A nice find from Russell Thompson.
I was a teenage Mike Harding fan. I realise that, as a youth-culture claim, it’s not quite up there with ‘I saw The Clash on the White Riot Tour’. But it is nonetheless true: my parents had his records, and we all went to see him whenever he played in Chelmsford (which was surprisingly often).
The history of 1970s comedy, like that of 1970s music, has been grossly oversimplified. It was more than just a bunch of politically incorrect men with bowties, frilly shirtfronts and outrageous sideburns. One strand that tends to get forgotten, possibly because it has no obvious legacy, is the influence of the folk clubs. But a number of people – Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott et al – did pretty well out of it. As did Harding himself: his TV show ran for no fewer than six series in a prime-time BBC2 slot at the tail-end of the ’70s.
In several cases, the folk-club comics were simply musicians whose inter-song patter had taken over their act. But Harding never dropped the songs (he was the first person I heard singing ‘Dirty Old Town’ or ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’), interspersing them with jokes and daft stories – usually about budgies. And, as Mark Miwurdz has pointed out elsewhere on SUS, he also threw in funny poems. ‘Napoleon’s Retreat from Wigan’ was a particular favourite. Whilst my classmates were memorising the entire screenplay of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, I was getting off on such quatrains as ‘Us’ll run through Wigan like a dose of Andrews / We’ll make ’em tremble an’ quake / We’ll loot an’ we’ll pillage – an’ pinch things as well / An’ we’ll smash all t’ eccles cakes.’ Ah – gags about Andrews Liver Salts: those were the days.
Harding also published books, consisting of the same assortment of material as his stage act. One of his later volumes, ‘When the Martians Land in Huddersfield’ (1984), included a page by a fictitious ‘punk poet’ called ‘John Clarke’. Hmm – whoever could that have been based on? In fact, it’s such an obvious dig at JCC – just look at that cartoon – that you wonder if they had some sort of history. Had they crossed paths on the Mancunian working-men’s-club circuit and had a tiff, perhaps?
Whilst Harding was usually above such cheap shots – and this piece certainly isn’t his finest hour – it was interesting to see that someone in the mainstream was at least vaguely aware of ‘punk poetry’. In fact, you can almost hear that line about the ‘slick, sick, sleazy jangle’ in the Bard of Salford’s own voice.
A postscript: until 2012, Mike Harding fronted BBC radio’s principal folk ‘n’ roots programme. After his contract was terminated, he continued it as a podcast. And, on 5 October 2014, the playlist included ‘Trains’ by John Cooper Clarke. Ah – bless. All friends now, then…