Mike Harding: One-man show on the road

The comedian, singer and BBC radio champion of folk music is touring for the first time since 1993. Roger Ratcliffe meets him at his Ribblesdale home.

It's hard to be in Mike Harding's company without feeling that you're playing a walk-on part in one of his comedy sketches.

Like when his wife, Pat, comes in and tells him that the wi-fi network at their Dales home keeps cutting out, and he utters something unflattering about the phone company then turns and says: "We don't have broadband around here, we have thinband. Apparently the line is one of those hi-tech fibre-optic cable jobs as far as Settle, just down the road, then after that it's a boy with a cleft stick and a message in it running up the hill."

He's in the upstairs sitting room of a large converted barn in Ribblesdale, where he's lived for years, preparing for a return to touring with the blend of music, monologues and northern humour that has been copied but never bettered.

On the coffee table lies a small red notebook he carries everywhere to jot down ideas for his act– ordinary incidents or conversations which suddenly veer off into bizarre territory and get filtered through his keen sense of the absurd.

He's collected a reservoir of such stories over the years, and the dam will finally burst when he does the first night at Richmond's Georgian Theatre Royal in a couple of weeks' time.

There are stories like his take on the financial crisis, for instance. His opinion of bankers shades on the edge of unprintable in a family newspaper. Audiences, however, will get the full force of his scornful views.

"At least Dick Turpin wore a mask," he says. "If you saw a banker and he was also wearing a mask, you'd say 'that's fair enough, I've been robbed.' But when they wear a nice suit and greet you with a smile then there's something wrong. The bankers took our money, went to the dog track and put the money on a three-legged dog. But they still got away with it and paid themselves bonuses at Christmas. For betting on a three-legged dog! It's crazy."

Harding, now 66, last toured in 1993, when he was one of the biggest names in British comedy. He was brought up in Crumpsall, North Manchester, and worked as a road digger, dustbinman, steel erector, bus conductor and boiler scaler before training to be a teacher.

But in 1971 he found he could earn a decent living performing on the folk club circuit and took his wife and two young daughters to live in Ribblesdale.

His 1975 hit record about the hardships of an imaginary cowboy in Rochdale put him on Top of The Pops, surrounded by those leggy dancers Pan's People, and shot him to national fame.

He did six series of shows for BBC Television, and embarked on one long British tour after another, selling out every major concert venue. His biggest audience was 3,000 at Blackpool Winter Gardens, and he held the box office record for The Futurist at Scarborough and Southampton's Gaumont Theatre.

So why did he quit touring?"Well, I never actually consciously said, 'That's it, I've had enough of living out of a suitcase' or 'I can't stand being on stage any more.'

"It was really because I'd started going on these long trips to the Himalayas, places like K2 base camp or Himachal Pradesh, trekking and climbing.

"So every year I kept putting the next tour on the back burner, then I started writing books. I never really thought of myself as having stopped touring."

His love of the outdoors and photography led to the best-selling Walking the Dales followed by other books on the South Pennines, Himalayas and Ireland, as well as high-profile positions – he was president of the Yorkshire Dales Society and is life president of the Ramblers' Association.

Then there were volumes of poetry and the inevitable funny stories, plus eight books stemming from his love of cathedrals and churches.

Since 1999 there has also been his weekly folk programme on Radio 2, which requires him to listen to something like 40 folk CDs every week.

"It's easy to look back and see where all the time's gone since I last toured," he says. "I still did the odd after-dinner speech, mostly for charity, and I performed a fund-raiser for the rehanging of the church bells at Giggleswick. Then more recently I was at Settle Story Telling Festival and a mate got me to do something for him at Ingleton Folk Festival, and I really enjoyed them. So on the spur of the moment I decided to see if I could organise 20 gigs."

He didn't want to go back to the big concert halls with all the flashing lights and array of musical instruments he used to take on tour. This time it will be just Mike Harding, a Telecaster electric guitar and the old Martin 018 mahogany acoustic he bought in Leeds back in 1970.

The venues are small 300-seat theatres and arts centres mostly in Yorkshire and Lancashire. Audiences will be getting what he describes as "basically my 1974 folk club act, because it's still fresh in my brain." Which means there will be a lot of old favourites there, some of it from his LPs like One Man Show, Old Four Eyes is Back, and Captain Paralytic & The Brown Ale Cowboys.

He may change the act every night, but there will probably be room for crowd-pleasers like Napoleon's Retreat From Wigan, The Ballad of Cowheel Lou, Strangeways Hotel, and Uncle Joe's Mint Balls.

"The reason I've picked small venues is that I genuinely like the intimacy of a small theatre. There's a great warmth of people being close to you and around you.

Also, they are keen to work hard and sell the gigs. A lot of the big places have got Take That this week and whoever else the next week, and couldn't care less. You've got to work really hard to sell those places."

The tour ends in the last week of March, and it's no coincidence that this is right in time for the start of the fly-fishing season.

Harding says he'll be taking feathers and hooks on tour. Fishing has become a passion, and this spring he'll be found on the banks of the Ribble and the Aire.

"I'm going out on tour to enjoy myself, really. What money the shows make will be mostly taken by the taxman. And then if it goes well I'll do a wider tour next time.

"A lot of people say to me, 'my dad plays your records, I wish I'd seen you,' so I guess there'll be a new audience for me, the kids of people who saw me back in the Eighties and Nineties as well as those who used to come to my shows, people who just want to go out and have a laugh."

Mike Harding's Yorkshire dates : February: Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, 12; Pocklington Arts Centre, 18; Lamproom Theatre, Barnsley, 19 & 20. March: The Junction, Goole, 5; Square Chapel Arts Centre, Halifax, 11 and 16; Old Fruit Market, Hull, 19. For other dates see www.mikeharding.co.uk

YP MAG 29/1/11