Interview: Chris Smith - Just plain old Mr Smith

The Deborah Ross Interview: He likes the odd meal out and costume dramas on telly. He's brilliantly unflashy. Yet he's a national treasure

Chris Smith, Minister for Culture, is waiting for me in a roped- off, private corner at Stringfellows. His PR girl, Cassandra De Nitwit, takes me over to him. "You've got 20 minutes, tops," she says. "Mr Smith is an extremely racy and busy man." Mr Smith is here to plug his latest fitness video: Stop Pottering Around Museums, You Lazy Lot! He is wearing leotard, sequinned tights and pixie boots. He confirms he has been very busy indeed. He has not, he says, even had time to see the Monet exhibition yet, and thinks he might not bother now. "If you've got the tea towel, then what's the point of queuing for six hours? I ask you! Shall we order a couple of Babychams...?" Actually, I've just made all this up. Chris Smith is not quite this colourful. It's just: I wish.

He is a decent bloke, I know. And this is good. It is admirable, even. He's a Cabinet Minister and he's nice. This is something in itself. He's also always been openly gay which is also something in itself, especially in politics. He is honourable. He is enthusiastic. He genuinely and passionately cares about people. He genuinely and passionately cares about the arts. He has never thought Jeanne Moreau was a man, as his predecessor Stephen Dorrell did. Still, I wouldn't say he was a zingy sort of bloke exactly. Mr Smith, before you became interested in politics, did you have another ambition? "I remember for a while I wanted to run a national park.... because then I could walk all over our wonderful countryside!" This, I must say, is rather touching in its Pooterish way. I don't think you could ever accuse Mr Smith of letting his personality get in the way of things.

We actually meet at his office at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. His aide is very un-Cassandra-like, being a big chap in a grey suit with a tape recorder than won't work. "Oh, good," I say. "This means I can just go away and make it all up!" He and Mr Smith laugh which, as it turns out, was a rather foolish thing to do. There is a Howard Hodgkin splash of colour on one wall, a Craigie Aitchison on the other. I ask Mr Smith if money were no object, and he could buy any painting, what would he buy? "A late Rothko, a late Turner..." Am I to understand from this you're not a Che Guevara poster from Athena sort of man? He says: "Oh, I've had posters from Athena in my time, but not the Che Guevara one." Oh, so you had the other one? The saucy tennis one? "No!"

He is quite a slight man, with short, sheep-coloured, woolly hair and a face which, in profile, is slightly duck-like. He looks like some wise and rather sweet farmyard animal. He is wearing a navy suit and black shoes that are possibly Clarks and a modest blue tie. "I am bad at choosing clothes. My partner buys all my ties for me, for which I am very grateful. It means I am better dressed than I otherwise would be." I ask if he's ever extravagant. "I try not to be. Occasionally we will go out for an expensive meal, but only if we're treating ourselves." Which restaurant do you go to? "Oh, various."

He is quite shy, generally, I think, especially of interviewers. He once gave a toe-curling interview in which he allowed himself to be drawn into assessing the sexual allure of his fellow Cabinet Ministers. He said he thought Tony Blair was the handsomest, followed by Jack Cunningham. I say he's mad. It has to be John Prescott. What a sex god! He says: "Yes, I expect he is something of a goer." Actually, he doesn't. He says: "I don't think I'm going to answer that!"

Chris Smith is, very much, a Chris Smith. He could never be a Sebastian Pontlefoodle. He is brilliantly unflashy. OK, the odd meal out. But he would never want to borrow lots of money just to live in a fancy house in Notting Hill. I wonder if he was surprised by the Mandelson business. "I was. It was something I hadn't known about until I read it in the newspapers. Although I do think the problem was very much the appearance of a conflict of interest, rather than any real conflict of interest. Still, I respect his very rapid decision to step down."

Certainly, he does not appear to have any dark or complex recesses. Mr Smith, do you believe in outing? "I have always said outing is wrong. It's an entirely personal decision. In fact, so much more is achieved by one person deciding to say something voluntarily about themselves, rather than 100 people being dragged into the public eye." Will you regret never having children? "It's never been an issue, so it's a hypothetical question." He lives in Islington, London (he is MP for Islington South) with his boyfriend of 12 years, Dorian Jabri, director of the Teacher Training Agency. They have a dog, a Tibetan Terrier called Tian - "which means `heaven' in Chinese". The dog is no child substitute although he is, of course, "the cutest dog in the world!"

On the whole, he seems be an agreeable man doing what must be quite an agreeable job. Invites, invites, invites. Drinks with Liam and Tones at No 10. Talking of which, isn't this Cool Britannia government getting a little carried away with entertainment at the expense of what can properly be called culture? He says no, absolutely not. The Prime Minister did invite Oasis to No 10, but a few days later was at the Cottesloe Theatre being deeply moved by Richard Eyre's production of King Lear.

He does have real issues to deal with, of course. Telly, for example. Do we really need digital, and yet more channels? "It does have the potential to be a good thing. And we have the BBC. Unless you have that solid core at the heart of the broadcasting system, then you are in danger of seeing everything being dumbed down across the range." But we don't have a sufficient number of good programmes to even fill the existing channels' schedules. I mean, have you ever found anything you've wanted to watch on Channel 5 yet? "I must confess I am not an avid Channel 5 viewer." What do you like on telly? "News, current affairs. I love the costume dramas, and I also love programmes about mountaineering and climbing and hillwalking, because those are my passions." So you don't rush back for Gladiators of a Saturday teatime, then? "I do not normally do so, no." So you couldn't compare it with Robot Wars? "I could not." Mr Smith, are you sure this is the right job for you?

He thinks it is. He did environment and social security in opposition, but much prefers this brief. "In terms of sheer enjoyment, this is far and away the best," he exclaims in his Pooterish way. The son of a civil servant, he was brought up in Watford and Scotland. He was the sort of boy who, yes, was a boy scout and a fan of Arthur Ransome. "Although, very early on, it was those Ladybird books about British history, Roman Britain or the life of Queen Elizabeth I. I can still remember the picture of Queen Elizabeth I addressing the troops, and Ralegh laying down his cloak. And then it was Arthur Ransome. I loved Swallows and Amazons."

He went to Cambridge, where he got his double first in English - "if I had to nominate the best novel ever, it would be Middlemarch" - and became active in Labour politics. He is certainly tough.

He went into Parliament via the gruelling route of left-wing Labour politics in Islington. He was chief whip on Islington Council during that period when keeping the comrades in order was a superhuman job. He has already made something of a mark in his present job. He has staved off the introduction of museum charges and played his part in winning tax breaks for film-makers. But still, some say he lacks the killer instinct to really make a difference. Mr Smith, do you mind being called nice? "I never know whether to be flattered or angry about that." Oh, go on, be angry. "Well, if it means that I am equable towards my colleagues and the world in general, then I'm guilty." Oh. "But if it means I can't be determinedly focused about achieving the best possible outcomes, then no. NO!" I think I might have just received the sharp side of his tongue.

Overall, Chris Smith is something of a national treasure, I think. After all, it's not often that, in government, you encounter good people trying to do decent things. Still, the pixie boots would have added something. And the Babycham might have jollied things along rather. Next time, perhaps? "Absolutely," cries Mr Smith. "I'll book Stringfellows right now!" He shouldn't have laughed at me, like I said.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on