21 Feb 2014
basac's picture

I’ve had a quick read through Alexei Sayle’s Analysis Of Comedy Today – yes the king hath spoken, and deserves capital letters. I love Alexei, he was the main reason I became a stand-up, and it’s great to see him back again. But his inevitably Lexo-centric view of alternative comedy is a revisionist rewrite of what actually happened, in the long period of 20 years or so when he was largely apart from live comedy.

I’ll come back to his analysis when I’ve had a chance to read it in more depth, but the inevitable de-politicisation of alternative comedy was less pronounced than he gives credit for, and one episode from my past that illustrates this concerns the short and spectacular life of Stage Left Productions…

Ask any comic of a certain age who was the maddest, craziest, most reckless, over-the-top person they’d ever met on the comedy circuit, and nearly all would answer Malcolm Hardee. But if Malcolm were still with us, and sober enough to answer that same question, who would he have chosen? The answer would almost certainly have been his old Deptford chum and partner-in-crime ‘Wizo.’

Wiseman – was ever a man more incorrectly surnamed? - who died a few years ago in Melbourne, was, if anything, the wilder of the two. He wasn’t just called Wizo because it sounded like his name, the drug connotations were also relevant, but as far as I recall he was sober most of the time, so didn’t even have Malcolm’s excuse that he was acting under the influence.

Wizo was like a giant puppy dog, with seemingly boundless enthusiasm and a cheeky sense of humour. Like Malcolm he found, in comedy, a world where he could still be himself without having to go back to his prison ways (for a while). In the early 80s, when almost everyone involved with stand-up was a maverick, and career was something you did when you fell off the badly constructed stage, Wizo was one more ex-con who’d come along for the ride.

Alternative comedy was not built to last, as Alexei points out. Like punk, the seeds of its own destruction were purposely built into its DNA. When something incredibly new comes along and shakes up everything else around it, it’s not going to stick around. The Sex Pistols smashed up the old building, but could never have stayed around to construct it anew.

It was always clear that the comedy which emerged from the excitement of punk could not, over a period of years, be sustained purely on the visceral anger at what was being done to the country. Apart from anything else, many of the people who had been performing for several years were getting married, starting families, and finding different subjects to talk about – the kind of topics that have always been a staple of comedy and which don’t necessarily require a politicised world point of view.

Even so, a number of acts for whom politics was bound up with their comedy continued to address the issues of the moment. These acts all had many other skills – Mark Steel, Mark Thomas, Rory Bremner, Linda Smith, Mark Hurst, Jeremy Hardy and others had no trouble making audiences laugh when describing the minutiae of their own lives. But there was also an urge to keep the righteous flame burning.

By the late 1980s the London comedy scene was commercially successful. Jongleurs and The Comedy Store were pulling in hundreds of punters every week. The circuit had thrown up its first TV superstar - Harry Enfield - and plenty more were working their way through the ranks.

Off The Kerb Promotions, which managed many of the top comedy acts and had been around almost as long as alternative comedy itself, was growing too. Launched in the early eighties by the late Addison Creswell, it was by now largely comprised of political performers, though not necessarily by design. Those three Marks (Hurst, Steel and Thomas) and Skint Video were OTK’s main acts, not least because they were the most popular live performers. But Addison could see that the audience, and the circuit, were growing exponentially, and with his first serious rival promoter appearing in the shape of Avalon, he’d signed the more mainstream performers Jack Dee and Julian Clary. 

It wasn’t the arrival of these new, less polemical acts, that pissed off the political wing of Off The Kerb so much as the fact that they felt they were being overlooked. Famously, on being told that his own career was being put ‘on the back burner’, Mark Hurst said to Addison “I don’t want to be on the back burner! I want to be in the microwave like Julian!” The enclave plotted and schemed and waited for the moment when they would mount a coup, and announce the creation of ‘Stage Left Productions.’

One day Addison turned up for work, to find that his chief tour manager had exited, Stage Left – and taken more than half of his clients. Skint Video and the three Marks formed the core of the group – and any comic who was still vaguely left-wing was invited to join. Which was how I found myself, along with Jeremy Hardy, Linda Smith, John Moloney and a bunch of others, in the ranks of Britain’s first right-on comedians’ agency. And in charge of this Gang of Fourteen, that disappearing tour manager, Paul ‘Wizo’ Wiseman.

The phrase ‘larger than life’ is often used to describe people like Wizo, but he was larger than that. You’d think the man who regularly drove the likes of Mark Steel and Mark Thomas up and down the country to their gigs would struggle to get a word in amongst that garrulous crowd, but more often than not it was he who kept everyone entertained with tales of Malcolm’s schooldays, and his own prison life.

The idea that Wizo should head up an agency of several of the country’s finest stand-ups was, with the benefit of hindsight, an absolutely ridiculous one. It’s a small episode from our collective past that nonetheless illustrates well how ‘alternative’ comedy became mainstream.

Suddenly, what seemed like a great scheme at the time, had to be implemented on a boring day-to-day basis. What followed were a series of meetings – attended by all of us, of course, because we were a proper co-operative – and a feeling that we had travelled back in time to some Seventies communal house set-up. Only, instead of arguing about whose turn it was to put the bins out, or whether we should be allowed to eat meat, we looked at each other blankly and wondered what the hell was happening to our comedy careers.

In a crash course on agenting, we discovered that gigs didn’t just book themselves, someone had to actually organise publicity, and money had to be found to pay for it all. Everyone had to pitch in, so I ended up on numerous occasions in Wizo’s front room in Bromley, manning the phones and licking envelopes while his kids watched Grange Hill on the telly in the corner. This was not showbiz, but it felt pure and good.

Wizo lived in an unassuming suburban semi in an unassuming suburban street in Bromley - although I doubt if many of his neighbours could boast photographs of themselves naked, riding a motorcycle around a wall of death, hanging in their upstairs loo.

Somehow an autumn college tour was fashioned from nothing featuring Linda Smith, Andy Smart, Pierre Hollins and myself: 24 dates across the country - more like six by the time we actually went out and did it – plus our own driving, since the in-house driver had other business to deal with.

The whole enterprise was, quite naturally, doomed from the word go. As soon as some sense of order had to be imposed, it all fell apart. When things were going well Wizo was the most delightful, charming and hilarious geezer to be around. But his puppydog enthusiasm was quickly replaced by a pitbull sternness, and even the arrival of Eddie Izzard's manager, the well-organised Pete Harris, failed to stop the rot, or the steady but inevitable trickle of chastened performers back to Off The Kerb.

Looking back on the adventure we all seem a bit foolish. Wizo was the wrong man in the right place at the wrong time. It would have been a big ask for the most experienced agent, let alone a man whose sole qualification for the job was that he drove the comedians to their gigs.

Addison could hardly be blamed for wanting to take on acts who would soon become well-known TV faces and big earners for his agency. He’d been on the scene longer than anyone so could not be accused of jumping on the bandwagon.

At the time of Wizo’s death, Mark Thomas said: ‘Paul was a good bloke to have around but the worst person to choose to manage a performers’ co-op, which is what a group of us did. We put a man with a nickname of Wizo in charge of the money. Needless to say it went tits up.’

Yet wasn’t that part of the adventure? From what I remember it wasn’t Off The Kerb they were leaving so much, as the direction the circuit was heading. Nobody expected to turn back the commercial tide of stand-up, but here was a group of comics, who happened to be more politicised than the rest, keen to maintain the sense of adventure that had brought them into comedy in the first place. From that point of view, Wizo was an inspired choice of leader. Imagine what would have happened if he had pulled it off.

Because for a while, when the money was rolling in, he succeeded. Bizarrely, the move coincided with a short but stupidly lucrative period when TV was throwing money in comedy’s direction. It was around this time that British Satellite Broadcasting was launched – anyone remember the squarial? thought not - and for nine months before they got found out, they produced hours of comedy watched by audiences of up to three. That’s people, not thousands or millions.

Those programme makers loved having Wizo around, he was so entertaining. But as soon as an accountant, or at least someone with a modicum of economic sense, caught sight of the comedy drain down which BSB was pouring money, the enterprise was closed down and handed over to Sky. The money was gone, and Wizo and the rest of us were left floundering, and broke.

It sounds like a complete disaster, and it was. However there was one small positive to take from the debacle. That miniature tour with Linda, Andy and Pierre was one of the most entertaining I was ever involved in. And it persuaded Linda, who was still living in Sheffield, to move back south and really give her comedy career a go. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have come anyway, but it helped.

So for his small part in that move alone, I’ll retain my fond memory of mad Wizo.