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Exhibition Explores The Rise And Fall Of Alternative Comedy

By Ben Venables Last edited 27 months ago
Exhibition Explores The Rise And Fall Of Alternative Comedy
Chairmian Hughes (Teatro d'Existentiale): photo courtesy of Canal
Chairmian Hughes (Teatro d'Existentiale): photo courtesy of Canal
Harry Hill (with Al Murray in the background) at the last night of the Meccano before its 1992 move from The Market Tavern: Photo from Canal Gallery
Harry Hill (with Al Murray in the background) at the last night of the Meccano before its 1992 move from The Market Tavern: Photo from Canal Gallery
Simon Munnery. Photo by Idil Sukan | Draw HQ
Simon Munnery. Photo by Idil Sukan | Draw HQ
Behind the scenes in the 80s. Photo from Canal gallery.
Behind the scenes in the 80s. Photo from Canal gallery.

Back in the 1970s mother-in-law jokes were part of the comedy mainstream. And this was arguably when stand-ups were at their least crass and offensive.

However, only a few years later these stale routines were replaced by a new generation of self-styled 'alternative' comedians, reacting against the predictable, who blossomed on London's live circuit of small pubs and clubs in the early to mid-1980s.

A forthcoming exhibition in Haggerston's Canal gallery picks up the story in 1986. ALT CAB or Where Did It Go Wrong? charts how the ethos and eccentricity of the early alternative scene became entwined with left-wing progressive politics as much as it did the artistic left-field. The exhibition then explores how the alternative became subsumed into a new mainstream with the unexpected development of stadium stand-up (Newman and Baddiel famously playing Wembley Arena in 1993).

Gallery director Monika Bobinska, who co-curated the show (with Dec Munro), used to be a promoter for Islington's Meccano Comedy Club. She told Londonist:

"For the exhibition I have some old footage of Channel 4 broadcaster Mavis Nicholson visiting the Meccano almost as if she were an ethnographer, exploring what was then known as 'alternative cabaret'. There are many photos and posters — including a youthful Harry Hill and Matt Lucas — and also a chance to read up on the gossip about what went on during shows. There are political leaflets too: one from about 1989 when artists went to the Docklands to leaflet against the far-right."

The programme of events alongside the exhibition look exceptional. These include an evening with the inventive and original stand-up Simon Munnery, and one of the most exciting acts currently on the live circuit The Alternative Comedy Memorial Society.

The exhibition looks set to be an interesting examination of how the alternative comedy scene has changed and visitors should expect to come away with questions as well as answers. As Bobinska says:

"There was a positive political agenda of anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia on the circuit. But curating the exhibition I was reminded how white and middle class it all was... I think comedy today probably better reflects society even if it may have have lost some of its political edge. The exhibition should hopefully provoke some of these discussions."

ALT CAB or Where Did It Go Wrong runs at Canal from 13 February to 7 March (with further live events on 10 and 14 March). Admission times and price for events can be checked and booked through links provided.

Last Updated 03 February 2015

Alex Dallas

I have a huge archive of photos and reviews, flyers and scripts from Sensible Footwear..we were colleagues and friends of the Popticians, Skint Video, Linda Smith, Mark Miwurdz, Jeremy Hardy ..to name a few... we were on the Red Wedge Comedy tour and produced the Red Wedge Womens' Tour and performed at every benefit and with CAST and Roland Muldoon's circuit, before we found a home at the Hackney Empire. Let me know if you would like to see any of it. Thanks, Alex Dallas...dallasalex93@yahoo.ca

Ben Venables

Thank you Alex, I'll pass this on to the exhibition's organisers.