1989 – Saturday Night, The Meccano Club – Islington
‘Are you ready for your final act tonight?’
The compere’s rhetorical question is my cue to slip through the doorway into the small, packed room. This is something I’ve done many times before. However, it would seem that since my last visit, that little doorway has become a portal to some strange other dimension. But any impulse to stop, rub my eyes and look again, is over-ridden by the immediacy of the job in hand. You see, one of the perks of being a stand-up comic is that you get access to your own personal Adrenaline Dealer. And their one priority (after getting you all hopped up on the good stuff) is to shift your arse from wherever it may be at the moment your name is announced, to wherever the mic-stand is; quickly and directly, without any slips-ups, dallying, second thoughts or deviations. Yes, even if you see a mad thing. Like I just did. Half a dozen steps then, to get to where I need to be. Now I turn to face the enthusiastically clapping crowd.
What the actual fuck..?
Whilst an Adrenaline Dealer is available to all comedians, from rookies to old-timers, you usually need a few gigs under your belt before you can then access another perk of the job – the Auto-Pilot.
‘How you doin’?
I will be sure to thank mine later, for issuing those, admittedly basic, words from my, currently smacked, gob. Considering my disorientation, the unruffled tone was a nice touch. What I’d really like right now is some smelling salts and an explanation. I settle for a sip of lager. Then, leaving Auto-Pilot to enquire of the assembled pack of eager and hungry mirth-hounds -‘Have we got any northerners in tonight?’ – I undertake to speed-fathom the shit out of this thing. Because, you see, I’m a bit busy actually, and would quite like my full concentration back, ta..
To that end, I run through the possibilities. 1.- Adrenaline Dealer has cut the gear with some kind of hallucinogenic. 2.- I am still on the number 30 bus from Hackney, having nodded off on the way here, and am dreaming. 3.- That bloke over there is real.
Plumping for 3. – I begin to scrutinize said gentleman, who is sitting casually in his chair, a few rows back, shoulders resting against the pillar behind him. He’s wearing a black and white striped shirt and a beret, in the style of a stereotypical French Artist. He has a sketchpad and pencil, and appears to be drawing me. Or at least pretending to. I am able to see all this with much clarity because, whereas the rest of the audience are quite dimly lit, (as you would expect, because they are the audience..) one of the best actors of his generation, Tim Roth, is bathed in BRIGHT WHITE FUCKING LIGHT! It brings to mind one of those jailbreak movies where you see a prisoner who’s attempting to escape, get caught in the glare from a searchlight in the watchtower.
Realisation dawns. Call it a lightbulb moment if you like. A bloody great big 9000 Watt lightbulb in fact, that’s trained on a famous actor planted in the crowd! I can hear Auto-Pilot telling a joke about my moving down from Sheffield to London. Still sounding quite calm too, in stark contrast to my other (inner) voice, which is swearing, with a rapidly rising inflection of alarmed incredulity – I’m gonna kill my fuckin’ agent..
The Previous Day – Hackney
I answer the phone. It’s my agent.
‘Alright chief, got your diary handy?’
Keeping hold of the receiver, I walk over to a cluttered desk, stretching the coiled cord to it’s full length.
‘You know you’re closing at The Meccano this weekend, yeah? Well there’s a TV company coming down Saturday night to film your set, you got a pen?’
I write down the name of the person from the production company who will be my contact on the night. They won’t be filming the whole evening, he says, just you.
‘I’ve cleared it with Monika (who runs the club) she’s good as gold about it’.
The agent has scant information regarding the TV programme itself, save for that it is – ‘something to do with the centenary of the French Revolution’. – Oh I see. Eh?
‘Don’t worry mate, some bollocks. I’m sure it’ll be fine, it’s all money in the bank innit?. Gotta go chief, I’ve got another call..’
Well, whatever it’s all about there are worse venues to be filmed in. It’s a lovely gig as a rule, very popular amongst the comics. The Meccano Club: AKA The Market Tavern pub in Islington, is a downstairs cellar type venue, nice and intimate, there isn’t even a stage, so you are right up in the crowd’s face, on their level. A square room with good sightlines despite a big pillar to one side, though I’ve never known anyone complain about having a restricted view. The venue’s ‘all crammed in together’ feeling has a lot to do with the very low ceiling. Lee Evans does a visual gag that works perfectly there, where he holds the mic-stand up above his head and drags it across the stone ceiling whilst racing around doing an impression of a Dodgems car. It’s probably the charged and heady atmosphere you get in there but, one night I could have sworn I saw the sparks..
I just hope the TV people don’t cause any problems, by riding in roughshod and trying to take over the place. I’ve seen that happen before..
Present Day – Ealing
I’m smiling now, at the memory, triggered by the man in the drama that I am about to watch on the box. But I wasn’t smiling at the time. I recall feeling mightily duped, ringing the agent on the Monday morning. Hadn’t he known what those cheeky fuckers were up to? He said not – ‘Don’t worry about it, fuck em mate, it’s all dough in the bank innit? Got another call chief..’
Thinking back, I’m not sure you could say that the TV people ‘took over the place’ as such. Hijacked and annexed a section of it for sure, – the bit right in front of me! Seriously though, didn’t it occur to them that it might be a good idea to give the comedian they’d hired, the heads up? Or did they think I wouldn’t notice him, perhaps? I reckon what must’ve happened is that, what with them being busy media folk and all, they simply just forgot to give a rat’s ass. It’s easily done. I mean really, what the actu..
1989 – Saturday Night, The Meccano Club – Islington
I get what’s going on now. Obviously if I’d been more professional, I would have been prepared for this, not thrown by it. After all, the details were all there, in the clue my agent gave me. He said it quite clearly – ‘something to do with the centenary of the French Revolution’. Of course! I mean, what else could that possibly have meant apart from, – a famous actor in Frenchman togs, will turn up, with his own lighting rig, sit near the front, then be filmed whilst he draws you. – How did I not twig that straight away? Silly me.
I detect some movement to my left. A cameraman walking slowly towards me from out of the gloom. He points his handheld bit of kit my way, then slowly pans round and holds on Tim, (I call him Tim now, since we’re working on a project together ) in all his faux French effulgence. Where’s Mike Leigh now eh?
I reach the conclusion that I have been proper mugged off. I could always take the piss I suppose. – Hey mate, where did you leave your string of onions? – Not convinced that’s a good idea though because another weird aspect to all this is that, for some reason, no-one else seems to be paying him any attention. I think, being situated right in front of the pillar like that, means he’s largely obscured from view, unless you are directly facing him, like I am. Or maybe these hip young Islingtonians are just too cool to go rubbernecking a thespian, even one lit up like a Christmas tree.
Auto-Pilot stands down, I connect with the comedy-savvy, sparky and up for it Meccano crowd, and have a great gig. At some point towards the end of my set, I notice the actor has departed. He slipped away discreetly enough, I’ll give him that..
Present Day – Ealing.
The credits roll on Rillington Place. I’d been looking forward to it and wasn’t disappointed. Marvellous stuff from all involved. Of course, it’s obvious to me now, that Roth’s seminal – ‘French Sketch Artist In Cramped 80s Comedy Club’ was an important milestone in his development as an actor; that it informed many of the memorable characters he would subsequently inhabit. The cool detachment of his infamous, gut-shot bank-robber, Mr Orange, the louche body language of Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy, that piercing gaze of Christie’s. I had the thrill of witnessing first hand the early incarnations of all all these, in the flesh, when we ‘worked on that project together’. – In a humble little place called The Meccano Club. A Thrillington Place. Ahem..
The Falklands -Late 90s
The detective was certain that the girl was still alive. Oh sorry, wrong story.
Present Day – Ealing
I never did see the French Revolution Centenary programme. Did I make the final edit? Did it even air? I’d like to think that I did, and it did, and that there’s a dust-covered VHS at the bottom of a pile, in a box in an attic somewhere, that holds a little piece of what was the most surreal thing that ever happened to me at a comedy gig. Well, apart from that time at the Comedy Store, when Gary Oldman was behind, me dressed in Lederhosen, sculpting a bust of my head out of elephant dung.
Just in case no other record of that bizarre evening many moons ago does exist, I think I’ll write it up for posterity. But what to call it? The Gripes of Roth? Too dry. Once Upon A Tim? Bit shit. Reservoir Frogs? Racist. Oh well, maybe it will come to me in a lightbulb moment.