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A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

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March 02, 2006

More on Linda Smith

Some more on Linda Smith... This a lovely piece by Jeremy Hardy in The Guardian

Linda Smith

Comedian with a deft satirical edge to her turns of phrase

Jeremy Hardy
Wednesday March 1, 2006
The Guardian

Linda Smith, the comedian and broadcaster, probably best known for her work on BBC radio's The News Quiz and Just a Minute, has died of cancer aged 48. She was born at Erith in Kent, a town of which she said: "It's not twinned with anywhere, but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham." She had no fondness for the place. Her father worked on the railway. Her family was hard-up and she very much enjoyed shopping when she eventually became comfortable, describing her spendinghabits as "working-class fecklessness".

After Erith College and Sheffield University, where she read English and drama, she lived in the city for many years. Despite a strong south-east London twang, she had a very Yorkshire way with words. She was very particular in finding (often in an instant) the most precise and elegant language. I think she also absorbed a lot of Jewishness from Warren Lakin, her partner for 23 years.

She mentally stored quaint expressions, bizarre and silly turns of phrase, literary and biblical text and movie dialogue. She loved films old and new, and could reference Frank Capra and Billy Wilder as readily as she could Martin Scorsese. And she went beyond the obvious in her use of simile. She once described the designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen as looking like Margaret Lockwood in The Wicked Lady.

She read voraciously despite being dyslexic. Her writing was done in her head or longhand on bits of paper. She never mastered the computer keyboard, and her beloved and devoted Warren would type everything up for her. She could be quite scatty, but her brain was extraordinary. She also had a very big heart, and was adored by a lot of people.

In fact, she was one of the most popular people I have known. Her fans felt not only admiration but great affection for her. And you knew if you were going to be working with her, that it was going to be a good show and a lot of fun.

In 1983, she started working with Sheffield Popular Theatre, where she met Warren. She wrote, devised, produced and directed productions. She cut her teeth as a performer during the miners' strike, when she performed many benefits in South Yorkshire Miners' Welfare clubs. She began performing in a double act called Tough Lovers with Ann Lavelle. It was the stand-up element of the show that she really took to and she decided that that was where her future lay. She was the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year in 1987. In 1993, she moved with Warren to east London. But she is still held in high regard in South Yorkshire for the political and theatrical work she did there.

In the mid 1990s, she started to become well-known to radio listeners. She appeared on many shows, of which the News Quiz, Just a Minute and her own series, Linda Smith's A Brief History of Timewasting, are best known. She also racked up numerous television appearances, but, as a wordsmith, she always seemed happiest on radio and on stage. In 2002, she was voted Wittiest Living Person by Radio 4 listeners.

She was a true satirist with an eye for the ridiculous, the bogus and the vain. Her leftwing politics were never dry nor passionless, nor did they stray into rhetoric. They came from a basic sense of what is decent, fair, sensible and humane. She was an observant atheist and had been president of the British Humanist Association for two years. She was deeply sceptical about many things and her wit could be savagely cutting, but I do not think it was ever cruel. She was hard but fair.

As she became better and better known, her live shows became extremely popular and she was still very much in the ascendant when bad health intervened. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 but kept the fact very quiet. She was extremely proud and never wanted to be defined by her illness. She spoke of it as little as possible. At times, I would forget she was ill and would moan about my own problems. Then, when I apologised, she would wryly say: "No, no, for me it's light relief."

She was strong and brave, and determined to live for as long as she could. She could be darkly humorous about what she was going through and, if she had ever decided to write about it, she would have set an unattainable standard for the genre. But she hated her cancer and I don't think she wanted to give it the publicity. As Linda might have said about herself: "She didn't exactly rage against the dying of the light, but she gave it quite a look." She died at home with family and friends around her.

She is survived by Warren and her sister Barbara.

ยท Linda Smith, comedian and broadcaster, born January 25 1958; died February 27 2006

This piece in The Independent was by Mark Steel

Linda Smith, comedian: born Erith, Kent 25 January 1958; President, British Humanist Association 2004-06; died London 27 February 2006.

In 2002, Radio 4 held a poll to see who their listeners felt was the "wittiest person on the planet". The overwhelming winner was Linda Smith - a regular on such programmes as I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and The News Quiz.

The voters made a fine choice. For example, a group of us were watching the Euro 2004 final, which was won by Greece. As the Greek captain received the trophy, Linda said, "We'll have that in the British Museum by the end of the week claiming it's ours." Linda Smith's everyday conversation contained more jokes than most comedy scripts and more social comment than most dramas.

She was brought up in Erith, a town by the Thames where Kent edges towards London, which she said "isn't twinned with anywhere, but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham". This was a comment that attracted the wrath of her local paper, but she defended herself by pointing out that the same paper ran a competition the following week to come up with the best name for the new Erith leisure centre, which was won by the entry "The Erith Leisure Centre".

Perhaps it was the tower blocks that lined the river from Erith upwards, peering down on her 1960s childhood, that framed her outlook. Because, just as 19th-century Romantics opposed the functional grime of the Industrial Revolution by praising art and imagination, Linda Smith developed a contempt for all that was soulless and concrete, and a passion for what could be appreciated purely for embodying beauty or enthusiasm.

She read novels at an alarming rate, retaining huge passages which she could quote with flair even when drunk. She seemed to have watched every film ever made, and could recite entire episodes of The Simpsons. And she retained a deep affection for the language and nuances of all she encountered, employing an Alan Bennett-ish attention to detail in her anecdotes.

With one simple tale, she summarised the process whereby people at work feel no connection with whatever they're producing. She was working on an assembly line, on which apple pies would emerge from an oven, then Smith and her colleagues would pick them up as they passed and place them in their boxes. Every single time, she said, as the pies approached, one worker who'd been there 20 years would flare his nostrils, look menacingly at them and snarl, "Here come the little fuckers."

In 1978 Smith went to Sheffield University to study English and Drama, and in 1983 joined a professional touring company. Then, in a short period, came what were probably the three defining events of her life. She was attracted by the growth of a new comedy circuit, in which comics would write material about their own experiences rather than rely on standard jokes. She met Warren Lakin, also part of the theatre group, who became her devoted partner. And there was the miners' strike, for which she performed and arranged countless fund-raising benefits, winning her vast affection amongst Yorkshire mining families.

Following the strike, she was confirmed as a very English radical. She adored Blake and Keats and jazz and rambling and cricket, would travel across Britain to raise money for a strike or anti-racist campaign, then hurry back to spend a day gardening or scouring east London for a red- and-white tea-set. Hers was an Englishness with no English nationalism. After she moved to London, her favourite walk was across Wanstead Common, absorbing the twinkling lake, then back down Newham High Street to embrace the chaos of the Indian and Pakistani markets.

While she befriended and assisted all sections of the left, she would join none of them. She often said, "The last thing I joined was the Tufty Club." And there was even a point, long after becoming President of the British Humanist Association, when she realised she had forgotten to fill the form in and so was technically not a member of the thing she was President of.

Throughout the 1980s, Smith became one of the few women to conquer the male-dominated world of stand-up in clubs and universities. When a student yelled, "Show us yer tits", she retorted sweetly, "Ah, is it time for a breast feed" - resulting in a deservedly humiliated student. She was similarly biting about authority. When many people were refusing to pay the poll tax, the Labour Party would not back them, so Smith described the Labour Party campaign as being "Pay the poll tax - but while you're doing so - oo you give that clerk SUCH a look".

From the early 1990s onwards, Linda Smith performed for seven years at the Edinburgh Festival, by herself and with Hattie Hayridge and Henry Normal. But she was often at her funniest in conversation, which is why her national prominence began after she was heard chatting on radio shows, at first, from 1998, on Radio Five Live's The Treatment, then on Radio 4, on Just a Minute, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and, conspicuously, The News Quiz.

There was the odd dissenting voice, in the form of letters complaining that someone with such an accent was "lowering the tone" of the BBC, but their isolation made her success all the more delightful. As well as disarmingly savage routines about the week's news Smith was wonderfully playful with the other guests. For example, if Alan Coren looked in any way puzzled, she would say endearingly, "It's all right, Alan, the nurse will be round this afternoon. No she HASN'T been stealing your flowers."

In 2001, she wrote and presented the first series of her radio show A Brief History of Timewasting (with a second series the following year), and on television was one of the most popular guests on Have I Got News For You, appearing on six occasions. Once she tied together her political outlook and passion for film by describing the privatised rail service as a series of scenes from Doctor Zhivago, with parents desperately passing their children on to crowded trains in the hope the odd one might make it.

On Room 101 in 2003, she won acclaim for including adults reading Harry Potter in public amongst her pet hates, and her love of language resulted in appearances on Call My Bluff, Countdown and the 2003 Test the Nation, of which she was the "celebrity winner".

It was around the time she was diagnosed with cancer, three and a half years ago, that her popularity became most apparent. For the two years that followed, she toured her live show, selling out large theatres with embarrassing ease, and through an honest humility barely acknowledged this was anything to do with her. "Oo, I went up to Norwich on Tuesday and there was 800 people there," she would drop into conversation, slightly bemused, as if them and her turning up on the same night was a complete coincidence.

Maybe that was because there was something else unique about Linda Smith, which is she was the only comic of any renown I've ever come across who wasn't an egomaniac. When she won the vote as wittiest person, she didn't even tell anyone, and, if it was brought up, she'd comment, "Oh yes, that was nice because it was presented by Stephen Fry."

A common cliche when a comic of Linda Smith's popularity dies is that, despite their jokes, they bore no one any malice. But this isn't a cliche when it comes to Smith, because it isn't true. She was funny partly because, while she oozed and overflowed with compassion for the vast number she befriended, entertained and assisted, she had plenty of malice for the soulless corporate world, of which she was proud to be an enemy. What annoyed her most was when that creed seeped its way into the world of entertainment. Even a few days before she died, as she lay motionless and apparently oblivious to visitors, when someone mentioned a new television show starring Davina McCall, Linda suddenly looked up, glared and beamed, "It's shite."

Linda Smith will be remembered for her charm, her wit, her subtle destruction of pomposity, her subdued but burning English rage; and for her familiarity. Even those who only know her as a voice on the radio will feel they have lost not just a splendid comic, but a wonderful and brilliant friend.

This is a lovely summary of her life in The Independent

Linda Smith, the first lady of radio comedy, dies of cancer aged 48
By Louise Jury, Arts Correspondent

The broadcaster Linda Smith, one of the small band of women to make it to the top of the male-dominated world of comedy, has died of cancer. She was 48.

A stalwart of Radio 4 quiz shows, notably the News Quiz, she was regarded with warm affection and admiration by listeners who named her the wittiest living person in one poll.

She also wrote and starred in two radio series of her own situation comedy, Linda Smith's A Brief History of Time Wasting, about life in a tower block. The veteran of the Edinburgh fringe circuit also appeared on shows including Have I Got News For You?, QI, and Mock the Week.

She died on Monday, three years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Jeremy Hardy, fellow comedian and News Quiz regular, said he was so lucky to have had such a wonderful friend and that she had been "the wittiest and brightest person working on TV or radio panel games".

"Working with someone so funny always reminded me of what comedy is all about. Her banter and flights of fancy were amazing," he said. "In a second, she could summon up the perfect word, the daftest English expression, the most appropriate literary quotation or line of movie dialogue, or the most savage putdown of any fraud, bully or tyrant in the news." Even when she was ill, she had made friends laugh and feel uplifted despite their sadness. "It was impossible to be in her company for more than a few minutes without laughing. I loved her very much." Mark Damazar, the controller of Radio 4, said it was a terrible loss. "Linda Smith was a Radio 4 giant. She was incredibly funny. She generated an energy and warmth in every programme she ever did that made her fellow comedians and millions of listeners love her."

Her blend of the personal, the political and the downright silly appealed to audiences across all spectrums. The Daily Mail lauded her "fertile, slightly unhinged imagination".

Outside comedy, her interests included humanism. She was president of the British Humanist Association two years ago. She said at the time: "I only found out that the beliefs I hold are 'humanistic' when the BHA kindly invited me to be its president. I am sure that I'm typical of many unconscious humanists.

"With fundamentalism of many kinds on the rise, the rational voice of humanism needs to be heard. I see publicising humanism in order that other people might identify themselves not just negatively as atheists, but positively as humanists, as a vital part of my role."

The BHA's executive director Hanne Stinson said: "She was a wonderful president and we are desperately sorry to hear of her death. We will miss her terribly.
"Until recently she continued to do great work for us."

Linda Smith grew up in Kent and became an early fan of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and the Monty Python team. From Bexleyheath comprehensive, she went on to study English with drama at Sheffield University.

She once said careers advice at school involved girls becoming typists and boys going into the Army and that they had laughed when she said she wanted to be an actress.

After Shef-field, she joined a local theatre company where she met her partner, Warren Lakin, and, in the 1980s, began stand-up. Only in the 1990s, did her broadcasting career take off and she carried on performing even after cancer was diagnosed. Few people were aware of her illness. There will be a special tribute edition of the News Quiz on Friday presented by her friend and fellow panellist, Andy Hamilton.

In her own words

* On Jesus: "We know he wasn't English, because he wore sandals - but never with socks."

* When it was mooted the Duchess of York might be taken off the Civil List, she imagined her on a council estate: "I can't afford shoes for the kids: I've had to send Eugenie to school in skis."

* On her hometown, Erith: "They had a competition to find a new name for the Erith Leisure Centre. The winning name was 'The Erith Leisure Centre'."

* On WMD: "I sympathise with people trying to find them. I'm like that with scissors - I put them down, then search all over the house and never find them."

* On the tennis player, Tim Henman: "He's the human equivalent of beige."

Stephanie Calman


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A Just A Minute blog! Brilliant! Linda Smith's death is such sad news :(

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