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A Card For The Clubs

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Sphere, London, 1974
price: 30p; 144 pages

dedication: To Eddie Lamb and Val Hart for their encouragement, and to Meg my wife for making it possible

The blurb on the back:

'I have been a club comedian for eight years now... I'm thirty-two years old, inclined to be fat and my material is so old it's a wonder I don't pay death duties on my script.'
Sez Les Dawson in his first novel, a bitingly funny book that follows the career of comedian Pete Warde through the grinding round of the club circuit to the success of the London Palladium and back again. A bitter-sweet account of a comic career, Les Dawson's first book is a remarkable departure for one of Britain's most popular comedians.

opening lines:
Two things had marred the customarily flawless perfection of my performance that Saturday evening at the Gawkesworth Reform Club.

Great man, Les Dawson, one of the very best comedians of his era, distinguished by the breadth of his work: his material was so rich, from the stand-up one-liners through the character sketches to the wonderful, wonderful piano gag. And here he is adding another string to his bow, with his first novel. You have relatively high hopes, of course, because Dawson was always strong on language, and he had an intelligence that didn’t always endear him to early audiences. But, sad to report, it doesn’t really come off.

We start with Pete Warde, whose stage name is Joe King (‘a rather pathetic play on the word "Joking"', as he explains), failing to make any headway at all on the Northern club circuit. Then he steals a batch of material from a more successful, but fading, comic and his inexorable rise to the top is underway. To be followed, of course, by his fall and then his reinvention.

There are some very fine bits here, mostly those concerning the day-to-day life of a working comedian, whilst a TV series entitled Pub Night - essentially The Wheeltappers’ and Shunters’ Social Club with attitude - is convincing enough. Particularly cool is the moment when a new producer decides to spice up the show with some controversial guests, starting with:

a writer and infamous homosexual, by the celebrated name of Peregrine Gaynor. He was indeed a controversial figure in the Arts, his film script based on the book Maria Monk had been banned in most English speaking countries, and his modern play, Queer Times, includes a scene where two fellows masturbated a bull. (p.85)

You may find yourself being reminded of a certain Kenneth Tynan, but just in case you aren’t, Peregrine Gaynor causes a storm by using the word ‘fucking’ on live TV.

So it’s by no means a disaster, but for such a short book, there’s way too much reliance on Dawson’s one-liners. Some of this is in the context of Joe King’s stand-up routine, but there’s a hell of a lot in the normal run of narrative as well, a fact not helped by a notably noxious mother-in-law, who provides an excuse for some over-familiar material. It’s not that the jokes aren’t good, more that they interrupt the story-telling and can’t help but remind you of Dawson’s own delivery, to the detriment of the character he’s trying to create. And then there’s a problem with the plotting, which doesn’t really hang together – I was expecting a serious rivalry with the comedian whose material Joe King has nicked, and it never really materialized. Wouldn’t have been spectacularly original, but it would have provided a thread to hang the gags on.

It’s all something of a shame, because the world from which Dawson and his ilk sprang is now largely passed, and an imaginative exploration would have been really worth having. But, like Eric Morecambe’s similar Mr Lonely, this misses too many open goals.


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