Comedians of the Manchester Comedy circuit 1993 – 2023:
Stan Vernon with Hovis Presley, Caroline Jones and Tony Skipp.
This is a bit late….My friend, the comedian Stan(Steve) Vernon died during the pandemic in September 2020; I didn’t write anything at the time because the pandemic was miserable enough. I wanted to write a story down though because Stan was great and the Manchester comedy scene has always been rich over the years with fantastic people…..
Stan Vernon was a wild-eyed comedian and working-class hero; a builder by trade, he had the lump-hammered looks of a photofit thug but would go against type on stage, surprising audiences with smart, surreal, rants. I think he was just pissed on stage sometimes – or maybe I’m romanticising the past because this was the 1990’s and I quite liked Oasis…
You know what, I don’t think I can write an obituary like this – Stan liked stories, as long as they had a grain of truth. He had an energy on stage and off; he didn’t mind silences on stage or making mistakes or making people feel uncomfortable as well as piss themselves laughing. He also loved comedy and comedians. Here’s a story of a gig we did instead, with as much of the truth and Stan’s rants/descriptions as I can remember. (Oh, I’m writing this quickly on New Years Eve 2022, chances are I might end up just rambling and making it all about me – but if I do, fuck it – he’d think that was hilarious as well.)
Stan rang me from a phone box – it was 1999, maybe mid-morning, definitely Boxing Day, or was it the day after Boxing Day; I remember that I was hungover and the details are as blurry now as they were then. I was complaining about my hangover and Stan was trying to convince me to do a last-minute afternoon charity comedy gig that he’d arranged with the comedian Caroline Jones in Manchester city centre.
“It’s for the homeless you tight fucker,” Stan said. “You’ll be alright, they’ll be miles more pissed than you!” Although Stan was an eloquent, sometimes bizarre performer on stage; off stage he was straight-down-the-line funny as f*@k
Stan was originally a brickie; but one of those old fashioned, workers-united, smart fuckers, who were under-represented in all the comedy routines of the 1990’s – where a thick builder would lean over scaffolding whistling at tits. He was a skinhead, but an original, old-skool skinhead who loved his Ska. I can still hear him launching into one of his half drunken rants in the pub after a gig, about how the Nazi-skinheads had nicked the Ska look, how he’d love to “reverse-1984 the daft Nazi fuckers…lock em in Room 101 and play them two fucking minutes of Skinhead Moonstomp (a Symarip tune) just to make them happy… and nudge them into the proper section of the record shop.” Ha. I think he followed it with a rant about Eileen Derbyshire from Coronation Street. Ha. Ace.
“Meet you at Viccy Station – one o’clock,” Stan said; as the pay-phone pips pecked my head, the phone went dead and he was gone. Cheeky fucker. My hungover brain had drifted off during the phone call, and now I had no idea what I’d agreed to.
Victoria (Viccy) Station, on the edge of Manchester city centre, was a mess in 1999; a beautiful, dilapidated building, still clinging to it’s Victorian past, covered in scaffolding, waiting patiently for the future. It was an awful place to have a hangover – someone was always hammering on scaffolding and the tannoy had the Dalek-effect turned up to eleven as they announced train arrivals like threats.
“Hovis Presley’s a genius.” Stan said, as he met me off the tram. No “hello” or “how yer doing?” – just straight into comedy talk. I agreed. Of course I agreed. Hovis Presley was the complete deadpan comedy genius. A comedy poet from Bolton, he performed to much acclaim throughout the 1990’s and early noughties and sadly passed away in 2005… but go and buy his book; yes, this is a plug for Hovis Presley’s book, twenty years late and in someone else’s obituary but Stan loved Hovis, so fuck it.
“Hovis might die on his hole at this gig though, so we’ll put him in the middle.” Stan said.
He was probably right. There’s a skill to putting together a good comedy show – in this case where to put an eccentric comedy genius like Hovis Presley, so he could be heard and thrive.
Where’s the gig?” I asked.
“So, Hovis in the middle….” Stan continued, avoiding my question. “Tony Skipp can’t make it, I saw him last night.”
Tony Skipp was another comedian who Stan loved to bits. Stan always thought Tony’s rightful place was up at the Edinburgh festival, shouting his eventful life story at TV producers until they had no choice but to make the TV series – Tony Skipp grew up in 1970’s Moss Side, was in care for a while and had an amazing story to tell. I’m not sure there was as much opportunity back then for people like Tony Skipp to take shows to Edinburgh, I don’t think many comedians used to think like that – Tony just really enjoyed telling gags in comedy clubs around the North West. One of Stan’s favourite lines was where Tony S would be talking about the fact that his dad was black but he was white: “A lot of people ask me – why’s your dad black? And I tell them – it’s because he’s fuckin Nigerian!!”
It doesn’t look much written down, but Tony Skipp would wrap his M16 accent around that punchline and most of the audience would fall about laughing, with one or two holding back, trying to work out whether they were allowed to laugh or not… just as a few faces were staring at us now as Stan loudly echoed Tony’s line to the rest of the train station.
“….because he’s fucking Niiiiigerian!” Stan’s face wrinkled with laughter as he replayed the gig he’d done with Tony Skipp the night before.
“So where’s our gig?” I asked.
“Just round the corner.” Stan said. Dodging the question again, so I started getting suspicious. “Caroline Jones’s compering – she’s got the gift of the gab, Salford girls innit. Talking of which,” Stan said, as he nodded into the distance.
“I’m not a manic depressive, I’ve just had a red bull.” I’m sure Caroline Jones said this into her mobile phone, clicking it off as she walked up to us in Victoria Station.
I remember laughing at what she said. I’m sure she had a mobile phone and mentioned red bull – they were both quite rare back then so it lodged in my head. Comedians never really mentioned mental illness either twenty years ago – off stage or on – and I think Caroline was talking about all that in the late 1990’s. Who knows. My memory’s not great – I know that Caroline was and still is naturally funny.
I saw Caroline recently and I mentioned this whole gig-story to her and she said it all happened in about 2001 not 1999 because she had Quinn, her son, with her, and he was about one at the time. My memory… Anyway, I’ve started it now so…. back to Victoria Station 1999.
“Did you sort the running order?” Caroline asked, as she re-tucked the blanket around her baby’s buggy. (Yes! I put her son in the story!)
“Hovis in the middle,” Stan said “I’ll go on first. Are you okay going on at the end Tony?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Fuck that”, I thought. I didn’t really know what the gig was yet. I just needed to get out of the train station because the drama of my hangover was starting to take over, and the screams of breaking trains and tannoy announcements were constant now and louder than god.
“The gig’s just round the corner.” Stan said, “It’s in a soup kitchen for the homeless.” And he grinned his gap-toothed grin that told me everything I needed to know.
“Alright,” I said.
The Homeless place was next to a railway arch behind Victoria station. Inside there was a kitchen with a serving hatch which looked out onto rows of tables full of homeless people – all wearing bitter-sweet paper crowns, finishing their Christmas dinner.
Caroline said they had one proper posh, sit down meal like this every year and the staff who kept the place going wanted to give them some entertainment after their food. That was us.
“This is amazing.” I said quietly, “but, not for a gig. We could be the people who ruin Christmas for the homeless.”
“They’ll be happy we’re here,” Stan said. “You’re too negative.”
We followed Caroline as she maneuvered her buggy towards our makeshift dressing room in the kitchen. I noticed there was a decent stage made out of pallets at the other end of the hall; a mic, PA, basic lighting. The gig was ready to go. While I’d been moaning about my hangover all morning, Stan, Caroline and her 1yr old had been in here turning the place into a proper gig. I’m a prick – this gig could be alright after all.
“There’s a homeless guy who thinks he’s Jesus,” Caroline said. “They said he might get up while we’re doing the gig and bless the stage, but he doesn’t usually get violent.”
Okay. Maybe it won’t be that great.
“I’ve had worse heckles,” Stan said.
“Which one is he? What’s he look like?” I asked, looking out into the homeless crowd through the hatch.
“He looks like fuckin Jesus dunt he,” Stan said. “It wouldn’t make a sense if he was a skinhead with a beer belly.”
Now, if you’re going to say something stupid, it’s probably best not doing it in a room full of comedians. I tried to make my excuses – I’m still hungover, I’d visited my mum in mental hospitals over the years, and there was always at least one bloke in every place who thought he was Jesus and they didn’t always look “exactly” like Jesus, so I’m not that stupid and… blah blah blah….
Luckily, as I was trying to justify being a div, Hovis Presley – the other act – shuffled into our dressing room with one of the soup-kitchen staff. We all thought Hovis had just arrived, but he’d been having a Christmas dinner with the homeless for the past hour and no-one had noticed.
“Turkey was a bit dry.” Hovis said, as he sat in the corner taking a notepad out of his Asda bag.
Caroline and Stan grinned towards me – Hovis wasn’t TV famous or anything but he was a superstar to us. It’s a cliché, but he had funny bones.
“Some of our audience are mentally ill.” The staff worker announced, instead of saying hello. “Have you any experience with mentally ill people?”
“Yeah, it’s all okay,” Caroline said. “We’re ready to start when you are.”
The staff worker left and Stan collapsed laughing. I don’t know whether he was still laughing at Hovis, scrounging a free Christmas dinner from the homeless, or at someone asking a room full of comedians if they knew anything about mental illness. It goes without saying that there was enough experience of mental illness in that dressing room to fill an Edinburgh Festival Brochure with shows for a decade.
That’s the problem I suppose, it always went without saying. With the exception of Caroline, no-one talked about mental illness back then.
I never mentioned anything about my family history – I just did nob gags. Hovis Presley’s act and poems on stage were beautifully crafted – full of non sequiturs, puns and word play, all drenched in poignant, Dandelion and Burdock mouthfuls of northern life. But Hovis was bipolar and had attempted to take his own life countless times. His arms were partly twisted because he smashed them up jumping out of a window; his slouched gait looked even more awkward on stage as a result, but was still somehow perfectly synchronized with every funny line.
Stan had tried to help Hovis over the years – he’d been with him in Edinburgh in 1997 when Hovis ran off from the festival in the middle of a hugely successful run that saw him tipped for the main Perrier award. Hovis just fucked-off and went missing in the Highlands for a few days and then went back to Bolton.
Stan continued helping him afterwards – he told me one time that he was trying to persuade Hovis to get some exercise, Stan said something like – “Swimming’s meant to be good for depression.”
“Drowning’s even better,” Hovis said.
And that was it.
That line is funny as fuck by the way – if it’s said on stage by a genius, deadpan comedian who suffers from bipolar disorder – but….you know….
Stan said he just left it after that and they never talked about it again.
“Life innit,” Stan said. “Blokes innit”.
Caroline Jones took to the stage; the homeless gig started, the adrenalin kicked in, my hangover dissolved and we got on with our job.
I think we were hyper aware the audience were all homeless, which put the usually fragile stand-up ego into perspective; if we didn’t get a laugh for a joke, it wasn’t too bad, we still had somewhere to live after the gig. Similarly, none of us were going to rush off stage shouting “absolutely smashed it to fuck pal!” – partly because we didn’t want to wake Caroline’s baby, who was now sleeping in the corner of the kitchen, as he did throughout the gig.
The show went okay, we did our job, we were relieved we got away with it. Then just as Caroline was finishing up – thanking all the comedians, the audience and the charity – someone shouted, “Show us your tits!”.
Normally, you’d destroy an audience member for heckling like that. But we’d all agreed beforehand that we’d try and play nice during the gig, as they were homeless and probably got “destroyed” everyday, just by life.
We all looked over from the side of the stage and saw Jesus standing up, shouting again at Caroline, “Show us your tits!”. Huh, it had to be Jesus. Caroline said something like, “okay, seen as its your birthday”. Ha. Ace. The place went up like a scruffy Palladium, and without missing a beat, Stan and Hovis both walked on stage, stood either side of Caroline, lifted up their shirts and showed the crowd and Jesus their middle-aged man-tits.
This nearly took the leaky roof off.
This is how gigs are meant to end, even Jesus laughed.
Fuckin smashed it, pal! – Soz.
It was a moment. A happy accident. It’s a joy when now and again you completely connect and create a moment that you’re still remembering 20 years later.
Stan was a “moment” I reckon….This is where I get a bit sentimental, but fuck it….
He seemed to crash land into people’s lives; change it, for the better in my case, just by knowing him, and then he just fucked off. Sometimes people like this can end up leaching the life out of you by accident before they do-one, but the opposite with Stan – he shined brightly, made me a better person and then fucked off when he was the one who needed help. I still can’t believe that to be honest – when he was the one who got ill and needed people around him – he just fucked off and no-one could get in touch with him.
“Life, innit”. “Blokes, innit”.
I wish there was a proper ending or a moral to this Christmas gig story…like in Dickens or Peppa Pig, but….erm, what the fuck d’you want? I tell nob gags in clubs.
Mainly…. I’m going to raise a glass to Stan tonight, two years too late…but fuck it…. might read a poem by Hovis Presley.
Cheers Stan Vernon, and everyone else in this story.