RIP Jeremy Hardy: funny and political, a clown and a commentator, all at once.


Source: The Independent

It was impossible to meet him for an hour without absorbing his compassion, intellect and humanity… or without collapsing into hysterical giggling.

Jeremy Hardy was brought up, he always said, in the “lower middle class in Hampshire”. To explain what this meant, he said at school he was jealous of the working-class kids, because they would get birthday presents such as a bike. But on his birthday “my dad would come into my room and say, ‘As it’s your birthday I have bought you a fountain pen, in order that you may keep a diary, like Sir Samuel Pepys. Enjoy the rest of the day’.”

Jeremy travelled a few miles from his native Farnham to study politics at university in Southampton, and upon leaving began writing for the BBC Radio 4 sketch show Week Ending, in 1983. He often explained that despite this, he did have experience of manual labour, having spent one day as a car park attendant.

Two trends drifted within his orbit, to shape the rest of his life. A “cabaret” circuit developed, firstly around London, in which comics would perform their own material, usually on a bill with jugglers, magicians and acts of a truly bewildering nature.

At the same time a largely youthful campaigning culture grew, in opposition to the values of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Jeremy briefly joined the Labour Party, and remained active in the movements of that time, such as those in opposition to apartheid, and supporting the miners’ strike.

Jeremy made an immediate impact on the new comedy scene, partly because his jokes were so crisply crafted. He was a vegetarian, he said “because meat is murder, though I see fish as justifiable homicide”.

More importantly he looked so at ease on stage. Wearing a cardigan and acting out his “lower middle class” upbringing, he was instantly comfortable, even at venues such as the notorious Tunnel Club in Bermondsey, where acts were regularly sent on their way under a barrage of flying bottles.

Jeremy always succeeded at the most chaotic of clubs with the roughest of crowds, maybe because he never looked down on any part of them.

In 1986 he was offered his first regular TV slot, as a boom operator offering wistful opinions on And Now, Something Else, with Rory Bremner.

This made him a star booking for some comedy clubs, but he shortly made the decision to stop performing at the clubs, despite the guaranteed audience and income, and instead perform his own show. Now he had space to craft the most eloquent of rants on every issue, no matter how trivial, no matter how profound.

About middle-class parents he said: “They give their kids names like ‘Hosepipe’ and ‘Ottawa’, and say ‘their problem is they’re so bright, that’s why they get such low marks at school, because they’re bored, and they’re not getting stretched because of the other children, that’s why they set fire to them’.”

In 1988 he won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival, and three years later he was voted top comedy club performer at the British Comedy Awards.

This growing popularity and prestige took place as he followed an unorthodox route for someone acquiring fame. Instead of networking with influential agents and producers, he became a key figure in campaigns for prisoners who had been wrongly convicted, such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six.

Many performers take part in fundraising benefits for causes and charities, but Jeremy would consult lawyers, assist and befriend the wrongly imprisoned, and coordinate the routine of a campaign. He became a patron of Medical Aid for Palestine, and helped several organisations for refugees. It is fitting that he adopted his daughter Betty from a Romanian orphanage, and first met his wife Katie while making a film about Palestine.

In the 1990s he became a regular guest on Radio 4’s Newsquiz, on which his genial, mischievous, charming vitriol became the highlight of the show.

Impersonating the modern “world” traveller, he said: “We found this wonderful little place off the beaten track, not in any guidebook, a fantastic village that only appears every two hundred years. Lovely people, tiny, no bigger than your thumb, poor but unhappy. We were invited into someone’s house and they spoke no English and we ate their hallucinogenic insects and had sex with them and stayed for 10 years and it all came to £10 a head.”

It is often asked if comedians are the same off-stage as on-stage, and in Jeremy’s case he was, but more so. He displayed an outrageous sense of mischief that would confound the modern habit of declaring a joke “offensive” by taking it out of context.

At the memorial for his close friend Linda Smith, a fairly pompous celebrant asked us each to take a flower, and “cast it into the sea, taking the moment, as we do so, to pause, and – think of Linda”. To this, Jeremy said: “Thanks for that advice, as I was going to take that moment to think of General Franco.”

In his forties, Jeremy became a regular guest on I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue, that displayed him at his most impish, and he acquired a cult following for his compellingly diabolical singing. In particular, his attempt to sing the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”, to the tune of “When I’m Cleaning Windows”, in a George Formby voice was gloriously ridiculous.

But he loved the standup above all else. He told me several times: “When I’m alone, backstage, in the moments before doing my own show, I feel I truly am me.” And he consistently attracted large audiences, over a 30-year period, despite hardly ever being on television.

Those on the right, who rejected him because of his political stance, misunderstood him in the same way as those on the left who admired him because of his political stance.

Maybe his appeal was that he represented a humble riposte to pomposity. Wherever that pomposity came from, he would sever it mercilessly. He wasn’t funny, then political, then funny again. He was funny and political, a clown and a commentator, all at once.

And this made him, for those of us lucky enough to know him, the most amazing friend, because it was impossible to meet him for an hour without absorbing his compassion, intellect and humanity, but above all it was impossible to meet him for an hour without collapsing into hysterical giggling.

Three days ago, clinging to the last gasps of life, he contemplated appearing at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, where he regularly attracts crowds of thousands. “I could do it”, he said, “But I’d be like Stephen Hawking, only not as funny.”

The outrage of his death at the age of 57, is that the world has been robbed of decades of wonderful jokes. And millions of people, whether they knew him personally or as a figure in a cardigan in front of a microphone, have lost a wonderful friend.

Ubiquitous political activism

In the words of journalist Alex Macdonald, “The death of Jeremy Hardy marks the passing of one of the few genuinely funny and radical comedians (Middle East Eye 1 February 2019). He was ubiquitous on demonstrations against war, austerity, and in support of striking workers.”

One of his greatest political passions was Palestine, and in 2003 he was the subject of a documentary,  Jeremy Hardy vs the Israeli Army, in which he travelled to the West Bank as part of the International Solidarity Movement to be a human shield.

Jeremy Hardy and Tony Blair

Jeremy Hardy said of of Tony Blair, when interviewed by Middle East Eye, at the 2016 demonstration marking the release of the Chilcot report into the Iraq War: “I think he’s insane, I think he’s a fanatic, I think he’s a narcissist.”

Jeremy Hardy and Boris Johnson

In September 2016, Jeremy Hardy compered the launch of a book by his close friend, the poet and actor Heathcote Williams, titled Brexit Boris: From Mayor to Nightmare. “He hates Boris Johnson in a way that everyone should,” said Jeremy. “It’s prose, but it could only have been written by a poet, and it would utterly destroy Boris Johnson, if he had the attention span to read more than a couple of paragraphs.”

Jeremy Corbyn on the death of his friend Jeremy Hardy

“Jeremy Hardy was a dear, lifelong friend. He always gave his all for everyone else and the campaigns for social justice. You made us all smile. You made us all think. Rest in peace, Jeremy.”


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