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Comedy act comes of age


COMEDY may be a recent addition to the entertainment circuit in Hongkong, but down in Admiralty a double act with a 22-year history is bringing the house down.

No discredit to the real performers at the Godown's Sunday comedy club, but Ms Carole Allen and Mr Bill Nash - partners of the popular bistro, bar and nightclub - should be the ones on the stage.

Over 22 years of working together, they have acquired an amazing repertoire of real-life jokes and stories. These they tell with self-deprecating humour, fluidity, loud laughs and the occasional table thump for emphasis.

Where others view interviews as a hard-sell opportunity, Mr Nash and Ms Allen treat them as a stage on which to perform. One is witness, not participant. There is little point in attempting to direct proceedings.

This camaraderie started in 1971. The first Godown was founded by Mr Nash in 1967, and Ms Allen began working as manageress - three days after arriving in Hongkong from England - in 1971.

''She came from heaven,'' Mr Nash said. ''I thought she'd only stay for two or three days.'' Their roles at the Godown are distinct. He is the strategist; she the day-to-day manager. Or, as Ms Allen succinctly put it: ''He's the brains, and I get on with the nitty gritty.'' ''I just come and pick fault - when I'm allowed to,'' Mr Nash added.

The partnership obviously works. Later this month, the place many expatriates consider a second home will be celebrating its 25th birthday. Six hundred guests, most of whom are on first-name terms with Mr Nash and Ms Allen, will attend what promises to be a riotous birthday party.

Many also attended the Godown's last party, when it moved to Admiralty from its basement home in the old Sutherland House (next to the Furama). Some were even there when the original Godown opened, and they will be rewarded with a bottle of 25-year-old whisky on the big night.

Without Mr Nash and Ms Allen at the helm, the Godown might have met the same fate as so many other Hongkong restaurants. It did not have a good start, the 1967 street riots starting two days after the opening.

What has undoubtedly made the difference is Mr Nash and Ms Allen's management style: a mix of no-nonsense pragmatism and cheerful familiarity, both with customers and staff.

''Because most of our staff have been with us for years, we're like a big family,'' Ms Allen said. ''Customers are attracted to that. We're friendly, talkative and a little bit cheeky.

''We make sure everyone feels like gold dust; I look upon it as mothering. Anything goes here.'' It is this recipe that has made the Godown popular with visiting celebrities, as walls lined with photographs and numerous photo albums in the office testify.

Actor Michael Caine was the first, back in the late 1960s. Since then, the likes of Madonna, Shirley Bassey, Derek Nimmo and Candice Bergen have found a home-away-from-home in a snug Godown booth or at the infamous communal table in the middle of the room.

''They come here because they know we'll look after them,'' Ms Allen said. ''When they find a place that they like, feel comfortable in and know they're not going to get bothered, they'll keep coming back.

''No one would dare to approach someone famous here anyway. Customers are more scared of me than they are about getting an autograph. 'What's Carol going to say?' they ask.'' One can guess it would be blunt.

When the Godown first opened, the only other Western restaurant in town was Jimmy's Kitchen. ''I thought there was room to open a place with atmosphere,'' Mr Nash said. Since then, eating choices have become so numerous that it is often easier to stay athome and open a can of soup. Despite market pressures, however, the Godown still doesn't spend much on advertising or promotions.

''People come by word of mouth,'' Ms Allen said. ''Everyone has a contact in Hongkong, so when a visitor calls and asks where's nice, the contact says, 'go and see Bill or Carole in the Godown'. They know they'll be welcomed when they do.'' Interspersed with fond farewells to lunchtime regulars Mr Nash recalls some of the more touching events that have occurred at the Godown.

''We're now looking at the third-generation offspring of our first regulars, the kids of people I introduced to each other,'' he said.

Engagements have also been fairly common, with regulars marrying ex-waitresses. Cheek mixed with friendliness is obviously a good combination. But it does not always need a helping hand.

''See those two guys sitting over there?'' Mr Nash asked. ''One's French and the other is English. They sat next to each other at the long table one day and got chatting. They've been meeting here for lunch every day since.'' It's not just regulars who keep coming back. Mr Nash recounts how Dave Allen, the Irish comedian, became a good friend: ''He stopped off for 12 days on his way to the Philippines and came in for a drink on the first night.

''He returned the next evening and invited me to join him. 'Last night I went all over town,' he told me. 'But I like this place the best, so you'll be seeing a lot more of me. I'm a creature of habit.' He came every night for the rest of his stay and now we meet up when I'm in London.'' If going to the Godown is habit-forming, Ms Allen attributes it to everything staying the same. ''We're traditional, we've never been trendy and never will be,'' she said.

''We've had some scary times, like when Lan Kwai Fong opened up in the mid-1980s, but we've always come through. People like to go to the new trendy places, but they come back to the basics in the end.'' The only new thing regulars are likely to encounter at the Godown is an addition to the photograph collection. The doorman has been there for 25 years; Mr Tam, the chief cook for 22 years and three members of the Victoria Jazz Band - which plays every week - for 22 years.

Of course, there are minor adjustments - a happy hour, new dance music, an experimental dish on the menu - but familiarity, it seems, breeds content not contempt.

This is certainly the case with the menu. The food has always been of the basic, rather than gourmet, variety. Moving with the times has meant the addition of a few vegetarian and Oriental dishes, but the staples from the first menu are still there.

''You can try all sorts of fancy food, but our biggest sellers are steak and kidney pie, bubble and squeak, and fish and chips,'' Ms Allen said. ''Tastes may have changed a little - people are avoiding smoking, over-eating and excessive drinking - but they still like the same food.'' Acceptance is one thing, but it does not stop rumours from flying, particularly when it comes to Mr Nash. Fluent in Mandarin, some murmur he has MI5 connections, while others think he is a communist.

''China trade is what I do when I'm not here,'' he said, vaguely. ''If I had a resume, it would say 'not very bright, but very good at lifting heavy weights'.'' Ms Allen redressed the balance: ''If he'd put as much effort into work as he's put into women, he'd be a millionaire by now.'' ''Play the field,'' Mr Allen retorted. ''I can't even get over the gate.''