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Rebels With A Cause

      by Jerry Dowlen

 


 

 

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives

 

Rebels with a cause: ‘I Laughed, I Cried’ – Viv Groskop (Orion Books, 2013); ‘White Boots and Miniskirts’ – Jacky Hyams (John Blake, 2013).

 

In her first published book ‘I Laughed, I Cried’ the stand-up comedienne Viv Groskop has written a memoir of the "make or break" period in her life when she needed to get the rebel out of her system.


Married with three young children, Viv was a journalist by profession, and a BBC and Sky news broadcaster. But she was nearing the age of forty and feeling compelled to make a big decision. Could she make the grade in stand-up comedy? She resolved to put herself to the test once and for all: to hit the amateur comedy circuit and do a hundred gigs in a hundred days. A three-month blitz of leaving her house every single evening to perform at a small-time venue (in London, usually) for no fee and in front of audience numbers that barely reached double figures some nights.

Her proposed comedy marathon must have struck her family and friends as a startling and selfish thing to do, especially for her husband Simon “who was not exactly a fan of stand-up.” Every evening he would have to be house-husband and cook: and the youngest of their three children was a baby not one year old. No wonder that her friends called it: "an insane mission ... an extreme experiment ...” or, as Sandy Toksvig was to explain to Rob Cowan on BBC Radio Three in December 2013: “There are fewer female comedians than male ones because the proving ground is performing late at night in front of drunks, and most women have better things to do.”

If like me you know nothing of the mechanics of getting yourself booked for stand-up comedy slots at minor venues in London and the provinces, you'll learn from Viv that it's a grisly process. There is a long and precarious ladder to be climbed. Viv's apprenticeship took her to unglamorous places such as "a pub basement" (Gig 35, Soho) "next to the kebab shop" (Gig 42, Highbury) and "a stinking dungeon" (Gig 32, Kentish Town). Some had no stage or reserved area for the artistes; timings were chaotic; some gigs even were cancelled without notice.

 

For some of her one hundred performances Viv Groskop recorded in her diary such let-downs as "lame gig; no real audience ... an audience-free, borderline miserable night … nice crowd - well, by 'crowd' I mean ten people plus the comics.”

As early as page 9 of her humorous and informative book, we find Viv buckling under merciless cross-questioning from her friend's mother after having let slip her addiction to doing stand-up comedy. "Do they pay you?" was the inevitable first question that had felled Viv. And the more that she had tried after that to justify and rationalise her quest for stage-fame, the more unconvincing and silly and selfish she had sounded, she knew. Privately knowing that in two years of doing a few dozen gigs she had earned a grand total of £10, Viv realised that it was impossible to justify – on economic grounds at least – her holy grail of becoming a stand-up comedian.

 

But I am guessing that Viv’s book will reach out to and will maybe inspire the many readers who also have private passions and unlikely dreams that seem to be insane when analysed on a rational level. It’s easier, yes, to give in and join the herd, especially after receiving a knock-back such as “an awful gig at an unspeakable sewage venue”. Ah, but that means reluctantly kissing goodbye to the rare and precious moments that make it all worthwhile! – such as Gig 37: "I had felt my adrenaline rising as the taxi hurtled through the evening streets of north London."

'White Boots and Miniskirts' is authored by Jacky Hyams who reveals herself to have been a Swinging Sixties rebellious daughter: a dolly bird from the East End of London who went through the archetypal flat-sharing, agency temping, pubbing and clubbing scene in London's west end during the era of the aforesaid white boots and miniskirts – or Chelsea boots and kipper ties if you were a young male peacock.

Jacky was unwilling to settle down, marry and start a family in the conventional mode that was expected by her parents and the older generation. Instead, she tells us that she gained most of her ideas about life and sex by devouring 1960s magazines like Cosmopolitan "with its bold editor, Helen Gurley Brown, pushing forward daring new beliefs." Newspaper hype and other magazines such as Honey and Nova lured her to London’s exciting new clothes shops in Carnaby Street and the West End.

 

Nowadays of course in the nostalgia stakes the post-war generation of "baby-boomers" are all reaching the sort of advanced age where they have youthful memories to reminisce about. We will all likely be referencing the same sort of cultural or fashion styles and political/economical events that were fixed points when we were ‘teens and ‘twenties: for example: The Beatles; Bobby Moore lifting the World Cup for the England football team in 1966; Twiggy; miniskirts and hot-pants; Harold Wilson: Ted Heath; the unions; the IRA. 

All of those things are mentioned in Jacky's book – and with thorough attention to detail. Do you remember how in the radio quiz game 'Just a Minute' the wily Clement Freud used to hurdle the traps of hesitation and repetition by reciting lists of proper nouns? (It was a tactic that always enraged his co-panellist Wendy Richard). Likewise throughout ‘White Boots and Miniskirts' there are several lists. Trendy fashion shops, designer labels, cosmetics, fast-food brands, magazines, clubs, restaurants: list upon list of places and objects that would have featured in the life of a typical 1960s London girl-about-town.

 

Jacky’s lists include numerous nostalgic names such as Golden Egg fast food restaurants and Access, the very first credit card. She is sharp on period detail too: at her flat-share the landlord has installed a black Bakelite phone; from a restaurant menu the standby choice is prawn cocktail followed by Steak Diane ... “our food served by smiling, pert Bunnies (how can they breathe in those corsets?)" As for Cosmo magazine let’s be informed that it was a USA publication only - the UK version didn't arrive till 1972 - and that the iconic Biba shop was first at Abingdon Road, off Kensington High Street.


“There are some things in your life which you can just do if you want to.”

Viv Groskop states early in her book ‘I Laughed, I Cried’: After your mid-thirties you realise that there are some things in your life which you can just do if you want to, if no-one is stopping you."

 

However, we know from her book ‘White Boots and Miniskirts’ that Jacky Hyams started her rebellious streak at an earlier age: a teenager who left school at age sixteen and wouldn’t settle down. In 1973 a typical London night out found her with "mop of brown hair, bargain lurex leggings and silky bronze crossover top from Martha Hill's little shop in Marylebone High Street, dancing and singing along to Middle of the Road's 'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep' or Dawn's 'Knock Three Times'.”

 

Jacky Hyams is a pensioner now and can reflect on how London’s outer boroughs (she grew up in Dalston and Hackney) "having been left untouched for decades are now dramatically changed by a wave of gentrification, infrastructure and fashionable development, something that was unimaginable in the shabby, scruffy 1970s."

 

Viv Groskop is still forging her family life and career, and we leave her in mid-2013 seemingly hanging in the balance. "I have decided that I am going to do comedy for real now … The trouble is, I am not expecting to make a living out of it any time soon; that can take years."

 

Jerry Dowlen

February 2014

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 

Books Monthly is published by Paul Norman on the first day of each month. Submitting to Books Monthly: Basically, all you need do is e-mail it along and I'll consider it - it can be any length, if it's very long I'll serialise it, if it's medium-length I'll put it in as a novella, if it's a short story or a feature article it will go in as it comes. Payment is zero, I'm afraid, as I don't make any money from Books Monthly, I do it all for fun! Should you be kind enough to want to send me books to review, please contact me by e-mail and I will gladly forward you my home address. Meanwhile, here's how to contact me: paulenorman@yahoo.co.uk