Grumpy old man: Arthur Smith talks life, death and dueting with Bill Clinton

Published

Harry Tattersall Smith

photo: Sean Anderson

And so cometh Fresher’s week, perhaps in a bygone era it represented something slightly more wholesome but for now it largely presents the opportunity to drink ourselves into oblivion whilst simultaneously trying to etch metaphorical notches manically into our bedposts. Folk law dictates that it will be a week to be remembered both fondly and not at all. So who better to chat to than a comedian, who was a self proclaimed ‘international class boozer’ before ten years ago his life long affinity with the bottle almost cost him his life.

I’ve come to meet with Arthur Smith, Fringe veteran and celebrated grouch to talk about alcohol and the life it gave him and life it very nearly snatched away. Smith himself is now teetotal after a near death experience after the effects of years of binge drinking nearly killed him. ‘Statistically speaking I probably should be dead.’ Smith suffered from acute necrotic pancreatitis in 2001- ‘if you have necrotic in the middle it’s never good, literally my pancreas was consuming itself’.

He’s talking on the back of his controversial Edinburgh show, ‘Arthur Smith’s Pissed up Chat Show’ a show which Smith himself outlined as ‘ In Vino Veritas goes on trial’ but which saw him face the wrath of alcohol awareness groups throughout Scotland, who accused him of recklessly promoting binge drinking. ‘ I wanted to look at the idea at what people like when they are drunk, for the most part they are just gigantic bores.’ Yet he seems unfazed by any criticism, ‘if anything it just gave the show some free publicity, if they hadn’t mentioned it less people would have cared’ Not that Smith needs much publicity to sell out venues what with his cult status garnered over his 30 year stint at the festival, and a loyal following of middle-aged Radio 4 groupies.

After a lifestyle so dominated by alcohol was it easy to hop on the wagon? ‘I’m often asked that by people, generally those who are worried about their own habits, but for me it wasn’t difficult. Wine smelt of pain and beer looked like a hangover. Kissing women who’d been drinking was like kissing death. I guess those gut-burning hours flicked a switch in my head and the love affair and the life that alcohol had given me was gone.’

Smith has come to look at his illness as somewhat of a blessing in disguise, ‘If I live a normal life span, which is quite possible now, then I’ll probably look back and think ‘actually, thank fuck I had that’.” He then proceeds to crack out a syringe and shoot up with some insulin (diabetes being a consequence of his dodgy pancreas) and jokes that he is on a crusade to make the illness more rock-n-roll, with himself being the poster boy.

He is sporting a wine red jacket, a string vest, tartan trousers and running trainers but such is his cocksure and confident nature that this mismatched ensemble doesn’t seem utterly ridiculous; If anything I’m left doubting my own slightly conventional clothing selection and beginning to wonder if I’m making some sort of huge fashion faux pas. But then, grinning, he shows me his piece de la resistance -novelty statue of David penis boxers- and I realise this is no avant-garde statement of out-there celebrity fashion but really just a grumpy old man who couldn’t care less.

His fiancée Beth Kilcoyne, writer of BBC comedy Val and Roger Have Just Got In, quips, ‘I’ve always thought he looks more comfortable naked than in clothes’ And Smith is certainly no stranger to nudity. In 1996 he sang the Moldovan national anthem naked on Balham High Street in London. Smith had lost a bet with fellow comic Tony Hawkes over whether or not Hawkes could defeat the entire Moldovan football team at tennis and rather incredibly lost. Whilst on another occasion he was arrested on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile at four in the morning under the charge of being naked and in possession of a megaphone.

Speaking to him is like listening to perhaps the greatest pro-smoking propaganda. His distinctively gruff and gravelly voice is perhaps his greatest trademark, and has seen him become synonymous with the ‘blokes bloke’ in numerous adverts. The voice has made him an instantly recognisable radio personality, most notably for his work on Radio 4. ‘If you don’t listen to Radio 4, in the end…you will’ he jokes. ‘I much prefer radio to TV, because it involves much less faffing around. I was recently offered to be on Strictly Come Dancing but I think it’s better for all concerned that no one sees me prancing around in lycra.’

Smith talks fondly about his University days and reflects on his own University experiences, “everything became clear, life was about 3 things ‘booze, books and birds’ and I became reckless in my pursuit of the latter so much so that I became a regular in the local A & E.’ On his first night he was hospitalised after an attempted world went slightly wrong. ‘ We were trying to break the world record for people driving in and on a mini. I was on the bonnet and of course came flying off.’ And Smith reflects that he was back there soon after, ‘I got involved in a piggyback racing competition but unfortunately my rider was a slightly rotund girl and it’s a bit of a blur but she somehow ended up dislocating my elbow.’

Listening to his endless account of University hi-jinks is effective in making everything wacky thing I’ve done as student feel vaguely ordinary. His 21st birthday ended up in a Parisian Laundromat, whilst on another occasion, he met a friend for lunch and ended up hitchhiking to Paris before being forced to spend two days sleeping rough.

In his final year at University he produced perhaps his greatest coup. A final act which was to swell an ‘already over-inflated ego.’ Smith ran for Student Union Presidency under a ‘Don’t vote for me’ platform. ‘My campaign photo was my arse and my manifesto included banning alcohol, under an ultra Christian mandate enforced by members of the National Front.’ Smith went on to come third but it was this taste for showmanship in formative years that drove him to crave laughter in later life.

Whilst for Smith University might have included a lot of ‘ego-massaging’ it doesn’t get much bigger than being able to claim Bill Clinton as your warm-up act. ‘We were both at Haye-on Wye Book Festival and he was on directly before me. Afterwards I spoke to him and was desperate to make some sort of damning political statement but I had nothing to say and he was just so damn charming and charismatic. I told him I was doing a show about Leonard Cohen and he recited the first line of Suzanne to me and we ended up dueting the whole song.

His final piece advice comes in the form of a message to all drinkers, ‘everyone drills into you to drink 8 pints of water before bed after a heavy night on the booze, but I tried that once and just ended up pissing the bed.’

‘It’s a funny thing’ Smith ends, ‘people say I’m nicer now that I’m off the booze which is ironic seeing as I’ve become a somewhat celebrated grump’.