Arthur Smith’s been a comedian, binman, playwright, Parisian bohemian, unofficial tour guide, Radio 4 presenter, TV host, failed punk singer and mayor of Balham (self-appointed). Renaissance man or dilettante, one thing is sure: this isn’t the career path a bloke from post-war working-class Bemondsey is supposed to have.
There’s a lot of chapters to his life, and a lot to this book. Hell, there’s even four Chapter Ones, depending on where in his rich life you’d like to begin.
Smith owes a lot of it to the birth of alternative comedy. Although he started performing outdated Oxbridgey revue shows while an undergraduate at the University Of East Anglia, it was his first trip to the Comedy Store that opened his eyes to the sort of comedy he wanted to do. And at countless Edinburgh Fringes he found his spiritual home.
He had to change his name because performers’ union Equity already had a Brian Smith on their books. His first choice of alternative, Captain Wanker, was rejected – a moniker which might have later affected his chances of landing those cosy Radio 4 gigs. As anyone who’s ever seen him perform will know, the title of the autobiography comes from the opening line he always uses: ‘Hello, my name is Arthur Smith, unless there’s anyone in from Streatham Tax Office, in which case, I’m Daphne Fairfax.’
Smith became a success not though especially brilliant material, but by dent of being himself. He was the sort of gregarious, up-for-anything drinking buddy with whom you could share a joke or an adventure, and that devil-may-care spirit came through on stage, as indeed it does in this book. He had a bet with fellow South London mischief-maker Malcolm Hardee over who would die first – a bet Hardee lost in 2005 by drunkenly slipping off his boat and into his beloved Thames. Notorious for finances that were as shambolic as the rest of his life, Hardee has never paid up, Smith wryly notes.
But there was a time it looked like Smith would be the one to go first. In late 2001, he was rushed into hospital with acute necrotising pancreatitis caused by decades of drinking. Chances were he wouldn’t pull through.
The incident, vividly described here, changed his life. For one, he could no longer drink, a severe blow to the professional barfly. But maybe the introspection the experience inevitably provoked led to the memoirs he said he’s never write. Now, happily settled down with the delightful Beth, he seems more able to enjoy his status as doyen of the comedy circuit, without the blur of wild nights out.
Smith’s not afraid to put some of his feelings into the book, especially the ennui that blighted his life before that life-changing moment. He was the life and soul of the party, leading drunken exploits, especially in his legendary late-night tours of Edinburgh, and generating countless stories others could live vicariously through. But, after a particularly bruising experience hosting BBC One’s stand-up show Paramount City, he was left feeling unfulfilled. Work became a chore; jobs an eager young comic dreamed of, just too much of a fag. This isn’t some melodramatic ‘tears-of-a-clown’ played for sympathy, but an insightful take on what it’s like to lose your focus, and only reveals more layers to the perennial jester.
Every aspect of his multifaceted life is covered in these memoirs, making for a varied read: from the evocative tales of growing up in South London, his time in Paris, the adventures of the early Edinburghs and the thrills of the beginnings of alternative comedy, through to trips with his father to revisit Colditz, where Smith Snr was once held captive, or to Cuba with Arthur Scargill for a Radio 4 documentary. A lesser man could have strung these myriad experiences out over several volumes, but My Name Is Daphne Fairfax is all the more interesting for his decision not to.
Smith says his philosophy of life was inspired by his primary-school PE teacher, Mrs Logan. He clearly remembers to this day, the time when classmate Tom Simpson, in the boisterous changing-room atmosphere, accidentally kicked his shorts out of the window. As everyone began to laugh at him, tears welled in his eyes. But Mrs Logan saved the moment and urged: ‘Right, all you boys, throw your shorts out the window.’ The lesson went from disarray and victimisation to a joyous, funny, celebration of shared anarchy.
Arthus Smith’s been encouraging the world to throw their shorts out of their window for the past 30 years or more, which has led to an autobiography is as dryly funny, unpretentiously charming and fascinatingly multifaceted as its author. Move over Du Maurier, the literary world is obviously ready for another Daphne.
Reviewed by:Steve Bennett