A Brief History of Alternative Cabaret


Alternative Cabaret Poster 1979
(Designed by Alexei Sayle)

Part of the British legacy of post-1968 social radicalism was an end to theatre censorship brought about by the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. This coincided with a Labour Government’s ‘Everyday life‘ approach to arts funding. As a consequence an increasingly lively and diverse sub-culture of experimental arts emerged, and in London especially, a thriving fringe theatre scene. By the mid-seventies there was a myriad of styles populated by everything from touring communes of hippie circus performers to hardline Trotskyist Agit-prop theatre troupes. There was however a unifying theme - an attempt to re-invent traditional forms of popular entertainment with contemporary and radical content. In the post-punk late seventies, with the advent of Rock Against Racism, a do-it-yourself political benefit circuit emerged offering difficult performance spots on stage in the change-over intervals between rock bands. Not exactly intimate cabaret but it’s where enterprising buskers, rappers and ranting poets - the likes of John Cooper-Clarke - first found their voice.

Meanwhile on the London fringe, venues such as Oval House Kennington, the Half Moon Whitechapel and the Albany Empire Deptford offered more likely openings for groups and solo performers as part of Brechtian style cabarets and Rock-n-Roll Pantomimes. Traditional live stand-up comedy at the time had become deeply unfashionable; the few comedians who were earning a living were more likely to be found playing stag nights supporting strippers and spouting material laced with racism and misogyny and performing to all-male drunken audiences.

In May 1979 from the premises of the Nell Gwynne strip club Soho, a late night ‘open mic’ Comedy club was launched. The Comedy Store nicked its name from an American club and its concept of an amateur talent show with a gong, from another American club, later a TV show. The Comedy Store attracted all-comers and very quickly a culture clash of both style and content was evident between the traditional (so-called ‘Mother in Law Comedians’) and an ascendent new wave bunch soon to be labelled ‘Alternative’.

Two months later Comedy Store regulars Alexei Sayle and Tony Allen formed a loose collective of performers and as Alternative Cabaret they started looking for their own regular venue. They were soon joined by comedians Jim Barclay, Andy de la Tour and Pauline Melville; plus folk duos Chisholm and Stevens, Gasmask and Hopkins, and jazz salsa band Combo Passé (led by Bill Davis). Alt Cab members were encouraged to open regular club nights under the name Alternative Cabaret in pub function rooms, student union bars and community venues around London.

An early member of the group, Milliganesque Jazzer Bob Flag, staged the first ever Alternative Cabaret gig featuring himself plus Allen, Sayle and others at the Pindar of Wakefield (now the Water Rats) in Kings Cross on Wednesday August 15th 1979. The following night Allen and Sayle launched Alternative Cabaret in the back bar of the Lord Elgin, Ladbroke Grove; both gigs were well-received. Three weeks later after another gig at the Pindar, Bob Flag announced that was he leaving because, in his own words “I’m into shit, chaos and nonsense and you lot are into something tighter.” Much as they loved his act, there was no argument.

The fortnightly session at the Elgin became the Alt Cab brand leader gig with Allen and Sayle alternating Resident and MC duties. The final night on May 1980, Allen hosted a night that included comedy sets from Arnold Brown and Andy De La Tour, Heathcote Williams - with a satirical diatribe against home secretary Willie Whitelaw, and a parody new-romantic rock band fronted by Ian Hinchcliffe. While always an adamant non-member Keith Allen was a regular guest at many Alt Cab club nights as was the actress Maggie Steed and singer-songwriter Helen Glavin.

Shortly before Alexei Sayle parted company with Alternative Cabaret and joined The Comic Strip, he shared a two week season with Tony Allen at the Edinburgh festival - Late Night Alternative at the Heriot Watt Theatre - Aug 1980. The following year, Alternative Cabaret returned to Edinburgh at the Assembly Rooms; the bill featured Tony Allen, Jim Barclay, Andy De La Tour, and Pauline Melville; it was a noted hit. Highlights of the ensuing national tour were released as an album “Alternative Cabaret” on Original records.

Having seemingly served its purpose, Alternative Cabaret then quietly disbanded and merged into what was becoming a thriving national Comedy circuit.

The name ‘Alternative Cabaret’ was first used as a place-holder until something better occurred. The word ‘Alternative’ was hardly original; it was pervasive across 70’s counter-culture or ‘The Alternative Society.’ There were information directories ‘Alternative London’ and ‘Alternative England and Wales’; and London performers were more than familiar with a production company ‘Alternative Arts’ that staged events in the streets and squatted venues of the then Covent Garden Development Area. So, when the phrase ‘Alternative Comedy’ established itself in the media as the generic term for a new approach to stand up comedy, the inevitable discussions about defining non-sexist and non-racist humour became increasingly dull and inevitably boring, especially from the mouths of earnest newbies. Something had to give. It caused more or less every working comedian in the constituency to either deny or ironically agree to being ‘Alternative’, characterised by Alexei Sayle who frequently spat out the gag - “I’m an Alternative Comedian - I’m not fucking funny!” Meanwhile The Comedy Store finally adopted the by-line, “the home of Alternative Comedy.”


Alexei Sayle at The Elgin 1979


Tony Allen at The Elgin 1979

Wikipedia articles - Alternative Cabaret and Alternative Comedy

alternativecabaret.com is currently collecting stories from performers and audience members who were there at the time. Please Contact Us with your experiences.

See Photos from the 40th Anniversary of Alternative Cabaret Gig.
15th August 2019 - The Water Rats, Kings Cross.