Comedian whose conversational wit flourished in such radio programmes as 'The News Quiz'
Wednesday 01 March 2006
Linda Smith, comedian: born Erith, Kent 25 January 1958; President, British Humanist Association 2004-06; died London 27 February 2006.
In 2002, Radio 4 held a poll to see who their listeners felt was the "wittiest person on the planet". The overwhelming winner was Linda Smith - a regular on such programmes as I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and The News Quiz.
The voters made a fine choice. For example, a group of us were watching the Euro 2004 final, which was won by Greece. As the Greek captain received the trophy, Linda said, "We'll have that in the British Museum by the end of the week claiming it's ours." Linda Smith's everyday conversation contained more jokes than most comedy scripts and more social comment than most dramas.
She was brought up in Erith, a town by the Thames where Kent edges towards London, which she said "isn't twinned with anywhere, but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham". This was a comment that attracted the wrath of her local paper, but she defended herself by pointing out that the same paper ran a competition the following week to come up with the best name for the new Erith leisure centre, which was won by the entry "The Erith Leisure Centre".
Perhaps it was the tower blocks that lined the river from Erith upwards, peering down on her 1960s childhood, that framed her outlook. Because, just as 19th-century Romantics opposed the functional grime of the Industrial Revolution by praising art and imagination, Linda Smith developed a contempt for all that was soulless and concrete, and a passion for what could be appreciated purely for embodying beauty or enthusiasm.
She read novels at an alarming rate, retaining huge passages which she could quote with flair even when drunk. She seemed to have watched every film ever made, and could recite entire episodes of The Simpsons. And she retained a deep affection for the language and nuances of all she encountered, employing an Alan Bennett-ish attention to detail in her anecdotes.
With one simple tale, she summarised the process whereby people at work feel no connection with whatever they're producing. She was working on an assembly line, on which apple pies would emerge from an oven, then Smith and her colleagues would pick them up as they passed and place them in their boxes. Every single time, she said, as the pies approached, one worker who'd been there 20 years would flare his nostrils, look menacingly at them and snarl, "Here come the little fuckers."
In 1978 Smith went to Sheffield University to study English and Drama, and in 1983 joined a professional touring company. Then, in a short period, came what were probably the three defining events of her life. She was attracted by the growth of a new comedy circuit, in which comics would write material about their own experiences rather than rely on standard jokes. She met Warren Lakin, also part of the theatre group, who became her devoted partner. And there was the miners' strike, for which she performed and arranged countless fund-raising benefits, winning her vast affection amongst Yorkshire mining families.
Following the strike, she was confirmed as a very English radical. She adored Blake and Keats and jazz and rambling and cricket, would travel across Britain to raise money for a strike or anti-racist campaign, then hurry back to spend a day gardening or scouring east London for a red- and-white tea-set. Hers was an Englishness with no English nationalism. After she moved to London, her favourite walk was across Wanstead Common, absorbing the twinkling lake, then back down Newham High Street to embrace the chaos of the Indian and Pakistani markets.
While she befriended and assisted all sections of the left, she would join none of them. She often said, "The last thing I joined was the Tufty Club." And there was even a point, long after becoming President of the British Humanist Association, when she realised she had forgotten to fill the form in and so was technically not a member of the thing she was President of.
Throughout the 1980s, Smith became one of the few women to conquer the male-dominated world of stand-up in clubs and universities. When a student yelled, "Show us yer tits", she retorted sweetly, "Ah, is it time for a breast feed" - resulting in a deservedly humiliated student. She was similarly biting about authority. When many people were refusing to pay the poll tax, the Labour Party would not back them, so Smith described the Labour Party campaign as being "Pay the poll tax - but while you're doing so - oo you give that clerk SUCH a look".
From the early 1990s onwards, Linda Smith performed for seven years at the Edinburgh Festival, by herself and with Hattie Hayridge and Henry Normal. But she was often at her funniest in conversation, which is why her national prominence began after she was heard chatting on radio shows, at first, from 1998, on Radio Five Live's The Treatment, then on Radio 4, on Just a Minute, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and, conspicuously, The News Quiz.
There was the odd dissenting voice, in the form of letters complaining that someone with such an accent was "lowering the tone" of the BBC, but their isolation made her success all the more delightful. As well as disarmingly savage routines about the week's news Smith was wonderfully playful with the other guests. For example, if Alan Coren looked in any way puzzled, she would say endearingly, "It's all right, Alan, the nurse will be round this afternoon. No she HASN'T been stealing your flowers."
In 2001, she wrote and presented the first series of her radio show A Brief History of Timewasting (with a second series the following year), and on television was one of the most popular guests on Have I Got News For You, appearing on six occasions. Once she tied together her political outlook and passion for film by describing the privatised rail service as a series of scenes from Doctor Zhivago, with parents desperately passing their children on to crowded trains in the hope the odd one might make it.
On Room 101 in 2003, she won acclaim for including adults reading Harry Potter in public amongst her pet hates, and her love of language resulted in appearances on Call My Bluff, Countdown and the 2003 Test the Nation, of which she was the "celebrity winner".
It was around the time she was diagnosed with cancer, three and a half years ago, that her popularity became most apparent. For the two years that followed, she toured her live show, selling out large theatres with embarrassing ease, and through an honest humility barely acknowledged this was anything to do with her. "Oo, I went up to Norwich on Tuesday and there was 800 people there," she would drop into conversation, slightly bemused, as if them and her turning up on the same night was a complete coincidence.
Maybe that was because there was something else unique about Linda Smith, which is she was the only comic of any renown I've ever come across who wasn't an egomaniac. When she won the vote as wittiest person, she didn't even tell anyone, and, if it was brought up, she'd comment, "Oh yes, that was nice because it was presented by Stephen Fry."
A common cliché when a comic of Linda Smith's popularity dies is that, despite their jokes, they bore no one any malice. But this isn't a cliché when it comes to Smith, because it isn't true. She was funny partly because, while she oozed and overflowed with compassion for the vast number she befriended, entertained and assisted, she had plenty of malice for the soulless corporate world, of which she was proud to be an enemy. What annoyed her most was when that creed seeped its way into the world of entertainment. Even a few days before she died, as she lay motionless and apparently oblivious to visitors, when someone mentioned a new television show starring Davina McCall, Linda suddenly looked up, glared and beamed, "It's shite."
Linda Smith will be remembered for her charm, her wit, her subtle destruction of pomposity, her subdued but burning English rage; and for her familiarity. Even those who only know her as a voice on the radio will feel they have lost not just a splendid comic, but a wonderful and brilliant friend.
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