The end of summer and the sun is flowing across the concrete campus of the University of East Anglia where I was a student from 1973-77. It’s late September and I really am back at school – to take part in the celebrations for the University’s 50th birthday.


There are loads of activities – a big top featuring Kid Creole and the Coconuts on a bill with former student Nina Conti, a fun fair, some serious academic lectures and discussions, an invasion of zombies, a firework volcano and umpteen eclectic performances.


Grizzled old alumnae like me get to hang out with legions of dimly-remembered contemporaries and to gaze in wistful wonder at the current crop of undergrads resplendent in their youthful zeal.


My duties at the University Theatre (a patch of grass in my day) were to perform a 50-minute comedy set and, far more taxing, to play the main character in an extract from Samuel Becket’s play Fin de Partie.


The director, Prof Emeritus Ralph Yarrow, and fellow (bi-lingual) actor, Erwann Limon, helped me through a rehearsal the night before. My French is probably better than yours but I have hardly spoken it in recent years; I went to sleep drenched in apprehension and spent the day studying the text of the play.


It had been agreed I could read my part – a hunched, sickly man in a wheelchair – from a script. When the time came, I was wheeled on stage. Erwann and I charged off and he got several laughs; we were doing well until I turned over too many pages and lost my place…


The audience could see I was in trouble so I ad-libbed in a way I felt appropriate to Beckett (in French bien sûr, but I translate for you): ”I have arrived at the wrong page. This page means nothing to me now. Where is the right page? I look and look for the right page but it has gone. It is lost. I am lost.

No, wait, the right page is found!”


The audience laughed and we made it triumphantly through to the end. I was thrilled to have got away with it and reminded that doing something unfamiliar provides a bigger buzz than doing what you know.


By now I was beginning to remember the French flourishes I had adopted during the year I spent in Paris as part of my degree. The corners of my mouth began to droop and my shoulders arched into that gallic shape. Alors, quoi?


And then I bumped into Eddie Izzard. Eddie has an honorary degree from UEA and was performing his French stand-up show in half an hour’s time.  We reminisced in French together before Eddie invited me to do a spot to introduce him. And so, as I once did in Paris 20 years ago, I cracked gags in French and, still fired up by my debut as a French actor, je me suis bien amusé


Afterwards I took my place among the throng of students past and present who were draped on the steps overlooking the square at the centre of the campus. I smoked a fag and reflected that I had first sat here 40 years ago – an excited fresher, newly-departed from the nest, hungry for fresh ideas and experiences.


My self-importance was confirmed by the arrival of 2 attractive undergrad women who flirted with me for as long as it took to cadge 2 cigarettes, at which point they immediately got up and set off to the bar.


How little really I have learned.


Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Volume Too) – Feb & March 2014  Soho Theatre, London – Tickets & Info

PC Syd Smith, London, 1951 – From my dad’s memoir

PC Syd Smith, London, 1951

PC Syd Smith, London, 1951

In the meantime, life went on. The Festival of Britain took place. One or two events concerned with my job stand out in my mind.

I was on night duty and walking on Waterloo Bridge at 2am in the morning. I noticed a young lady looking over the parapet. She appeared somewhat distressed. She spoke in a foreign language which, with my linguistic experience I deciphered as German. It was fairly obvious that she had suicide in mind. After some time I managed to escort her off the bridge and walked her to the station where we later discovered she was reported as a missing person.

On another occasion whilst on patrol in London Road at the Elephant and Castle during the day a lady approached me and threw her arms around me and demanded a kiss. She wasn’t exactly an Elizabeth Taylor. She stank horribly of stale beer. I was somewhat flattered by her persistence and at the same time very embarrassed especially as an audience had gathered. My only option was to arrest her, which she seemed to enjoy. Unknown to me, a photograph had been taken by someone and a few days later 2 arrived at the station and were presented to me.

Edinburgh 2013

As I write I am in London in my warm garden. As you read I am in Edinburgh in a cold flat. Soon I will pack my bags, forgetting, as is traditional, to stuff in any socks at all. The Fringe is beckoning me back into its bony arms and I have been having my loins girded by 2 top-notch girders.

Here are some shows that I recommend whole-heartedly despite not having seen any of them.

1. Christian O’Connell

Like many fellow stand ups I am suspicious of DJs who like to think they are funny and get paid more than us (yes, you, Chris Moyles); we know that if they actually had to do a 20-minute set in a comedy club they would burble themselves  straight down the pan. Sometimes you see them trying to entertain a live audience, but the only way they ever get away with it is because some members of the audience know them from the radio.

Christian O’Connell, the morning DJ on Absolute Radio, has bravely decided to have a bash at doing a show in Edinburgh in the proper way. He has written it, tried it out and is going to do the full Edinburgh run. Furthermore his idea is simple and fascinating: he came across a list he had written when he was 13 of the things he hoped to achieve by the age of 40 – the age he was about to be. Could he do them in time?

I know all this because I interviewed him about it on Radio 4 Extra, which, admittedly, wouldn’t have happened to a regular rookie comedian. Nevertheless I was impressed by his approach and reckon he may well be very funny.

2.  Tumi Morake in Her Story.

I know nothing of Tumi or her show but I like the sound of her; she is, so she says, ‘the female comedian who has turned South African comedy upside down and inside out’ which cannot have been easy. Go see.

3. Carey Marx – Intensive Carey

Carey is a terrific comedian who last year joined me in the comics-who-have spent-time-in-Intensive-Care club. He survived his heart attack (obviously – Jeez I am stupid sometimes) but you may not survive his show; the bit of it I have seen is so funny I nearly suffocated laughing.

4, Sally-Anne Hayward – Hey follower!

I have seen a few young new female comedians recently and been disappointed by the number of them whose entire set is made up of hard core sex gags. It’s not that I am prissy (although I do disapprove of sex before marriage) – some of their routines are very funny. It is just so uninteresting. Anyway…. Sally Anne Hayward has a more original and beguiling take on the world. She is also one of those comics who is so delightfully likable that even the most hardened cynic wants to be her friend.

5. Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen (volume too).

Although I haven’t seen this show either I have been in it. The best bits are provided by the Smithereens, my fabulous trio of backing singers.

6. Simon Munnery Fylm

Simon Munnery has not stopped experimenting with the forms of comedy for 25 years – he is the most original funnyman in Britain. He is  though, I suspect, useless at cricket.

So very soon I shall once again be emerging from Waverely station into the exhilarating turmoil of creativity that fills this heart-stoppingly beautiful city.


And you never know, it might not even be raining.


Apart from a marathon compering session, I did 2 solo performances at Glastonbury last week, both of which were utterly different from any other gig I have ever done. I arrive at the first in the backstage bar of one of the bigger arenas to find a band rocking away and dancing going on. Oh dear – when people are grooving they do not wish to sit down and listen to stand-up comedy. There is an audience to the side of the stage but facing it only seven punters, 3 of whom are, damnit, children.

I start with a couple of ancient gags which go down tolerably well but I can see the children are already bored. Scanning through it swiftly, I realize that nearly all my material will either be incomprehensible or too rude for them. So I take a chance and offer 50p for one of the kids to come up on stage and talk to me. 10-year old Olivia is soon standing next to me answering my questions. ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you like your tent?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you only answer questions with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’? ‘ ‘Yes’ She has a rather stern delivery and gets a laugh with each monosyllable. Soon her best friend Isabel has joined us and proves to have an extremely charming and infectious laugh. Olivia and Isabel are enjoying themselves and so is everyone else.

‘Who does your mum look like?’ I ask Olivia.

‘Beyonce,’ she says. Her mum whoops and comes up to wave.

‘And who do I look like?’

Olivia scrutinizes me intently.

‘Robbie Williams,’ she says.


Never work with children and animals but, if you do, step back and let them get the laughs.



2 nights later and I have a half-hour spot in the Cabaret tent, a duty I have discharged successfully in the past. On warm  afternoons you sometimes find the audience is sparse or still recovering from the previous night ,so I am pleased to find I am due on at 9.45. Unfortunately, at the same time, in some larger venue on the other side of the site, a band called the Rolling Stones are playing.

You may be surprised to learn that many more festival-goers attend the Stones gig than mine –  or you may not be surprised. There are about 20 people in the very large Cabaret tent, several of whom are hopelessly pissed. Carl Donnelly, most excellent MC, proposes that he jolly some of the audience onto the stage before I come on. Why not? When I stride up to the microphone I find 6 people sitting at my feet, and so I decide to declare myself the new Messiah and the 6 as my apostles.

I can’t remember a great deal about the next 25 minutes except that I soon ceded the Messiahship to Dave, whose message was that we should all be drunk and enjoy Glastonbury. Later I got 2 of my followers to have a gladiatorial sword fight using 2 rolled-up copies of the Daily Mail. I seem to recall that Dave was killed in this combat so I am not sure who is the Messiah now. Was it Alice the stoned astrophysicist, or Blue, the self-possessed boy I took to be a girl? It’s all a bit blurry now – as Glastonbury immediately becomes once you have returned from the mayhem and had that oh so fabulous bath.

Thank you Glastonbury for another crazed time with old friends and new. And thanks to Olivia and Isabel, the best new double act around.

The Sun (*)

The sun (*)

A savage review is much more entertaining for the reader than an admiring one; the little misanthrope in each of us relishes the rubbishing of someone else. But however much I enjoy it in others, I find it hard to be a rude critic myself. Even after some bum-murderingly boring play I think, “At least they turned up and had a go.” Wrath should be reserved for important things.

Today though, I choose vitriol.

The show in question, which has been running longer than The Mousetrap, has been in the news again lately, generating endless crass conversations. The sun has turned up for a brief run at a few venues around the country, and I for one am sick of its predictable, pathetic routine.

It always opens in darkness with a mob complaining. Then a suggestion that the sun might be coming transforms the mood into one of happy anticipation.

The macabre figure of the doctor warns them it will kill them, but they ignore him and run off to buy new clothes. Then the sun makes its big entrance and we’re all meant to be impressed by the clever lighting tricks.

Yes, of course it created all life-forms and keeps us alive, but haven’t we heard enough about all that? If the sun is so great, why are we prevented from looking directly at it? What has it got to hide?

It is a very arrogant character compared with its rival the moon. Where the moon invites the stars out and plays among them, the sun obliterates them, jealous of their greater but more distant strength. The capricious moon will appear during the day, but the sun never surprises us by showing up at night. The moon puts on an elegant show, different every time in shape, colour and nuance.

The sun is just a round, yellow thing with one trick. It continually comes out and goes in like some vacillating homosexual. Its closing number, Sunset, always peters out after a few minutes.

The PR people know that recent productions in Britain have been feeble and sporadic. For years they’ve been promising the global-warming version, where the central figure is more brilliant and the doctor has a much bigger part but it seems some Gulf Stream subplot has ruined that. Recent shows seem to have conformed to the same tired old formula that we’ve been watching for years but evrytime a little worse. In short, the sun is crap.

It won’t I think be appearing at the Edinburgh Festival this year and if it does it won’t be welcome in my show either – but you are.

Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen (volume too)

And yet – we’ve been friends for a long time and I owe it a lot. So let’s forget about this production and consider future ones, which will surely be passionate, engaged and full-blooded.


“Happiness….”, sang John Lennon in 1968, “is a warm gun.” But what Lennon didn’t know was that, in fact, Happyness is a new comedy festival that takes place in Inverness over the May bank holiday. I have just returned from its golden shores and am brushing the heather from my hair as I type (Auld Heather was quite a gal)

Happyness (the name was suggested I gather by Bill Bailey) is the brainchild of that formidable Femme de Comedie Karen Koren, mother of the Gilded Balloon, one of the Edinburgh Fringe’s great venues. Looking no doubt at the Kilkenny and the Machynlleth comedy festivals she has decided that Inverness could make a great addition to the comedy buff’s calendar – like those 2 areas of outstanding natural beauty Inverness is a handsome old town full of historical incident, surrounded by sumptuous mountains and lakes, with a canny, urbane populace.

It is true that the audiences were small but those people that did turn up to the dozens of shows on offer were appreciative and pleasingly vocal. I have no doubt that there will be larger numbers next year and that in five years time the town will be teeming with comedy lovers keen to laugh and to enjoy the fabulous landscapes.

My own sojourn began badly with a brutal dawn flight from Luton airport where I realised I had left my mobile phone at home. On arrival in Scotland however the sun was out and I was warmly welcomed by Karen’s tireless team of  attractive henchwomen so it was not long before I was feelin da happyness.

I was billeted at a hotel in the centre of town on the banks of the River Ness with all the other comedians, which gave a great opportunity to catch up with old muckers (big hellos to Jenni Éclair, Fred Macaulay, Janey Godley and Michael Redmond) and to take a look at some of the younger comics doing their stuff – I was especially impressed by Bec Hill, an Australian who draws her act as she does it, Daniel Simonsen a Norwegian master of Nordic gloom and Cornish comedy rap dudes Hedlov and Passman. As at the Machynlleth festival I was reminded of my early days at the Edinburgh fringe when all the performers would congregate at the Gilded Balloon after their shows, comparing notes and bitching about other comedians.

I MC-ed a couple of shows, did a turn at another and took over the Inverness open top bus tour for the afternoon. Some of the passengers were evidently expecting a more conventional tour and looked surprised when I talked about the laird of Poundland, revealed that the Loch Ness monster had been a double agent during the war and did a spot of Highland dancing on a roundabout.

Between gigs I pulled on my walking boots and took to the hills clutching my new OS map, stumbling through bogs, clambering up crags and gazing across at the dreamy horizon of not-so-distant mountains with their silvery highlights of snow. No mobile meant I was not distracted from the view by the need to take a photo of it or ring someone up to describe it.

As I passed a bush 2 deer stumbled out looking rather, er, sheepish. Inspired by the warm Scottish air, the prospect of summer and the certainty of the guffaws in the town far below me, I leapt onto one of the deer and rode it magnificently across the glens.  Hey you can’t say I didn’t – you weren’t there. But be there next year if you dare. 

6 ways to stave off misery

6 ways to stave off misery

Do you ever feel utterly miserable? If you answer ‘no’ to this question then you are either lying, or you are a children’s TV presenter. Feeling down is a part of life as surely as is breathing or finding Piers Morgan a pompous, smarmy idiot. But worry not, sad reader, because here come…Arthur Smith’s Top 6 Things You Can Do to Stave off Misery. Unlike similar regimes dreamed up by doctors and therapists, this one requires very little effort (no jogging!) and can be knocked off during the course of a morning, at the end of which I GUARANTEE* you will be feeling far better than you were:


  1. Start gently by congratulating yourself that you have managed to get up, clean your teeth and put your clothes not only in the correct order but also the right way round. Well done!
  2. Think of a good friend you haven’t seen for a while, and then send them a postcard. Yes, a proper postcard – with a nice picture on one side and a fond message, an address and a stamp on the other. As you post it imagine your pal receiving it, their pleased face, that smile you have seen so often…. pop into a shop and buy yourself a little edible (or drinkable) luxury eg a slab of your favourite chocolate. Put this to one side….
  3. Have a clear out. Come on, gather up those shoes you know you will never actually wear, the old DVDs, tapes and videos, the chipped teapot etc and squash them into that suitcase with the broken wheels. Deposit the whole damn lot in your local charity shop. (NB if your despair is really extreme you could, additionally, throw out a member of your family). You and your house will feel lighter. And, hey, while you’re in the shop, take a quick shufti at the clothes racks – it may be your lucky day ….
  4. Remember that song you used to love but haven’t heard for a while? Yes, that one. Go and stick it on really loud – even if it is Lady in Red. Shut your eyes and, if necessary, dance! As Katie Price once remarked, “music hath charms to soothe the glum lady.”
  5. Make a cup of tea. We British know this better than anyone; if in doubt, make a cup of tea.
  6. Turn on the TV, sip your tea, and, for five minutes, watch any reality TV show; savour the beautiful fact that you are not one of the poor saps taking part in it. Then switch the TV off. You have now successfully completed the 6 activities. It remains only for you to sit quietly and tuck in to that little treat you bought after you went to the post box earlier. Oh yes and – why not? –make another cup of tea and, go on with you, take the afternoon off.


* This guarantee is meaningless








“Smith’s comic timing is always a wonder to behold” The Times (2011)

You are being arrested for breach of the peace and possession of a megaphone” Lothian Police (2001)


Just as Degas felt compelled to return to ballet dancers and David Attenborough to his gorillas, so

Arthur Smith turns again to Leonard Cohen.

It is 13 years since Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe.  The show subsequently ran in London’s West End and at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal.  It was recorded for Radio 4 and it is still repeated frequently on Radio 4 Extra.  Is it a coincidence that Cohen’s stock has risen ever since? (yes).

In this new show Arthur, channeling Leonard, deals with the big ‘D’s of life – death, disappointment, diabetes, dementia, darkness, desire and dancing. He also recounts the bizarre story of his recent meeting with Mr Cohen.  Arthur will be accompanied and enhanced by Kirsty Newton and Carrie Marx.

Arthur Smith has been regularly attending the Edinburgh Fringe since 1977. He has also written stage plays such as An Evening with Gary Lineker and The Live Bed Show, both of which transferred to the London’s West End.  His autobiography, My Name Is Daphne Fairfax, was published to critical acclaim in 2009.  Arthur Smith is a regular presenter on Radio 4 and 4 Extra, appears in the series Grumpy Old Men and the One Show and tours the country doing his one man stand up show.

In 2008 he finally accepted the ‘Spirit of the Fringe’ award that had been offered to him numerous times.



Venue:                    Pleasance Cabaret Bar, 60 The Pleasance

Time:                       14.30 (1 hour)

Tickets:                   Aug 3-4,9-11,16-18  £12.00(£11.00)

Aug 5-8,12-15  £10.00(£9.00)

Box Office:   0131 556 5660

Mrs T

Friday, November 23rd 1990 – as the Funeral March strikes up I mope slowly to the dimly-lit centre stage of the Hackney Empire and declare, in sepulchral tones, that I have come to bury all the Mrs Thatcher jokes – jokes that no longer serve any purpose following her resignation the previous day. Then I leap up and beam, the theatre is flooded with light and loud music as I rip my shirt off in dramatic fashion to reveal a red T–shirt emblazoned with the words: ‘Hooray! She’s gone!’ As I recall it the routine didn’t get many laughs.

There weren’t actually many good Thatcher jokes – Ben Elton did a few but then disappointed a lot of people by teaming up with a known Thatcherite; the only one anybody can remember, which was quoted in most of the reports and obituaries, was Spitting Image’s “What about the vegetables?” “They’ll have the same as me.” Mrs Thatcher famously had no sense of humour and was impervious to criticism so she was untouched by anything comic. Nevertheless she unintentionally altered British comedy forever as a new style of comedian began to usurp the golf-playing establishment acts who were perceived to be Tory supporters and numbered several who did racist, homophobic and sexist material.

There was an irony about the new comics’ opposition to Thatcher of course. What could be more Thatcherite than a stand-up comedian? Self-employed, un-unionised, unsupported by any namby-pamby arts grant, he/she has got on a bike and got a gig. As she won the next two elections, the not very good jokes and the vitriol continued, but I am not persuaded that the routines of a small number of comics troubled Conservative Party ‘Think Tanks’ for long.

Another irony for me was that my own fortunes, in contrast to those of the millions she put out of work, improved radically during her governments. When she became Prime Minister, I was 24, unemployed, skint and living in a slum. By the time of that Hackney Empire gig I was an established act, was writing a play that would enjoy a decent run in the West End and had moved into a palace in Balham.

When the news broke about her death I wondered if I should make some similar gesture to my 1990 effort at my gig in Solihull 2 days later. Or maybe I should send some angry tweets, write a piece for a paper, host a party or just stand in the street with a megaphone railing against all she did?

Coincidentally, the day before the announcement I MC-ed a show at the Royal Court in London put on by the Stop the War coalition, marking 10 years since Tony Blair, Mrs Thatcher’s illegitimate son by Lionel Blair, had ignored the huge anti-war demonstrations and invaded Iraq. Naturally at one point I shouted “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie!” and the audience responded with the old roar, “Out! Out! Out!” I joked that in Guildford the same cue produced the response ‘Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah!”  Lord knows how different the show might have been if she had died a day earlier.

In the end I chose not to join in the kerfuffle because I decided that the judgement of her career should not be confused by the celebration of her death. It was her political life that counted, not the one that ended in a hotel room at the Ritz – besides, I knew there would be plenty of people doing all those things without my encouragement. Mind you, there is one particular Rod Stewart song I cannot seem to get out of my head:  “Maggie, I wish I’d……” 

In Memoriam Pete


It’s true he could be mean

but he was funny and charismatic.

I liked Pete.

And so I set off to his memorial service

in Brighton.


Arriving at Clapham Junction station

I see a sign

with those 2 dismal words,

Bus Replacement.

‘Bus Replacement to Burgess Hill.’

Burgess Hill?

That’s 30 fucking miles away!


I hesitate

I reflect

and I conclude…


I liked Pete

but I didn’t like him enough

to take the bus replacement to Burgess Hill.


I remember just how mean he was

I turn round and head back home

where I catch the last 10 minutes

of the Antiques Road Show.