Interview with Mike Elliott
|by Chris Groom - March, 2001|
Anyone who has regularly attended Lindisfarne concerts during the last 23 years, will almost certainly have witnessed the comedic whirlwind that is Mike Elliott. His stage presence looms large over his audience, lulling them into a false sense of security with his warm, conversational style, before turning the whole routine on its head at a moments notice, taking the crowd with him as he careers wildly from the rehearsed to the surreal, rendering them helpless with laughter at every twist and improvised turn.
But there is far more to Mike than stand-up comedian - his popular one man show has reduced audiences to tears all around the world, but you are just as likely to have seen him on a provincial theatre stage or on national TV in shows such as Spender, Kavanagh QC or Byker Grove. You may even have dared to 'phone in to his late night radio show to trade words with 'Mike the Mouth'.
As if that wasn't enough, Mike is currently receiving massive praise for his role in the award-winning British film 'Billy Elliott' (no relation), where he appears on the big screen alongside Julie Walters and young Jamie Bell. Mr Elliott is a busy man these days, but Mike being Mike, he still found time to answer our questions - about his relationship with Lindisfarne in particular and his career in general - in between collaborating on a new board game and preparing his acceptance speech for the Oscars!
CG: I understand that you started out in the folk clubs during the sixties. Were you, like Mike Harding, Jasper Carrot and Billy Connolly, initially a singer whose between-song patter gradually took over?
ME: I started out during the early sixties as an unaccompanied traditional singer on the North East folk scene, running a few big folk clubs in Sunderland. It was a thriving scene - very exciting - a bit like the punk scene later on, in as much as it was all outside of the mainstream, but involved with a lot of politics; CND, student revolt, Vietnam etc. Connolly and the others started in much the same way. The clubs allowed for the development of a raconteur style of comedy and delivery, very much in the American style of comedian - aka Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and the like. Also some great comedy songs emerged - I formed a group called Northern Front, with Ed Pickford and Nick Fenwick, very funny and innovative and we ran the Londonderry Nicolodean Folk Music Hall - the biggest in the country! Northern Front never quite got round to making an album, but two of our songs are featured on a BBC compilation album called 'Folk on Friday', produced by Francis Line.
After college I turned pro. circa 1975, and started doing the working mens clubs under the name Eddie Fenwick - these were tough places - I didn't dare use my real name! By this time the act was all original comedy, plus a couple of songs It was great training and there was some amazing talent around; there was a big folk scene and I used to book Hully as a solo act - he wasn't a 'traddy' then, just fucking good! Pete Scott was around at that time too - lots of gigs and a good crack, plus all the trade union and political gigs, all energy, loads of energy and creativity.
CG: Your first album 'Out of the Brown' came out on Rubber Records in 1977 and the production team involved with it, Geoff Heslop and Mickey Sweeney, will be familiar names to the regulars on this website. Is this pretty much a record of your stage act at that time?
ME: Most of the album was recorded live at Wath-on-Dearne Rugby Club and yes, it's pretty much the act, but it does show the 'ad-lib' nature of it. The track 'Talking Crap' is a total ad-lib - what you hear on the album is the first time this was ever done - loads of material that just kept gushing out - it was a case of pick a topic and really go for it. I'm very proud of it.
CG: I first saw you as support to Lindisfarne on their '78 reunion tour. But how much further back does your association with the band go?
ME: Well, Hully was already a mate from the sixties folk club days. I obviously knew about Lindisfarne; I had seen them in all their other incarnations! - and I've always loved their music, I'm very proud of them. They are still a great band and always a very entertaining act; I never thought I would ever get to play with them, especially after the first break-up (all good things must pass but never say never!!)
The first reunion gig was truly amazing, frightening but fantastic. But the first night on the reunion tour itself, at Leeds University - wow! The band were crapping themselves. I went out and did over an hour - the stage was just a collection of tables stacked together!! It was a huge hall and the audience were jammed in, sweaty and really up for it. I came off stage, went into the dressing room and told the lads that I'd warmed up the crowd!! - which was an understatement. Geoff Wonfor was there - and by the end he was in tears, we all were. It was a fantastic gig; all the elements were in place - and they continued in place for the rest of the tour and beyond. That was the gig that brought back Lindisfarne - but oh boy, they were tougher, tighter, cleverer, funnier - ten times better (no, 100 times) better than the Lindy's mark 1. I'm so proud to have been there and a part of it.
CG: You must have hundreds of funny, sad or bizarre stories from being on tour with the band. Can you pick out a couple of good ones?
ME: Oh, there are stories and then there are stories. The thing is, a Lindisfarne tour is a very simple recipe: Have fun, be professional and give the audience the best gig they've ever had. And I think the lads were, and still are successful at keeping that recipe. There was the famous horseradish fight in a hotel somewhere, after a gig; which was started by Hully pinching my sarnie and me innocently flicking him with it. This quickly descended into an orgy of water - and the night porter kept us supplied with nice, tepid water, bless him! After that first reunion tour, the tour Xmas party at Mathers Kitchen in Newcastle turned into a full scale pie fight - easily equal to the one in 'The Great Race'. The lads paid for the clean-up; then the next year at the same place, the restaurant got in extra supplies and yep, we bettered our previous effort!!
I've been got at on stage so many times; I've been gaffer-taped to the stage and pelted, pied, socked, danced around, almost stripped naked etc, etc. The good thing is that I've not had my full revenge - YET!! The tours are a great crack, great tours especially with Chris Rea and the Cockney Boys - it's always the highlight of my touring year. As for the naughty stories well, there's money in them!!!
CG: You used the Pacamax as your backing band on the "At Last It's Mike Elliott" album. Did the band also appear on the 1984 Channel 4 TV series?
ME: Yes, Pacamax were set up by Jed Grimes specifically for the TV shows. The band comprised Jed, Brendan Healy, Billy Mitchell, Rod Clements and Ray Laidlaw - with me singing! The album has five songs by Pete Scott and one by Ed Pickford; it was produced by Geoff Heslop. The TV shows were recorded for Tyne Tees television, produced by Heather Ging, directed by Tony Bulley and transmitted by the newly launched Channel 4. Those shows were great fun - but got lost in the early Channel 4 launch and had no pre-publicity from the stations. I did it and paid for it all myself!! But those shows still hold up even now and are better than most new shows (I believe). An earlier one-hour TV special for Tyne Tees, 'Meet Mike Elliott' actually featured Lindisfarne in the show; this was 1982, Jacka was still in the band and it must have been around the time that 'Sunderland Boys' first found its way into the set. Heather was involved again, along with director Gavin Taylor who worked on The Tube.
CG: Can you pick out your favourite Lindisfarne track and is there a particular reason?
ME: I love them all. Obviously 'Winter Song' stands out, as does 'Malvinas Melody', 'Meet Me On the Corner' and 'Fog on the Tyne'. And Hully always knew I had a soft spot for 'All Fall Down'. I've got all the albums and play them regularly; they're still a big favourite band of mine.
CG: You've taken your one-man show all round the world, including becoming the first British comedian to play China. How much of your material - if any, do you change to suit the country you're working in?
ME: There's been plenty of travel, which has been great - and I'm still doing it and still ad-libbing new stuff. The material is rarely topical, unless it's for a specific purpose, i.e. the miners strike. A lot of the act could be adapted to suit whichever country I'm in, but I've always been able to create new material - I just read a lot, make notes, observe and then get on with it!
CG: Your CV proves that there is far more to Mike Elliott than stand-up comedian.Is there anything else that you still fancy having a go at?
ME: I've two main ambitions - the first is to win an Oscar for best actor; secondly, to have a sex change and win a second Oscar for best actress!! I'm now happily married (no. 2) with a beautiful wife and daughter and I'm enjoying all my work - so I just want to keep on breathing!
CG: Spender, Crocodile Shoes, Byker Grove, Close and True - and now Billy Elliott. Is dramatic acting a natural spin-off from the stand-up?
ME: I enjoy acting, preferring live stage work to TV and film; it's like a stand-up gig - there are no second chances. I've been fortunate to work with a lot of good actors and actresses and learned a lot - and I think it's also improved my comedy delivery.
CG: In one of the best British films for many years, your character 'George Watson' plays a fairly central role; he is a miner on strike, who runs the local boxing club and is the best friend of Billy's dad. It is certainly a terrific film, but have you been surprised at the recent success of 'Billy Elliott'?
ME: It has been a wonderful surprise. We all felt that we had a great story, which was being well told, but that few would ever get to see it. I remember talking to Julie Walters and Gary Lewis over dinner and I remarked that I'd seen a couple of Julie's films which I had never heard of but which were terrific; well worth a second viewing and yet they were languishing on late night satellite TV.
So, we enjoyed the making of Billy Elliott - it was a great all-round team effort, everyone deserves an award but we all thought that after its release in September it would be out on video by November and then on Sky TV in time for Xmas. Then - WHAM BAM it's a HUGE HIT - and adding award winner to its name. My wife and bairn and me are at the premiere and it's full of top celebs who are going ape-shit. There's ballerina Darcy Bussell standing cheering - along with actors Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Boyzone's Stephen Gately et al. The cameras are flashing - and we're just laughing dementedly - so much FUN - it just gets better and better. I'm off to the Oscars!!!
CG: Your late night talk show on Century Radio has been called "enthralling, shocking and controversial". For those of us outside the North East, can you tell us what we're missing and perhaps pick a typical moment?
ME: I am The ICON. Mike the Mouth on Century FM Late Nite Phone and Fun show! There is no typical thing - it's different every time - but I'll tell you, it ain't like the run of the mill phone-in. I'm not bothered if no one phones - I'll do 3 hours every night on me todd! Actually, this is my second go at it; I was sacked in January 2000 because they said I was pissed on air!! The truth was that I was stoned out of my tree - on Benolin. I was trying to fight off the flu bug that was going around - but they still wanted me out. I was too big for them!! And now Capital Radio own Century and they brought me back and it's FUN, FUN, FUN - I love it. Five years have passed in a flash. When you're next up in the North East, tune into Century on 100-102FM.
(Mike's show is on Sunday to Thursday, 9.00pm until midnight, call Century Radio on 0191-477 2000 and join in the fun - if you dare!)
CG: You're also involved in a new board game called 'Social Insecurity', which at first glance looks to me like a cross between Viz and Cluedo. How did that come about? (and when can we buy it!)
ME: No, not Viz, nor Cluedo - not even a poor mans Monopoly. It's simply a laff at debt - the idea that life can be fun even without cash. The game was actually invented in the Maggie Bank, North Shields - and the character Stan Blink is me!! The game was a big hit at the British Toy Fair this January and it's been put together by a company called 'Toys in the Attic' who are based in North Shields. I'll point you at the website for more details.
CG: Is there any truth in the rumour that you're going into politics?
ME: Look out Hartlepool - Mike the Mouth to stand against Peter Mandelson in the next General Election!! TRUE. The Icon Party, with the militant wing of the Social Insecurity caucus and their election agent, Stan Blink (incognito). We're busy building up information to launch the Icon Party Manifesto - and we're going to win! Mike the Mouth will accept bribes, now there's an honest politician So watch this space - the Social Insecurity web site will keep you informed as well as the Mike Elliott website. It could be fun!
CG: Finally, and with total disregard for the journalistic law that says never ask someone a question they can answer with a single word, which team will finish higher in the Premiership this season, Sunderland or Newcastle?
Many thanks to Pete Duncan for his help and to Mike for finding time to put pen to paper while rubbing shoulders with Darcy Bussell, attending the Baftas, the Oscars and preparing to scrap it out with Mandelson at the hustings - it could bring down the government!
P.S. The images were taken from The Icon's website.