Friends in high places
By John Woodhouse
Street performing gave Dave Southern a colourful life alongside some of showbiz's biggest stars. Now he's recycling those skills to inspire a disaffected generation. John Woodhouse meets the man pal Eddie Izzard describes as "a good bloke working for a good cause"
AT THE last count, Eddie Izzard had 2,789,252 followers on Twitter. So when he dedicated 140 characters to his mate Dave Southern, the result was a tsunami of interest in what might outwardly appear an unremarkable back street bike shop.
"My friend Dave Southern runs this shop in Crewe, England," tweeted the internationally-renowned funnyman, "a good bloke working for a good cause".
The digital world of social media is actually someway removed from the one in which Dave first tried clicking with strangers.
This is a man steeped in the street performing tradition. And it is there he came to know the future Emmy-award winning actor and comic. It's a friendship that, despite diverging paths, has always prevailed.
"Eddie now lives in a completely different world," says Dave, "but he's always remained very supportive of the street performing family and his old colleagues. He'll just ring up out of the blue, say 'how are you doing? What are you up to?'. He rang the other Saturday morning, and we were just talking about the bike shop, and he says 'right, what's the name of the business, would it help if I put it out in a tweet?'. And I said 'yeah, OK!'."
He pauses, considering the impact of a tweet from one of the world's best known funnymen.
"Yes," he says, "you could say we've had a bit of reaction!".
Eddie and Dave's pal-dom was forged back in the 80s, a time when they spent endless days on the street. Not homeless, you understand, but trying to forge a future in the tough world of street comedy.
"We'd perform together in Covent Garden," explains Dave. "There was a real street theatre tradition back then – jugglers, comics, stilt-walkers. It was really exciting, it had an incredible energy about it, the possibilities were endless.
"There were a few of us having a go and Eddie was one of them. He'd eventually go off into stand-up – he blazed a trail when it came to street performers doing that – but I never fancied doing the comedy clubs – I liked the street thing.
"But we were good mates and no matter what he's done, he's always kept in touch."
The old chemistry's clearly still there, but Dave, understandably, can't help but be slightly frazzled by his mate's A-list position. "When his name pops on my phone," he laughs, "I start to shake a little!"
The reality, though, is that Dave is a more than accomplished act in his own right. Indeed, before Eddie had even stepped on stage at London's Comedy Store in 1987, Dave had secured the honour of being appointed 'performer in residence' when Stoke-on-Trent hosted the National Garden Festival a year earlier. Daily he'd regale the Etruria site's thousands of visitors with both his quick wit and array of circus skills. Not that this was in anyway a glamorous gig.
"I lived on site," he recalls. "In a car-park. Up against Shelton Bar. I still remember the glow when I was trying to sleep!"
Dave, though, was pretty much guaranteed a good night's rest. To mark the festival's arrival in North Staffordshire, he'd walked from previous host Liverpool – on stilts.
"I was an extrovert at school," he explains of what drove him to such apparent insanity, "a bit of a class fool, quick-witted. I suppose I just liked the idea of entertaining people."
In his teens, while not unacademic, Dave found himself drawn to community theatre and performance groups. He was adept on a unicycle. He'd learnt to juggle. While his peers were set for university, he looked better set for life in the circus, training as both actor and clown with, amongst others, Toby Philpot, who went on to bring his puppetry skills to films such as Return Of The Jedi, Olivier Award-winning actor Emil Wolk, and composer Michael Nyman.
"It occurred to me," he says, "that being a street performer was a pretty low maintenance way of making a living."
Didn't his mum and dad mind? "I was the youngest of four. I think they'd given up by then!"
With admirable gusto, Dave set out to perfect his art.
"Street performing is a very effective way of honing an act," he says. "You have to react to an audience, there has to be interplay or else it doesn't work. That's how it should be – all the best comedians can interact. People expect you to be able to make jokes, to have fun with them. You have to look happy and confident. It really forces you to think on your feet."
Dave served his apprenticeships on shopping streets up and down the country. "It was a great way of learning," he says, "because I knew that if I could build a crowd on an ordinary street I could do it elsewhere. Not only that but all these different people I was interacting with, all these different people, I was building up an absolute wealth of material."
Covent Garden was, and still is, a Mecca of street performers. And the hard yards Dave had done up and down the country served him well when faced with such gatherings. There he'd perform regularly, not just with Eddie, but performance poet John Hegley, and Mark Kermode, the film buff then being better known for his prowess at skiffle.
Perhaps what set Dave apart was the idea of using performance art in community projects. Among other things, he founded the Risible Street Circus, was cast in the original production of Circus Senso, one of the very first non-animal circuses in the UK, made his debut at the Edinburgh Festival, became a teacher at the Belfast Circus School, was invited to perform at festivals in America, was crowned Street Performer Of The Year in both Chester and Manchester, and undertook a record-breaking 450km walk from Glasgow to Liverpool balanced on top of two metre stilts in order to launch the city's Festival of Comedy.
In the 90s he formed The Florists, a four-man extravaganza weaving together comedy, juggling and acrobatics. The show also allowed Dave to utilise his rare ability as percussionist. Together they toured Europe.
All the time, a realisation of circus's transformative powers was being formed.
As Dave developed a family of his own – he has three teenage boys – he became a community worker, delivering, somewhat unorthodox, workshops and training, and passing on his knowledge to future generations of street performers.
Community work provided the stability that street performance could never guarantee.
"It's very difficult," he says, "when you've got regular outgoings but an irregular income. I was very lucky because this sort of thing interested me.
"Circus skills, unicycling, diabolo (a juggling prop consisting of a spool whirled and tossed on a string), plate-spinning, stilt-walking, tightrope walking, and juggling, are all," he says, "skills that can be taught, excellent for people looking to improve coordination as well as improving self-confidence and esteem. They are also great fun!"
Across Cheshire, Dave developed an 'alternative curriculum' for a large partnership of schools. All the time, as befits a consummate unicyclist, he was harbouring a love of cycling, going right back to childhood days. A qualified bike mechanic, he'd also taught riding skills to both children and adults so, when funding cuts inevitably came, he looked elsewhere for an outlet for his skills. The result was Community Recycle Cycles – running informal education programmes, recreational activities, and training through the profits of a bike shop. The Coronation Crescent shop is staffed and run by young people and volunteers who refurbish and sell old bikes donated by the public.
Dave shares his motto with one of cycling's darker forces, except, unlike a certain Lance Armstrong, Dave's a rather more positive influence. "It's not about the bike," he says, "it's about the people.
"It's about giving kids the chance to show they're good at something, to engage with something creative. A young person might not excel at school but they could be fantastic with a spanner. They just need someone to give them that opportunity to have a go. Not only are they picking up skills but they're gaining something they might have never had before – confidence and a sense of achievement.
"Schools are very much geared towards achieving exam results," he continues, "but if a child gets to 14 and 15 and thinks they're not going to get those results, then what? They're going to say 'why should I bother?'. You can pick up a lot of skills doing stuff like this, not just mechanical, but the maths side of it, the financial but, the people skills, the thinking on your feet. Those are things that will take them forward."
The whole operation has been set up with no external funding.
"We just asked people to bring their old bikes here rather than the tip," says Dave. "We sold those bikes, built up a bit of stock, then started running a bike club where local kids could come and help fix them."
His background as a street entertainer means he's found it easier to build relationships with young people who might otherwise go under the banner of 'disaffected'.
"That bit of 'streetwise' you've got from doing the performing," he says, "comes in useful."
Indeed, Dave's a man who, having lived a on the outside of 'normal life' for so long, is at an advantage. "I can see life through their eyes," he says of the youngsters involved in the project. "What I always say is if we want responsible young people then we have to give them responsibility. It's the same with respect – you get out what you put in. It can't be a one way thing.
"You know, look at TV, the X-Factor, why's it so successful? Because people feel they can have an impact on the result. The same with TV when I was a kid – Swap Shop – you had some input. It's the same with this, the kids are involved. We want people to feel they can chip in and give their opinion and, so long as it's friendly, have a bit of banter. We've tried to create a criticism-free zone, a place where everyone's equal, where adults say sorry too – there's nothing more effective than a well-timed apology.
"What they find here," he adds, "might be something they've not experienced before. My parents were both teachers. I come from a supportive family background, but not everyone's got that.
"When kids come here they're not on the outside, they're part of the whole thing. The work they do gives them a sense of independence, a sense of confidence, a work ethic. They're ready to be employed. They might go on and do something at Reaseheath. Would that have happened otherwise? Who knows?"
At 50, Dave still occasionally trawls the memory bank and does a bit of street performing. But some things have had to be reined in a bit. "My knees aren't what they were," he says. "I used to have this unicycle with a ten foot aluminium ladder. I fixed it up so I could ride it from the top.
"I used it for about 16 years and for the first 10 of those I'd jump off at the end of the show. I think it was probably that which did for them!"
Instead, the kids of Crewe are taking up unicycling instead – Dave's got three in his shop.
"It's a very honest way of making a living," he concludes of his, still, unorthodox existence. Or, as Mr Izzard puts it, "a good bloke working for a good cause".
Anyone wishing to offload a bike, whatever condition, can find out more at communityrecyclecycles.org