Linda Smith: The next best thing to meeting your hero

I often get interviewed by local papers, radio stations and things advertising local gigs. One of the stock questions you get asked is “who is your biggest influence?”, and I always reply, “Linda Smith”.

I think I first became aware of Linda via the News Quiz on Radio 4. I felt an immediate affinity to her. She was born just down the road from where I was born, had the accent and turns of phrase that I know so well. She talked about a Kent and family life that I recognised very well, despite being almost 2 decades younger than her.

I have been a fan of comedy, particularly radio comedy, for as long as I remember. Being a girl pretty low in self-confidence at school and into my 20s, it never occurred to me that it was something that I could actually do. I always knew that I wanted to perform comedy. But it was something that cleverer, more confident, and, let’s be honest, if you listen to old radio comedy like I did, something that was the preserve of the Oxbridge elite and middle classes.

Hearing Linda on The News Quiz and other programmes on radio and TV really showed me that there might be a place for somebody like me in that world.

I really admired many female comedy performers that came through in the 80s, Victoria Wood, Jo Brand, French and Saunders. But they all possessed qualities I didn’t think I had. Victoria Wood was a talented actress and musician. Jo Brand seemed to possess a fearlessness that I certainly didn’t have in my teens and 20s, and French and Saunders possessed something I never ever had, a sort of “cool”.

Then, Linda came into my world. She was intelligent, had something to say on what was happening in the world. But she was also approachable, not threatening. Linda didn’t come across as if she was part of a “cool” movement.  She was just bitingly funny and acerbic, but with such great warmth and accessibility. I liked her instantly. I wanted to know about her, to hear what she had to say, to know her interpretation of the world. I recognised her world. She never ever let gender play a part in her comedy. She was a comedian, full stop. And one of the sparkiest wits I can think of.

Linda was a brilliant satirist. She was incredibly politically aware, without being party political, and was able to lampoon the world of politics in a completely accessible way. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were targeted equally. She held strong left values, and was a humanist. Values I hold dear.

When it came out, I read Driving Miss Smith: A Memoir Of LindaSmith by her partner of 23 years, Warren Lakin. It was a really touching account of Linda’s life both in and out of comedy. Warren and Linda were a team, and the way they worked together was so inspiring.Learning more about how Linda got to where she got made me realise even more that comedy was something I was in love with and absorbed in. I think it planted the seed that maybe one day, I could actually have a go.
I read Warren’s book not long after very suddenly losing my Dad. My Dad who had introduced me to to Round The Horne, Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, Just a Minute and so many other radio classics.

Life was indeed short. And I was in my early 30s. So I took the plunge and did a stand-up course. My life changed, and I am now in the position of making a living as a comedian. Something that was unthinkable to me a decade ago.

The comedy world is relatively small. I worked last year on a project with the brilliant Mark Thomas, of whom I am also a big fan. He knew Linda and Warren, and in fact Warren’s company produces Mark’s tour shows.  Mark happened to mention me in conversation with Warren. This was towards the end of last year, when I was doing Stand Up For The Week on Channel 4. Warren watched the series and looked me up and saw that I mention Linda as being my comedy inspiration.

He got my phone number from Mark, and one afternoon, at the Clapham Grand waiting to film SUFTW, I received the most wonderful surprise phone call that I have ever received. It was from Warren. He told me that he had heard about me through Mark, and knew that I was a fan of Linda’s. He liked the stuff I was doing, which meant more to me than I can say. We chatted for about half an hour about Linda, and comedy and how things have changed over the years etc. It was a very special moment for me.  Warren said 2 things during that conversation that made me so happy. He asked me if I would perform at Loving Linda, an annual benefit in aid of Target Ovarian Cancer. I obviously jumped at the chance. the show took place on 11 May and was absolutely wonderful to be part of, alongside the likes of Mark Thomas, Andy Hamilton, Susan Calman and Bridget Christie. He also told me about Linda’s archive. Warren had collected and archived everything about Linda when he was writing his book. Audio tapes dating back to when they first met and worked together in 1983, CDs, videos, posters, notebooks, scripts, everything you could imagine from Linda’s career had been lovingly saved.  Warren has donated this archive to University of Kent. Linda knew the Head of Drama there, Ollie Double, and they have a very popular comedy module. Warren knew that those students could benefit greatly from Linda’s archive. And, indeed they will.

Yesterday, I went with Warren to look at the archive.  We only managed the tip of the iceberg yesterday afternoon, as there are around 25 boxes of materials.

I cannot tell you what an amazing privilege it was to be there yesterday with Warren. I never got to meet Linda, let alone to work with her. But yesterday, I had an insight into the work of my hero that few people are lucky enough to get.

I saw notebooks, and in them I recognised the process that I myself go through when writing material. The hastily jotted down ideas meaningless to anyone else. The writing out of set lists over and over, to sort out where the new bits would go and to cement them in your head. The doodles. OH THE DOODLES! I know my brain won’t let me think unless my pen hand is distracted.

We found tapes of live shows, lots of Linda’s BBC recordings.

Warren found notes from when Linda returned to live stand up after concentrating on radio and TV for a few years. He talked me through the process they went through as Linda recalled all of the material she had, and Warren typed them up for her, and how they whittled them into a set for her first live show back.

My favourite finds of the day were the News Quiz notepads. On the News Quiz, the panellists have a notepad and pen on the table to jot down their thoughts/prompts/reminders etc. Several of Linda’s are in her archives. With Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4 down the side, with her one word notes and prompts. And covered in the thinking doodles. Just wonderful items. I always listened to the News Quiz, and Linda shone on that programme. Some of her most memorable moments come from that programme. I urge you to listen to this 

I am sitting now at my own desk, covered in post-it notes, and scraps of paper, and from where I am sitting I can count 17 filled or half filled notebooks. The thought of someone maybe going through them in the future fills me with dread, but they are part of the process of writing comedy. And the process is what is so exciting to people like me, comedyphiles.  Seeing Linda’s workings out helped me to accept that, although I am a long long way from the pure talent of Linda, I am on the path I have wanted to be on for all those years. And how bloody lucky I am to be here.

Being there with Warren yesterday was so very special. Hearing Warren’s memories and stories of their time together really brought Linda to life for me in that room.

Warren, I can’t thank you enough for yesterday, a very, very special day indeed.

If you have read this and remember Linda fondly, perhaps you could make a small donation to Target Ovarian Cancer. This cruel disease took Linda far too young, leaving the world a much less funny place. It is a cancer very difficult to detect, so research and development in this area is vital.