Mark Steel names and shames a joke thief

Victor Lewis-Smith 'pickpocketed' gag

Mark Steel has accused critic Victor Lewis-Smith of stealing his material.

The comic has pointed out that a column in Lewis-Smith’s Christmas Eve TV column contains almost word-for-word a comment about the royal family that previously featured in BBC Two’s Mark Steel Lectures.

With some chutzpah, Lewis-Smith’s version appears in the Independent, the same newspaper Steel writes for... and Steel has used the joke himself in his own column.

Despite finding the joke good enough to plagiarise, Lewis-Smith slated the show from which it came in a 2004 review for the Evening Standard.

In an open letter posted on his blog yesterday, Steel sarcastically thanked Lewis-Smith for his flattery’ in copying ‘whole sections’ of the show for the column.

And he added: ‘As this was your second column for the paper, it’s understandable that by now you were running out of ideas’.

Asked for a comment, Lewis-Smith’s said, via publicists. that he did not talk to journalists.

But in a 1992 interview about his long-running feud with Chris Morris, he stated: 'Imitation is the sincerest form of being an unoriginal thieving bastard’.

Lewis-Smith made his name as a radio prank caller during the Eighties, before going on to make Inside Victor Lewis-Smith for BBC Two and TV Offal for Channel 4, as well as executive producing the Bafta-winning documentary Dudley Moore: After The Laughter for BBC One.

In 2011, he co-wrote and co-directed the shelved conspiracy documentary Unlawful Killing, about the death of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed that was funded by Fayed's billionaire father, Mohamed. Steel featured in it as an interviewee.

In a Daily Mail article last year, Lewis-Smith criticised the BBC for its dearth of original comedy as he promoted the relaunch of Peter Cook’s legendary Establishment Club in London.

Here is Steel’s open letter, entitled A Christmas Pickpocket, in full:

With so many problems in the world, I thought I’d spend a few minutes dealing with one of the most serious; which is that something I wrote a few years ago for an episode of the Mark Steel Lectures, has been purloined by someone else. I wouldn’t normally take much notice, but the writer who swiped it is the TV reviewer, Victor Lewis Smith, known for being magnificently caustic in his own columns about television, including, I suppose it’s fair to add, about the Mark Steel Lectures. It’s all very flattering really, so in the spirit of literary letters between figures like George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells, I’ve sent him a message to thank him.

Dear Victor,

I would like to express my deep gratitude for your change of heart regarding my writing, which you have previously been highly critical of. It appears that now, you have not only developed an affection for the show, but you value it to the extent that you copy whole sections of it in your Christmas TV column.

I was so flattered to read the paragraph you wrote about the monarchy that went “Don’t give me that spiel about them being good for tourism. Does that means no tourists ever go to republics like France or the US? Or if they do, do they climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty, look down on Manhattan, and say: “Well, it’s a lovely view, but the lack of a monarch spoils it somehow”?”

Because this is almost an exact recital of a joke I wrote for a column in The Independent, and which I used to perform in my stand-up shows. I notice you’ve made one change, which is to substitute the Statue of Liberty for the Eiffel Tower, so I’ll bow to your superior instincts on that one. Now, instead of being forgotten, the joke has been revived for a whole new audience.

Other, less principled writers, might try to hide their attempt to use other people’s jokes by placing it in publications the original writer may not see. But you’re clearly more honest than that, and included it in the paper I write for myself.

Who knows, maybe I’ll soon have two columns in The Independent, one of which I don’t have to bother to write, but is a compilation of old pieces you’ve kindly put together yourself.

And if you’d like to use any more of my jokes for anything else you’re doing, please let me know and I’ll see what I’ve got.

Yours in appreciation,Mark Steel

- By Jay Richardson

Published: 4 Jan 2013

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