Last Saturday afternoon something extraordinary happened. On the eve of the fifth anniversary of Beyond The Title, I took the podcast from the safe confines of my study and put it live on stage at the Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury Square. After eighteen months of doing 99% of my interviews via Zoom, it came as a welcome relief to once again up sticks to London but this time I wasn’t attempting to get five minutes with my subject before or after their show. Instead Beyond The Title was now centre stage and I couldn’t have been prouder.
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As soon as I created the concept for Beyond The Title Live, I knew that it was important to start with a bang and although I’ve always attempted to reflect the whole breadth of entertainment, I recognised that a big comedy star was needed to get the series off to a flying start. The self proclaimed Night Mayor of Balham is a figure who’s always been on my comedy radar ever since I listened to his compilation BBC Radio 2 series The Smith Lectures in 2000. A formidable figure in the development of Alternative Comedy, Arthur Smith was among the first crop of comedians who spearheaded this revolution. So who better to launch our live series than the bonafide godfather of alternative comedy. And he did not disappoint.
Making his debut at the Edinburgh Festival in 1977, Arthur began a lifelong association with the festival which survives to this day. To him, if you’re a comedian in the month of August when it’s hot and sticky in London, it’s nice to go somewhere wet and cold. Over the years he’s performed just about everywhere in the Edinburgh area, from his midnight tours to the Pleasance Theatre which have helped him gain legendary status amongst the comedy elite. From the way he speaks so passionately about the festival, it’s obvious that it means a lot to him. It’s proved vital to him over the years to try out new material and knowing that all the top reviewers and entertainment journalists are all present, it’s the perfect place to get noticed.
Heavily influenced by the political climate of the day, Alternative Comedy rebelled against the elitist culture of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980’s conservative government. In 1984 the country saw vast political and social division surrounding the controversial miners strike figure headed by union leader Arthur Scargill. As anti establishment anarchists, the new look Alternative comedians were passionately in favour of the miners’ cause and Smith recalls regularly performing at benefit gigs. At an extremely divisive time for Britain, the comedy landscape was required to reflect all types of the electorate and it was important that everyone was represented.
This created a natural generational divide between traditional old school comedians and the pioneers of Alternative Comedy. Irrespective of political alliances, the contrast of comedic content between these two groups was gravely vast. While old school comedians like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson were recycling xenophobic stage material, Alternative Comedy was proud to be non-racist, non-sexist with an extra social awareness. In the same way as punk had shaken the foundations of pop music some years previously, this movement was to change the comedy landscape forever. It was fascinating to hear Arthur reflect upon his own perception of Alternative Comedy and his view that like everything it was just a product of its time.
Despite his vast accomplishments as a live performer, there remains a certain demographic that associate Arthur with the airwaves. Whether it’s Loose Ends or Excess Baggage on Radio 4 or The Smith Lectures on Radio 2, Arthur has enjoyed a long relationship with radio which has spanned generations. Yet his favourite vehicle came in 2006 where he fronted a travelogue series entitled Sentimental Journey in which he took well known faces back to a place which had a lasting effect on them. In escorting the beloved actress Miriam Margoyles to Belarus, Arthur obtained an emotional insight into the Jewish faith from the actress renowned for her cheeky uplifting disposition. Other episodes included: a tour of Westminster with Tony Benn, Romania with Annie Nightingale and Argentina with Ingrid Pitt. Over a decade later, Arthur remains extremely proud of this series though acknowledges that with increasingly limited budgets at the BBC, such a series would prove too expensive to make in today’s climate.
Irrespective of his television and radio success, Arthur remains in love with the art of live comedy and to witness him in full command of an audience is a true spectacle. Following the conversation, we were treated to a six minute set from the man himself which reminded the audience as to why Smith remains an unrivalled master of his art. As I sat and watched the comedy legend at work, it occurred to me that the very best comedians make it look easy and without a doubt I was witnessing one of the best in the business. Quite simply that’s what Arthur Smith remains and I’m so thankful that he was the first guest in the Beyond The Title Live series and his fascinating career could fill five shows. Unfortunately we have only time for one yet if all of our shows are of this amazing standard we’d be doing something right.