ARTS / Show People: It takes one of the lads to find the sit in the com: Arthur Smith

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WHERE WERE you on the night England lost to West Germany in the semi-finals of the last World Cup? Like the day of JFK's assassination, it's an event seared into the consciousness of a nation. It also forms the skeleton of An Evening with Gary Lineker, Arthur Smith and Chris England's broad comedy about male bonding and San Miguel lager, which received an Olivier Award nomination for Best Comedy last year, and recently returned to the West End.

For all his success as a playwright, Smith is best known as a stand-up comic. His quick wit and likeable brand of laddish humour make him the perfect chat-show guest; acting as a late replacement on a recent Clive Anderson Talks Back, he scored immediately with his analysis of the England cricket team: 'brilliant on paper, crap on grass'. It's this ability to be amusing to order that is the secret of his success. He has turned laconicism into an art form, listing his recreations in Debrett's People of Today as 'smoking' and 'sleeping'. No graduate of the Politically Correct School of Comedy, he is facetious, fatuous and, most important of all, funny.

A regular guest on Radio 4's Loose Ends, he has also hosted Paramount City, BBC1's comedy showcase, and is much in demand as a compere - a job he likes because 'you can get away with a bit of charm and not much material'. He claims to write one joke a year, but makes sure it's one 'I know is going to get a laugh, like 'whatever happened to white dogshit?'.'

Smith is more than a mere Rent-a-Wit, however. As with many of the best comics, he offers substance behind the silliness. 'It can't just be funny; it has to resonate in other areas,' he asserts. Sure, his humour includes enough jokes about farting and vomiting to fill several issues of Viz. And the similarities with the Carry On films extend beyond his looking like a tall, unwrinkled version of Sid James. But, at the same time, he casually drops into the conversation his fluency in French (he fancies doing some stand-up in Paris), his love of cricket (he brought a pocket television along to our interview so he could keep abreast of the Test score) and his familiarity with Arthur Cravan, the Dadaist poet-cum-boxer who was Oscar Wilde's nephew. The comedian reckons that Sod, the play he is taking to Edinburgh this year about a man who buries himself in his back garden, 'smacks of Beckett'. Not bad for one who started his professional life as a dustman and roadsweeper for Greenwich Council.

Now 38, Smith first realised he had a talent for 'showing off' when, as an eight-year-old, he re-wrote Peter Pan - with himself as Captain Hook. After writing his first play as a student at the University of East Anglia, his tutor, one Malcolm Bradbury, advised him to 'stick to comedy'. So he did, appearing in the National Revue Company at Edinburgh and, in 1983, forming the double act Fiasco Job Job with Phil Nice.

After his spell of municipal employment, Smith led a double life worthy of Superman. By day, he was a mild-mannered teacher of foreign language students; by night, a fearless comedy gladiator in the unforgiving 'open mike' arenas. When he started using his increasingly frequent TV appearances as set texts for his pupils, he knew it was time to give up the day-job.

Over the years, Smith has built up a reputation as 'Mr Edinburgh'. His successes at the Festival have included The Live Bed Show, Trench Kiss (both starring Caroline Quentin) and Arthur Smith Sings Andy Williams - 'What would be the title of the show that you'd least like to see? It was either that or Arthur Smith Sings Kenneth McKellar.' And his 4am comic tours of the city - fuelled by booze and banter - have become a cult phenomenon, attracting hundreds of post-pub revellers.

As well as Sod, Smith is this year producing The Edinburgh Rock Show - a free-form 'event' on a mountain 10 miles outside the city. What will the subject be? 'No idea. Perhaps I can use this article to put in an appeal for any youth theatre groups that are going to be up in Edinburgh. I want a cast of thousands - including a man in an ostrich costume. I'd like some people coming past on horseback, Roman games, a chariot race and I've got to have a big set- piece battle, I feel. It's going to be the Edinburgh version of Ben-Hur. Quite what the Lothian National Park'll say, I don't know.'

His breakthrough came with a more conventional Edinburgh offering of two years ago, An Evening with Gary Lineker. The man himself - 'the Queen Mother of football' as the play describes him - graciously went along with the joke. Indeed Gary Lineker has seen Gary Lineker three times and pronounces it 'hilarious all the way through'. Stuart Pearce - a man known as 'Psycho' to the fans of Nottingham Forest and perhaps not an obvious theatre-goer - was also reported to be delighted by his portrayal in the drama.

First performed in June 1991, Gary Lineker is now enjoying the sort of successful West End revival usually reserved for Lloyd Webber musicals. So why is it still a draw? Relaxing with a pot of tea outside a fashionable bar in his beloved Sarf London, Smith surmises: 'Perhaps it's in reaction to the dismal, current England team. That match has almost become part of a mythical past.' Certainly the piece has the appeal of all period drama - meticulous re-creation of time and place: the beers lined up on the sideboard before the match; the curtains drawn in the middle of the afternoon; the men's refusal to let anything as trivial as a marital breakdown distract them from the game; the agony and the ecstasy of the penalties.

The play takes football fans seriously, but also presents a wholly identifiable 'sit' in which the 'com' can flourish. 'The best ideas are the ones where everyone goes 'why didn't I think of that?',' he explains. 'The idea came to me while I was watching the match. The emotion it generated seemed out of all proportion to what it really was. So if you allied that with real emotional problems, I could see there was going to be an interesting comic conflict.'

Like the match, the play is entering extra-time, and a TV adaptation is to be shot soon: 'We opened it out, so we can go on location somewhere hot and swan around the place in a hat.' We await with interest the spin-off, already previewed in Australia: An Evening with Merv Hughes.

'An Evening with Gary Lineker' continues at the Vaudeville Theatre, WC2 (071-836 9987) until 24 July.

(Photograph omitted)