‘Mostly I reflect on the absurd business of being alive’

PHOTO: Steve Ullathorne

‘Mostly I reflect on the absurd business of being alive’

14th June 2019

Arthur Smith brought his show Laughs, Stories, A Song and A Poem to the EM Forster Theatre this month. Here he tells Eileen Leahy about its content, why his real name is Brian and how he once ended up busking outside Tonbridge Castle

So Arthur, please can you tell us a bit about your new show?

It is, as the title suggests, a collection of different components. Some ancient jokes, some strange things that have happened to me, a small tribute to Leonard Cohen, some funny poems (and a sad one). And I chat with the audience, I talked about Tonbridge because it's a place I know well since my brother lives there.

Why did you decide that now was the time to do this type of retrospective performance?

There is contemporary stuff – a Trump thing, a nod to Brexit and an experiment with Artificial Intelligence – but mostly I reflect on the absurd business of being alive. I have also got a small selection from my forthcoming show about my father called ‘Syd’, who I describe as ‘an ordinary man who lived through some extraordinary times’.

In the Second World War he fought at El Alamein, became a POW and ended the war in the notorious Colditz Castle in Germany. In the 1950s PC Syd patrolled London’s South Bank and met a gallery of characters, whom he tried his best not to arrest.

Fans will know your real name is Brian so why do you also go by the moniker Arthur?

I became Arthur when I joined Equity, the performers’ union. They don’t permit two members with the same name and there already was a Brian Smith. I looked at the space on the form reserved for my new name – the name by which the world would know me: I wrote down ‘Captain W****r’.

Equity, thank God, vetoed this. Perhaps because there was one already! I chose Arthur because that is my middle name and also the name of three old comedians. (Can you guess? I’ll give you one – Arthur Askey.)

You’re a prolific broadcaster, presenter and writer – which area of your work do you like best and why?

They all have their own unique attractions but I guess I like the purity of doing live shows. Radio is great because it is just words and I can wear odd socks without getting in trouble. Writing is undoubtedly the hardest. Staring at a blank screen trying to make things up and give them a shape is endlessly tough.

Have you performed in Tonbridge before?

I think I first performed there about 100 years ago when I was in a comedy team called The National Revue Company. I may have been back since but I have a terrible memory for these things. I have definitely appeared somewhere in Tonbridge and once, as a joke, busked outside the castle with my young nephews.

Do you enjoy being out on the road touring or do you prefer the company of a cosy radio studio?

Being on the road can be a bit lonely – endless hours on trains or in the back of vans, solitary nights in hotels and meals eaten alone – but I like to think of myself as a roaming troubadour going from one settlement to the next. I like a radio studio too, waiting for words to fill the air in interesting shapes.

What will the audience enjoy most about Laughs, Stories, A Song and A Poem?

I hope they laugh, snigger, remember, be surprised at one point, join in if they wish and be appalled at the bit near the end when I will dance briefly. They will also get the chance to tell me what makes them grumpy and if they are so inclined, heckle.

Can you tell us three things about your memoir My Name is Daphne Fairfax which would get people into reading it

1 You’ll learn about what it was like to grow up in south London after the war when there were bombsites everywhere and no one had ever seen an avocado let alone quinoa.

2 You can find out how I ended up in Cuba with Arthur Scargill, in Calabria with Germaine Greer and in Wales with Bill Clinton

3 My tales of the Edinburgh Festival and how I ended up getting arrested there one night

4 Oh and as a bonus: how I fell in love

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