Arthur Smith

Arthur Smith

Date of birth: 30-11-1953
Arthur Smith has become one of comedy's elder statesmen: an Edinburgh Fringe stalwart and a club compere since the early days of the alternative scene, he still uses many of the same gags today.

He's also become a regular on Radios 2 and 4, one of TV's Grumpy Old Men, and a writer whose best-known work is the World Cup play An Evening With Gary Lineker.

Before joining the comedy circuit, the Bermondsy-born stand-up worked as a warehouseman and teacher, and studied the University of East Anglia, where he took the acclaimed creative writing course run by novelist Malcolm Bradbury,

He has long been a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe, where he was instrumental in many of the pranks played by his late friend Malcolm Hardee, and his raucous late-night tours of the town became legendary for their high jinks, if not their historical accuracy.

His Fringe shows include Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen, and Arthur Smith's Last Hangover, about his being forced to go teetotal after he nearly died from pancreatitis. Both were subsequently broadcast on Radio 4, where he is also a frequent guest on such shows as Excess Baggage and Loose Ends. On Radio 2 he has presented the long-running Smith Lectures, linking together clips from other comedians.

As well as the Olivier-nominated An Evening with Gary Lineker, which he co-created with Chris England, Smith's other plays include 1989's Live Bed Show, which starred Caroline Quentin and Paul Merton and ran at the Donmar Warehouse.

In 2005, Smith reportedly turned down a lifetime achievement award from the Perrier Award organisers, but in 2007 an exhibition of art from other comedians that he curated won the panel prize from the Perriers' successors, the if.comedy awards.

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100 Things I Meant To Tell You by Arthur Smith

Book review by Steve Bennett

This may be legally actionable, given the reputation that Arthur Smith has carefully fostered for himself – but I’m not sure he’s all that grumpy.

A realist, maybe, and certainly not a man prone to hyperactive displays of unbridled joy. But the image that shines off the pages of this loose anthology of thoughts, poems, reminiscences and scraps of recycled material is that of a quietly contented man. 

He’s philosophical about life’s travails and tacitly acknowledges he’s had a happy existence, wandering the land with his tried-and-tested gags and occasional Leonard Cohen covers, meeting folk and having adventures. These could take the form of  escapades he’s engineered,  such as his legendary late-night tours of Edinburgh, or the quirky broadcasting assignments he tends to be given for various magazine shows, or the simpler pleasures of rambling through the British countryside. 

He has an affinity with France, and he may have missed his calling as an wizened troubadour spending his days supping cognac and Gauloises fog of a Parisian cafe, but he is doing his finest to recreate that lifestyle in Balham, notwithstanding the health scare that’s ended his boozing days.

100 Things I Meant To Tell you is a haphazard collection of scraps from this unusual life. Its fragmented nature means the book can sometimes feel inconsequential (and occasional chapters such as the speeches he dusts down out of context seem like makeweights) but, like the man himself, it’s witty, warm and a more than a little thoughtful. 

There’s poignancy when he speaks of visiting his dementia-stricken mother in her nursing home, and brief extracts from his the diaries written by his father, whose experiences in the war and subsequently as a South London copper, have already formed the basis of Smith Jr's touchingly funny live show Syd

Although now an avuncular figure on the circuit, Arthur shares a little material from early in his career that shows a different side. An extract from a school magazine shows he always had a humorous bent, but an angry-young-man verse lashes out with venom but little wit at the evil Tories. How far he’s mellowed is shown by the fact he’s now slightly embarrassed by a more recent Edinburgh show mocking ‘mindfulness’, belatedly acknowledging what seemed to him vapid and ripe for parody ought to be respected for bringing succour to others.

Sometimes his improvisational approach to life gets him into scrapes – see chapter 11, Three Times I Nearly Died – though it more often brings unexpected human connection – chapter 100, Flamingos In The Bar.  In the course of these pages, he also does yoga with goats (chapter 62), flies a plane (chapter 33), visits a nuclear bunker (chapter 47) and visits the corner of a foreign field where war poet Rupert Brooke is buried (chapter 20). 

Maybe none is an epic adventure, but he’s always good company in describing such travels, not to mention some of his more memorable gigs over the years,  with the drollery and humility that permeates all his writing, poems included.

It means the book might even cheer up a genuine grumpy old man this Christmas.

  • 100 Things I Meant To Tell You is published by the AA, priced £12.99. Click here to buy from Amazon for £8.41 or here to get it from Foyles at cover price.
  •  Arthur Smith is also appearing at the Chortle Comedy Book Festival at the British Library in London on January 19. Details.
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Published: 9 Dec 2019

Arthur Smith: Syd

Arthur Smith is here to provide a bit of perspective…
17/08/2018

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