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.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'