'As good things go, she went," was a typical ditty from the poet and stand-up comedian Hovis Presley, who has left the building prematurely aged just 44. An unusual and down-to-earth talent, he appealed to audiences of all backgrounds and ages.
Pathologically unambitious, he nevertheless managed to support John Shuttleworth on tour, appear on television on the BBC3 poetry show Whine Gums and Channel 4's stand-up showcase Gas, and broadcast frequently on local and national radio (Mark Radcliffe was a huge fan). He also published a collection of his work, Poetic Off-Licence, in 1993 (updated and reissued in 1997 as Poetic Off-Licence Holiday Annual), to unanimous praise.Born Richard Henry McFarlane in Bolton in 1960, he impressed his teachers so much with an early sketch he had written that they wanted to include it in the end-of-year revue. Reluctant to accept such a public endorsement of his talent, he acquiesced only with the promise of five Curly Wurlys: not for personal consumption, but because they'd make amusing props in the ultimate production of the piece.
At the age of 29 the Bard of Bolton ambled shambolically on to the burgeoning North-West comedy scene, which began at the Buzz Club. He helped set the template for what is now a flourishing circuit alongside such emerging talents as Steve Coogan, Martin Bigpig, Caroline Ahearne and Dave Spikey (who recently described him as the best comedian in the North-West). Peter Kay's homespun lack of pretension and Johnny Vegas's pathos-riddled idiot savant can both trace their lineage directly back to Presley.The immense skill of his lugubrious performance style was that it seemed effortless. Physically reminiscent of Michael Moore after a night asleep in a hedge, he had a crumpled, shabby demeanour that was beguiling because he seemed genuinely unaware that he was funny. As he peppered his poetry with pithy one-liners, his hangdog indifference enabled him to turn outrageous puns into sublime nuggets of genius. He performed his compositions with all the gusto of the cartoon character Droopy on Mogadon:
Doves take flight, Lisa Stansfield sings,
And Bobby Charlton's haircut forms the five Olympic rings
was as excited as he got about the Manchester Olympic bid.
His poems were infused with bittersweet, dry, Northern wit, eschewing the satirical edge and thrusting zeal of his friend John Cooper Clarke in favour of self-effacing humanity.
"I Rely On You", an unromantic yet beautifully humdrum piece, contains such gems as:
I rely on you like a handyman needs pliers
like an auctioneer needs buyers
like a laundromat needs driers
like The Good Life needed Richard Briers.
Presley lost count of the number of couples who requested permission to use the poem in place of traditional wedding vows.After he had successfully straddled the poetry and stand-up scenes for some years, his second Edinburgh Fringe show - 1997's Wherever I Lay My Hat, That's My Hat - looked set to cement his reputation. To no one's surprise but his own, it became a critically lauded sell-out hit, won universal five-star reviews and was tipped to win the Perrier Award. Opening the show by deadpanning, "Well, you could cut the atmosphere with specialist atmosphere-cutting equipment", he was hailed as a genius by The Guardian. The precipice of success had a giddying effect on this most unassuming of men. Presley vanished, and the shows had to be pulled. Concerned for his safety, the police instigated a search, eventually finding him shaken and unwilling, or unable, to perform.For all his insight and on-stage ability, Hovis Presley was an innocent: a shy, selfless man uncomfortable in a world of slick media executives and bogus schmoozing.
Latterly, he promoted smaller, more intimate gigs, mixing poetry, comedy, music and darts matches. It was a disorganised but inclusive approach, far more his style than the increasingly homogenised and corporate comedy clubs that inevitably sprang up in the wake of the circuit's early success.He threw himself into charity functions for no charge, supported experimental performance nights and was a well-liked teacher. As a lifelong football fanatic he was tickled by the fact that one of his students became the Tannoy announcer at his beloved Bolton Wanderers. When teaching a drama module at Salford University he used his influence to facilitate spots for his young charges at comedy clubs like the Frog and Bucket and XS Malarkey, always showing up to lend his support.
He had a large and loyal circle of friends, and had travelled the world extensively. He recently said, "If I'd known life at 44 could be this much fun I wouldn't have spent so much of my teens worrying." Shortly after, he suffered from a heart attack, and, after six weeks in a coma, as good things go, he went.
Toby Hadoke: taken from The Independent, 13 June 2005. Reproduced by kind permission.