YOU COULD not meet a more engaging character than T. Dan Smith in the years before he went to jail. There was a time, back in the early Sixties, when covering the proceedings of the Newcastle City Council could be a lot more entertaining than a visit to the nearby Theatre Royal, and it was all down to Dan Smith, the extraordinary leader of the Labour group.
He twinkled, he made jokes, he broke stories, indeed he did everything to make the lives of young cub reporters - of which I was one - more felicitous. And he was so smart. This was something that everybody - even the Tories - recognised. Indeed, Smith had few personal critics in those days. It was as if everybody recognised that they had a man who was going places and that his city, and indeed the whole of the north-east, was going with him.
In a region that had been depressed for so long, Smith's mixture of high, wide and handsome plans and low, sometimes earthy witticisms was the tonic that most felt was needed. He called Newcastle 'the Athens of the north-east' and that went down a treat, even though some felt his penchant for tower-block development was less than classically correct. When there was talk of his becoming a cabinet minister in the Labour government it was regarded as an occasion for mourning. It was felt that he was too big a man, and too much of the people, to become yet another political pygmy in Westminster.
Smith was born in 1915, a Durham miner's son, and left school at the age of 14. His early political leanings were to the extreme Left. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, joined the Independent Labour Party and the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, and was expelled from both. He later joined the Labour Party and rose with great speed, becoming a city councillor in Newcastle in 1950.
Smith had begun his working life as a painter and decorator, an experience that came in useful when, as head of the powerful Northern Economic Planning Council, he had the task of refurbishing Northumberland and Durham. He made a fair stab at it too, before he disappointed a region's hopes by getting too greedy.
His reputation only just survived the Sixties. On Jaunary 1970 detectives knocked at the door of his house in Newcastle and he was arrested. Sydney Sporle, a Wandsworth councillor, was accused of taking bribes, and Smith was one of those charged with giving them. Smith got off, but Sporle went to jail. Then in 1972 the well-known Yorkshire architect John Poulson went bankrupt. Examination of his books revealed a web of unexplained payments. As the hearings rolled on, many Establishment names became involved. Reginald Maudling, the Conservative MP, who had formerly been chairman of two of Poulson's companies, resigned as Home Secretary. There were reports of conflicts of interest among councillors nationwide, but particularly in the north-east.
The man they called 'Mr Newcastle' was jailed for six years in 1974 on charges of corruption, after admitting conspiracy to swing cut-price deals for Poulson. It was claimed at his trial that he received pounds 156,000 over seven years from Poulson, usually in the form of payment to public relations companies. Smith served three years of his sentence but always denied lining his own pocket. He explained his guilty plea as being the result of stress suffered during the four years it took for the case to come to trial. He would say: 'I was a broken man living on Valium and Carlsberg Special.'
Prison, if anything, restored something of his bounce. On the day he walked free from Leyhill open prison in Gloucestershire he took part in a radio phone-in programme, and he became assiduous in the cause of penal reform. He would, on a modest salary of pounds 2,500 from the Howard League, induce big names from industry and broadcasting to go into jails and try to persuade old lags to go straight. He was campaigning again.
But he was clearly a man still tortured by the circumstances that had brought him down. And he had much time to reflect on them in his 14th- floor tower-block flat in Cruddas Park, Newcastle, built as part of his crusade against back-to-back hovels. But he would never give up a fighting way of talking.
In one of his last interviews he said he filled his days giving public talks, fighting for pensioners' rights, penning a political history and playing classical records. 'I would never think of retiring,' he said, 'I would drop dead first, preferably while I'm speaking.'
In 1982 he started research work with Amber Films, an independent production company based in Newcastle, to make the drama-documentary T. Dan Smith, in which he played himself. The film, which examined the background to the Poulson affair, had a cinema release in 1987, and was broadcast on Channel 4 the following year.
His final public performance was on BBC Radio Newcastle's Sunday morning Talkback show nine days before he died, when it was said that he showed 'his old verve and fire', but not to those of us who can remember the T. Dan Smith from before the fall. Now that old, untainted Smith was really something to listen to.