If only we all had our own personal Warren Lakins to be custodians of our legacy. Ever since his partner, Linda Smith, died early last year, he has ensured that her best work has been preserved, most notably with the brilliant anthology-slash-eulogy I Think The Nurses Are Stealing My Clothes. He’s organised gigs in her memory, raised substantial sums to help fight the ovarian cancer that took her life, and has a national memorial tour in the offing.
Now this devoted Boswell has written a more traditional biography, Driving Miss Smith, albeit one coming from a very personal point of view. Even the title comes from his role as unofficial chauffeur, ferrying the licenceless Linda from gig to gig.
Much of Linda’s story is the story of alternative comedy itself, both having been forged in the febrile, politicised era of Margaret Thatcher; a tumultuous time in which anti-establishment stand-up could thrive, reflecting the passion and kinship of industrial communities fighting back against the large-scale closures threatening their way of life.
Linda was a working-class girl herself, but frustrated by the lack of ambition in the bleak Kent town of Erith, where she grew up. So when she went to university in Sheffield, at the heart of the conflict, it’s no surprise she grasped the opportunity to both widen her artistic horizons and get involved with the left-wing movement.
Her first move into performance was through community theatre, which is where she met Lakin. This collective of ‘ordinary’ people – though the adjective seems insulting given the extraordinary character they demonstrated – produced well-received shows celebrating the recent folklore of South Yorkshire, before it was lost forever.
Lakin – who trained as a solid old-fashioned local newspaper reporter, so knows how to get the facts across – is wonderfully evocative about the camaraderie of this extraordinary time. While no one would want to be nostalgic about the hardships and uncertainties of the Eighties, he certainly conveys a feeling that under this charged, pressurised atmosphere, common values and a determination not to go down without a fight brought out the best in people.
From these theatrical roots, and other similarly rebellious movements across the UK, emerged ‘new variety’, comprising all sorts of weird and wonderful novelty acts - plus stand-up full of passion and agenda. Linda’s particular circle included the poets Mark Miwurdz (later Mark Hurst) and Henry Normal, who now runs the production company Baby Cow with Steve Coogan. Driving Miss Smith provides not so much a history of these early roots of the circuit we know today, but rather a feeling of the spirit from which it emerged.
Gradually things became more organised and Linda found herself performing at the new Comedy Store, where she was the first female regular on the Cutting Edge topical show, and the Hackney Empire, which became the home of alternative cabaret. With so much work in London, it she eventually moved back down south, even though she found audiences in the capital ‘jaded’ and bemoaned the fact that there were so many venues sprouting up, with more concern for commerce than comedy. ‘They can’t all be good,’ she said. ‘Hopefully it will be a vibrant enough form to survive this blanding out that seems to be going on.’ And that was 15 years ago, long before the scene became as sprawling as it is today.
Her career continued to rise, steadily but surely, until she secured the regular slots across Radio 4’s comedy output for which she became best known: Just A Minute, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, and – of course – The News Quiz. In these male bastions, she was a standard-bearer for female comics; although it was a role she was uncomfortable with. She considered herself simply a comic, and was baffled by the unwritten BBC rule that you could almost never have two female voices on the same show.
As he is obviously so close to his subject, Lakin is uniquely placed to reveal the real woman behind the much-loved deadpan. There are chapters in here you wouldn’t find in most traditional biographies, describing in detail the plants Linda had in her cherished garden, discussing her favourite London hang-outs, or cataloguing the best day trips out, usually to wild coastlines. Such details do little to explain Linda’s life and career as a comedian – they almost read like guide books – but they do flesh out her personality, describing precisely how she chose to unwind.
Her illness is covered briefly, and does not cast a shadow over the book. And quite right, too, as it never cast a shadow over her career, during which she remained funny, principled and distinctive. It’s this lifetime of bringing joy, stemming from way back before she was half-famous, that Larkin is celebrating in this warm, witty and interesting volume.
That said, if you haven’t yet bought I Think The Nurses Are Stealing My Clothes, get that first, as the way Linda’s voice leaps out of the page is unmatched. But Driving Miss Smith is a perfect companion volume, just as Lakin appears to have been the perfect companion to Linda.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett