Digger talks to Arthur Smith,
comedian and writer.
Arthur Smith is one of our most
popular and successful writers and comedians, with a strong sense of
the bizarre and the absurd.
His stand-up career started in the
heyday of alternative comedy in the 80s at The Comedy Store in
Covent Garden and with regular appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe.
He has written four plays, including An Evening with Gary Lineker,
which was nominated for an Olivier Award and made into a TV film,
and Live Bed Show starring Caroline Quentin and Paul Merton.
In the 80s, Arthur starred with
Phil Nice in the classic TV series Arthur and Phil Go Off.... which
was a spoof documentary-style programme where the pair investigated
places and phenomena such as 'up north' and the Loch Ness monster,
and left members of the public and officials who took part confused
A regular on TV's Grumpy Old Men,
he also is well-known for his radio work such as BBC Radio 4ís
Excess Baggage and Loose Ends, and The Smith Lectures on Radio 2.
Arthur is currently writing his autobiography.
Images courtesy of and © copyright www.rexfeatures.com
Digger: I was listening to Jo Brand the other day because she was
interviewing Barry Cryer. Have you met up with him in the past?
Oh yes, Barry, everyone knows Barry! It's impossible not to.
Is he as lovely as he sounds?
He is, annoyingly. I'm a great admirer of Barry, partly because
there was a kind of rift between comedians in the eighties and
nineties and he sort of put his head up over the parapet and he's
just an amiable, generous, likeable, witty man. Humble in a way and
he doesn't take himself too seriously.
Yes, that's how he comes across. What was this rift? Was it new wave
...Yeah, you know there was sort of "Thou shalt no do racist,
sexist jokes." That kind of thing really, not that Barry ever
did those. He wasn't in that school. But there were some comedians
who were doing it. And with the alternative comedy there was a bit
of a war.
And Barry ended up being a sort of referee?
He certainly didn't leap to judge all young comics. That's not to
say that younger comics weren't equally thoughtless to older comics.
But he never was.
Because Jo went on to say that there's quite a competitive thing
between comedy performers.
Oh yeah, well in a way it's a cut-throat business, isn't it? Because
if somebody else is getting all the gigs then you're not I suppose.
It's a very individualistic thing. Obviously just you. So every
comic's got other comics they hate. There's also a communal thing
where we're all in it together.
What Barry was saying was that he hadn't noticed that sort of thing
with writers. They all swap ideas and encourage each other and pat
each other on the back.
I think writers are a slightly different crew because they get
treated so much worse. I speak as a man who has been a writer too on
these things and you're the lowest of the low. Only the warm-up man
in the TV studio outstrips the writer for lowly status.
Often what happens is that the warm-up man, or woman, becomes famous
But, of course, you only hear of the ones who become famous.
I used to be a warm-up myself. A right of passage in a way.
I've been to a few TV and radio show recordings and sometimes the
warm-up is the funniest part of the show.
Well, you see, that causes trouble as well. You don't want to be
upstaging the star of the show.
When I tried writing comedy, the scripts always came back after a
month with egg and coffee stains on them.
You were lucky. At least they'd looked at them. Bastards.
They say if half a dozen people have said you look ill, then lie
down. So Arthur, to the questions... What was your early background?
I grew up in Bermondsey. My dad was a copper. And I went to a
primary school there. I was always funny at school, writing school
revues and then at university the same. And then I went to the Edinburgh
festival. I did more revue and some radio and then the stand-up
started. Then I did geography A-level, French A-level, and the rest,
of course, is History!! Sorry that was a poor joke and you were
supposed to laugh!
Digger: (penny drops and
Arthur: I never quite
got that gag together. Maybe you're the first person to really find
(recovers) This was Bermondsey when?
I was born in '54. I could send you the first chapter of the book
which has all this detail.
Any idea when it's going to be completed?
In the summer and it will be out in 2009.
Have you spoken to Tony Hawks for any advice about this sort of
No, I was talking to John O'Farrell the other day. Of course
Tony is the great God of these kind of things with all his books.
He's sold hugely.
He's been sold all over the world in large numbers and is in many languages.
There seems to be a market for these books about Ireland. Tony and
Pete McCarthy's books were very successful. Write witty
sentimental books about Ireland and you're quids in, that would be
Digger: Who were/are the comedians who inspired you?
In an odd way Max Miller, not that I ever saw him. I remember
hearing him on a record and, indeed, on my first gig in Edinburgh I
kind of impersonated him and did one of his routines. And also when
I was a young guy I liked Monty Python. Looking back on it now I was
also influenced by Morecambe and Wise and some Americans - Woody
Allen I've always held in high regard. These are people I admire but
whether I was influenced by them or not it's difficult to say, isn't
all quite diverse in their way. I suppose you're familiar with the
Max Miller line about being on a narrow ravine with a beautiful
Arthur: ... And not
knowing whether to squeeze past her or toss himself off? (Both
Digger: It was
amazing what he got away with in those days.
Arthur: He was famous
for that though. I heard that they would actually hold the train to
Brighton for him if he was running late at the theatre, so highly
was he regarded.
Digger: The other
travellers didn't mind?.
Arthur: No, they'd
see it as some kind of honour.
Digger: What are the best and worst things about being a comedian?
Arthur: It won't come as any surprise to you,
because most comedians would rate this as highly important, and that's not
having to get up early in the morning. That's a good thing.
Digger: A bit
like musicians. And is it true, like musicians, that you attract the
opposite sex by being up on stage? Do you have groupies like them
Well, there are sort of groupies, I suppose. People who you see at
lots of gigs. They are not as forthcoming as musical groupies
Digger: What might you be if you weren't a comedian?
Having to get up early. I bet you'd enjoy that. I heard that in
Victorian times when people went to Southend for the day from London
they'd send a postcard in the afternoon to tell people back in
London what time to get the tea ready. And the post was so good in
those days that the card would get there before them, like a text
Yes, the postal service was brilliant in those days. I don't
remember it myself, but there were several deliveries a day.
It was probably totally inefficient in business terms, costing
billions and employing too many people.
Yes, three million people worked for the post office back then.
Digger: What makes you
laugh and what makes you sad?
Woody Allen. Sad ... The patent mortality that lurks at the edge of one's vision.
Digger: The fact that we
know we're going to die?
Yes, I speak as a rationalist and an agnostic/atheist - the
essential tragedy of the end of life.
Digger: And the end of
the world, probably?
Arthur: Yes, with a
bit of luck I won't be around for that one.
Digger: I'm hoping that
I think we've made it through, David. I mean, there was a dodgy
period wasn't there? I thinks it's going to be about another 20 or
30 years now.
I'm alright Jack, that's our attitude.
What make you angry?
Were you bullied?
No, not at all. I was a bully if anything - only a verbal bully and only if I
thought they deserved it. I don't like bullies or arrogance or
vanity or lack of consideration. Or self-importance.
There's a lot of it about.
I don't know if there's any more now than there used to be.
We talk about the good old days, and you sound off in Grumpy Old
Men, but actually in our day it was just as bad but in different
Yeah, absolutely, I agree. It's the lot of every older generation to
reminisce about how much better it was in their day. And always, in a
(Laughs) What make you hopeful?
(Thinks long and hard) An unexpected burst of sunshine.
(Thinks long and hard again) An unasked for act of kindness.
Digger: Who are your musical heroes?
Leonard Cohen. I did a show called Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen.
As a young bloke I always used to like The Stones. I have always
been interested in people like Eno. And due to an administrative
error, Val Doonican. (Digger laughs) He's a very nice man.
Digger: Val actually
makes a guest appearance on one of the Bonzo tracks, the Intro and
Yeah, I was in a show where I interveiwed him in Copenhagen for
three days! I did this radio series called Sentimental Journey where
we took them places which had some significance to them and in this
case he'd been in Copenhagen for a few months some years before. And
we went and looked around his old haunts and he was charming and
generous about everyone. Except Engelbert Humperdinck. Who I've
grown to hate myself!
Digger: I wrote some unsuccessful sitcoms in the 80s which all came back
through my letterbox. I thought they were hilarious! But happily I was invited in to the BBC to help with a new
entertainment show but after two meetings with the producer the star they had in mind DIED (Marti Caine)! What would be your
advice to budding writers of comedy?
Arthur: Hmm. I would
say find your voice and stay true to it.
As Mama Cass sang, "Play your own kind of music, sing your own
special song, even if nobody else sings along."
Yes, just emulate Mama Cass who wrote some of the greatest comedy.
And who choked on a ham sandwich.
Did she really? That's not a joke or anything?
Possibly an urban myth. She was supposed to have died in the same
hotel room as Keith Moon.
What, BOTH choking on ham sandwiches?
(Laughs) No! No, that would be too much of a coincidence.
That would be slightly suspicious. Admit it, it was YOU wasn't it, David?
Can you ever know whether a line or an idea is going to make
people laugh? I mean, is there any kind of formula to successful
comedy and can it be/should it be analysed?
Well, no, everyone will tell you that. I mean, you can see a line and
know that it makes you and your friends laugh and be pretty sure it will
work, but you never really know until you have pitched it in front of
a live paying audience. The tossed-off remark or half-worked gag
may suddenly take wings and fly.
Is there a formula though?
Not really, no. There are certain things like the rule of three,
like New York, Paris and Stoke.
John Sullivan used that on the side of Del Boy's van. New York,
Paris and Peckham.
Exactly, there's an example of the rule of three. Two straight ones
and the punch line at three.
One that Python used a great deal was turning a situation around, like
the Miner who was well-dressed and spoke posh and his
straight-talking Yorkshire dad who wanted him to be a playwright
This is still being done all the time. It's a very common technique
to re-contextualise something and see how absurd it looks. It's like
getting a nice old lady swearing, like on Catherine Tate or Little Britain.
I find the swearing thing a bit tiresome myself, but I suppose it's
funny in a way. As a comedian watching comedy I notice that
comedians laugh about half a beat before an audience. I suppose
because I'm alert to where the comedian's liable to be going.
What do you think of the original Odd Couple movie?
and Wise with The
They did a sequel with Matthau and Lemon, and it was out and about
and like a buddy movie. It's too modern and the whole point about
the original was that it was in an apartment and a bit
claustrophobic. And I don't think it worked because they changed
what made the original so good.
It was a play originally.
What have been the funniest/strangest things to happen to you
bloke pouring a pint of urine over me! Once I was in an audience and
the comedian was not going very well, he was a bit wacky, and he
said something rather offensive and I started heckling, and rather
well if I say so myself. And he did the old thing of "Oh yeah,
you think it's funny and you're so clever, well you come and have a go
then." And he didn't know who I was and so I got up and did 20
minutes and went down really well. (Digger laughs) There have been
loads of funny things if I think about it, and I must make a note to
in my autobiography.
Write them down. Do you take a notebook around with you?
Yeah, I try to because you never know when an idea's going to occur.
Something will occur in the day and you think "Oh that's funny" and if
you don't write it down it might not come back to you until years later.
Digger: How terrifying is it to first appear in front of people and do
you ever get used to it?
I was never afraid of an audience as most people are, even when I was
quite young. In school assembly, if called upon, I would stand up
and sing Johnny Appleseed or something. Although the first time I
did the Comedy Store to try out stand up I was terrified.
Was that when they were 'gonging' people?
Did you get far before getting gonged?
I didn't get gonged but I wasn't very good, and was disappointed.
Funnily enough the next time around wasn't so bad. And I don't normally
have problems with nerves.
Digger: What are your top five favourite albums?
Keith Jarrett, the Koln concert, Goat's Head Soup by The Stones, the
Brandenburg concerto by Bach, Val Doonican's greatest hits and Music
for Airports by Eno. Probably the only time that Eno and Val are
going to appear in
the same list.
Digger: If you could arrange a dinner party and invite any guests,
living or dead, real or fictional from any era, who would you chose
Oscar Wilde, because everyone else always does and I want to keep him
busy. (Digger laughs) Marie Antoinette, just to see what she looks
like. Hereward The Wake, just because I've always wanted to say
"This is Hereward." And "Hereward this is Marie Antoinette." And
due to an administrative error, my accountant Harry Nash.
He wants his percentage even in interviews, does he?
Yeah, exactly, he's listening in even as we speak.
Monty Python team
Digger: Are you nostalgic or do you tend to look forward?
Arthur: I am
nostalgic but I realise that the past is merely the present gone.
It's easy to sit on your laurels and bask in the past. But you need to
keep looking forward because in the end noone gives a shit about
your past, except you.
only as big as your last achievement. Talking of which, what are your biggest accomplishments to-date and what would you
still like to achieve?
Arthur: (Laughs) How much longer
is this going on for by the way? There's an ominous incessant ring
about these questions - you did say half an hour, didn't you?
Digger: (Laughs) We're almost there.
Arthur: Greatest accomplishment
was to walk the Pennine Way when I was sixteen. And to once do a
joke in Edinburgh the scale of which can never be matched.
Arthur: Because the punch line to
the joke was taking place a mile away from where I was delivering
it. On the top of Arthur's seat and I was down at the bottom far way
and I said "I think you will find, and I believe this is
confirmed" and I looked up and I had five dancers set-up there.
Digger: Frank Skinner told a tale
about how he was in a plane going over western Europe, specifically
Luxembourg, and that the captain asked them to look out of the
window and said "You will see that we will shortly pass the
Duchy on the left-hand-side."
Arthur: (Laughs) I don't think I
believe that, but I'd like to. Great gag, it wouldn't work so
much now. Do people still remember that song?
Digger: Unfortunately I do... were any of the Arthur and Phil Go Off episodes saved?
Arthur: Yes, Phil has them all.
Digger: Well can I please have a copy
Arthur: Yes, I'll sort it out.
Digger: What was the 'audience' reaction when you sang naked on Balham
High Street? (Arthur lost a bet with Tony Hawks.)
Arthur: Outrageous laughter. Hawks
still has a video of it.
Digger: You should put it on your
Arthur: I agree. I keep meaning to
ask but I never get round to it.
Digger: Finally Arthur, please describe yourself in a couple of sentences
Arthur: Five foot eleven, wiry,
unpredictable. Hang on, I'm six foot one but I slouch a bit.
Digger: Well, thanks very much for
that Arthur. That was great fun. Are you appearing up this way again
Arthur: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Yes, when I'm up in Northampton we'll have to meet up for a drink
Arthur Smith interview. January 2008.
Many thanks to Arthur for his kindness
with this interview. More information at Arthur's
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