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The grumpy old man of comedy surveys his career
Reviewed by Julian Hall
Independent on on Sunday, 24th May 2009
Arthur Smith once helped me to promote a book I wrote by taking a BBC reporter for a wander around his self-proclaimed fiefdom of Balham. That he did more for my book than its publishers might theoretically make reviewing his biography onerous. Yet I’ve not always fallen for the wiles of this charming man and in between time have been lukewarm, at best, about his recent live shows. There is, however, nothing lukewarm about Smith’s autobiography; it radiates a glow of whimsy and invention.
Of course, as his comedy bête noire Jimmy Carr knows, Smith is not all warmth. He is a “grumpy old man”, after all, or at least he is “if you pay me”. Now best known for that very role on television, Smith graduated from student revues in Edinburgh to be one of the originators of the “new comedy” and one of the most willing to swallow its PC regimen. He was one of the most sought-after comperes before TV burnt him, then came back hot enough to pen some successful plays – notably An Evening With Gary Lineker, which had both critics and, thanks to its revised ending of England vs West Germany in the 1990 World Cup, Stuart Pearce, jumping for joy.
At gigs, Smith jokingly hid behind the pseudonym Daphne Fairfax for tax purposes, hence the title of his book. In many respects he’s equally coy about answering the question “Who is Arthur Smith?”. At any given point he’s both the bashful school magazine editor who won’t take up the opportunity to be interviewed on radio about his journal’s notoriety, and he’s the university student who organises a homage to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in on his university campus. A fumbler, a fool (certainly for love as well as by profession) a self-styled flâneur (particularly when indulging in a new-found liberty and fraternity as a student in Paris), Smith truly joies de vivre, but never in such as way that smugly carpes diem. His defining moment in life and art seems to have been when his games teacher asked his class to throw their shorts out of the window to save the embarrassment of a fellow pupil. Since then Smith has thrown words as lightly as shorts, whether pretending to the journalist Carol Sarler that he and his flatmates were in a ménage à trois, or telling Bill Clinton to hurry up and finish his Hay Festival event so that he could start his.
Once described as an “eventist”, there’s no shortage of tales for Smith to tell, either manufactured or experienced, and it seems the author either feels he has no time or no need to psychoanalyse himself, other than to say that he feels lucky in his life, his pancreatitis episode notwithstanding. As a critic, I lament this a little. I want the performer to expose his need for the limelight as he exposes himself on stage (sometimes literally in Arthur’s case, though he has nothing on his old mucker Malcolm Hardee when it comes to nudity for art’s sake). I never quite square Smith’s circle or feel that he puts his life, or the lives of some of those he cherishes, into sufficient resolution.
There is, however, by way of such elaboration, a superb passage that relays what it is to be a stand-up and gives an essence of what was going through Smith’s mind when he first saw Alexei Sayle and decided the art form was for him. Just as much revelatory detail is lavished upon describing the first house he lived in after university, where a post-nuclear theme for one of his parties aptly sums up its constant state. The bohemian chaos foretells of Artuart, the installation art-comedy exhibition he staged in a house in Edinburgh and that won him a comedy award a few years ago.
Smith ends his book in the neatest possible way. The denouement sees his friends from all walks of life gathered in Paris to celebrate his 50th birthday, at a time when dear friends such as Hardee and Linda Smith are still alive. Think Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and, since I am using that analogy, one of the top five soundtrack tunes accompanying it would be “Try a Little Tenderness” – a title echoing the most impartial advice I can give the prospective reader