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Arthur Smith Interview

 

 

 

Digger talks to Arthur Smith, comedian and writer. 

 

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Arthur Smith

 

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 and bewildered. 

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.

Arthur kindly agreed to talk to Digger here at www.retrosellers.com and here is that interview.

 

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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?

Arthur: Oh yes, Barry, everyone knows Barry! It's impossible not to.

Digger: Is he as lovely as he sounds?

Arthur: 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.

Digger: Yes, that's how he comes across. What was this rift? Was it new wave against...

Arthur: ...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.

Digger: And Barry ended up being a sort of referee?

Arthur: 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.

Digger: Because Jo went on to say that there's quite a competitive thing between comedy performers.

Arthur: 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.

Digger: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Digger: Often what happens is that the warm-up man, or woman, becomes famous after that. 

Arthur: But, of course, you only hear of the ones who become famous.

Digger: That's true.

Arthur: I used to be a warm-up myself. A right of passage in a way. 

Digger: I've been to a few TV and radio show recordings and sometimes the warm-up is the funniest part of the show.

Arthur: Well, you see, that causes trouble as well. You don't want to be upstaging the star of the show.

Digger: When I tried writing comedy, the scripts always came back after a month with egg and coffee stains on them.

Arthur: You were lucky. At least they'd looked at them. Bastards.

Digger: 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?

Arthur: 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 laughs) 

Arthur: I never quite got that gag together. Maybe you're the first person to really find it funny! 

Digger: (recovers) This was Bermondsey when?

Arthur: I was born in '54. I could send you the first chapter of the book which has all this detail.

Digger: Any idea when it's going to be completed?

Arthur: In the summer and it will be out in 2009.

Digger: Have you spoken to Tony Hawks for any advice about this sort of thing?

Arthur: 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.

Digger: He's been sold all over the world in large numbers and is in many languages.

Arthur: 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 my advice.

Digger: Who were/are the comedians who inspired you?

Arthur: 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 it? 

Digger: They're 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 girl?...

Arthur: ... And not knowing whether to squeeze past her or toss himself off? (Both laugh) 

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.

 

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Max Miller Bach
 
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Val Doonican

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The Rolling Stones

 

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 too?

Arthur: (Laughs) Well, there are sort of groupies, I suppose. People who you see at lots of gigs. They are not as forthcoming as musical groupies though.

Digger:  What might you be if you weren't a comedian?

Arthur: A postman.

Digger: 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 message today.

Arthur: Yes, the postal service was brilliant in those days. I don't remember it myself, but there were several deliveries a day.

Digger: It was probably totally inefficient in business terms, costing billions and employing too many people.

Arthur: Yes, three million people worked for the post office back then.

Digger: What makes you laugh and what makes you sad?

Arthur: Laugh... 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?

Arthur: 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 too. 

Arthur: 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. 

Digger: I'm alright Jack, that's our attitude.

Arthur: (Laughs) Yeah. 

Digger: What make you angry?

 

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Arthur: Bullies.

Digger: Were you bullied?

Arthur: 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.

Digger: There's a lot of it about.

Arthur: I don't know if there's any more now than there used to be.

Digger: 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 ways. 

Arthur: 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 sense, falsely.

Digger: (Laughs) What make you hopeful?

Arthur: (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?

Arthur: 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 the Outro.

Arthur: 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.

Digger: As Mama Cass sang, "Play your own kind of music, sing your own special song, even if nobody else sings along."

Arthur: Yes, just emulate Mama Cass who wrote some of the greatest comedy. (Digger laughs)

Digger: And who choked on a ham sandwich.

Arthur: Did she really? That's not a joke or anything?

Digger: Possibly an urban myth. She was supposed to have died in the same hotel room as Keith Moon.

Arthur: What, BOTH choking on ham sandwiches? 

Digger (Laughs) No! No, that would be too much of a coincidence. 

Arthur: That would be slightly suspicious. Admit it, it was YOU wasn't it, David?

Digger: 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?

Arthur: 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. 

Digger: Is there a formula though?

Arthur: Not really, no. There are certain things like the rule of three, like New York, Paris and Stoke.

Digger: John Sullivan used that on the side of Del Boy's van. New York, Paris and Peckham.

Arthur: Exactly, there's an example of the rule of three. Two straight ones and the punch line at three.

Digger: 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 like him. 

Arthur: 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. 

Digger: What do you think of the original Odd Couple movie?

 

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Morecambe and Wise with The Beatles Leonard Cohen
 
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Woody Allen Keith Jarrett

 

 

 

Arthur: Marvellous. 

Digger: 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.

Arthur: It was a play originally.

Digger:  What have been the funniest/strangest things to happen to you live?

Arthur: A 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 include them in my autobiography.

Digger: Write them down. Do you take a notebook around with you?

Arthur: 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?

Arthur: 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.

Digger: Was that when they were 'gonging' people?

Arthur: Yes.

 

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Digger: Did you get far before getting gonged?

Arthur: 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?

Arthur: 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 and why?

Arthur: 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. 

Digger: He wants his percentage even in interviews, does he?

Arthur: Yeah, exactly, he's listening in even as we speak.

 

 

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Hereward The Wake Brian Eno
 
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Marie Antoinette The 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. 

Digger: You're 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.

Digger: Why?

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 then?!

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 website.

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 soon? 

Arthur: Thank you. I enjoyed it. Yes, when I'm up in Northampton we'll have to meet up for a drink David. Cheerio.

 

 

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Arthur Smith interview. January 2008.

Many thanks to Arthur for his kindness with this interview.  More information at Arthur's website

 

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