Fire wrecks home of the Tunnel Club, Greenwich’s alternative comedy shrine

The Mitre on fire

That big fire you might have seen this lunchtime (if it wasn’t this one in Erith) was up by the Blackwall Tunnel, at the Studio 338 nightclub. It’s fair to say the place isn’t in a good way.

Developers and those that like to boost them up like to claim the Greenwich Peninsula was always a wasteland, but that’s not true. The wrecked building, once the Mitre pub, is one of the last survivors from the community that existed there before the second Blackwall Tunnel and its approach road were built.

There were terraced houses behind the Mitre until the 1970s – they were demolished after the Blackwall Tunnel approach, which opened in 1969, effectively cut them off from the rest of the area – and a church stood nearby until the 1980s.

Stranded by the A102 and with few neighbours left to disturb, the Mitre became a favourite for club promoters. It’s been through a variety of incarnations in the past 20 years or so – including Dorrington’s, That Club, and more recently Studio 338.

But it remains best known for being one of the birthplaces of the alternative comedy scene – Malcolm Hardee‘s Tunnel Club.

The Tunnel Club opened in 1984, and helped begin the careers of Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves, Jeremy Hardy, Jo Brand and many, many more. It was a notoriously intimidating place to perform. Another local comic, Arthur Smith, described the Tunnel in his memoir.

Phil and I played the opening night at the Tunnel, which, under Malcolm’s influence, became the arena where London’s top hecklers gathered every Sunday to slaughter open spots and established acts alike. Some punters even met up beforehand in a kind of heckling seminar and one night, when I was performing solo, a voice in the dark interrupted me with a Latin phrase that turned out to mean ‘show us your tits.’

The word ‘notorious’ soon attached itself to the Tunnel which is now remembered as Alternative Comedy’s equivalent to the previous generation’s Glasgow Empire – a place for confrontation, raucousness, multiple comedy pile-ups and deaths. It was not uncommon for the acts to be booed off with such efficiency that the whole show was over in twenty minutes, an occasion that was greeted by the regulars as a great success.

Malcolm, instinctively anti-authoritarian from his thick black glasses, down his naked hairy body, to his piss-stained odd socks, liked to encourage the mayhem by the frequent exhibition of his titanic testicles, which he advertised as ‘the second biggest in the country – after Jenny Agutter’s father.’ (Apparently, they had once compared notes). If the mood took him he would urinate over the front row and, such was his charisma, the victims cheered rather than remonstrated.

The rest is worth a read, as is Malcolm’s own memoir, I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake.

The Mitre is also remembered in a short film, The Tunnel, released in 2012.

The Tunnel closed in 1988, following an enormous police raid on the Mitre. But some of the Tunnel’s spirit moved down the road to Up The Creek, which Malcolm opened three years later. He died in 2005 after falling into Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe, trying to get to his houseboat. The team behind The Tunnel film are now working on a follow-up about Malcolm’s eventful life.

Today’s fire looks like it has brought a final close to the Mitre’s story. The site isn’t immediately suitable for redevelopment – while the gas holder next to it is out of action, the plot behind is earmarked by Transport for London as a construction site if the Silvertown Tunnel gets the go-ahead.

For now, though, 338’s regulars will be sad, some of the neighbours who’d complained about booming early morning beats, less so. But whatever you thought of the place, today’s fire has destroyed one last little bit of anarchic old Greenwich.

Wednesday update: A Studio 338 staff member, named only as Tomas, has died after suffering severe burns in Monday’s fire.

4 comments

  1. Couple, or three, things. One is that in the early ’70s the house band was the Laughing Gravy Orchestra with Wally Butcher – not a young man, and allegedly one of the crew of the ferry, and a great blues man. Then in the ’80s on Sunday afternoons there were barbecues with Dudu Pukwana the South African saxophonist who had once played with Chris MacGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. The Tunnel Club was a bit ok – although there were groups in the audience determined to get any and every group off in five minutes. Many of the really good acts were ones who never persisted – went back to being a doctor, or an accountant or whatever.
    That photo of the front advertising Mr. Bloodvessel looks a bit familiar somehow – like one I sometimes show at talks about the Peninsula
    – and- by the way – the Mitre was built by the strictly temperance South Met Gas Co.

  2. had some great nights in there.remember seing Squeeze play there,then later the rave scene……..oh yeah ,my mum met my dad in there back in the 50’s. sad news that someone died being a hero.

  3. Had many a pub crawl back in the day when u only had to walk 30ft max before u fell into the next pub unlike today where u need ur hiking boots and everything crossed that the next pub isnt now a nandos or a bookies,..i digress..well we eneded many a pub crawl at this pub/club it seemed to change every time we went in there, we never knew what treat we was gonna get when we walked through the doors but it always ended there cos it was just simply the best, i jave no knowledge of what land lied beyond this enigma, and i couldnt care, im gutted its gone, i cant help but think it was deliberate like a few places in deptford, and im pretty sure some flats or a hotel will pop up soon to acompany what ever tfl have planned, bless the people that passed saving others, they were true heros, and thats another great place lost to the locals, shame on u greenwich council for forgetting about the people, and only thinking about ur pockets, one word..karma

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