Arthur Smith – In Conversation

Making his Edinburgh Festival debut in 1978, writer and comedian Arthur Smith has been entertaining audiences for over forty years with his repertoire of quick fire gags and downtrodden persona. As a pioneer of Alternative Comedy, Smith honed his craft as a comedy MC and became resident compère of the infamous Comedy Store during the mid 1980’s mixing with the biggest comedy stars of the day including; French and Saunders, Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle to name just a few. It was here that Arthur found himself introducing the brightest, newest comics to perform at the underground club in Soho. Thatcher’s divisive politics provided the perfect backdrop for this comedy revolution and from then on entertainment never looked back.

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By the mid eighties Arthur Smith was one of the most influential figures in British comedy and it wasn’t long before TV came calling. In 1985 together with his comedy partner Phil Nice, Arthur secured his own mockumentary series Arthur and Phil Go Off for the relatively new network Channel Four. Surviving for two series between 1985 and 1987,  Arthur and Phil Go Off proved to be the only TV vehicle for the short-lived double act. Despite a formidable comedy career, this remains one of Arthur’s most celebrated TV vehicles which is surprising for the man with such an active role in the development of British comedy. Yet Arthur has always preferred the art of live performance and the rest of his career has epitomised this. 


In 1991 Arthur teamed up with writer Chris England to write the critically acclaimed stage play An Evening With Gary Lineker. The popularity of the stage show caught the attention of TV producers and just three years later ITV adapted it into a TV drama starring Caroline Quentin, Clive Owen and Paul Merton. This coincided with the 1994 World Cup in the USA which famously England didn’t reach. The drama takes place at the semifinal of Italia ‘90 between England and Germany as ardent fan Bill takes his wife Monica to revel in potential football glory. With brief cameos from John Motson and the man himself, An Evening With Gary Lineker proved a cult classic.


The Edinburgh Fringe was where Arthur found a loyal audience and began a lifelong love affair with the world’s oldest arts festival. Over the years Arthur has used the parameters of the festival to its fullest potential in order to keep his shows both original and exciting for his audience. These have included hosting a gig on a touring bus and a live tribute to his late father. For Arthur as a comedian, Edinburgh is the only opportunity to network and socialise with other comics and thus the whole month of August becomes like one big comedy AGM. As a lover of live entertainment, Arthur relishes the opportunity to witness the best in emerging talent which is only possible in a confined space of a festival. With the added bonus of a picturesque backdrop of the Edinburgh countryside, Arthur struggles to think of a better way to spend each and every August.


His porchant for live comedy has made Arthur the perfect candidate to preside over comedy compilations from the archives and in 2000 he secured his own BBC Radio 2 series The Smith Lectures. As the self proclaimed “Night Mayor of Balham”, Smith took the role of lecturer and teacher as he took listeners through a journey through the very best of Stand Up featuring snippets of comedy icons Spike Milligan, Victoria Wood and Billy Connolly whilst acknowledging the very best in new talent from all over the world. For over three years The Smith Lectures occupied the infamous Saturday lunchtime slot on Radio 2 reserved for comedy vehicles. However, as a result of the overhaul of BBC management, by 2003 The Smith Lectures had disappeared from the schedules which was a sad moment for comedy fans.


In 2003 Arthur returned to Radio 2 for an eight part series celebrating 21 years of the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. As a first timer at the festival, he was able to offer his first impressions to the British audience and get up close and personal with some of the world’s biggest comedy stars. The former Comedy Store MC was struck by just how many British comics attend the festival each year in the hope of extending their audience. The series became a definitive celebration of the thousands of comedians who have graced the Canadian festival and offered Arthur an insight into live comedy from all over the world.


Despite this transatlantic experience, Arthur has never lost touch with the comedy festival which helped to transform him into a star. Edinburgh shall forever hold a significant emotional pull for Arthur who has both performed and witnessed magical nights at the festival. As an Edinburgh stalwart, it’s extremely difficult for him to pinpoint his favourite show but he believes that the late Linda Smith remains a contender for the best live performance. Now a festival veteran, audiences still flock to Arthur’s Edinburgh shows or to sit on the infamous Arthur’s bench which has become a mainstay of the event. It’s clear that Smith has become the unofficial king of Edinburgh and long may he reign over proceedings.


The most unlikely TV venture came to Arthur in 2003 when he teamed up with a host of stars including John Peel, Jeremy Clarkson and Rick Wakeman for BBC2’s irreverent Grumpy Old Men. What was originally pitched to him as a filler in the schedules eventually became a runaway success. Yet the irony was that at just forty-eight years old, Arthur didn’t class himself as either grumpy or old. Unbeknown to both cast and crew, Grumpy Old Men proved an enormous hit with the public and spawned spin-off series along with a live tour. What began as a brief TV interview had now become a middle aged phenomenon and over fifteen years later, Arthur remains synonymous with the programme.


As a performer, Arthur has always been content with his unique skillset and has never had the desire to expand his career to other areas. So when he secured a post as a reporter on The One Show, it was nothing like he had ever done before. Covering a variety of subjects from post boxes to literature, Arthur was tasked with bringing stories to life. Yet the lack of creativity and spontaneity allowed within these films made Arthur dissatisfied with his contributions to the show and realised that TV broadcasting wasn’t for him.


Slowly becoming the elder statesmen of live performance, Arthur remains excited about the comedy fraternity and is so proud to still be included within it. His enthusiasm and pride for the younger generation of comedians is almost palpable which may explain his lifelong love affair with the Edinburgh festival. Whether it’s performing live comedy, writing TV drama or presiding over clip montages, comedy fans can all rest easy in the knowledge that Smith has always been and still remains an important part of the comedy dynasty. It was a special honour to meet and interview the great Arthur Smith and with such a varied career before him, it shall be fascinating to see where his journey through comedy will take him next.