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Hardee perennial

When it comes to venues for a great night out, Greenwich is no slouch. We have a closer look at one of the quirkiest

As you walk down Creek Road from Greenwich towards Deptford, you’ll be aware of a strange-looking building on your left decorated with plaster models – a woman gazing out of an open window, a pensive reader on a suspended loo. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the legendary Up The Creek  comedy club, and its owner and director is Andrew Tearle, now in his mid-late 60s. Originally a developer, Tearle bought the building over 24 years ago as an investment – just as the market slumped. “Fascinating property. It had been a snooker hall, and in the 19th century it was a seaman’s mission. But having bought it, we were stuck.” Then Tearle got the call from Malcolm Hardee, one of the most anarchic comics on the emergent alternative circuit. “He said, I can’t afford to buy the place, but I can tell you what we could turn it into…” 

A short word about Hardee. Born in Lewisham in 1950, he was the last of three generations of Thames lightermen, but to call him a wild card would be an understatement. At school he got into petty crime, graduating to cheque fraud, burglary and car theft, more for the hell of it than the rewards – the proceeds of one bungled heist were four ham sandwiches. Having spent much of the 1970s in prison, Hardee decided to go straight, observing: “Prison is like mime or juggling – a tragic waste of time.”

Together with comic Martin Soan, he formed The Greatest Show on Legs, an expletive-ridden Punch and Judy act, then switched to sketches, notably the naked balloon dance. They played the Woolwich Tramshed, the Comedy Store in Soho, then in 1984, Hardee opened the notorious Tunnel Club in Rotherhithe. A wild bear pit of a comedy club, it had a fearsome reputation as a graveyard for aspiring stand-ups. When it closed in 1988, Hardee was at a loose end – until he and Tearle started Up the Creek: “the Tunnel with A levels”. “It got that nickname because after a while the heckling got less vicious,” says Tearle. “Though in the early days it was like World War III, bottles chucked onstage, mayhem. Now it’s considerably more civilised.” It probably didn’t help that Hardee compered in his own inimitable way, doing an unnervingly accurate impression of General de Gaulle with a pair of spectacles balanced on his genitalia. Clearly not a part of the act Tearle misses. “Hmm, yes,” he sniffs. “Not very nice for somebody taking their mum and dad out for the night.”

But at heart, Hardee was an amiable rogue, and a gifted talent spotter. Household names who got their start at the Tunnel or Creek include Jo Brand, Harry Hill, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield, Paul Merton, Jimmy Carr and Reeves and Mortimer. Hardee was a pioneer of UK stand-up, and he was proud of that – a mural he commissioned for Up the Creek’s bar parodies da Vinci’s Last Supper, with Hardee as Jesus Christ and his comic chums as disciples (Billy Connolly, French and Saunders, Ben Elton as Judas Iscariot…) Hardee had left to run a floating pub by the time of his death (by drowning, in charge of a rowing boat while drunk). But his larger-than-life spirit lives on at Up the Creek, one of the top clubs in the UK, described as the place comedy acts most like to play. Dark and charmingly seedy within, it’s never had to advertise, has an open-mic night booked a month in advance, a soul/funk night and a speed-dating evening. But it’s the comedy they come for. Tearle: “We had a benefit night a few years ago, and Jimmy Carr did a set. I said, ‘Thanks for turning up.’ And he said, ‘I’d always play this place. It’s where I started. I’ve got a soft spot for it.’” He’s not alone.

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