Arthur Smith on Trump, Leonard Cohen and why he's not really a Grumpy Old Man
PUBLISHED: 13:05 29 March 2017 | UPDATED: 13:05 29 March 2017
Comedian, writer, broadcaster and former UEA student Arthur Smith was one the first alternative comedians before becoming one of the Grumpy Old Men. Now he is heading back to Norwich.
“Who’s this? Are you that person from Norwich who keeps calling trying to get money out of me?”
As starts to conversations go, it’s a hello that’s not quite what I was expecting; particularly as it is delivered in the trademark chain-smoking gravelly-voice of self-styled ‘grumpy old man’ Arthur Smith.
The distinctively gruff voice is perhaps the comedian’s greatest trademark, but it also makes it sound as he if doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
So I’m glad when he warily explains that someone from Norwich has been phoning him trying to sell him something so he is screening 01603 code calls. And when he adds that he’s currently eating a bowl of porridge, the prospect of an angry rant recedes.
A run in with persistent cold callers is, of course, just the kind of subject you would expect from one of the cast of talking heads that made up Grumpy Old Men, the BBC series that saw well-known middle-aged men bemoaning the irritations of modern life.
“The instant you walk out of your front door, you see something that annoys you,” was one of Arthur’s memorable contributions that seemed to sum up the basic premise.
Mobile phones in particularly seem to be a particularly bug bear of the comedian, writer and broadcaster, who first rose to prominence in the 1980s alternative comedy boom but has since become well known to Radio 4 listeners on programmes like Excess Baggage and Loose Ends.
“I’m in the large and rather dull band of people who are slightly appalled at the way everyone’s always looking at a small piece of metal all the time. I worry about the effects of that. And giant corporations taking over,” he admits.
Similarly he has in the past wailed against social media, saying: “I don’t do Twitter or Facebook. From what I can make out, Facebook is a way of people I’ve been trying to avoid for the past 25 years finally being able to get hold of me.”
He actually is now on Twitter, posting random amusing oddities, and rants against North Londoners. Being from Bermondsey, and now the self styled Mayor of Balham, from whence came his Radio 4 show Arthur Smith’s Balham Bash, he takes a dim view of those from north of the river.
Is he, ironically, getting less grumpy as an old man? “The truth is I’m not especially grumpy actually,” he ventures, not entirely convincingly. “However there are always things about the world to be grumpy about. That is one of the things you can be sure about.
“But you can’t spend your entire life just complaining about things. Well you can but you’d end up pretty miserable and then you’d have even more to be grumpy about.”
That said, he immediately agrees that there is lots to be grumpy about at the moment. And it is sure to feature when he brings his show At Your Service to Norwich on March 30.
Expect jokes, anecdotes, songs, readings – and a little bit of politics. “There will be reminiscences of Norwich, gags, Leonard Cohen will be coming with me, I’ll chat with the audience a bit, there will be a bit of poetry too.”
He inherited his love of words from his mum, and has a lifelong love of poetry. Among his favourite poets are WH Auden and Wendy Cope.
“I’ve discovered that people quite like a bit of poetry thrown in amongst the stand-up, they are sort of related. There will be lots of laughs, and may be some quiet reflective moments. Obviously I will be advocating that we build a wall around Norwich and Ipswich can pay for it. Inevitably you can’t help reflecting what is going on in the world.”
He is promising a tribute to Donald Trump. “Although when I say tribute, he might not take it that way,” he chuckles. “The problem is that Trump is beyond parody in some ways. Then there is Brexit, though you have to be a bit careful with that, you don’t know which half of the audience are Brexiteers.”
When I say that Norwich was something of a Remain island in East Anglia’s otherwise sea of Leave, he warms to the theme.
“Norwich is a bit of an island in a way. That is partly why I love it. I came from London and though it is still a city it is quite different. It is not really on the way to anywhere, except Great Yarmouth. But I love the slight isolation of Norfolk and East Anglia generally. I spent a lot of time running around its fields for the UEA cross country team.”
Arthur studied comparative literature in the 1970s at the University of East Anglia. “I went from school in London to Norwich. It was a real change from life in Bermondsey. I had a wonderful time,” he recalls. “I was on campus the first year and lived at a place that was called somewhat ironically Sea View Farm. I also lived in a tent in the woods for a while because I couldn’t find anywhere that I could afford to stay.”
The origins of his career can be traced back to his time at the UEA. He was chairman of the poetry society, wrote for the student newspaper and contributed sketches for the student revue, though he was more of a poet than a stand-up. “It didn’t really exist in that form then. My humour was more along the lines of writing a funny poem for 10p on any subject!”
The university revue troupe took a show up to the Edinburgh Festival and that was his first step towards entering the ranks of what would become the 1980s alternative comedy scene.
“Alternative comedy began as an alternative to Thatcher in a way,” he says. “There was a big division between the Thatcherites and the rest of us. All the mainstream comedians back then were right wing and doing quite a lot of sexist, racist, homophobic material and we were a group who came in to punch up rather than down.”
He hopes current political upheavals may spark a new wave of political comedians. “I wonder about that and I hope so. I can feel that now, but in a more global sense. I woke up the morning of the EU referendum result at Glastonbury and it rather knocked the wind out of the festival.
“Alternative comedy partly came out of the punk movement. Perhaps we’ll get a new kind of punk that’d be interesting. I’m probably too old to start that kind of thing though - or may be I will. Maybe at this gig in Norwich I’ll start kick-start the new punk and get everyone to join in.”
The spirit of rebellion has run through his varied career that has ranged from penning the award-winning play An Evening with Gary Lineker to become a stalwart at Edinburgh
He also penned his autobiography, My Name is Daphne Fairfax, its title from Arthur’s opening line at many of his gigs: “My name is Arthur Smith, unless there’s anybody here from the Streatham tax office. In which case, I’m Daphne Fairfax.”
Then there have been oddities like famously betting fellow comedian Tony Hawks that he could not beat the entire Moldovan football team at tennis.
But with his appearances on Radio 4 there is also a mellow side to him. Rather than the post-show drinking of his early career, these days he pulls on his hiking boots.
“I shall probably head out for a walk on the Broads or to the coast if its nice the next day,” he says of his plans for his forthcoming visit to East Anglia. “One of the things I like to do when I do a gig is go off rambling, even if I have to get the last train back. I’m quite a keen wanderer in the woods and hills.”
And with that he’s off, on his grumpy, merry way. But with one parting shot: “Now can you give me your bank details…”
Arthur on Leonard Cohen
Arthur Smith has had a long love of Leonard Cohen and regularly performs renditions of the late Canadian singer’s most well-known songs, including Hallelujah and Dance Me To The End Of Love. His show Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen has been a critical success, and his songs will feature in his Norwich show. “I’ll also be doing two or three. I suggest to the audience I really am him but that the Leonard Cohen in question looks like me, just with a hat on.
“I’ve ended up being a Leonard Cohen tribute act. I consider myself to be the third best in south London. We’re planning on re-doing that show slightly back around the country and I’ll have three backing singers called The Smithereens. Apart from the fact that he wrote an enormous amount of beautiful songs, he was a proper poet and had a graceful, humble quality. He lived quite a life.”
Will the singer’s sudden death give the songs extra poignancy? “Yes I think it will. He died the day before Trump became President, of course. I call that a classy exit.”
• Arthur Smith: At Your Service is at Open, Bank Plain, Norwich, on March 30, 01603 763111, www.opennorwich.org.uk