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.

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