Obituary: Jeremy Hardy, comedian stalwart of radio’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and regular Fringe visitor

Jeremy Hardy has died at the age of 57
Jeremy Hardy has died at the age of 57
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Jeremy Hardy, comedian. Born 17 July 1961, in Farnborough, Hampshire. Died: 1 February 2019, in London, aged 57.

Jeremy Hardy – who has died from oesophageal cancer – was an Islington socialist – a friend of that other Islington socialist ­Jeremy. He readily admitted to his ­privileged, middle-class ­background, an honesty that probably endeared him at gigs.

“It’s nice to be in the North-East where you are just ­naturally, innately socialist,” he told an audience in Newcastle. “We have to go to university and learn it.”

His comedy was both ­personal and political. It could be biting, offensive (to some), insightful and often just very silly. He was mischievous and subversive and ready to ­lampoon pomposity and ­pretension wherever he found it.

Turning his sights on the modern urge to travel and experience remote ­cultures, he said: “We found this ­wonderful little place off the beaten track, not in any guidebook, a fantastic village that only appears every 200 years. Lovely people, tiny, no bigger than your thumb, poor but unhappy.

“We were invited into someone’s house and they spoke no English and we ate their hallucinogenic insects and had sex with them and stayed for ten years and it all came to £10 a head.” It is a little story that works on so many levels, and he has moved on before you work out just how many.

After winning the Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1988, Hardy developed a devoted following on Radio 4 on the panel games The News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and on ten series of Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation between 1993 and 2014.

A slight figure with angular features, he looked a little like a malnourished eagle, though some fans possibly had no idea what he looked like.

In an age of instant celebrity recognition, he preferred radio to ­television, though he played Corporal Perkins on Blackadder Goes Forth in 1989 and starred in a series of mockumentaries with Jack Dee on Channel 4, entitled Jack and Jeremy’s Real Lives in 1996. He preferred stand-up to radio and was a regular visitor to Edinburgh at festival time.

Hardy’s comedy was not reliant on a single punch-line, but often had a slow build, a rhythm, a cumulative effect. He was often referred to as “the comedian’s comedian” and it was difficult sometimes to work out where the man ended and the comedian began – until it got very silly. Many of his stories were, as the film credits might say, “based on a true story”.

The youngest of five children, he was born Jeremy James Hardy in Farnborough, Hampshire. His father was a rocket scientist and it was a very intellectual household. He said he envied the local working-class boys who got bicycles on their birthdays. “My dad would come into my room and say, ‘As it’s your birthday I have bought you a fountain pen in order that you may keep a diary, like Sir ­Samuel Pepys. Enjoy the rest of the day’.”

In reality he learned about socialism long before going to Southampton University to study Modern History and ­Politics. He reckoned he was ten when his mother explained it to him: “Imagine there’s a beautiful lake. A socialist believes it’s for ­everyone to enjoy. A capitalist believes that one man should own it, and everyone should pay him to swim in it.”

He decided he would be a socialist. He also decided he would be a journalist, poet or actor, but could not find a suitable opening, so he began doing stand-up at open mic nights and then paid gigs, though it was tough going. The Perrier Award in 1988 helped propel him to new heights.

By that time he had ­married the American comedian Kit Hollerbach and they co-wrote and appeared in the radio ­sitcoms Unnatural Acts and At Home with the Hardys. They also appeared together at the Edinburgh Fringe at the Assembly Rooms.

Hardy first appeared on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue in 1995 and did so regularly for the next two decades. He was particularly noted for his tuneless, but enthusiastic reworkings of such classic songs as Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, sung to the tune of George Formby’s When I’m Cleaning Windows.

While he could amuse almost any audience, including tough audiences in the North of England, he could also offend right across the board. He was booed on Just A Minute when challenged to speak on parasites and spoke about the Royal Family. His suggestion on Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation that BNP members should be shot in the back of the head provoked controversy.

He also attracted the ­displeasure of Jeremy ­Corbyn when he suggested that Labour MP Kevan Jones’s ­support for Trident proved that his claims of mental illness were true. Hardy’s involvement in politics stretched far beyond jokes and benefit gigs. He got to know Corbyn when Corbyn was his local MP and a backbencher, and Hardy ­supported his work for the homeless, unemployed and refugees.

Hardy frequently clashed with the party and he was banned from voting in internal elections after raising money for the Green Party. He compared the experience of supporting Labour to ­wiping one’s bottom. “I can’t say I like doing it, but you’ve got to, because you’re in a worse mess if you don’t.”

He was active in campaigns to free prisoners who had been the victims of miscarriages of justice, worked with refugee organisations, and he and ­Hollerbach adopted a little girl from a Romanian orphanage.

He was a patron of Medical Aid for Palestine and met his second wife Katie Barlow while making a film about Palestine, Jeremy Hardy vs the Israeli Army (2003), in which he experienced life in the Occupied Territories.

His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by ­Barlow and by his adopted daughter.

BRIAN PENDREIGH