Alternative Cabaret was a London-based collective of politically motivated performers central to the birth of Alternative Comedy in 1979.
The Roots of Alternative Comedy
During the mid-seventies I had co-written four comedy plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4. But Auntie had me in for a chat and said that Radio 2, not Radio 4 was the place for comedy. Radio 2 had me in for a chat and said that my plays were unsuitable for Radio 2 because they expressed an amoral attitude towards crime. I wouldn't write another radio script for ten years. Meanwhile I had co-written and devised several stage plays for various theatre groups but only one - for a youth project at the Royal Court - had been a good experience. In the final Rough Theatre project - the Roadshow - I had found a way to deliver bits of stand-up material from the safety of an ensemble. In the six months that followed I concentrated on assembling and writing the solo show. I believed that everything I wanted to say could now be expressed as a solo performer. It had all been leading to that gig at Oval house. That was my turning point and they'd only heard the half of it.
The day following the Oval gig Peter the Tape was round the house and four of us sat down and listened to his recording of my first public catharsis. I had very mixed feelings - embarrassed by my occasionally plodding style but proud of the passages where I'd found some energy and made it work. Within a couple of days most of my immediate gang had heard the tape and were giving me feedback. There was general consensus that the masturbation and censorship stuff was best and what's more, it had worked the best. I was told that if I was going to talk about drugs then I should get my facts straight; and also that reinforcing the stereotype of the stupid police officer wasn't going to help anybody. While I agreed and spent a lot of time chatting about the content, I never quite had the language to ask the important question - Who the fuck was I on stage? There was a sort of consensus that I was not really being myself enough. Not a lot to go on.
I had a very clear idea about what I wanted to say, but I was very surprised by who ended up saying it. There was a mischievousness about my material, that I was hardly expressing in my core stage persona and what concerned me most was when I wasn't on script I was struggling to find it. There was lots of umming and aahing and I was repeating things to fill in the gaps. If anything I'm more in the style of a didactic Woody Allen, although unlike him I am not incorporating or using any of the nervousness; I am simply being nervous. My delivery comes alive when I play the hip dissolute dude, which had less to do with me, and more to do with the Lenny Bruce baggage I'd inadvertently brought on stage with me. The 'Dig' lines were said with an energy that was often lacking elsewhere. I'd never been one of those fans who learned and repeated bits off Albums. Consequently, my problem with Lenny Bruce had more to do with hero worship than actual arbitrary plagiarism. So, although I was very familiar with his and other people's material, I wasn't about to replace their lyrics with the ones I'd forgotten. No, I was more likely to sample a word or a phrase, often an expletive that summed up the attitude I was going for. It was going to take a while to unload Lenny, for no other reason than I quite liked the decadent image. At the time I found all this very hard to admit to anyone else. I expressed the problem in my diary
"How do I stop myself repeating something that I've heard dead Lenny casually improvise on an album, fifteen years ago, in another context and on another continent? Dig?"
And more uncomfortable still,
"What minority personality is unconsciously getting himself arrested on charges of obscenity, just to emulate Lenny?"
I did try and keep it in check though - whenever I looked into a mirror I had a serious word with myself. "You are Tony Allen. You are not Lenny Bruce."
I set about re-jigging the act in the belief that I could write my way out of any problem. The 'Racism-Sexism' routine would be my opener. The Oval opening jokes were just plain silly and were only there because I wanted to kick off with something in familiar stand-up comedy mode. It wasn't necessary. I applied the same sort of writing criteria that a playwright or a novelist would use - If it neither describes character nor moves the plot along, then it's out. Hence everything in the act had to describe me or express my point of view. Everything in the act had to be serious and funny. Well, almost everything.
Born Again Christians
On the born-again Christian platforms at Speakers' Corner there's always been a lot of guilty uptight men, confessing their sins on a weekly basis. These guys look capable of murder; listening to them in passing, that's what it sounds as if they are confessing to. On closer inspection their sins are along the lines of 'taking the name of the lord in vain'. Or some other innocuous misdemeanour. This act of confession then gives them the right to condemn the sins of the rest us. Sins of the flesh are their favourites. Sex before marriage, homosexuality and masturbation being the sort of thing that will have us all burning in Hell, if we don't seek forgiveness and take sweet Jesus as our own personal saviour. The logic goes - Jesus loves everybody therefore everybody must love Jesus. I advocated cutting out the middleman.
It was against this background that I started celebrating sexuality and introducing Ladbroke Grove style sexual politics to the populace. I was also finding time to take it a bit further and hold a sort of gentle cathartic confessional of my own with a handful of listeners.
It never looked like becoming a mass movement to usurp Christianity (double figures would have been nice) but I did however, manage to generate a fair bit of meaty stand-up material talking honestly to people in small groups.
I was writing my potential stage act in a first person raconteur style, which I intended to be intimate, confessional and even shamanic. I fantasised about repeating the sort of honest personal confessions that were the stuff of the consciousness raising groups I'd been involved in. I had originally been introduced to the process in a Rough Theatre workshop several years earlier - each actor in the group was given half of a day to talk about themselves and their sexuality. The rest of the group sat there making encouraging noises and improving their listening skills. I'd had an unsuccessful marriage in my early twenties and those sessions were the first time I'd had any support to honestly explore it. It was an extraordinary experience talking through my stuff. It was also a revelation hearing about other people's emotional life, relationships and family stuff. I had subsequently joined a Men Against Sexism group and delved further.
Mutually sharing embarrassment and guilt was quietly liberating. It was comforting to know that I wasn't the only one. It seemed a whole generation of men and women with hapless uptight parents, had fumbled their way through adolescence and blundered in and out of relationships and failed to deal with any of it, until they'd got some distance and a few good experiences behind them.
My immediate anarcha-feminist milieu was into various strands of self-help therapy; it was an important way of bonding. We joked that the process would scare off police infiltrators. Like many of my local tribe, relationships were something of an obsession and when we weren't experimenting or changing sexual partners, we were talking about it and quietly catharting in small groups.
In my diary I referred to listening to someone else's catharsis as:
"Experiencing a great chunk of awkward memory dislodge itself from inside my brain and have it come splashing down into my stream of consciousness."
That's what I wanted to do on stage to an audience - re-produce that sense of disclosure, but somehow to the accompaniment of healing laughter.
My own 'first sexual experience' involved a demeaning scenario of late adolescent ineptitude - a one-night stand on holiday, in which I more or less plead with a woman to have sex with me. She eventually agrees more out of pity than anything else.
Within the sub-culture of sexual politics, there was a strain of strident feminists that had a shorthand language for what I had described - 'the petty rape syndrome'. 'Petty' because the woman had not refused to have sex. 'No means No' not being an issue. I wasn't a rapist and I didn't believe 'all men were rapists' but it opened the discussion and I had written it up as a confessional piece drawing the similarities with rape. I dovetailed it into a more familiar 'sex-pol in the bedroom' example of reluctant sex and then revealed the disturbing connection. It was a bit guilt-trippy for men, but I turned it round at the end with a tilt at the feminists too and the way that that line of thinking left men with nothing but their guilt. The routine came at the end of a long reflective routine about sex with quickly diminishing laugh lines…
"Oh go on, oh why not? You did it with him" Finally I made it with her. She said, "Go on then get it over with." My first conquest? Hmm. Hardly
I got into a similar situation a little later. You might connect with this…
"Oh look at the time. I've missed the last tube, Can I sleep here tonight."
"Look I'm very tired"
"Oh nothing like that, I'll sleep anywhere. Anywhere. You name it, in the front room, out in the hall, in the garden. Oh, you've got a double bed"
Within five minutes the conversation is going, "Now are you sure you really want to?" and she's going, "yeah, yeah!" But what she's really saying is "Go on then, get it over with."
When I made that connection. I realised why some guys are fanatically against rapists. I mean, not just against rapists: we are all or should be, against rapists. But fanatic with it -
"If I got hold of one of those rapists! I'd rip his bollocks off! What they do to women! Kill! Kill! Kill the bastards!"
Now if you hate something that much, there's something of you in there. Because you are what you hate.
Now, I have never been there, but I know, that when some psycho breaks into the Nurses Home late at night with a stocking over his head and rapes some poor soul at knife point. I bet I know what she thinks, or she says or mutters under her breath, just before it happens. She says, "Go on then, get it over with."
When I made that connection, I thought, "Shit man, you're a rapist! No, I'm not. Surely not? Shit, I am, I'm a rapist" and I'm wracked with guilt. I'm thinking, "This is not good. I've got to do something about this." "I'm a rapist, I'm a rapist". I go along to the local Men Against Sexism Group to tell them. They already know. They're all sitting there going, "I'm a rapist. I'm a rapist" The whole lot of them, all going cathartic with it.
An argument with myself about whether or not I'm a rapist is one of the few potential laugh lines in several minutes. From there I could only make it ridiculous.
I know, we'll get some whips, with bits of glass and nails in the end, right, and we'll walk down Portobello Road and we'll whip each other, and tell everybody what we've done. Get it out in the open and start afresh. That's what we'll do. We'll go on to Portobello Green and we'll have a big medieval flagellation scene, right there. Then everybody will gather round and watch - cos it's interesting, right. And maybe some of the Ladbroke Grove feminists will be there, and we will give them the whips, and then they can whip us. Then after, maybe we'll get chatting to them about stuff and maybe go down the pub for a drink and organise some sort of consciousness-raising group, and you never know, we might even get laid.