‘I can’t remember the point when I realised Linda was unusually talented.’ Jeremy Hardy remembers in this loving celebration of his friend Linda Smith. Unfortunately, for far too many people, that moment came only after she died in February at the age of just 48. As is so often the way, even if you always knew she was good, you didn’t realise quite how good until she was gone.
In compiling this thorough collection of her work, from her early days on the stand-up circuit to her triumphs on Radio 4, her long-time boyfriend Warren Lakin and friend Ian Parsonsn have created a worthy reminder of precisely how consistently funny, biting and incisive she could be.
And yet for all the wonderful lines that fill every page, it is one of the saddest comedy books around. So distinctive and individual was Linda’s style that you cannot read her material without hearing her voice loud, clear yet so uniquely browbeaten – knowing that, save for the odd BBC 7 rerun – you will never hear it again.
Her persona was old before her time, burdened with a world-weary misery; taking the hopeless grumble that pensioners might use to whine about Erith Council’s paving-stone policy and applying it to skewer public figures, the blow all the more brutal for the low-key way it was delivered and the precision with which it hit.
Her approach got her under the radar at Radio 4 radar, which would have been suspicious of more trenchant radicals, her subtly and wit allowing her to make sharp political points in the guise of an unabitious everywoman housewife. Her roots, it is easy to forget lay in the in the hugely politicised formative years of alternative comedy, heightened by the fact that she lived in Sheffield at the height of the miners’ strike. Linda cut her teeth at many a rowdy, unglamorous benefit where liberal leftie arts students experimented with the comedy art faced working men’s clubs full of gritty miners fearing for their future – yet somehow it worked, thanks to the shared enemy of Thatcherism.
Extracts from that early stand-up, faithfully reproduced here, show the persona was formed early, even if the material wasn’t quite so piercing rampant feminism and – in what was something of a career theme – the dreariness of her native Erith. It culminated, of course, in her famous gag that ‘Erith isn’t twinned with anywhere – but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham,’ but that wasn’t the only brilliant line Linda had on the theme. Take, for instance, ‘Erith, not exactly a city that never sleeps, more like a town that lies awake all night staring at the ceiling.’
From those early days, this book contains the script of the 1994 show she took to the Edinburgh Fringe with Hattie Hayridge as well as similar collaborations with Jeremy Hardy and musical stand-up Steve Gribbin; contributions to radio shows from Radio 5 Live’s The Treatment, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, literary panel game Booked – and, of course, the News Quiz; extracts from TV shows from Room 101 to Question Time; and stand-up from across the decades, including a complete show from 2004.
The full arc of her career is covered and – astonishingly – with almost no repetition. Stand-ups tend to recycle favourite lines, working them into new routines or twisting them to fit new gags. But Linda’s fertile mind produced an impressive amount of fresh material, fuelled by raw contempt for the arrogant, Greedy schemers who so often rise to the top of public life.
She was joking to the very end, as one of the many friends and colleagues who contributed eulogies, memories and tributes to the book reveals. Andy Hamilton recalls talking to Mark Steel over Linda’s hospital bed, and as the conversation a chat show Steel had been in alongside Joan Collins, Hamilton asked: ‘How old is Joan Collins?’ ‘Oooh, not sure,’ said Mark. ‘I reckon she must be about 75.’ Then, in a frail voice, Linda asked: ‘How much is that in human years.’
Linda’s fast and witty mind never, apparently, had an ‘off’ switch; and this bulky tome is testament to that. It is a fine portrait of a unique career, painted in her own words, and put in context by restrained but adoring praise from those who knew and loved her. You couldn’t ask for a better memorial.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett