Mike Elliott, who has died of cancer aged 68, was a prominent part of the North East entertainment scene for years. DAVID WHETSTONE looks back at his life.
He was a big man, Mike Elliott – big frame, big personality. In a corner of this newspaper office – last resting place of the old ‘cut and paste’ clippings – there’s a big brown packet, too, stuffed with interviews Mike gave (usually over a pint) and the stories he was involved in.
The newsprint may have faded to sepia but the utterances of Mike ‘the mouth’ Elliott still roar fresh off the page – just as they did in the clubs where he entertained and over the airwaves when he was broadcasting for North East radio stations.
He was a great interviewee, making you think and laugh all at once.
He had principles and he stuck to them, loudly and fulsomely, sticking up for striking miners and redundant shipyard workers across the North East of the 1980s and early 90s.
Sunderland-born, he was a former schoolteacher who saw classroom action in Hartlepool, Horden and Sacriston.
In 1983 an interviewer noted how he could pepper his conversation with references to literary giants such as Thackeray, Jane Austen and PG Wodehouse while also lambasting the Government of the day (that of bête noir Margaret Thatcher).
He would recall trips to see variety shows at the Sunderland Empire with his mother and gran and found an outlet for his own need to entertain in the folk clubs which used to be common. He was of the ilk of Jasper Carrott, Billy Connolly and Max Boyce, finding a route into comedy via music and embracing both, often warming up for Lindisfarne on the road.
Once I asked him if he had a childhood ambition. We were talking in the bar of a football stadium at the time but surprisingly – this being the football-daft North East – that wasn’t it.
“A priest,” he replied in all earnestness. “Catholic, see.”
He added that he “got rid of that quite early, in my teens” but went on to say: “I never thought I’d be working on a stage. I kind of drifted into it. I went to college and did drama.”
Drama led to education which led to folk which led to comedy, an arena in which angels might fear to tread.
“I can tell you the eight times I’ve died on stage,” said Mike in that interview at St James’ Park (uncomfortable territory for a ‘Mackem’ but we’ll come to that).
“Not a bad record but I can tell you the dates, what the room was like, what happened. It’s not just me – every comedian.
“I did one in the Middle East which I don’t count because the audience was predominantly Omanis and Dutch. The British were miles away from me. That lasted about four minutes.”
Comedy clubs didn’t exist when Mike was starting to ply his laughter-generating trade. Arguably the rules were tougher, less forgiving.
Mike could explain all too easily what it was like when the routine was not going well.
“The mouth dries up, you maybe start talking faster and you start chopping and changing because you don’t trust any of it.
“You’re praying that someone will have the common kindness to take you off. Or else you walk off, thinking: there goes the fee. You reconcile yourself to that very quickly. No amount of money will keep you on stage.”
The opposite, he explained, could also happen. A routine he considered a bit “iffy” could hit the collective funny bone, leading to some serious self-examination.
“You wonder if you were being taken for a ride. It can raise a lot of self doubt.”
Mike didn’t look like a man much given to anguish but it must have been the case on some occasions. He said, in that interview back in 1991, that he appreciated the pressure from young people on comedians to avoid jokes or remarks deemed racist or sexist.
“It makes me question things and look at each topic from a lot of angles,” he said.
At that time, he insisted, he was steering away from topicality although he didn’t rule out a bit of politics even though it could be misconstrued.
He recalled a routine he tried once about the National Front which involved reading from its own literature. To many it would have been clear that he was sending it up but: “In one case they totally misunderstood it and they got quite nasty.”
He went on suggest North East audiences were a bit sharper than those down south (although this might have been another of those views he would eventually temper).
“The further south you go, the slower they get. But in the North East they do expect to see you work. I think you can get away with a bead of sweat in London. They want a bucketful up here.”
In 1982 a six-episode series made by Mike for Tyne Tees TV was banned as “unsuitable” by ruling body the Independent Broadcasting Authority. It had promised to be Mike’s big break and had been years in the planning and the making. It cost him thousands in lost transmission fees and bookings.
Producer Heather Ging said: “To say I’m hopping mad and that Mike is disappointed is putting it mildly.
“I admit that Mike’s style of humour, which is hard-hitting and abrasive but very, very relevant and funny, is not for the faint-hearted.
“But this is an age of straight-from-the-shoulder honesty and we’re not Victorians pretending that certain aspects of life don’t exist. Mike is out to attack hypocrisy and, unlike a lot of very strong comics, he is warm, funny and intelligent.”
Mike had the last laugh. Tyne Tees kept faith, offering him a one-hour slot instead, and then the infant Channel 4 took an interest and At Last It’s Mike Elliott hit the small screen.
That St James’ Park interview was occasioned not by stand-up or TV but a new Alan Plater play called Going Home which had had a massively successful run in Newcastle and was being revived for a tour starring Mike, Tim Healy, Denise Welch and others.
The play was about an exiled Geordie called Bob (Healy) returning home after 30 years to find yuppies (those young, upwardly mobile folk of the Thatcher era), the Metrocentre and Mike Elliott’s Kenny, a teenage Jack the Lad turned property developer.
Bob’s a Newcastle United fan. Hence the interview location.
Kenny, said Mike, was “totally opposite to me. I’ve managed to keep my beliefs as a socialist. This guy hasn’t.
“In a way, though, he talks a lot of sense. Nothing lasts for ever. It’s a fact of life, that. He believes if he wasn’t doing what he does, somebody else would be.
“Tim’s character is typical of the guy who goes away and then, when he comes back, wonders why things have changed. They go away saying the trouble with the North East is that it’s all cloth caps and whippets and leeks.
“When they come back they’re the first things they look for, hoping it’s all stayed the same.”
Nothing does last for ever and things do change. Mike Elliott, while he was around, voiced many of the things North East people liked to hear and a few they didn’t.
Nobody is ever really larger than life but he gave it a good run for its money.