for a policeman, which is not what you want to hear so early in an altercation. Speakers Corner is a hot-bed of ungrounded exhibitionists and a police presence can act as a lightning rod for unresolved emotional
baggage. So no room for a reasoned explanation. The police are likely to operate pragmatically and simply arrest the original disputees and back off quickly.

Another regular pulled my sleeve and offered me some advice and information: “Easy Tone, he’s a defrocked priest who reckons the world’s going to end, greets the police with a
fascist salute and wont stop dancing until he’s dragged away.”

The full story is considerably more bizarre than the fragment of information I had and on which I based my decision to withdraw… Cornelius Neil Horan the so-called ‘dancing priest’ or “Grand Prix Priest” is notorious for, among other things, running on to the track during the 2003 British Grand Prix and disrupting the race proceedings, also in the 2004 Olympics in Athens he
made a flying tackle on the leader of the men's marathon. Ostensibly actions to attract attention to, and promote, his religious belief that the end of the world is nigh. After
a quiet period, when he was defrocked by the Catholic church, Horan went on to appear on Britain's Got Talent in May 2009. He danced his familiar jig on the show, got a standing ovation from the audience, and was put through to the next round. He didn’t make it to the live semi-finals. But he did attract a small following of idiot-watchers, who were doubtless disappointed later that Summer when he was ejected from Epsom racecourse before he managed
to disrupt the Derby.

Although I have kept a reasonably low profile in recent years, I do have a bit of previous myself when it comes to perceived public nuisance and eccentricity. My modest history of being a political prankster has given my rep a bit of colour and cost only a few quid in fines, but I’ve never been a police-baiter. My most pertinent and local claim to fame was my mistaken belief in the millennium bug – it was nothing to do with Armageddon - simply a fanciful belief that fate was about to impose a self-sufficient anarchist life-style on humanity. I even went and lived in the hills of Cumbria for the best part of a year. On a bad day, I still preach that human beings don’t deserve planet Earth.

So a decision to steer well clear of Neil Horan was a wise one and, despite those jeers that intimated that I was conceding territory and loosing face, a decision I’m proud of...
But meanwhile, in a parallel universe a few blips of chance away from the one we now inhabit, I never did receive that good advice, I caught sight of a sneering hooray and my ego got high on class hatred, there was shouting and confrontation, the police were soon on the spot. And with the local talent always ready to make a name for them selves – someone hit someone and it all went decidedly wonky. And me and the Grand prix priest spent a night in the cells together discussing the lamentable absence of legal aid in the Big Society, while a support group of larky upper class ironists sat laughing in the pub rewriting my Wikipedia entry and trying to think up a catchier slogan for the press release than ‘FREE the END IS NIGH TWO’.
Loss of face – I can handle it.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


No sooner had I finished reading Stuart Brand’s provocative book – The Whole Earth Discipline – which updated and challenged all my rather dusty beliefs about environmental politics and all but persuaded me of the case for nuclear power, when a gert great earthquake heaved a tsunami up the Eastern seaboard of Japan taking out the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Many traditional anti-nuke Green politicians have been keeping quiet of late while considering the pro-nuke yet deep-green convictions of Brand and Gaiasphere guru James Lovelock. As the evidence piles up against Carbon-dense coal being the main driver of manmade climate change, nuclear it is argued, is going to be at least a useful bridging power source until some bright spark (or extremely bright spark) comes up with the saver.  

In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986 an American nuclear scientist on the BBC World Service said there was only the faintest probability of this scale of disaster happening again. A second scientist disputed this and a discussion ensued. Asked to be more specific another boffin reckoned there was an 11,000 to 1 chance of another Chernobyl occurring in the next 25 years. In the next few days there were other contributions; a German scientist said it was more like 20,000 to 1 and a Danish scientist reckoned it was at least 25,000 to 1. And I’m listening to all this and I’m thinking. “Well even at 11,000 to 1 it’s worth a fiver.

I was a hardcore anti-nukes activist at the time and I added this information to the existing anti-nukes material in my stand-up comedy act. Then a friend of mine - a fellow anti-nuke propagandist – caught the act and stumped up a £1000 and suggested I try and place the bet. So I rang William Hill’s Special Bets Dept and went to their office and explained I had a grand sterling and a political agenda and I wanted know what the odds were against another nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl occurring in the next 25 years. William Hill said they would get back to me. The next day William Hill did get back to me but told me that they couldn’t accept the bet, because they couldn’t accept a bet that involved human suffering. And I said “Oh right, Here hang on! How’s that? You’re offering 7-4 on the Tories to win the next election. This piece also went into the stage act.

The possibility that the danger level at Fukushima will equal that of Chernobyl is no longer measured in odds, although it is said to be unlikely. It has also increased twice in the last few days. Interesting, because the Chernobyl disaster occurred 24 years, 11 months, and 7 days ago. 

Sunday, 13 February 2011


After hearing a piece on the Today Programme (8th Feb) about how BBC Radio 4 had fewer listeners in the North and served a predominantly white, aging and London-based audience, I spent the next hour listening with a critical ear to the remains of the Today Programme and the following two programmes. Two things stood out: firstly the fact, that of the thirty or so voices heard for the duration most, if not all, had either London or educated RP accents, which  located everything said in the South of England. Secondly, and not unrelated, is the radio programme maker’s craft of painting pictures; and how, when petrified into cliché, this positive has unconsciously become a negative. Phrases like ‘Fleet Street‘ instead of ’The British press‘ and ’The  Westminster Village‘ instead of ‘the politics industry‘ are obvious examples. On the Today Programme, Big Issue’s John Bird, in a piece about charities and their public profile, used ‘Oxford Street‘ and ‘the City of London‘ to describe ‘Window dressing‘ and ‘financial backing‘ respectively. 
I’d never before given any thought to such subtleties as the regional bias of short-hand visual imagery in radio and I can see how it might take a while to even explain it to the slower ones, let alone tactfully expunge it from Radio 4 parlance. There is however a far more obvious and pertinent example of slack, that has become endemic and that I have given a lot of consideration to recently. The regional slur, like its close relation the racial slur, perpetrates offensive stereotypes and, if you were seeking further evidence, alienates the regional listener. That Glasgow is peopled with drunken psychopaths, Liverpool with work-shy petty thieves, Norfolk with inbred yokels, Newcastle with unsophisticated paupers etc, is the stuff of much third–rate comedy. The fact that old-guard alternatives like Jeremy Hardy, Paul Merton or even Charlie Brooker on a good day, choose to parody the phenomena, albeit with subtly nuanced irony, does not then make the original material acceptable. The problem for Radio 4 is that nowadays everyone wants to be a comedian, and by allowing such subject matter to be picked up and sloppily repeated by any wannabe satirist or celebrity moron with a mic clipped to their lapel, and then broadcasting it to the nation, BBC Radio 4 is as culpable as any other outlet of encouraging the rampant lowering of standards and of course alienating the provincials. The only way to eliminate it from the airwaves immediately is, of course, a healthy dose of good old-fashioned political correctness.

Thursday, 6 January 2011


Snooker, more than any other sport, requires a quiet and attentive audience, and for the most part that’s what it gets.
There is however an obvious major audience interruption incident just waiting to happen in the live televised version of the game. The offending noise won’t be an urging shout from an over-zealous supporter, a badly stifled sneeze, a mobile phone jingle, or even some disguised spoiling tactic from the stooge of a gambling syndicate, it will be a completely avoidable piece of mass audience disruption instigated by snipers working for the BBC.

In recent years audiences at televised snooker tournaments have (for a small fee) been increasingly taking up the option of wearing headphones and listening in on the live BBC TV commentary.

This seemingly innocent innovation has unnecessarily placed a lot of power with the assortment of ex-players and pundits who form ad hoc double acts in the snooker commentary box. Two of them in particular, John Virgo and Dennis Taylor, have been noticeably dumming down their style and extending their brief to the point where they are in danger of interfering with the sporting reality they are supposed to be observing and reporting .

The list of transgressions range from the seemingly innocuous manipulation of the studio audience when the game is not in play eg. “Will the defending champion receive a standing ovation on his entrance?” to totally inappropriate jokey banter during the game, creating unwanted laughter in the audience and often bewildering both the referee and the players.

Ironically, when a mobile phone goes off in the audience or a supporter gets a little too exuberant, it is Virgo and Taylor who are the first to lead the tut-tutting, but in truth it’s them who are most likely to actually disrupt the game.

Virgo and Taylor have hardly earned a penny from actually playing serious tournament snooker in 20 years, since then both have fancied themselves as comic performers of some stripe; Taylor as a professional Irishman working the TV panel games and Virgo as a snooker trick-shot variety act with a little bit of patter. Nowadays even these options have dried up and seemingly their only regular work is in the TV snooker commentary box

No matter how reckless and disruptive their urge to perform in front of a live audience appears, it would be churlish to suggest that their motives are anything other than unconscious, but it also is difficult to comprehend how their behaviour can be allowed to continue.

Unfortunately they appear to be role models coaxing the likes of Willie Thorne, John Parrot, Ken Doherty and the normally restrained Terry Griffiths into their larky double-acts. But no matter how far the others stray from the job description, they can never top Virgo or Taylor’s showbiz-style prattle and personal joshing.

Virgo’s continual use of the adjective ‘unbelievable’ when 5 million viewers up and down the country are witness to the opposite is typical of his inaccurate cliché-ridden shtick. Virgo is the most insidious and potentially disruptive because he continually presents what in improvisational comedy terms is known as an ‘offer’ - an opening gambit which begs a reply. Of his fellow commentators Taylor is of course always the one most up for it and needs little encouragement for an off-message chinwag or worse still – a sentimental trudge down memory lane. Often, when the match in focus suddenly demands his attention, Taylor is clearly and obviously guilty of what he so often accuses errant players - taking their eye off the ball. He is at his most inappropriate when he is in collusion with the camera crew picking out celebrities and players’ wives seated in the audience, listening in on their headphones. His faux familiarity and ludicrous attempts at conversation - urging them to smile or nod their heads - is not only unnecessary and often embarrassing but is the exact polar opposite of what is required of a snooker commentator.

Snooker commentary, like the game itself, is a highly competitive occupation and there are plenty more ex-players waiting in the wings who can doubtless do the job just as efficiently and presumably without using the opportunity to audition for pantomime.

Tony Allen Jan 2011