The engineer from Rotherham mistaken for rock god in Russia

Jonathan Brown
Tuesday 23 October 2007 00:00

When Neil Smith set out on a work trip to Siberia, he was braced for whatever the Russian Far East could throw at him – the vast open spaces, the extreme cold and the unremitting boredom of being away from home.

But in a case of mistaken identity that recalls Peter Sellers's classic portrayal of Chance, a simple gardener unwittingly transformed into a media celebrity and presidential adviser in the film Being There, the electrical projects manager from Rotherham was about to undergo an equally dramatic elevation in his fortunes.

Having been summarily relocated from his hotel Sayanogorsk, to a remote hunting lodge some 60 miles away from the factory project he was working on in order to make way for the arriving entourage of President Vladimir Putin, Mr Smith struck up a relationship with the wealthy Russian owner of his new billet.

With the help of a female receptionist whose interpreting skills may have tended towards the hyperbolic, the two men fell to chatting about Mr Smith's past as a bass guitarist playing the South Yorkshire working men's club circuit.

A few days late,r the engineer found himself being conveyed once more, this time by limousine, to Abakan, the capital of the southern Siberian republic of Khakassia.

"As we approached, I could see crowds and TV cameras with well-dressed visitors walking down a red carpet. I never thought it was anything to do with us," he told his local newspaper the Rotherham Advertiser.

Having found himself ushered through a side door of the Albert Hall-sized auditorium, flanked by a minder, the lodge owner and the receptionist, Mr Smith was seated at long table where he joined six other judges waiting to put the contestants for that night's Miss Siberia beauty contest through their paces.

Here, his Russian host introduced him as a major league international guitarist, an explanation he heard interspersed with occasional English words such as "Rolling Stones". "I don't know who they thought I was but I was given a tremendous reception. After the contest, I was interviewed for Russian television and spent nearly an hour signing autographs for well-wishers," he recalled.

The adulation continued for him an after-show party where he was introduced to a local chart-topping duo who begged him to use his music business connections to help them make it big in the UK. A week later, he returned to Abakan where he was mobbed by girls who had seen him judging the beauty contest on television. To cap off his remarkable experience, safely back at the factory, he finally got to meet the man who had resulted in his sudden decampment to the hunting lodge when he formed part of line up of workers being introduced to the Russian President.

"We exchanged greetings and then he was gone," said Mr Smith who is currently recovering from his brief brush with fame with a family holiday in the Canaries where he is hoping to preserve his anonymity.

The 52-year-old, who in the 1970s played bass guitar in a pub glam rock covers band called Rocco, now believes he had to step in to save face for his wealthy host at the lodge.

"I reckon I was set up by the wealthy Russian guy," he told reporters. "I suspect that for some reason they needed a judge to replace someone else and it suited him for me to be that person. And who in Siberia would know I wasn't an international rock god?"

Convincing folks back home what had happened was another matter, however. "I told my mates but nobody believed me until I showed them all the pictures and video clips."

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