Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

March 06, 2006

Linda - her partner pays tribute

A final piece on Linda - this time from her partner

How my Linda conquered her demons

The comedian's partner tells Alice O'Keeffe that the much-loved radio star, who died last week, used her art to conquer a troubled past

Sunday March 5, 2006
The Observer

When death eventually came to Linda Smith it was, as far as anything like that ever can be, exactly as she would have wanted. 'She was as serene in the weeks before her death as she was when she was well,' says her partner of 23 years, Warren Lakin.

'She had three wishes: to die at home, to die without pain, and to die with her hair - the last one was very important. She got all three. When she passed away, the house was filled with all her friends from the comedy world, and they all drank a toast of her favourite whisky. After the years of suffering, it couldn't have been a better end.'

When Smith, the much-loved, sharp-tongued veteran of programmes including the The News Quiz and I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, died last week of ovarian cancer aged 48, her fans mourned the departure of one of the first ladies of British comedy. But, as is so often the case, her art had helped her to overcome a troubled past.

Smith was born to a working-class home in Erith in Kent - a town she said 'isn't twinned with anywhere, but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham'. 'As a young child, she was a daddy's girl,' says her half-sister, Barbara Giles. 'She adored him, and he adored her. It was just our mum he took out his aggression on. They had an unhappy marriage. I think he was a frustrated man. He was extremely clever and very witty, he had terrific humour. He was a real Jekyll and Hyde.'

Then, with what Linda's partner Lakin describes as 'good comic timing', her father went out to work on the day of their 25th wedding anniversary and did not come back. Every night for weeks afterwards, her mother prepared his dinner. It took a long time for them to accept he had gone forever.

It was, Smith said later, the kindest thing he ever did. For as long as she could remember, says Giles, her mother bore the brunt of his alcoholism and violent temper. 'He was a torturer,' she says. 'A horrible, violent, wicked man. Although he never hurt Linda or me, I suffered because of him, and I know Linda did.'

Smith never spoke about her father publicly. 'For her, he was dead,' he says. In her last interview, back in November, she was asked about her parents, and she said he was dead. And afterwards, I thought, well we don't know actually. What she meant, I suppose, was that he was out of her life.'

Smith managed to transform the intelligence and humour she inherited from her father into a remarkable career. When she escaped the family home to go to Sheffield University, she became involved in left-wing theatre and the comedy scene. She was renowned in the run-up to the miner's strike for her spot-on impersonations of Margaret Thatcher, complete with twin-set and pearls. It was on this scene in the early Eighties that she met Lakin, who had founded a local theatre company.

'She was phenomenally talented - she never had to work at anything,' he says. 'Whether it was stand-up, or acting, or writing - everything came naturally. I've never met anyone like her. In some ways she was like those posh, well-educated performers like Stephen Fry, who can turn their hand to anything. But Linda just had a natural style and panache.

'She never let herself be intimidated by the laddy atmosphere of the comedy clubs. She was determined to prove she had the guts to hack it will those blokes.'

Underneath the surface, however, the gutsy performer was struggling. It was just after she left university, when Smith was 23, that her father disappeared.

'She was quite a tortured soul when I first met her, because of the difficult time she had been going through at home,' says Lakin. 'She had to be very tough to deal with it - she was trying to develop an outer shell to protect herself.'

Smith and Lakin decided to track her father down. They discovered he was 'lodging' at an address in south London, and went to pay him a visit. 'A woman opened the door,' says Lakin. 'It was obvious he was doing more than lodging there - he had obviously been with her for quite some time. That was the end of it, for Linda. From that day on, her dad was dead. She told me never to mention him again.' She remained close to her mother who died of cancer 10 years later.

Despite the personal tragedy, Smith's career never faltered. After touring and doing comedy shows throughout the Eighties, Smith broke into radio in the early Nineties. It came, says Lakin, as a surprise to her. 'Career and ambition were alien to Linda, she didn't think of things in those terms,' he says. 'She was not a pessimist but she felt her prospects were limited - the world of entertainment, and particularly the BBC, was a middle-class club. If you had said to her, you're going to be a regular on Radio 4 she wouldn't have believed you. I always told her she'd get there in the end, and she did. She and her contemporaries - talented people from modest backgrounds, like Paul Merton and Mark Steel - crashed through the barriers.'

In her 'non-comedian life' Smith was, Lakin says, an intensely private person. When she was diagnosed with cancer in December 2002 she refused to go public, disturbed by the trend for public figures 'making a show out of their illness'.

'It's not that she didn't want awareness of the illness raised - quite the contrary,' he says. 'But she didn't want to do that using her life.' She uncomplainingly went through three years of traumatic treatments and carried on working until recently, recording sessions from her bed which she dubbed 'The Boudoir Tapes.' 'I never heard her ask, "Why me?" Lakin said. 'Though I asked it all the time.'

Smith conquered her demons enough to maintain the kind of stable partnership with Lakin that her parents never had. 'In our 23 years together we never had an argument,' he says. 'In all my memories of her, that's the thing I'm most proud of.'


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