In A Summer in the Park, seminal alternative comedian Tony Allen gives a lively account of what happened when he received a modest Year of the Artist grant to be an ' Advocate Heckler' at Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park. Allen, a Speakers' Corner regular for decades, put in the application partly in the spirit of a prank, offering to ' put questions to other speakers on behalf of audience members who have found the bigger, rowdier meetings too intimidating to speak up for themselves.'
This is very different from Allen' s last book, Attitude: Wanna Make Something Of It, which used an appealingly scrappy structure to put across a surprisingly coherent body of theory about stand-up comedy and other similar forms of presentational performance. A Summer in the Park is structured more coherently, being largely made up of a journal of Allen' s Speakers' Corner experiences in the summer of 2000, presented in chronological order.
It' s a very entertaining read, and uncovers a thriving subculture largely ignored by academics and journalists. Allen introduces us to a lively cast of characters like Bob Doom (the ever cheerful soul who wears a sandwich board with the message ' It' s Going to Get Worse' ), St Paul (who spends most of his time not speaking, but standing on a milk crate in silence), and the wonderfully named Surreal Ali. Then there are the colourful groups who are there trying to win converts, from the Nation of Islam to the Hyde Park Gays; from the Socialist Party of Great Britain to the Christian Atheists. The life of Speakers' Corner is documented not only in the journal entries, but also in the introduction which provides a whistle stop history of the place, and in the numerous photos, some of which date back to the late 1970s.
There is a kind of theoretical thinking at work as Allen chronicles his own efforts to get back into public speaking, but the theory is less overt than in Attitude. However, reading between the lines of the journal, he has plenty to say about the nature of performance at Speakers' Corner. Whilst speaking, he is heckled by some Scandinavian drama students, which leads him to define what he does: ' What sort of cabaret artist is it that stands in a public place and improvises a discussion from a casual remark? No. I' m a loudmouth up a ladder in the park. There' s no fourth wall- temporary or otherwise. No walls at all. No play. No script. No set-list. No spotlight. No microphone. No admission fee. No exclusion. So most definitely no contract with the audience.'
But in spite of its necessarily improvisational nature, Allen reveals that like stand-up comedy, this kind of oratory contains routines, punchlines and standard heckle put-downs. As with stand-up, the key to performing at Speakers' Corner is, in Allen' s terms, to discover one' s ' attitude' - in other words to clearly define oneself for the audience, and develop an appropriate relationship with them. The analysis may be less overt than in Attitude, but there' s plenty of ideas here- in his hilarious foreword, Ken Campbell says that Allen, ' throws up more insights into the performer' s art than any other book I know' .
Campbell isn' t the only source of hilarity though, and Allen provides plenty of jokes of his own. My favourite is a heckle (although not strictly carried out in the role of Advocate Heckler). Surreal Ali has been reading a ' deliberately confusing tract' to a small audience. When they start to leave, Allen berates them: ' No staying power! Slackers! You have to put the time in, if you want to reap the profound rewards of the message. I've got to go now Ali.'