Jeremy Hardy obituary: Comedian who put politics at the heart of his humour
Despite huge numbers of opportunities on radio and television, he remained committed to live work, touring theatres with his solo shows
Jeremy Hardy: in 1988 he won the Perrier award, one of British live comedy’s most prestigious accolades, at the Edinburgh festival fringe. Photograph: William Conran/PA Wire
Born: July 17th, 1961
Died: February 1st, 2019
Many people have the ability to express their political beliefs coherently, and many people have the ability to be funny. Jeremy Hardy, who has died of cancer aged 57, had an astonishing ability to do both things at the same time.
For well over 20 years, Hardy was a regular and popular panellist on both I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – where he was notorious for his singing, which defied description as well as definition as singing – and The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4. As well as being a reliable contributor to these panel shows, he also wrote and recorded an astonishing 10 series, around 50 episodes, of his own show, Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation (1993-2014).
Hardy was born in Farnborough, Hampshire, the youngest of five children of Sheila (nee Stagg) and Don Hardy. His father was head of spacecraft operations at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the town, and oversaw the launch of the Prospero satellite.
Hardy went to Farnham college and then to the University of Southampton to study modern history and politics – a study that in some respects never ended and became the backbone of his approach to life and to comedy.
He moved to London in the early 1980s, and soon benefited – ironically, given his politics – from an initiative brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s government, the Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Provided that he could prove that he had a business plan, Hardy, who at the time was living in a squat, could be taken off the dole and have £40 a week. His business plan, quite simply, was to be a comedian.
He started out performing short sets of about five or 10 minutes in a variety of open-mic nights at venues around London. Verbal violence from the crowd was common – physical threat not unknown. This was the atmosphere in which he learned his trade, a world away from the respectable safety of Radio 4.
Although he was adept at silliness – with a flair for inspired, sometimes outright surreal similes – from the earliest days his socialist beliefs were a thread that ran throughout his comedy, as they did his life and his campaigning.
He greatly inspired other comics. In 1986, Jack Dee – at the time a somewhat disenchanted restaurant manager – visited the Comedy Store and decided he wanted to be a comedian as a direct result of the people he saw on stage that night. Hardy was on the bill, performing in a cardigan and with pint in hand.
“He held the audience in the palm of his hand,” Dee remembered. “He was just brilliant.”
The two became close friends, and Dee’s career is in many ways a part of Hardy’s legacy.
In 1987, he made a small contribution to Ireland’s burgeoning comedy scene, sharing the bill with Steve Murray, Michael Redmond and Hattie Hayridge on the opening night of the short-lived Vatican Comedy Club at the Quaker Meeting House in Dublin’s Temple Bar.
Hardy always resolutely ploughed his own furrow. It was not long after that that he decided he no longer wanted to be part of the circuit as such, and decided to start pushing himself forward as a solo artist, writing longer shows and putting them on in different theatres, irrespective of how big his audience might be. It was about finding the space to explore ideas at greater length, in front of audiences who were temperamentally – if not always ideologically – willing to join him on the journey.
This approach to his craft soon paid off, and in 1988 Hardy won the Perrier award, one of British live comedy’s most prestigious accolades, at the Edinburgh festival fringe.
Despite huge numbers of opportunities on radio and television, he remained committed to live work, touring theatres with his solo shows as recently as last summer and playing to a significant and devoted following of fans, from Radio 4 listeners to socialist newspaper-sellers (though he would point out that those could often be the same people).
While he was perhaps best known for his radio work, Hardy appeared regularly on television from the mid-1980s. In addition to panel shows such as If I Ruled the World, QI and Mock the Week, he made a hilarious appearance as Corporal Perkins in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) and in 1996 – to his lasting amusement – even presented Top of the Pops.
In 2002 he travelled to Palestine to make the film Jeremy Hardy Versus the Israeli Army, a documentary directed by Leila Sansour about the work of the International Solidarity Movement, and a suitable subject for a man who found the Palestinian struggle central to his internationalist politics.
Hardy is survived by his second wife Katie Barlow, his daughter Elizabeth from his first marriage; by his sisters Susan, Joy and Serena, and his brother, Simon.