Stephen Fry described her as “one of the smartest, funniest and most sweet-natured people I ever encountered”. With this weekend marking the tenth anniversary of the death of comedian Linda Smith, voted wittiest person in the world by Radio 4 listeners, her unique, razor-sharp comedy has proved utterly inimitable in an industry increasingly prioritising income over intelligence.
In an era when comedians can progress from playing to a handful of audience members in makeshift venues to stadium gigs and multi-millionaire status in just a few years, Linda Smith took a more traditional and nowadays unconventional route to well-loved performer.
Graduating from Sheffield University with a degree in English and Drama, she joined the Sheffield Popular Theatre after a year on the dole. “Linda was one of our early recruits,” explained Warren Lakin, who set up the theatre in 1983 and would become Smith’s partner for 23 years until her death.
The couple were in the city during the miners’ strike, which Lakin said was “unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced,” adding “we both wanted to do what we could”.
He explained that this time provided Smith with “a lot of her initial comedy experience,” and she and university friend Ann Lavelle performed together initially as Token Women, then Tuff Lovers, named after an Etta James song.
They toured working mens’ clubs in south Yorkshire in the Pit Stop Tour, in what was “a far cry from the London comedy circuit” Lakin drily remarked.
In I Think the Nurses are Stealing My Clothes: The Very Best of Linda Smith, a compilation of her work by Lakin, Lavelle said the bemused miners and their families may well have preferred “the usual pub singers and bingo,” but gave the pair the benefit of the doubt “because we were supporting the strike in our own way”.
And Lavelle said while she was not a natural talent herself, moving into TV production, in the case of Linda “it was clear from the start that she had a raw talent and a duck-to-water flair for cutting edge comedy…I was lucky enough to have been around to see that first flush of Linda’s huge talent and it did not surprise me that she went on to become such a brilliant stand-up and broadcaster”.
Lakin and Smith then moved to London, and she bagged Hackney Empire New Act of the Year in 1987, establishing a name for herself on topical radio quizzes.
Also appearing on TV shows such as Have I Got News For You, Lakin said she flourished on the latter, saying: “She always did brilliantly; she got the measure of [it] very quickly.”
But he said she was far more at home on the radio: “The audience thought of her as a friend, they were very comforted by her voice.”
He describes her as “very incisive” when focusing on her targets, but would only be barbed when the target merited it, and was “never flippant — she never wasted words”.
In agreement, comedian Jeremy Hardy wrote in an obituary for Smith that Smith’s wit “could be savagely cutting, but I do not think it was ever cruel. She was hard but fair.”
In The Very Best of Linda Smith, fellow comedian Jo Brand described Smith’s material as “clever, perceptive, politically sharp and above all very funny… I marvelled at her ability to do the News Quiz because it terrified me”.
Lakin also pointed out that over her career Smith served a fairly long “apprenticeship,” having been at a microphone for more than a decade before reaching the level of regular news quiz panellist.
However, he believes that while cerebral comedy in general still has its place today, “we are probably fighting a losing battle. I think a lot of the… lesser quality of elements are becoming popularised by TV”.
And while female comedians are still constantly asked to comment on and justify their role in the trade, Lakin said Smith “never played the gender card”.
She established herself as the first female regular on radio show the News Quiz, eventually becoming the first female team captain, and was seen as being able to “stand up to the blokes,” commanding “a lot of mutual respect,” he said.
Smith was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, but chose to keep this private and still perform, and many people on hearing of her death, aged 48, “felt a treble sense of loss,” according to Lakin.
Since then an annual Loving Linda comedy gala has been held in her memory, raising funds for Target Ovarian Cancer, and last year’s event was part of the Edinburgh Fringe with performers including Jo Brand, Mark Thomas and Arthur Smith.
Edinburgh also served as a training ground for Smith’s comedy, and Lakin said she’d have been “filling very large venues there if she were alive now”.
Seeing that her influence still continues, he said: “If Linda had lived on, who knows where she’d be today? The important thing to say about her is that she was generous… with everyone. She was a very good woman.”
Five examples of Linda Smith’s comedy:
Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott:
I suspect language isn’t his first language.
Housework on ice
What the Queen drinks
We know he wasn’t English because he wore sandals — but never socks.
To a heckler:
Just play nicely and you’ll get extra milk at break. Sit down now — you should have gone at playtime.