In my early twenties, I worked as a community theatre volunteer at a centre on Blackstock Road in Finsbury Park with homeless young people. My whole life back then was spent trying to eradicate homelessness by day and going to comedy clubs by night. My friends and I would always go to the Blackstock Tavern, where I’d manage to get drunk with very little money by shamelessly chatting up old men at the bar till they bought me a pint.
It was the mid-’90s. The arty, seedy, skint side of London was our playground, and Pulp’s ‘Common People’ was our anthem. Back then, my boozing was fierce and no one I knew had money for cabs home. I relied on the kindness of friends and sometimes, strangers, to put me up. Every Wednesday, without fail, we went to the Comedy Café on Rivington Street in Shoreditch. It was two quid in and Lee Hurst from ‘They Think It’s All Over’ – the most popular comedy panel show at the time – was the host.
Lee was a comedy god back then for wannabe comics like me. The Comedy Café was a magical place where you’d see famous comics do their thing in an intimate venue. I lived for Wednesday nights. I watched the new acts die or soar, and dreamed that I’d one day get the courage to join them. I don’t know what possessed me (yes I do: booze) but one Wednesday night I targeted the teetotal Lee Hurst as my beer daddy.
‘Will you buy me a drink?’ I slurred.
‘No,’ he said.
‘I wanna do what you do,’ I slurred.
‘What? Get away from yourself?’ he said.
‘I’m only 22,’ I slurred.
‘I’m still not going to kiss you,’ he said. Then I stepped back and fell into a rail of coats.
Coats and hangers and disconnected poles all fell on top of me. I have never been able to go back to Old Street, or anywhere at all in Shoreditch, without remembering lying in the floor of the Comedy Café, looking up and seeing Lee Hurst from off the TV looking down, shaking his head and going, ‘Dear, oh dear, oh dear.’
I saw Lee a few more times early on in my career and happily he was never anything other than polite and nice. The comedy scene has changed a lot. You almost never see people fall into coat rails these days. Everyone is much more professional from the get-go. Sometimes I think that’s a bit of a shame.
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