London Calling, Svejk and Tragic Events – Chapter Eight of The Bernician Chronicles

Dave Johns

London Calling

Following the completions of my degree, I headed north to my parents’ house in Morpeth, knowing that London was calling me south, one way or another.

Nevertheless, just a week after leaving Leicester in July 1991, I booked a fifteen minute try-out spot, at the lovely Dave Johns’ Cheeky Chappies Comedy Cafe, on Westgate Road in Newcastle.

As it was a very warm night, the room was only half full with about a hundred drunken revelers. This included five of my mates from Hepscott, who sat in the front row.

Buoyed by the success of my one-man show, I had adapted it into a cracking short stand-up set. I’m happy to say that my mates laughed loudly all the way through, as did almost everybody else in the audience.

The ever-genial host, Dave Johns, liked my act enough to book me for a paid set the following November. My first professional booking on the ‘alternative’ comedy circuit.

Richard Morton

London Baptism of Fire

After blowing the roof off with a masterly routine, the brilliant headlining Geordie comic, Richard Morton, approached me.

Richard told me that with an act as good as mine, I needed to get myself on the London circuit as soon as possible.

The following day, I bought a copy of Time Out magazine and called every club in the comedy section that was looking for new comics.

Within a few days, I’d booked a series of thirty six gigs before the end of the year, at most of the best venues in London at the time.

As fortune would have it, another Hepscott lad from my year at school, Graham Easton, had moved to London to work for the Bank of England.

When he heard that I was planning on making the same move, he said I could crash at his new house in Thamesmead, until I found a place of my own.

Up The Creek

My first booking was on the third Sunday in August, at the inimitable Malcolm Hardee’s Up the Creek in Greenwich.

The moment I stepped out in front of around two hundred hardened south Londoners, who loudly cheered me on to the stage, I honestly believed I was going to storm the gig.

However, as I took the microphone from its stand, a drunken woman at the back shouted “You’re fucking shit! Get off the stage!” and my heart fell through the floor.

Refusing to be beaten so cheaply, I soldiered on through almost twelve minutes of constant abuse from the crowd, who nevertheless seemed to be loving every single second of it, unlike me.

John Thompson

John Thompson as Bernard Righton.

Every Comic Dies At Least Once

I reluctantly trudged off to massive cheers and applause, then disappeared backstage to get my stuff, vowing that I would never put myself through such an ordeal ever again.

In all sincerity, I thought my stand-up career was over, but in reality, I had just been taught the single most important lesson in stand-up comedy:

Every comic dies on their arse at least once.

When I got backstage, headline act, John Thompson, was getting into his Bernard Righton costume, to perform the act that won him [and Steve Coogan] the Perrier Award in Edinburgh the following year.

He immediately turned to me and said “Well done for that.” I initially thought he was taking the piss but he quickly reassured me that every new comic dies on a Sunday night at Up The Creek.

In fact, John told me that I had lasted much longer than Jerry Sadowitz, Billy Connolly and he himself did, the first time they did a gig there. So at least I was in very good company.

Establishing Myself On The London Circuit

Since I could stay at Graham’s house for as long as I needed to, I decided to give my stand-up career one more crack the following Saturday night, at a small club in south London called the Comedy Pit.

I appeared on a bill of largely new acts, including Tim Vine and Woody Bop Muddy, both of whom went on to be firm favourites on the circuit.

The gig took place in a room above a pub in Forest Hill, hosted by the promoter, Robin Banks, to an audience of no more than twenty people.

However, whilst I didn’t exactly raise the roof with laughter, I did better than every other new comic on the bill and was booked for a series of twenty minute sets at other Comedy Pit venues.

Reviewed by The Heckler and Time Out

This led to a series of absolutely blinding gigs at almost every venue I played at over the next three months. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was having a complete blast.

I was then described by a journalist from The Heckler magazine as “one to watch for the future”, along with other new comics, Rhona Cameron and Ian Stone.

In addition, before the turn of the year, Time Out comedy editor, the incredibly supportive Malcolm Hay, was describing me as a “lively new stand-up” in the weekly listings.

It therefore seemed certain that my career was about to take off before my twenty third birthday, less than six months after I completed my 3rd class degree.

Jerry Sadowitz

November To Remember

November 1991 was a particularly memorable month, when I stormed all but one of twenty two gigs, regularly appearing with many of the best comics on the circuit.

At a gig in New Cross, where my comic heroes, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, honed their classic Channel 4 show, ‘The Big Night Out’, I appeared on a bill with the only comic I had ever paid to see – the hilarious Jerry Sadowitz.

This was followed by storming gigs on bills with Kevin Day, Jeff Green, Bob Mills, Phil Jupitus, Bill Bailey [when he was in double act, The Rubber Bishops], Jenny Eclair, Donna MacPhail, Hattie Hayridge, Kevin Eldon, Ian Cognito, Pat Condell, Stewart Lee and Richard Morton.

On one such bill, there was another new comic called Eddie, who’d been performing a lot longer than I had. Backstage, he told me that he’d tried for two years to get gigs at the venues I was already playing.

Since virtually nobody knew who I was or how I got there, Eddie proclaimed that there was only one rational explanation for it:

“You are the Zelig of Stand-Up Comedy.”

Screaming Blue Murder Comedy Club

Screaming Blue Murder

One of the best gigs I had that month was at promoter Pete Harris’ Screaming Blue Murder club in Hampton Wick, where I reduced a room largely full of drunken Irish navvies, spoiling for a fight, to fits of utter hysteria.

Pete liked what I did so much that he booked me for a series of gigs the following year. One of them was a showcase for Rhona Cameron, Ian Stone and myself, following the surge in interest when the Heckler reviews came out.

I already knew that Eddie Izzard, one of the most popular comics on the circuit, was being managed by Pete. He got behind him when no other promoter in London would book him.

This was largely because of his totally unpredictable act, much of which he improvised and not every audience appreciated.

I nevertheless longed to appear on a bill supporting him and I knew that would only happen if Pete thought my act would complement Eddie’s.

Talent Spotted

At that same gig in Hampton Wick, I was talent spotted for Channel 4’s The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross, which was featuring short stand-up comedy sets by established comedians at the time.

I was offered me a four minute slot and told that I would be sent the details of the contract within a couple of days. Inevitably, that never happened because of circumstances beyond my control.

Apparently, my selection over well-established comics had not gone down well on the circuit. Especially among the throng of agents who saw their opportunity to showcase their star talent being handed to a complete unknown. So the producers removed my name from the bill.

To say I was pissed off is an understatement.

Lee Evans

My Favourite Gig

Despite being gutted by the disappointment of losing the opportunity to establish myself on national television during a prime time slot, the best gig of my career soon followed at the T&C2 on Highbury Corner, on a chilly December night in 1991.

I was extremely fortunate to have obtained the booking for a 12-15 minute set. The promoter, Joss, told me she only gave it to me because Pete Harris had booked me for a run of gigs at Screaming Blue Murder.

When I turned up at the venue at 7 pm, I was told that I was to going to warm up for the headline act, the incredible, Lee Evans. Lee would be performing the set that won him the Perrier Award the following August.

Blast From The Past

As I stood in the empty, cavernous club, contemplating how many pints I could afford to have before going on stage, a large group of people entered and joined me at the bar to order some drinks.

After a few seconds, I heard a voice I recognized from KEVI:

“Is that Michael Waugh?”

I turned round to see a girl from the year above, who played a supporting tole in the school production of ‘Grease’.

Then I head another voice I recognized say:

“Bloody hell, it is Woffy.

It was the voice of her boyfriend, Peter Foreman, whom she had been dating since school.

Peter had seen my performance on the final night of the play, after which he told me he had laughed so hard he was certain I was destined to be a famous comic on day.

Understandably, Peter almost freaked out with excitement when he found out that I was already on the bill at such a prestigious comedy club, which just so happened to be a couple of miles from where they lived in north London.

When I told him that I was warming up the second half for Lee Evans, his jaw hit the floor, as Lee was who they had come to see.

As if that wasn’t enough extra pressure, Guy and his girlfriend, Jo, with whom we had spent three years on the drama course in Leicester, turned up when I was ordering my third pint of Holsten Pils.

Drunk As A Skunk

By the time I left them at the bar to go and get changed, I’d sunk another five pints with Guy and I couldn’t even remember how I was planning to open my act.

When I got backstage, after making my way through a club that was packed to the rafters, with almost three hundred people who had seen some top comedy in the first half, Lee Evans was already there.

There was something really humble about Lee. The way he wished me the best of luck for my gig felt genuine, rather than just going through the motions of wishing another comic luck.

So I thanked him for it as I made my way on to the stage, after being introduced by the very funny compere, Jeff Green.

Surfing The Waves

During the next seventeen minutes, two longer than I was booked for, I blew the roof off the T&C2.

Every gag got a huge laugh, despite the fact that I was stonkingly drunk and couldn’t really remember any of my normal set.

When I walked off, the crowd were screaming for more, which is exactly where I left them for Lee.

As I passed him on his way to the mic, Lee asked me to hang around till the end of his gig because he really wanted to talk to me about my act.

I then watched him from backstage, as he energetically demonstrated just how much hilarity an audience can take in one evening. In simple terms, if I blew the roof off, he sent it into hyperspace.

After forty five minutes of sheer comic genius, he left the stage to rapturous cheers and applause, his grey suit lathered in the sweat of a boxer, who’s just done fifteen rounds.

While he changed into an identical grey suit, he said things to me which made the disappointment of losing the Jonathan Ross gig crumble to dust.

Lee told me that he could not have taken the audience anywhere near as high as he did, were it not for me:

“You took them to that special place, where they laugh uncontrollably at every joke you tell them.”

 He then declared with almost unfathomable humility:

“All I did was go surfing on the waves you caused. Thank you for that because you made my job easy. There’s no doubt you’re going places with your act.”

I left the gig smiling from ear to ear and wishing Lee Evans every success that comes to him.

Goldfinch Road, Thamesmead

A Room With A Prison View

Having firmly established myself on the London comedy circuit, within just a few months of starting, I set about looking for somewhere permanent to live.

In December 1991, I acquired a four bedroom town house, round the corner from where I staying with Graham Easton. However, unlike his, the house boasted stunning views of Belmarsh Prison.

Graham had tipped me off a few weeks previously, that I could buy it at a bargain price of £66,000 if I acted quickly, before it was listed on the market.

Since Graham had already established himself at the Bank of England, he was able to arrange a meeting with one of his friends, who worked for the Leeds & Holbeck Building Society in Woolwich, a couple of miles from the house.

As per Graham’s instructions, I agreed to the terms of a 100% mortgage and signed the deed in front of the broker, with no other witness present, save for my Dad.

My oldest friend, Chris Mitford, who was working as a conveyancing solicitor at the time, also agreed to perform the legals for gratis.

This meant that I had effectively bought my first house, with no financial outlay. More importantly, I had a London base, from which I could build my career. It was also a long term investment in my future.

Unexpected Turn

My life then took another unexpected turn, after I met, fell in love with and got engaged to a student nurse, whom I will call CC to protect her privacy. 

CC was very pretty, intelligent and funny, but at four years my junior, she wasn’t ready to get married to a professional comic who lived in London.

Since CC was training to be a nurse at Stockton General Hospital, I spent the next five months commuting between London and Stockton and continued my run of fantastic London gigs.

However, I had been spending so much time with CC that I had neglected getting on the phone to book more gigs, which, as every professional comic knows, leads to weeks or even months without one.

Nevertheless, by the time I got the train back to Le Mans for Euro-Theatre 1992, four months of constant gigging had already taken its toll on my relationship with CC.

The twenty three days of May I was due to spend performing The Good Soldier Svejk in Le Mans, on the outskirts of Paris and in the Czech National Theatre in Prague, were never going to make things any easier.

Eddie Izzard

Supporting Eddie Izzard

Just before heading to Le Mans, I was booked for a fifteen minute set at a club called The Egg Shop in south west London.

When I checked Time Out during the week of the gig to see who else was on the bill, I was thrilled to see that the only other comic listed was Eddie Izzard.

Upon my arrival at the venue, the promoter told me that he had booked me to warm up for Eddie, after a glowing recommendation from Pete Harris at Screaming Blue Murder.

When I took the stage at the packed club, I couldn’t tell whether Eddie had arrived but it was obvious that everybody was very excited about seeing his new set.

Knowing that Eddie had a reputation for not liking it when the support act blows the roof off, I warmed up the crowd nicely, without making them laugh so much they needed a break before he came on.

Flawed Genius

The following forty minutes were filled with Eddie’s now famous ‘Le Sage est dans l’arbre’ routine, which he was performing for the first time.

It was truly extraordinary to see it unfold and the audience absolutely loved every minute of it, as did I.

However, when I approached him afterwards to pay my tribute to his masterly performance, his head was so far up his own arsehole that even a basic conversation was impossible.

Some people would say that’s the price of genius, but having witnessed the genius and humility of Lee Evans, I already knew that the two are not mutually exclusive.

The Good Soldier Svejk

The Good Soldier Svejk

My adaptation of Hasek‘s classic anti-war polemic was a minimalist three hander. I was playing Svejk, with Guy and Jon Finlay [who was on our degree course at Leicester] playing seven roles each.

I wrote it in long hand with a Biro and didn’t even bother to proof read it before I handed photocopies to Guy and Jon, just before we set off for Northern France.

After arriving in Le Mans and checking into a very comfortable hotel, we visited the theatre where we would be performing for the next ten days. 

Later that night, during a splendid dinner with my Czech friend, Jaromir, Guy told me he was certain that Jaromir truly believed I was the living embodiment of the famous character I was playing.

Since Svejk is one of the national treasures of the Czech nation, the pressure was on for us to deliver the goods.

The Good Soldier Svejk

Another Theatrical Success

Despite being more like a dress rehearsal, the first performance, in front of an audience of around thirty people, went down much better than we expected.

Afterwards, in the bar, Jaromir walked over to me with a big smile on his face and said:

“What did I tell you, Michael? Everybody thinks the same as me. You are Sveijk.”

We all breathed a huge sigh of relief.

From our second performance, we were starting to find a natural rhythm and the theatre was full every night.

Such was the enthusiasm to see our unique adaptation of a book which had never previously been successfully adapted for the stage.

Czech Bear Hugs

On the night of the fifth performance, a seasoned veteran of Czech literature and a respected theatre critic, traveled all the way from the Czech Republic to see the show.

In the bar afterwards, without even introducing himself, he bear hugged me, looked me in the eye and said:

“I saw the adaptation by Berthold Brecht and two others by playwrights who are unknown to the English-speaking world. None of them worked. In fact, they were all very bad and nobody talks of them any more.

That is why I traveled so far to see your adaptation, which is exactly what the others were not. You showed us the real Svejk tonight in the theatre; and I for one love you for it because you understand him and the story so well. Thank you.”

He then kissed me forcefully on both cheeks and ordered two bottles of Czech beer for us from the bar.

As we drank a toast to Jaroslav Hasek, I noticed Guy and Jon talking to Jaromir, who was smiling from ear to ear, as they sipped glasses of pink champagne.

Everything appeared to be going exactly according to plan.

Trouble At Home

Given the success of the show, as I looked for a phone box outside the theatre to phone CC, I knew that I needed to focus more on my creative writing and directing.

So I told myself I had to make a serious decision about whether or not I was going to continue doing stand-up full time. Especially when I only had a few gigs booked for the rest of the summer.

However, when CC answered the phone, I knew from the tone of her voice I had a huge problem on my hands.

In a nutshell, she told me she was pregnant and asked me to get back to the north east as quick as I could. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be responsible for her actions. I didn’t even hesitate to tell her I would do what she asked.

What this decision led to was a year in which we shared the trauma of unexpected tragedy, when we were supposed to be building a new life together.

Tout Le Monde Ou Rien

After another terrific run in Le Mans and a truly electrifying performance on the outskirts of Paris, at the end of which we received seven standing ovations, I reluctantly cancelled the Czech leg of the tour.

I did this solely because I was desperate to return home before CC aborted our child, as I truly believed she would do if I went to Prague.

However, it must be said that by doing so I broke Jaromir’s heart and seriously pissed off Guy and Jon, who were both having the time of their lives.

Following my tense departure, the three sat in a bar drowning their sorrows for several hours. At the end of the very boozy night, Jaromir declared, with drunken tears in his glinting blue eyes:

“Tout le monde, ou rien.”

Guy looked at him, smiling wistfully, and asked what he was talking about. To which he replied:

“Michael will have all the world or nothing.”

Tragedy Strikes

Shortly after my return to CC’s flat in Stockton, it became apparent that she had a very early miscarriage. Although, at the time, we both thought she had just skipped the previous month’s period.

Less than a year later, I had given up my ever-so-promising stand-up career [at least, temporarily] and started teaching drama at Newcastle College, where Ant and Dec, as well as Ross Noble, were studying at the time.

Despite enjoying the six months I spent there, our lives were shattered in April 1993, when CC’s mother was killed in a high speed collision, on the A1 in Northumberland.

It’s fair to say that CC had no choice but to try to fill the void left in her ten year old brother Michael’s life, as well as help her near-broken Dad recover from his utter devastation.

At just twenty years old, it was too heavy a burden for our relationship to survive and we inevitably called off our engagement in the spring of 1994, when we said a teary goodbye.

In truth, I had no choice but to move back to London, but I hadn’t done any stand-up in almost two years, so I decided that this was my opportunity to develop my playwrighting and directing skills. 

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