Once Upon A Time In Chelford

“Where the fucking hell is Chelford?”

In retrospect, you should never do two things as a comedian.  One, take a gig in a place you’ve never heard of (see also, Fence, Slawit, among others – although I’d heard of Blackpool and that turned out to be a nightmare anyway), and two, trust another comedian to get you there.  Unfortunately, on Saturday 7th May 2016, otherwise known as You’ve Been Nabbed 25, I had no option but to do both.

Let’s talk a bit about how I ended up in this situation.  Well, first of all, when Rick Hulse tells you to be somewhere, you’re there, on pain of death, lest you be found bleeding with walking stick marks emanating from your face.  Not only that, but I felt a sense of loyalty – even now, Rick’s unique in being one of the few comedy promoters who’s somehow never managed to bullshit me once, even from the first night I met him.  Yes, as my cerebral palsy-ravaged body wobbled off back to my mate’s car after a moderately successful middle spot at Gatley Golf Club (a place far too Tory for me or Rick in hindsight), his words rang in my ears – ‘giz an email, fella – you were fucking hilarious’. 

It would be egotistical of me to say this wasn’t the first time I’d had good feedback and then mysteriously never heard from the person again, but my hopes weren’t exactly high as I dashed off a quick email to the proprietor of Smacked Arse Comedy.   To his credit, he had me booked in by the end of the summer, playing a fun rally localish to me in St Michaels.  Not 5 seconds after coming off stage, Rick boldly promised me what, to a early 20s aspiring comedian, sounded like the world – the opportunity to play for 2000 people on a May bank holiday, at the biggest biker festival of them all – to NABD at least.   Still sceptical, I shook hands with him, drank a quick cider with the other comics, and rode off into the sunset, privately thinking I would probably never hear from anyone involved again.

Well, stone me, he only went and offered it me, didn’t he?  YBN 25.  7th May 2016.  2000 people.  A middle spot on a lineup full of contempories.  Who could say no?  Certainly not me, and in my youthful impetuousness, I actually agreed to the spot before I even looked at a map.  Ah.  One problem.  See, cerebral palsy can give you a number of things  – better places to park being one of them – but it doesn’t exactly assist you in getting from A to B.  Particularly when you don’t know where B even is to start off with.  No matter, said the big cheese himself – I’ll get one of the other lads on the bill to bring you.  Well, thank the lord for Tom Little, he was to be my chauffeur for the day, and an incredibly talented middle spot in his own right.   So that’s where you join me – Salford Central train station, about 10:30am, on Saturday May 7th.  Knowing the area intimately as I do, I wasn’t exactly surprised to see a battered car heading towards me shortly thereafter – if anything, it not being on bricks was a bonus.  I was slightly shocked to see, however, that it’s windscreen was in rough shape – suffice it to say, if the car was a horse, they would’ve shot it.   Imagine my consternation when this battered old heap, that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Scrapheap Challenge, pulled up next to me, to find that it contained Mr Little, and was my only method of transport to the mythical biker’s field.  Christ.

Fortunately, unlike most comedians, I like being on time, so we had a couple of hours to spare – probably for the best, given we were travelling at an average speed a horse and cart would get irritated by.  Anyway, after more pointing and gawking than the residents of certain rival Northern towns do at planes, we careered onto site about 12pm, looking for all the world like we’d just won the Wacky Races.  After explaining our woes, getting wristbands, and getting parked, we headed into the marquee, our home for the day.

Tom and I stopped for a while to survey the scene; a tent holding maybe, at that point in the day, about 300 people, seemingly half full and with a nice atmosphere building.  Okay, maybe not quite the Albert Hall, but certainly better than playing the Rat and Parrot in the middle of who-the-fuck-knows-where.   After a brief pause for a drink (both of us sticking to water, marking us out as outsiders, Deliverance style). we swerved the pleasing sounds of a somewhat-mellow country rock band to hide backstage.  Fortunately, Rick and his posse were already waiting for us.

The camaraderie of a backstage or green room for comics cannot be easily explained to someone who doesn’t know it; all of us are slaves to our nerves, neuroses and bravado, and nothing brings it out more than being around other comedians. I suppose in caveman times, we’d have been measuring our appendages or something.  Anyway, it’s never been the most comfortable of places for me – gobshite though I am, I’m not an easy self-promoter, and I took the opportunity to have a bit of quiet reflection and mentally going over my set.  That’s not the easiest of tasks in a Smacked Arse Comedy green room however, and I turned down a smorgasbord of substances from the controlled to the outright mental – no one can ever say that bikers aren’t hospitable.  Jokes aside, it’s a lovely space to be around, very friendly, no bullshit, and I soon settled down into pre-gig mode.  I noticed quite a bit of nerves from the other comics, even seasoned ones like Silky, and I wondered what was wrong with me. Should I have been more nervous?  At this point, I was preparing for a crowd of a few hundred, and having sat myself down, had no interest in going back out to check if it had increased since then.

In any case, I got my answer pretty quickly, as Rick went out to open the show.  By now I’m pretty familiar with Rick’s….unconstrained style of MCing, so I listen out for the bits I know, and I laugh at the ad-libbed bits I don’t.   What does shock me is the wall of sound of laughter that comes back with each joke.  Fuck.  Have I misjudged this?  I start to turn so white that for the first time in recorded history I actually cave to the repeated offers of a pre-stage drink.  It barely touches the sides, and by the time the two openers have been on, my heart rate has probably tripled.

Still, it’s my time – Rick cheerily informs me during the break that it’s me up next, and I should probably get ready now, as he’s not going to do very long, and er…’the stage might take you a while’.  Eager to please, I’m there, still not looking out, instead looking at Rick from the side of the stage.  After what seemed like an eternity, he calls my name, the applause starts, and for the first time since I was Captain Hook in Peter Pan at school, I start to walk the plank.  Almost literally, as my legs, a curiosity at the best of times, have now turned to jelly, I’m navigating something that could be charitably described as an orienteering course, and Rick, my only help in the world, is probably the only person within 10 feet of the stage wobblier than me. 

Still, we eventually get it right, and I’m sat in my chair, looking out.  That’s when I become aware that, unless the alcohol has really kicked in, or I actually did take one of those pills backstage, that quaint 300-400 crowd I previously imagined has now quintupled.  I’m looking out at 2000 people – and they’re all ready for me to make them laugh.  The last thing I remember for the next 10-15 minutes is Rick, my life raft in this sea of sudden anxiety, passing me the microphone, and fucking off.  I take the microphone, I talk for 15 minutes….I couldn’t tell you what I said, but it seemed to be working.  I even managed to cover up an alcohol induced blank in the middle by adlibbing a new joke.  All in all, I was satisfied with my work, even if it wasn’t exactly a performance that would have agents knocking down my door.  Smiling cheerily, I say my name one last time, plug my socials one last time, and proceed to put the mike in the stand.  If that was all that happened that day, I’d still have overcome a lot.  Of course, it didn’t.

I honestly can’t recall what happened in the next 30 seconds, other than it seemed to start as a rumble, and then quickly became an avalanche.  Oh my god, they’re standing!  And it’s for me!  My body was not ready for that, not that day, not any day – as if evidenced by the fact that I couldn’t even walk off stage, long after Rick made me stay and take in the moment.  He would later tell me it was better than sex.  I’ve still no idea if he’s right or not.  All I know is the tremendous emotion that washed over me.  In life, you don’t get many opportunities to feel like you’ve done something special, and you get very few moments where people show you you have.  This rapidly became both.  My eyes water now writing about it – that moment, that outpouring of love, that feeling of achievement…

I remember so little else of that time period of my life – that was now 7 years ago at the time of writing – but I remember that day.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as fulfilled, accepted, happy, and sure of myself as I did that day.   Sometimes I wonder if I ever will again.  There are so many dark moments in my life – I suppose most of it stems from the disability, as I go through both mental and physical turmoil and pain on a regular basis. I accepted that as a fact of life long ago.   That said, I’ll always remember NABD, I’ll always remember this moment, and no matter how I’m feeling, I feel like I can always come here and see a moment in time when I felt invincible. A moment where I looked out and thought ‘christ, I’m not a waste of space after all’.  That was NABD’s power, and that was your power as an audience.

The thing is, it wasn’t just a moment for me, but for everyone in the tent. We stood (me barely) together, you beautiful people and me, just for a moment, and I fucking loved it.  From what could’ve been a disaster, my life changed forever, and not only that, it reminded me who I was, who I could be, and opened the door to what I’d become later.  It seemed to set off an incredible rolling momentum that seemed to spike my life into life itself, I rolled into a job into Manchester, I now live there, I got to do more comedy in more places than I ever imagined, I got to live out dreams, I got to fall in love, I got to do things I never thought I could.

Not to end on a downer, I’ll give myself the last words from that fateful day.  After a suitable amount of crying in a portaloo, a substantial amount of backslapping, an equally emotional moment watching a Spitfire fly over, and wondering if I was in some sort of fairytale of a day, I called home to share the news.  After playing it down as has been my wont for my entire existence, I closed with a line that I think aptly sums up a comedian’s life.

What do you think about KFC for tea tonight?”

For you can be fantastic or terrible, they can love you, or they can hate you, but ultimately, once the light goes off, it’s time to get off the stage.  All you can do is hope for a moment that you remember.   NABD gave me that.  And it meant everything.

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