NME 28th August, 1982
This week only! The New Music Hall Express lets rip on ‘The Art Of The Comic Monologue’, sifts through the lineage of Frank Randle and Stanley Holloway and finds . . . David Stockell, a comic genius.
Great comedy, like the greatest music, is spat out by the bitter, the frustrated, the angry, the passionate…the hopeful and the desperate – not by the rosy cheeked contented, the idol rich.
Look behind the greatest gag and you find a painful desperation. Sickness, both physical and economic, spawns a wicked humour.
Little Brother has that sadness in his eyes, that wicked humour seamed through his act. Originally conceived as a vehicle for the terminally paranoid, a stand-up wimp, the act has developed, growing beyond comic confines, enabling the character to comment more easily on all that sadness, all the madness in the world.
The original device (the paranoid innocent) would have restricted Little Brother’s subject matter, imposed limitations on his humour and, in presenting a pathetic character, probably fed an audience’s fears and prejudices instead of exploding them. Now he comes at his audience from all sides.
Little Brother, like the sharpest comics, deals with truth – a fragile commodity. He writes about mums and dads and kids, the school and the factory, the people who run our lives and the people who live them. He is a poet in the great tradition of the Northern club comedian.
“Put your hands together for…”
Little Brother is David Stockell, all the way from Bradford. I don’t know how young he is (21? 45?) but it doesn’t matter. Given his talent, and the medium he has chosen to work in, there’s no time limit for success, no threat of early artistic redundancy – he has only to wait.
He started to write in the ’60s, “… when I was nine. I’d been writing poetry since I were a kid and I’d also been writing comedy sketches but I s’pose the first time I thought about performance was after ’76. Me and SWells wrote some lyrics together and started this band called The Luddites…”
Bradford’s cool entertainer on guitar and long-time friend and sex poet Seething Wells on wayward bass…
“Aye. Actually we never got off the ground. I started doing stuff on me own and got to support The Clash and The Gang Of Four and the SWells realised, Eh, it’s an easy way f getting famous is this, so we started working together separately like. And now he’s got famous.”
But you got to play with The Clash.
“Cos Kosmo Vinyl was doing ’em in them days and he recognised me as the little skinhead who’d been put through the window by a bouncer for being drunk ‘n’ disorderly and suchlike when the Stiff tour played Leeds University.”
A bouncer threw you through the window?
“Well, some big glass doors. It was bonfire night and he was dressed as a cowboy… anyway, Kosmo Vinyl came up to me at George’s Hall (Bradford) and asked what I was doing with meself now. I said I was reading poetry and he said to come along to the next Clash gig and do it there. So I did… and got cans thrown at me.”
What sort of poems were you writing then?
“Crap ones, basically.”
Showbizz might seem like a dangerous trade when your first taste of success is a Worthington E can between the teeth but it beats living in Leeds and working for the Royal Ordinance factory or living in York and working in Rowntrees.
David Stockell lived in Holmwood, Bradford, the only punk on an estate more interested (like a hundred others) in Tetleys and Paper Lace. In between signing on to collect benefit and taking the necessary non-unionised duff jobs to avoid having it cut off, he worked as a busman – two years on the buses and still he doesn’t know which one takes him home.
“Yeah, but I used to tek people from the infirmary to the cemetery. That was my route. Bundle of laffs.”
At the end of two years he’d got the sack and chronic varicose veins. Not that either unemployment or illness are new to him. Whilst on the dole he’d had shingles, a kidney disorder, pneumonia, sinuses, suffered heavily from flu and managed to get tonsillitis three times in one year.
The pain behind comedy isn’t only rooted in the audience’s neuroses, it’s often rooted in the comic’s own life (Formby suffered all his life from chronic asthma – and died from it). Just as humour preys on anxieties, so it germinates in them, a reflex counter-attack, an outlet for back-comment and observation.
Little Brother’s poems are bitterly observed. The beauty is that the harshness of his subject matter clashes sharply with his slick performance, a dialectic that makes for brash entertainment not dour, painful poetry.
“I don’t regard much of what I do as ‘poetry’. I do write write stuff which is poetry but I don’t do it onstage. Only occasionally.
“That said, there’s a lot of stuff you can get away with in poem form which sounds funny because it rhymes and there’s ideas you couldn’t possibly put across in a straight comedy act – which is why I’m not a stand-up comic. Plus there’s too many stand-up comics around at the moment… I did start with comedy but it’s a lot harder being a comic than being a poet.”
The poet can always skive off and get serious; the stand-up is a slave to laughter.
Little Brother is a hybrid but not a rare one. His technique is rooted in the Music Hall tradition of the comic monologue. This delivery is a clever trail of rhyme and sub-rhyme, catch phrases, repetition and alliteration – the comic form that broke Stanley Holloway, amongst others. There are certainly similarities between Holloway’s Northern monologues and pieces by Little Brother such as ‘Mr Robinson Cheats Death’ or ‘Sweet Revenge (A Victorian Marsh-Melodrama)’.
“I just started writing that way, I wanted to write stories in that form – it wasn’t a conscious decision to do ‘Mr Robinson’ or the others in the style of the comic monologue. The reason it comes out as a Northern monologue is ‘cos it’s the way I talk anyway.”
He did once rewrite ‘Albert And The Lion’ (a Holloway monologue about a youngster who gets swallowed by a lion at the zoo), adapting it to press reports of the two zoo keepers who were eaten by “society chap” John Aspinall’s pet tigers.
“With ‘big cats eating people’ fitting the original piece, and not liking the bloke, I wrote my version of the story in the style of ‘Albert’. If there’s stories in the news I’ll often do about ’em and let Little Brother use it for a couple of weeks in the act.”
Holloway, too, had an ‘alter-ego’ (though an occasional one) in Sam Small, a character taken from his most famous monologue ‘Sam Sam, Pick Up Tha’ Musket’. Holloway, however, generally shied away from the ‘social/political’ satirical monologues, using Sam Small as an incidental wacky diversion. David Stockell uses Little Brother far more adventurously.
Little Brother’s aggressive comic intellect courses through his whole performance. The character is more total, a full-time bitter mockery that is closer to the work of that supreme clown, Grock (the shaven-headed creation of Adrien Weetach, another genius son of another Swiss watchmaker.) One moment Little Brother will draw pity as the pathetic figure in, say, ‘Brown Envelopes’… and then suddenly, like Grock, he attacks and snaps back.
His act at its vibrant best has brilliant speed and rhythm, 20 minutes, maybe more, of electric, polished delivery. A Little Brother gig like the last one I saw, at Brixton’s New Variety, showed David Stockell as a master of timing.
“I’m getting better at timing but me material’s only just ripe. SWells and Joolz getting attention has forced me hand – I think what I’m doing’s good but I’d rather it had more time to fester and develop ‘cos I’m a perfectionist. At the moment I’m going back and rewriting everything: I want to get it perfect before I break.”
Little Brother has already received attention from television (he appeared in the last series of the Oxford Road Show, was recently filmed for American TV and now looks set for a spot on BBC’s Arena) bu most of his work has come from the rock circuit and, accordingly, a Little Brother/Seething Wells single will be released shortly on the rADical wallpaper label.
In truth, Little Brother isn’t suited to the cavernous halls and cold, vinyl portraits of the rock ‘n’ roll arena. It’s in the clubs that his performance shines. Sadly, the clubs that once showcased quality comedians like Sandy Powell no longer exist but there is a comparable circuit, now stale and crassly conservative, waiting to be shaken up and sparked once more.
“The thing is, I am a product of the rock circuit so I’d like to carry on working there as well as clubs and the problem is, you can’t just turn up at clubs like you can at rock gigs – you’ve got to have an agent. It’s a real cut-throat business.
“I’ve done quite a few clubs. I got in touch with a couple of showbands, like Radiation from Sheffield and the Psyche Clones from Rochdale, who cover Madness and Gary Numan, and they offered me a load of dates at WMCs arounf Yorkshire. And Keighley Funhouse asked us to do the CB night – when all the CB blokes bring their wives – but I’d have to rewrite a lot of stuff or I’d get floored.
“As long as you tell jokes about everyone wanting sex all the time and with women with big knockers, you’re alright. But do a poem about contraception and it’s: ‘Don’t you talk about contraception or none of that muck in front of my wife – stitch that!'”
In a small club his act gels and drrrives – fast, hard patter splattered with mimic detail and vocal tricks, a rush of gestures and sound FX that never lets you know when one poem’s ended and the next’s begun – but where does he go once he’s played all the WMCs in Yorkshire? How does he cap that?
“I could use the character of Little Brother and do other things apart from poetry. Like we were going to do a radio programme for Pennine. . . Mark My Words (a Sheffield poet) has got a weekly spot on Radio Hallam and does a character called Damien Napier, an alternative comedian – he goes into the studio, sits down and takes the piss. . . Great.”
David Stockell is maybe too quiet, not arrogant or forceful enough to take on radio, television, life beyond the WMC fringe. . . But Little Brother is hard. If Pinter’s the Writer, Red Skelton the Mime-artist and Frank Randle The Comedian – then Little Brother is the Poet.
“You have been watching. . .”
Little Brother is a serious proposition. To paraphrase Trevor Griffith’s Eddie Waters, he works through laughter, not for it.
He is a brutal humour, a humour that says we live lives controlled by other people.
“It’s because of this ‘ere Magna Charta
As were signed by the barons of old
That in England today we can do what we like
. . .So long as we do what we’re told”.
– Stanley Holloway
Holloway said that during his monologues he used to think of hospital operations and funerals, poverty and fascism – the pain that fires the comic?
Mebbe Cannon & Ball’s act went sour the day they stopped thinking about the dole queues back home. For the moment, anyway, David Stockell’s humour is still ALIVE. For the moment, he is a truly impressive, a pro, a man with ferocious style.
No quote, David Stockell is quietly brilliant. He doesn’t have to cover vacancy, like too many pop starlets, behind gold lame jackets and nervous verbosity.
David Stockell suspects Little Brother is good – I know they’re a winning team.
Goodnight and God bless.
(Apologies to Gethin Price for having to say it all again)