Veteran comic, folk singer-songwriter, author, broadcaster and playwright Mike Harding is set to visit 17 small theatres and arts clubs in May.
From Keswick to Barnsley via Pocklington, Mike has a busy few weeks ahead of him, and it’s not a case of ‘folk singer-songwriter does stand-up’ either.
Instead, the 71-year-old is offering poetry readings – drawing upon four published poetry anthologies – alongside excerpts and tales from his forthcoming autobiography, The Adventures of the Crumpsall Kid.
With his CV also mentioning plays, internet radio and TV broadcasts and a passion for fell-walking and fly-fishing, it’s hard to pigeon-hole Mike.
Once described by Billy Connolly as the ‘funniest man in England’, you can add multi-instrumentalist, photographer and filmmaker to that resume.
While skim-reading his biography, I mis-read Grandfather Clock too. It really said Grandfather of Folk though. Is that a title he’s proud of?
“I don’t mind what you call me, as long as it’s not rude!”
So how does this tour differ?
“This isn’t my usual stand-up, although I did four of those a couple of years back – 20 nights each – and it was fun, great to be back on the road.
“It was also effortless. My friend Geoff (Sargieson) did the driving while I got the train. It’s no fun anymore being on the M6 for three hours on a Friday afternoon for a half-hour journey.
“I had a new poetry book out a year or so back and did a couple of festivals. Geoff was impressed, said, ‘This show’s got legs’, and we decided to do this tour.
“In the meantime I signed a contract to write my autobiography with Michael O’Mara Books. I’ve done 106,000 words, have 4,000 to do, and I’m only up to my A-levels!
“It could end up being a trilogy, at least a duology. I’ll be reading from that, mostly funny stuff, and reading a few poems – a mixed evening of anecdotes and readings.”
Will there be many opportunities to sleep in your own bed during this tour?
“Not many, but I don’t mind that. You put yourself in one end of the tunnel and get into the mentality that this is your job and you have to give people value for money.
“And at the other end you get out and hopefully you’ve enjoyed it yourself too. The minute I don’t enjoy it, I won’t do it.”
One of those May dates sees Mike play Chorley Little Theatre, my excuse for getting in touch. Has he played there before?
“Yes, way back, with Hamish Imlach. If I remember right, that night there were 30 glasses of brandy lined up in front of him on the stage, and he worked his way through. Amazing.
“This was the late ’60s. In those days I didn’t drink before a show then and couldn’t drink during a show. I don’t know how he did it. You wouldn’t have thought he’d even had a drink.
“The folk scene in those days was full of characters like that. All very anarchic.”
It was in 1967 that Mike started telling jokes during a gig at Leeds University, filling in a few awkward gaps while his band, The Edison Bell Spasm Band, tuned up.
That patter became part of the act, and when the jokes dried up he delved into a few real-life stories.
“The band came from the Bury and Radcliffe area, smashing lads, really good musicians, with a mate called Stef Hoyle on jug, now living around Chorley, John Hemingway on guitar, and Dave Hardy on washboard, who sadly died quite recently, far too young.
“We’d do university and pub gigs with this little jug band and John was taking a long time to tune up for Davey Graham’s Angi, so I started chatting to the audience.
“I told jokes, then ran out and started ad-libbing. That was the lightbulb moment when I realised, ‘This works’.
“I went on the road as a solo act and the first couple of gigs were dire. I was rubbish. I was so used to having the band behind me as a foil.
“I’d say, ‘Dave only discovered last week you should play washboard with thimbles, which is why he’s got such incredibly short fingers’. But all my old routines had gone without the band.
“I soldiered on though, running a folk club in Blackley, Manchester, working in a book shop, eventually going back to university as a mature student.
“I had kids by then and paid my way through college working in folk clubs at night. By 1971 I’d got to the stage where I could either have gone into teaching with my degree or on the road.
“I gave teaching a year because I did enjoy it, but then I had a full diary for the next year, so it made no sense to pack it in. I was enjoying it, building up a following.
“Then in 1975 I made a ridiculous single about the Rochdale Cowboy ….”
I thought he was coming to that, and it will be 40 years ago this August, to be precise. So is he a one-hit wonder and proud?
“Aye! People ask if I get fed up being called the Rochdale Cowboy, but I remind them of George Formby being asked if he got fed up of being associated with Wigan.
“When George headed home from Blackpool he always made a dog’s leg to go through Wigan. When he got to the middle of town he pressed a button on his Rolls Royce window, stuck his head out and shouted, ‘Thanks very much Wigan!’
“I’ve not got a Rolls Royce, and don’t want one, but thanks very much the Rochdale Cowboy, which put me on the road doing theatre and TV and paid for my kids’ education. I’m very grateful for that.
“It was a daft summertime single, like Benny Hill’s Ernie. The b-side got more plays, Strangeways Hotel, but not on the radio – it was too bawdy for the average punter.
“It would have gone even higher in the charts if not for Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy and huge confusion – people coming out of shops with the wrong song.
“Actually, there’s a kink to this tale. I was on the island of Benbecula trout-fishing a couple of years back and in the pub that night this fella told me a woman at the post office wanted a word.
“Word had gone round that I was around. I went down and she said, ‘You got me in a lot of trouble. My husband sent me – and bear in mind it was a seven-hour boat trip from there – to get him a copy of Rhinestone Cowboy’.
“She said, ‘I went back with your single, and he was no pleased!’
“Yep, 14 hours on a boat and she bought him the wrong record! I think they probably turned that copy into a plant pot with some hot water.”
I tend to associate Mike with a group of folk-singers-turned-comics who broke through around that era, including Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott, Max Boyce and Chorley’s own, Phil Cool.
“I’ve thought about this before. It seemed to me we were there at the right time. TV is a monster that eats you up and spits you out and I think people were fed up of the men in the velvet smoking jackets with big floppy ties and mother-in-law jokes.
“Some were absolutely brilliant, but audiences – as they always are – were looking for something fresh.”
Mike added that he was proud to have played a part in Phil Cool’s ‘discovery’ on that circuit.
“He’s one of the most talented men I’ve come across in my life. I saw Phil at the Band on the Wall in Manchester on this punk night, and he was just brilliant.
“I was living between Manchester and the Dales at the time and would often go for a last pint at The Band on the Wall, one of my favourite haunts at the end of the night.
“He followed this terrible punk band called Housewife and the Burglars. I was so knocked out. There were no props, but he could just do that with his face and his voice was perfect, with all the intonation and accents spot on.
“I went to the BBC a couple of days later and was friends with a producer there, Barry Bevan, and said, ‘You’ve got to go and see this bloke’.
Before all that though, it was the likes of Lonnie Donegan and the early skiffle bands that initially made Mike realise this was the life for him.
“Absolutely right, that and the Bert Weedon play-in-a-day guitar book.”
Does he have any memories of sharing a bill with The Beatles in those formative band days?
“Well, it was obvious there was something incredibly different about them and bands like The Hollies.
“We also played with a band featuring Shane Fenton, who became Alvin Stardust, and he was a great man and a good entertainer.
“With The Beatles it was obvious they had star quality and were very special. Even though we were on the same bill and they were only getting paid slightly more, they’d gone that extra mile.”
Did this Crumpsall lad ever think he’d still be out on the road doing something he loved at the age of 71? If he’d have carried on teaching, he’d have long since retired.
“I don’t want to put my feet up. I was up at six this morning working on the last bits and pieces of the book. I don’t ever want to retire.
“I’ve done books on photography, fly-fishing, walking the Himalayas and in Ireland, all things I enjoy doing.
“Even though it’s tiring at times, hard at times, and frustrating at times, it never felt like work.”
I can feel another illustrative Harding anecdote coming on.
“Years ago, when I was married with two kids before my mature student days, I’d been doing various jobs – digging holes in the road, steel-erecting, boiler-scaling, dustman, road-digger, bus-guard, carpet-fitter, and got this job working in a chemical factory.
“I was sweeping the floor one day in my overalls in this big storage depot, and this foreman in a brown coat, a pocketful of pens and a clipboard, with nothing better to do than check up on everybody else, was watching me.
“He said, ‘Who the f**k taught you how to sweep a floor? That’s not how you hold a brush’. He put his clipboard down, took the brush out of my hands and started sweeping towards him rather than away.
“I thought, that’s daft, you’re putting chemicals all over your feet. I copied him until he’d gone, then did it my way … Frank Sinatra worked at that factory as well.
“Anyway, I thought no matter what happens to me in my life, I’ll never again be in a position where someone can come and take a brush out of my hand.
“It took a while, but I got there in the end. I’ve been very lucky. Since 1971 I’ve never worked for anyone else.
“I never had an agent, never had a manager, and my relationship with Geoff is one of friendship, working together on various projects.”
That initial hit with Rochdale Cowboy effectively gave Mike the springboard to play all over the world and he’s gone on to make more than 20 albums.
Does Mike, now based in Settle, ever get back to Rochdale now?
“I still have a little flat in Manchester for when I’m working there, but we were living in Altrincham when I wrote that hit song, and I have no real links back there now.”
There are plenty of other passions too, like his part in a campaign to reinstate the Wensleydale Railway, support for Right to Roam rambling causes, and speaking out for traditional story-telling initiatives.
Then there’s the broadcasting and writing, the books and plays, and all over a wide range of subjects too.
His BBC Radio 2 folk, roots and acoustic show won Mike a huge audience, and while that ended after 15 years at the end of 2012, he is currently enjoying major success at the helm of his own weekly internet show.
Apparently, there were 500,000 downloads from more than 120 shows as of last year, with Mike now going out live across the airwaves in Canada, Australia and Ireland as well as over the worldwide web.
“Our show is the No.1 folk show in the world on Podomantic, and all done from a shed in Yorkshire”.
Talking of the White Rose county, he clearly has an affection for his adopted Yorkshire – as he should after 40-plus years there, although that might not go down too well in these parts.
“I’ve been there on and off since 1971. I’m what they call an agent provocateur, a Lancastrian in their midst.
“But Yorkshire folk are like Lancashire folk – North Country, and there’s a marked difference between that and the South, just as there is with the Geordies”.
I’ll stand up for my own South-East roots there, quoting Fred Dibhah, who once said, “There’s awkward buggers wherever you live’.
“Oh, there are! And some parts of the South are very different. My daughter’s living in Kent and I like it down there, the people are very welcoming. I go into shops and think, ‘This is like back home.”
Of course, others might know Mike better for his work on cult children’s cartoon Dangermouse between 1981 and 1992 for now sadly-defunct Chorlton-cum-Hardy studio Cosgrove Hall Films, co-writing episodes and composing the music.
Unsurprisingly, he has an anecdote about that David Jason and Terry Scott-voiced project too.
“I had a cottage in Ireland and was asked to open an arts festival out there. I said no one will know who I am, but they said Seamus Heaney couldn’t come as he was ill, so I agreed to go along.
”There were around 600 people, mostly kids from sixth form down, and first I mentioned how I worked for the BBC and a folk programme and made various films.
“Then I said I also wrote the music for Dangermouse, and they went wild!”
Wasn’t he involved with spin-off series Count Duckula too?
“Indeed, in fact it’s my voice at the end that says, ‘Duckula … Count Duckula!’
“They’ve redone Dangermouse now, but I’m not sure when it’s going out. It was great working for those people at Cosgrove Hall though.
“They were lovely folk, and it was just terrible when Mark Hall died. Both Mark and Brian Cosgrove were great to work with.
“When you work with like-minded people and all you want to do is make something good, it’s effortless and there’s no competition.
“They got me in and explained how Dangermouse was a sort of James Bond mouse, but at the time it just wasn’t happening.
“I told them it wasn’t happening because they were making a mouse do James Bond type things, and they needed to accept the fact that he was a bloody mouse, so he could do anything!
“In the first episode I wrote, Baron Greenback was stealing all the bagpipes in Scotland to make a big sonic gun. Once you do stuff like that, and have planets made of cheese and all that …. Well, sometimes you just need someone from outside to come in with a fresh idea.”
On a more solemn note, one of Mike’s more poignant songs, Bombers’ Moon, is written about his father, Flight Sergeant Louis Arthur ‘Curly’ Harding, who was killed returning from an RAF mission just four weeks before Mike’s birth in 1944.
He’s written a related play about that night and the Lancaster crew too, undertaking a fair bit of research over the years.
“I have, and soon learned that Bomber Command didn’t have a specific medal like all the other major campaigns.
“My father was involved in flying from Archangel when they bombed the Tirpitz and got a Russian Star for that, but no campaign medal. That fascinated me, yet this wasn’t just morbid curiosity.
“There’s always been a sense of loss in my life, and when I was a kid everyone else had a Dad, but I didn’t. Thankfully, their Dads made it back from the war.
“In researching his plane I found out a lot via the log books. After 30 missions you were usually stood down and became an instructor, and this crew were due to come off. But then they volunteered for this mission on September 23, 1944, and on that night were shot down coming back from bombing a night-fighter airfield in Munster.
“I found out all this through 9 Squadron Bomber Command, and have been to the aerodrome where they flew out.
“It was a curious thing to stand in that RAF control tower in Bardney, Lincolnshire, one of the few remaining. Standing there, thinking back to that night he went down that runway right in front of me was very strange.
“We then found out that when the plane was falling from the sky, the bomb-aimer, Langley, managed to get himself out. He was the sole survivor.
“The Gestapo would have been looking for a complement of seven in that crew where it came down in this little village near Maastricht. But it turns out that another fella parachuted out of a burning plane and was killed, my father’s plane landing on top of him.
“That was tough, obviously, but at least meant they had the requisite number of corpses when the Germans came to take the dog-tags.
“They were buried in a little churchyard in the village of Holten, and a record kept by the local schoolteacher reported that Langley spent time playing Monopoly in a barn with an American serviceman that had also escaped.
“They were later picked up by the Dutch resistance and secretly housed until the end of the war.
“I also learned from the school teacher that his pupils put flowers on the grave each year and helped tend the grave.
“I wanted to write something about all that but just couldn’t for a long time, but then I thought more about this phrase, ‘bombers’ moon’.
“It hadn’t occurred to me at that stage how that was a double-edged thing. You could see the landscape but also it gave them a clear sight of you.
“I then sat at the piano and the phrase, ’44 in Bomber County, came to me along with the tune, and I had it all down in a short space of time. But I always say it took half an hour and a lifetime.”
There’s a related story too, one involving a colleague of Mike’s from his time working on troop concerts in Germany with the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS).
“My pal, Jurgen Boch, who died tragically of a brain haemorrhage, was from Cologne, Germany, and a senior recording engineer at BFBS.
“We met when I visited Cologne to work on concerts at all the camps out there. We became pals and he would stay with us in the Dales.
“We worked out that my father was bombing his home city one night while he was in his cellar. A very sobering fault – if he’d been maybe two streets away he could have copped it.”
There’s a clear anti-war message in Bombers’ Moon. Did those tragic circumstances colour your own world view?
“Not so much my world as my mother’s. There was this anti-Russian thing after the war with Churchill’s thoughts on the Iron Curtain and all that, yet he’d sat down with Stalin and Roosevelt at Yalta.
“My mum was a member of CND and was at Greenham Common, very active in the peace movement, and that did have an impact.
“There are lots of reasons why I’m completely anti-war, not least when I look back at the lads and lasses coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq now, their lives completely trashed by an illegal war.
“I wonder just what the politicians are doing. I’m completely against nuclear weapons too. How we can we justify frying an entire population?”
Mike also recorded a tribute on 1984 album, Bombers’ Moon, to the victims of the First World War, in his track The Accrington Pals.
“That was something that came from my great-grandmother. Even though she was Irish, her son – my Grandad – fought in the First World War and was captured in the Somme while with the Manchesters.
“He spent the war behind German lines in a prison camp, but came out fatter than when he went in, because he was a master tailor and the German officers got him to make their clothes and in turn fed him with sausages and brandy.
“But his mother was republican with a little ‘r’, and always said what a terrible thing it was that happened to those boys in Accrington.
“We were in Crumpsall, not a million miles away, and of course there were so many Pals regiments, including the Chorley Pals.
“So she inspired an interest, and once I’d read up on the Pals, the song – again – more or less wrote itself.”
All those years later, Mike reckons it was his Mum’s resilience and a general community spirit on his patch that helped get his family through those hard times of his childhood.
“My mother was one of that band of women that mourned and grieved but then got on with it.
“We had it tough when I was a kid, but there was a great atmosphere in the streets and sense of community.
“That’s how we ended up with our NHS and free education system, for those who had given six years of life to defeat Hitler and now wanted a different world.
“We’d go to Blackpool by coach, singing all the way there and back, with plenty of Christmas and street parties.
“My mother was on a war widow’s pension and my Irish grandmother, also living with us, also had hers – and neither of those pensions were very good.
“We slept under bundled overcoats, as was common for working class families at the time, and I never had a holiday with my family. I left home at 18 and had never been away before with my mum and her second husband, a Polish exile.
“When I joined the scouts, my Mum made my uniform, because she couldn’t afford to go to Black’s or the Scout and Guide Shop.
“There’s a piece in the book about going to Whittle-le-Woods, Chorley, for my first scout camp, having to carry my stuff in a kit-bag made from khaki canvas, as we couldn’t afford a rucksack.”
In fact, Mike sent a copy of a passage about that first Scout camp after our conversation, and it’s a highly-entertaining one, one suggesting The Adventures of the Crumpsall Kid will be a corking read.
I asked if there a bit of his Mum’s resilience and will to succeed in Mike too, in the way he’s battled for what he’s wanted in life. He thinks on his answer for a while.
“Years ago I was having a pint with Billy Connolly after a play I did for Manchester Youth Theatre, about the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, based around the Ewan MacColl song, I’m a Rambler.
“We were talking about someone else who’d not quite made it, despite being in the same situation as Billy and I on that folk stand-up circuit, and he said, ‘Yeah, he was incredibly talented but he never went that extra mile’.
“The difference between genius and being very good is sometimes 10,000 hours of practise. I’d work really hard at what I was trying to do with a show.
“I wouldn’t write down every word but I’d always have some kind of plan, so even though it looked like I was making it all up as I went along I knew where I was.”
With thanks to Ian Robinson at Chorley Little Theatre, where Mike plays on Wednesday, May 20 (with ticket details here).
Meanwhile there’s an in-depth account of the tragic Lancaster mission that inspired Mike’s Bombers’ Moon on the aircrewremembered.com site here, and details of Gordon Thorburn’s Bombers First and Last can be found here.