Book Review - The History of the Comedy Store by William Cook.

A review by Tony Allen

William Cook's history of the London Comedy Store was anticipated in comedy circles with about as much interest as the line up for next Thursday's open mic slot at the Cock and Bull. The fact that the book was partly commissioned by the Store's proprietor Don Ward, and the added knowledge that Cook, despite working on the Guardian, has never been strong on muck-raking research, didn't bode well for those of us wanting to hear some new material with a bit of substance to it. The Comedy Store and the nature of its nurturing role in the birth of alternative comedy is a gritty little showbiz success story, but Cook and Ward chose not to tell it.

Don Ward's brazenly sentimental foreword is as schmaltzy as it is dubious and has all the authenticity of a dodgy dad pleading in a custody case.

Was he really the first person on that stage in May 1979? And were these really his first words and thoughts as he stood there and introduced that opening night:

"Good evening ladies and gentleman and welcome to London's Alternative night out. Before I introduce you to your compere Alexei Salye, I have an important announcement to make. Would the owner of the Sinclair C5 parked outside the club please remove it immediately as a rat is trying to drag it into a storm drain.

Thankfully the many jokes that followed over the years drew more laughs than that one! They knew straight away that I was not alternative."

In fact the word ‘alternative’ was unheard in the Comedy Store until at least a month later at the end of June'79 after the formation and tentative naming of Alternative Cabaret. It was never parlance until much later. But a far more obvious and embarrassing anachronism is the reference to the Sinclair C5, which wasn't even invented until five years later in 1984. No wonder the audience didn't laugh, Don.

To misrepresent your own personal history is to have something to hide or something to gain or both; but to misrepresent your role in the history of a comedy movement is to risk becoming a laughing stock.

The early years in the top floor of the Soho strip club with the weekly clash of comedy styles, sub-cultures and personalities, is a period that Don Ward appears more than cagey about, and that William Cook was too young to have experienced. With clearly little access to details of the early dramatic conflicts that would define his themes, the ill-served Cook follows a limited brief of writing an extended house magazine; but at 330 pages and with moody info, it cant help reading like a trudge through the dressing rooms of new lad luvviedom.

There were many clubs and venues* that welcomed and wet-nursed the fledging new comedy in the summer of 79, but only one where it had to learn to stand up and fight for its life. And for that reason alone few would dispute the Comedy Store's retrospective claim to be the rightful birthplace, but Don Ward and his original business partner in the venture, Peter Rosenguard, were far from dedicated midwives. The truth is that they opened up their novelty comedy lounge on the cheap; and it got squatted by a disparate rabble of fringe wannabes and uppity unemployed actors surfing the political zeitgeist. The real history of the early Comedy Store is a cuckoo's nest of a plot with plenty of backstage intrigue and angst; a band-wagon full of motley support; And, down stage centre, in a spotlight with a microphone, something never before seen on a British cabaret stage - glimpses of raging political anger demanding (and sometimes receiving) howls of approving laughter.

'Something for the night bus Sir? - £14.99. Little Brown and Co. '

Tony Allen January 2002

* The Albany Deptford, Alternative Cabaret at the Elgin Ladbroke Grove, The Cock Fulham, Digby Stuart Students Union Roehampton, The Factory North Paddington, The Half Moon Mile End, Krisis Kabaret at the Pinder of Wakefield Kings X, Oval House Kennington, and The Walcot Beano Bath.

See also Review of King Gong at the Comedy Store