He ended up taking this post in Aden, which is a bit like saying, ‘I’m going to the moon.’ It’s still miles away, but this was in the fifties. Aden was a British colony at the time; BP had a refinery there and they built a town, roads and a hospital. My mother went out later when she’d decided she was going to be a nurse in Aden. So you had two people separately saying, ‘I’m going to go to the fucking moon.’ So then they met and got married and I was the second kid to come along.
I have an older brother. His name is Mark: he’s a couple of years older than me. We’ve got a cinefilm of him running round playing football then poking me in the eye. There’s a great little scene of him, me and my mother, he keeps poking me in the eye and my mother keeps pulling his hand away…And my dad’s in other bits with the moustache he had at the time. Very 30-year-old. We left Aden in 1963. There was a revolution once we left…I’ve got to go back to Aden. My dad’s going to take us and show us everything.
We went to Northern Ireland and we were there until ’67 and that was great. BP had a refinery in Belfast and we used to go down there and hammer away on the electric typewriters. That was space age stuff to me. There must have been underlying political stuff happening but I was totally oblivious to it. I was going to primary school and drinking these third-pints of milk and the biscuits you’d get at break times and just drawing pictures of our house, Mum, Dad and stuff, and being in a gang and throwing mud balls at passing cars. Everything was being built then and they were constantly building bungalows, so we used to climb all over the roofs of them and pour water in all the cement mixers so it would all harden.
It was an immensely age-spread gang, from four to eleven or twelve. It was just the kids who lived on that street – Ashford Drive in Bangor. Some of them ended up joining the army. But it was a great time. And my mum was alive. I go back there and I remember it all. Asking for sixpence for ice-cream. Running like an idiot and then falling over and smashing my whole front tooth. There was blood and stuff and a lot of yelling but it was actually quite a neat tooth, with a dunce’s hat-shaped root coming out of the top of it. I kept it and gave it to my brother as a cufflink from a Plasticraft set, along with a toenail. This is how sick I could be. A bench had fallen on his foot, and a similar bench had hit my foot several months before, and so we had matching smashed toes. I don’t know what happened to my toenail but his was preserved in this box so I thought, I’ll put these two, my tooth and his toenail, in cufflinks and give them to him as Christmas presents. He was horrified. I couldn’t work out why. I think he’s still got them. They’re these big chunky Plasticraft, blue-based things, one with a toenail and one with a tooth. I now think it’s a work of Dadaist brilliance but my artistic career began and ended there with the horrified expression on my brother’s face.
So, yeah. Northern Ireland. I left in ’67 and moved to South Wales, near Swansea – a place called Skewn. That was very different to the essential green and rain and running around Northern Ireland. I went back when I was 14. I said, ‘I’m going to cycle from Sussex to Wales. I want to lose weight.’ But my dad gave me some money and a Little Chef map, which was the worst map to give me. I cycled from Little Chef to Little Chef, eating the maple syrup and ice-cream and orange fruities at petrol stations and going to farms and saying, ‘Can I sleep in your field?’ They’d say, ‘Yeah. Here’s a bit of water,’ and I’d get woken up by cows who were just looking onto the tent scaring the shit out of me.
When I cycled back the smells were so distinct they immediately hit me. The industrial smells of South Wales are incredibly strong. And there was that bit of the A48 as you go along from Cardiff along the M4 – it used to be a motorway, motorway, motorway, then traffic lights. Traffic lights?! There’s traffic lights on the motorway! It just changed to an A road for a stretch then back to a motorway.
But my mum died when I was there. March ’68. So that was a killer, and rejigged everything. Before my mum died, they decided that me and my brother should go off to these boarding schools, because I think my dad had just got a career going, Having gone to Aden and whatever, he’d been promoted.
My gran used to work in a biscuit factory and cleaned houses and my granddad drove buses, so that was a very working-class background. They were from north Bexhill, Sidley. I’ve gone back and done benefits there. No hot water, no bathroom, baths in front of the fire, an outside loo, that’s what my dad grew up in. He decided me and my brother should go to boarding schools. A single-parent male, that’s how you keep it all going.
So I was six when I went off to boarding school. There was a four-year-old kid there I felt sorry for: he was still wetting the bed. I think that my child-like character that appears in my stand-up now was locked off at six. But my brother and I were both there, which was better than just one of us. It was down in Porthcawl, a place called St John’s School. It’s like a desert island. There’s beaches down there: it’s very duney. I actually went back there and played a street performing gig as part of a Labour Party get-together outdoor something or other. Porthcawl had this funfair and a whole lot of stuff I didn’t even know about. There’s a Butlinsy feel to it which I found quite surprising because I didn’t remember that when I was there.
I was a hustler. I would sell crayons in the school yard. ‘You need crayons. What if you get stranded on a desert island?’ How are you going to write a message? Crayons.’ I’m actually quite fascinated in a very sad way by retail. I wanted to run a shop. You used to be able to get a little shop with those Hornby train sets and in the window it had all these things like Kellogg’s cornflakes and tins of soup and stuff. You could look through the door and there was stuff happening inside…I wanted to sit in that shop. I like supermarkets. I just like hanging around the aisles, and new things going up – ‘What would I like today? Ooh one of those…’ It’s a bit like Spinal Tap – ‘Shoe shop… I could run one of those.’
We had a radio at school in Wales. I remember hearing Tom Jones’ Delilah on it and Those Were The Days by Mary Hopkins, and it was a bit like hearing it from Mars. It was an old radio of my dad’s from Aden I’d borrowed, so you’d tune in and you’d hear sounds from outside. At school you would sometimes get to go to this church on a Sunday, and when you’re six it seemed like going miles, even though it’s just down the road. And there was this village playground with a door with a grating in it, which had scary steps going down to a well, where the devil lived, we all thought. You looked down into it and thought, where the fuck does that go? And there were these dunes and a caravan park which we’d walk through which would take us down to the sea, which was kind of cold and chilly, and there were lots of these yellow plants growing on the dunes which had caterpillars on them.
We never saw anyone in the caravan site, because we were never there in the holiday season. There was a locked-up centre at the caravan site, with arcade games in it. And there was a Dalek in there that you were supposed to get into and move around in. We had these horrible sandwiches and what they called lemonade which wasn’t lemonade, it was some cheap stuff, and you’d have to bury your sandwiches in the sand because they were disgusting.
The food was awful, and I had a real food problem, a real basic palate. My brother was eating Indian food and I could only eat potatoes. That’s why I wanted to be in the army because they were always peeling potatoes and I thought, well, I like potatoes, so…And this school served macaroni with warm milk, I mean, what the fuck was that? I’ve never seen that since. And the best meal they had – they would take you down to the swimming baths on a Thursday and you’d come back and have sausage and chips, and that was fantastic. There were some meals that you just looked forward to…they had compulsory tea drinking and I hated tea. But sausage and chips was the one meal I could eat.
We went on these school outings when I was at school in Eastbourne. I remember seeing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I really rate the Australian Bond, George Lazenby. I love the film he’s in; I am alone in that. But I challenge anyone to look back at it and say what is so bad about it. The fight sequences are great – they put amazing sounds in, like they’re fighting with planks of wood. These really heightened noises. Diana Rigg is fantastic, I like the skiing, I like Telly Savalas, I like the music… I knew ‘We’ve Got All The Time In The World’ could be number one. We used to get points, a school merit system, and they had sections. Everyone was in different groups and whichever group won the most points got an outing, and we’d win it year after year, and every year I didn’t know what was going on. It was nothing to do with me, but every year I was just going on these outings, thinking, cool…but I haven’t really helped with this. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the film on one of these trips.
When I was seven I entered the sack race on sports day. My dad said, ‘Put your feet in the corners and just run.’ So I did and went steaming down the track. There’s this picture of me going through the tape going, ‘Yeahhh,’ fucking leagues ahead of the next guy…The next guy had just changed from his leaping style to a running style, because the sacks were too big and you could get a full stride in. I won a blue football. So that was me and my dad working together.
My dad’s good. I think we’re quite similar. We’re a bit emotionally compressed; we don’t get too elated by things because we’ve had bad stuff happen and more shit could be just around the corner. But we don’t get too depressed either. We quite like pootling around but try to be more windswept and interesting, as Billy Connolly always said.
Now we work together sometimes in the community centre in Sidley the place where he grew up. My grandmother helped start it in about 1949. She taught me and my brother when we were at the kindergarten there. It’s in Bexhill, East Sussex, where Spike Milligan was stationed during the war. He was on a lookout on top of Galley Hill, waiting for the Germans to come. I sold ice-creams at a kiosk at the bottom of the hill, and I used to cycle around looking for the places where he was stationed. The Delaware Pavilion, is where I sold sausage, egg and chips and cups of tea to old ladies: Spike played there, and I ended up playing there.
I did a stand-up gig in Sidley. I took a Hollywood searchlight, like the ones used to sweep the sky for bombers, The last time these things were in Sidley was in 1942, wartime. We got permission – but the police were phoning up, going ‘What the fuck’s going on?’ – and everyone was driving in from ten, twelve miles each way because they could see these lights in the sky. People kept driving up and saying ‘What’s happening? Can we come?’ It’s nice working with my dad. He’s treasurer at the community centre.
In 1969 we left Wales and went back to live in Bexhill. We went to school in Eastbourne – again, it was this boarding school thing. The first one was called St. Bede’s, right at the foot of the South Downs. The Downs has steep banks with loads of bomb craters because the British planes coming back from missions would jettison their bombs on the Downs because they couldn’t land with a bomb load, something like that, I don’t know. We used to play in the craters.
I used to play a lot of football. At that time I lived for football. I just ran my arse off, playing left half and then right half. I was in the first team. I wasn’t the best or the most gifted but I was good when the ball would go past our goalie and I’d be there to head it off the line. And when the guy was running ahead with the ball and he was bringing his foot back to kick it, I’d just put my foot in and knock it away from him. I’d do those things. I couldn’t kick the ball in the goal to save my life. I was scared of getting up there in case I tried and missed in an open-goal situation and then everyone would kill me. So I just used to do the good pass for someone else to knock it in. They used to read out the names of the people in the first team in school assembly on match day – ‘OK, get your kit and off you go’ – and you’d stand up and walk out. It was great. I loved that.
But the second school in Eastbourne didn’t fucking play football. What a crap decision. They played rugby, hockey and cricket and in the sixth form you were given an option of doing football. It was treated like pottery or martial arts. So I gave up on sport really. I thought it was stupid not playing football. My brother had already gone to the school, so I knew about it. You accept it.
At university, I thought, hey, I’ll get back into playing football, but I was clearly five years out of practise. I was treated like shit by the people who played, because I couldn’t kick a ball anymore. And it was no good with other sports. Cricket, the ball always tried to hit me. Hockey I liked but some guys could just look at the ball and fbam! – shoot it somewhere. I worked really hard to try and get good with the backs of hockey sticks and stuff but I couldn’t hit it like the best guys. I was in the football first XI at thirteen, though. Played 14, won 11, drew one, lost two. I almost played for my town. I was a reserve on the team. Eastbourne v. Seaford. I could have played.
My dad tells us that the 1966 World Cup was on television, and he was saying to us, ‘You’ve got to watch,’ and me and my brother were saying, ‘No’. ‘You’ve got to watch it’s the World Cup – it’s 3-2 – it’s 4-2…’ And we were still saying, ‘No’ and sticking bits of lego in our ears.
Supporting Crystal Palace is a bit of a trial. What Crystal Palace do is go up to the Premier League and then go back down again. They have relegation battle. My dad goes to every home match and me and my brother go along too. We sit in the stand where my uncle used to sit. My aunt and uncle used to live across from the ground. We’ve sat there since 1969. I like Crystal Palace. Terry Venables is back again. Maybe our time will come. Somebody said to me, ‘Is it too strong to say Crystal Palace are a joke team?’ I said, ‘That’s too strong. You have to die for that.’ With stand-up comedy I’m probably doing some things where people think, how the fuck are you doing that? It’s the same with football – how the fuck do players put it in the goal like that? When they do these penalty shoot-outs, I look at them and think, I couldn’t place it with that power.
I wanted to be a professional footballer. I didn’t think I was going to make it, because I didn’t seem to be that good, but I really loved it. I know people don’t equate football with transvestism but the fact is, there’s got to be a lot of football players and football fans and people in the army, navy, airforce or driving forklift trucks who are TVs, because it’s male tomboy. It’s kind of like, male lesbians because we all fancy women as well. But if you embrace it, you get certain gifts from the feminine side.
I tried to get into plays at school but I couldn’t because they were convinced I was crap. Maybe I was. I would audition but never get a role. I learned the clarinet for the wrong reasons. I was trying to play the piano but ended up playing this clarinet and I had to be in the school band. They put on a musical, Oliver! Or something, and I had to play the bloody clarinet. One kid at school’s dad was a semi-pro actor and my big treat was I would hand him his hat and his cane. It was my big ‘My God, I’m almost in the play’ thing.
So from the age of seven I really wanted to act and I did really weird things to try to get into it. I did Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The choir at the school was doing it, and I wasn’t in the choir, so I hung around them and lifted things and pushed things. And eventually I was in it, and I even managed to get a solo line out of it. We did a version of Beauty and the Beast when I was seven and I was a street urchin. The street urchins combined had one line – ‘Oh Beauty, don’t go’ – which, when the line came up, I used to say really quickly before everyone: ‘OhBeautyDon’tGo.’ All the other kids would go, ‘Oh…he’s said it.’ So I would make it my own line. Upstaging…Because the chorus at seven was bunch of dopey kids. ‘There’s a star…’ ‘Wha…?’ ‘There’s a star…’ ‘Wha…?’ ‘you’re a shepherd.’ ‘Am I? Oh yeah…’
There was a flu epidemic when I was seven so I was not only in Beauty and the Beast, I was a shepherd as well. So I was in two plays. I was a featured shepherd. After that the parts were very lean. I couldn’t get into any of the big musicals - Pirates of Penzance, or any of that stuff.
They did Julius Caesar and I played Trebonius. Of all he conspirators against Caesar, Trebonius is the most boring. One, because his name sounds like trombone and two, because there’s a line where they go:
OMNES See, Trebonius knows his mark, for look how he leads Mark Antony away so that Mark Antony will not be there when it all gets really tough with Caesar and we stick all the plastic daggers in with the syringe of blood attached. So that means Trebonius won’t have a plastic dagger and a syringe of blood because he’ll be standing in the fucking wings when it happens.
I wasn’t on stage. I’m just in the wings with Mark Antony going, ‘Ah, they’re doing it with the old plastic daggers.’ There’s ten conspirators and nine of them are on stage stabbing Julius Caesar and there’s one in the wings, going:
TREBONIUS I’m not fucking there.
They used to take photographs in dress rehearsals and there’s all these conspirators with their plastic daggers, except for one kid who’s got the syringe full of blood facing the camera. One kid called Caldwell, who was…shot.
I did get into one thing, though. I always liked comedy, and when I was twelve I got my first laughs. We did this revue in a class taken by a teacher called Sam Grey. He was kind of different. Apparently he got married and he had this motorbike trip around South America planned so he went and did that instead of a honeymoon. Watergate was happening at the time and he used to read the tapes out to us. He told us how to say ‘breast’ in French.
And Sam Grey did this revue, and we were doing all these sketches we’d written and I got distinct laughs on a solo bit. It was a mime thing. This guy was bowling to me and I was supposed to be a cricketer and I was batting the ball away with supreme confidence and arrogance, looking for the ball in the distance then realising I’d smashed the wicket. I remember thinking, hey, I’ve got laughs here!
And then I discovered Peter Sellers. My dad had his records and I remember trying to do the accents. Trying to do an Indian accent before I thought, this actually gets me into a difficult area, because if you do different ethnic accents from around the world it can look like you’re taking the piss. I do a routine about the Welsh guys carving Stonehenge and I try to make sure I’m not taking the piss. There’s these rather effete druids and the Welsh guys are going, “You fucken basstards!”
So I was at St Bede’s and…yeah. I was very fit then. I did a lot of running about. The sea is at the bottom of the school and the Downs are at the side. We used to get up at seven o’clock in the morning and walk through the sea to the reef. It would cut our feet to shreds. You’d hear large booms in the middle of the night, where an old World War Two mine had hit the cliffs. The School chef was a coastguard and he used to have to go out and make sure there were no others. When I was there, a searchlight would pass across the bedroom window every night from Sovereign Lighthouse. I used to go to sleep with wshhh – this flash of light going past the window. Which you got used to.
We had the coal strike as well, which was great. Lessons would end and there was no food, so we had to eat crisps. We were making tents and putting candles under the bedclothes.
I like things that work, even in difficult circumstances. I like doing gigs, even when I’m fucking dying. I’m trying to do a website and I want it to be real cutting edge. I like pushing things like that. We do merchandising on the tour and I want to make the t-shirts so they last. Quality.
So, St Bede’s. It was a good place. The head teacher there was a decent guy but he had a strong thing about not putting me in plays. I went back and harangued him recently: ‘You didn’t let me be in any plays.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ ‘But you didn’t let me be in any plays!’ ‘I didn’t know…’ ‘Why not?!’ I have a big love if the South Downs now. They’re kind of bonkers. On the north side they don’t have any cliffs, they just slope off like a big-steep-forward-roll-possible-all-the-way-down type of hill.
At thirteen, I went to Eastbourne College, but I had to take the first Saturday off because my dad remarried, which I thought was fun. I missed French. ‘Sorry I missed French last week, my parents got married.’ In my first year I was taught about the slide rule. They said ‘The slide rule is important. Without it you can do nothing. The slide rule is the modern weapon of efficiency. With the slide rule you can get from here to the stars. Buy it, use it – your slide rule!’ Within one year it was, ‘Burn the slide rule. The calculator can add up with none of this fucking sliding the shit around and working out where that bit in the middle goes. Smash it over your head.’
I had a nice plastic slide rule and everything slid up and down and you would put this bit there and move that bit up and – ah! Approximately 1400. Some it couldn’t do it, and it would just approximate things. I saw a film where they were all going round in spacecraft and they were doing it all with slide rules. ‘How far is Pluto?’ ‘Approximately 1400, sir.’ At my first Eastbourne school a fifth of the pupils were girls. Maybe a quarter. At this school, there were no girls for three years, and then there were girls. So it was just…odd. At sixteen there were girls again but only one girl to every ten boys, so packs of spotty boys would follow these girls around and carry their…everything. Literally put them on a litter and carry them around. So I didn’t talk to girls for a whole year. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to pull. I can’t say I’m in the first team. ‘Only by the end of the year I had started using my wit. I could say, ‘Yes! I am from outer-space!’ Or some such shit.
I believe in co-education all the way, although boys benefit more. Boys tend to say to girls, ‘You’re not working, are you?’ and put them off.
At my last boarding school, they had compulsory cadet things. This was all marching about, running about on hilltops hiding from people and going ‘Bang’ It seemed like a great game of Cowboys and Indians, if not terribly real. I was brought up on these books about the war. I know war is hell, but I sort of wanted to be involved in that struggle. It was something to do with not taking in the reality of it all, but the derring-do. Derring-do? That sounds really crap – but the running jumping climbing standing still part of it, that was the reason I wanted to be in the army, The reality is that apart from the Second World War, most wars are politically messy. The Second World War was straightforward, ‘These guys are bastards and they’re trying to invade everywhere. Let’s stop ‘em and let’s defend our country.’ So I link up on that patriotism.
I went on a special course, where I was kind of disillusioned, because I didn’t do very well. I was in this group and we weren’t winning things, until we did orienteering, which I was great at from the Scouts. There’s a whole logic of map-reading: you take a bearing and then you’ve got to follow that bearing even if you think you’re going wrong. Because even though the compass is pointing in one direction, you tend to think, this isn’t the right fucking way, but then you’re just lost. So with orienteering we did all right.
We did an ambush exercise. We were all in the back of this army truck going along. There were three trucks, and they stopped. One guy who had done this kind of thing before, said ‘It’s an ambush! Run for it!’ So everyone leapt out of the trucks and started haring out into the undergrowth. And then some sort of colonel type came by and said, ‘Look, you’re not supposed to run away! We’re back in Blighty.’ ‘No, you’re not. You’re all caught. And you have to go to the concentration camp.’ We got taken to a ‘concentration’ camp. Concentration camp’s a big word for it. It was like a walled, barbed-wire, enclosed area, and we were all supposed to crouch down on our haunches, so it gets really achy on your legs, with your hands behind your head. And then we worked out, ‘We’re supposed to escape from here, ‘so after a while somehow some of us got out. And then these soldiers would chase you, shooting blanks at you, and you had to try and hit them with bits of wood. It was all very basic.
There was this paratrooper guy there and I tried to talk to him. I said, ‘So what’s it like being in the army?’ and he said, ‘Fuck off.’ So I thought, well…I appreciate you bringing me on and encouraging me. There was this other kid who had been on this cadet course. He got promoted and I didn’t. I just thought, this is kind of arbitrary, isn’t it? I knew that I’d done just as well as him. Because I thought the idea was if you showed willing and went on this course, you’d get more stripes and all this kind of stuff.
In fact, I’d bought a set of colonel’s pips. So I used to walk around with colonel’s pips on and a handgun I’d bought in France – it was like a starting pistol. We went on exercise on the Downs and they said, ‘There’s going to be an ambush today, you’re going to be ambushed’ – which is great, so we went out with .303 Enfield rifles, waiting to be ambushed. And before we went, I was doing all this action with the rifle, loading it and unloading it and stuff, until I broke it.
I had broken my gun, so I had a large rifle that didn’t work, and this pistol, and my colonel’s pips. So I got there and we were all just wandering around, waiting for an ambush – and then, ‘Ambush!’ And so everyone gets down on the ground and we’re shooting away, they’re ambushing us and we’re ambushing them. We’ve all got things that go bang, basically. We’re going ‘Bang bang’. And they’re going ‘Bang bang bang’, and we’re going ‘Bang bang bang bang’.
After a while, we start thinking, we’re not getting hit doing this, so we start standing up and going ‘Bang bang bang’, Obviously this would make us die in real life – but we realised we weren’t actually killing anyone, so we started shooting at anyone. I just went around with my pistol, shooting at my own people. Bang bang bang – a crazy afternoon.
They said, ‘All right, you’ve done very well in that, except you’re all dead and you all cheated. Now you’ve got to get back into Eastbourne without getting caught by, I don’t know. Nazi storm troopers or something. So do it by the cunningest, method you know.’ Everyone was going around the Downs, so me and this guy called Paul Wedge went down to a bus stop and got on a bus, when the schools were emptying out at about four o’clock. So we took a bus into town with a load of school kids as our way of getting back. Which I thought was the initiative thing; the SAS thing. We were sitting there with rifles and uniforms, surrounded by kids all staring at us. We made our way back and got in early.
It was a weird time. I was driving parallel ideas. There was no way you could be a comedy performer in the army. The ENSA thing didn’t really happen. I was talking to Billy Bragg about it. Billy Bragg’s the only person who’s been on Top of the Pops who can drive a tank.
The SAS was advanced running, jumping and standing still. Blue berets and very secretive. They were all self-sufficient so if one member of a platoon got killed, then the others knew what to do. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, he was the explosives guy. We’re going to have to do explosives without him.’ ‘I don’t know about explosives. They go bang, don’t they?’
But it wasn’t making any sense to me because I just wanted to do comedy. There was just an idea that performing comedy was crazy, but as I got closer and closer to sixteen, I just thought, this is possible. I wasn’t running around anymore, so I wasn’t fit, and I didn’t get promoted so I thought, bugger that.
And after the course, I obviously thought, if merit isn’t rewarded then, fuck it, I’ll go and be a transvestite.