What’s left of the old Mitre Arms sits on a grim, grey stretch of the A102, within gobbing distance of the Blackwall Tunnel. It looks like the sort of pub where you’d get bottled if you looked at someone in a funny way. So it's hard to believe that in the late 80s this place helped launch the careers of a generation of alternative comedians including Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves, Jenny Eclair, Jerry Sadowitz, Jeremy Hardy and Jo Brand.
The Tunnel club nights that ran at the Mitre from 1984 to 1990 were infamous: a trial by fire for young comics, most of whom were quickly roasted by a cackling audience encouraged to heckle as much as possible by legendary compère Malcolm Hardee.
It was a free-for-all with every kind of act welcome, so long as they could take the heat once they got up on stage. Rob Brydon was ‘baaed’ off as soon as the audience realised he was Welsh, while Steve Coogan said he had his worst ever gig there, though he also claims he turned it round by doing impressions of kid’s TV characters talking dirty.
A night at the Tunnel soon became a rite of passage for any rising comic on the circuit: could they handle London’s grizzliest bear pit? Not all of them survived. Drama students were particularly hated, but anyone who seemed inauthentic, over-prepared, pretentious or lacklustre would be ritually torn apart.
Perhaps the most extreme anecdote involved host Malcolm Hardee urinating all over one sleeping punter, having been goaded into the act by a crowd who wanted to see how far they could push him. It was a moment in comedy history that everyone from Mark Lamarr to Jon Ronson claims to have been present at — with the host downing pint after pint in preparation before unleashing an arc that glittered in the spotlights like liquid comedy gold. When the snoring victim later woke up, sodden and stinking, his friends told him what had happened and, apparently, he was just chuffed to have been such an integral part of the show (apparently).
Despite such anti-social horrors, the Tunnel only grew in reputation. Hardee later became known as ‘the Godfather of Alternative Comedy’ and though the term “alternative cabaret” is historically credited to comedian Tony Allen, according to Stewart Lee, it was first used to advertise a show put on by Hardee as far back as 1972. This was in Devon rather than London: Hardee’s no-holds-barred version of a Punch and Judy Show, including ultra-violence and anal sex between the puppets. Throughout the late 80s, the Tunnel did its best to keep alive that punkish “alternative” spirit.
Filmmaker Jody VandenBurg, who has made a documentary about the place, told Londonist: “The Tunnel club was the alternative to the alternative — it was unique, anarchic and the audience was a massive part of that. There wasn’t much structure and Malcolm let anyone go on stage, all of which built up an atmosphere that others then tried to copy.”
By the end, however, the joie de vivre had become questionable and noticeably surly, the venue too edgy to sustain itself. At least one comedian got glassed and the acid house raves which took place on Saturdays led the police to raid the Mitre Arms and shut it down. The landlord had his license refused and it wasn’t until 1995 and fresh management that the place was rehabilitated as a naff comedy-free nightclub.
Sadly, Hardee himself died in 2005, drowned in Greenland Dock. At the time, he lived in a houseboat and used to drink in the Wibbly Wobbly floating bar on the opposite side of the water, which he also owned (and is still moored there to this day). An alcoholic living on the river was an accident waiting to happen, but on the day of his death Hardee had just won big on the horses, and had an audition to be a contestant on The Weakest Link. A tragically apt end perhaps to a colossal character who lived on the edge and helped pioneer extreme in-your-face comedy and performance art.
The documentary film, The Tunnel will be shown at the Greenwich Picture House on 26 September at 8pm as part of the Greenwich Comedy Festival. There will be guest spots after the screening by Tunnel regular Simon Munnery and Malcom Hardee’s comedy partner Martin Soan. It's made by Jody VandenBurg, Domenico Favata and Naomi de Pear who are also now working on a film about Hardee’s life.