Arthur Smith: Not that grumpy after all
Abigail SaltmarshHe rampaged round the campus and lived in a tent in Bluebell Woods. Writer, comedian, broadcaster and former UEA student Arthur Smith is heading back to Norwich for a two-night run at the Playhouse in the first week of September. We spoke to him about his colourful exploits in the city.Abigail Saltmarsh
Self-proclaimed grumpy old man Arthur Smith admits he rarely gets back to Norwich these days because 'it's not really on the way to anywhere else'.
Then he remembers this was actually one of the reasons he quite liked the city so much back in his student days. And he launches into a series of anecdotes that display far more than simply a passing affection for the old place.
Arthur, whose long career includes success as a stand-up comedian, writer and broadcaster, is at Norwich Playhouse on September 3 and 4, and earlier this year his autobiography was published.
The book, called My Name is Daphne Fairfax, draws its title from Arthur's opening line at many of his gigs: 'My name is Arthur Smith, unless there's anybody here from the Streatham tax office. In which case, I'm Daphne Fairfax.'
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But he wonders whether a reference to his role on the show about middle-aged grumbles might have been more apt.
'I suppose I should have called it A Grumpy Old Autobiography or something as that's probably what I'm best known for these days,' he said.
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'But I'm not actually that grumpy. I don't complain about everything - just things that are worth complaining about!'
People chatting on their mobile phones in cinemas might fall neatly into that category, but Arthur's time in Norwich certainly doesn't. He looks back on his years here in the late 70s with extreme fondness.
'I have great memories,' he said. 'I'm a Londoner so it was quite a big thing for me to go somewhere like Norwich.
'It was a lovely place with the beautiful cathedral, and I remember spending a lot of time in the small shopping streets as well as rampaging around the campus and jumping in the pond.'
Well-known to have enjoyed serious partying, Arthur, whose real name is Brian, spent at least some of his time at UEA studying comparative literature and French.
This involved three years in Norwich and a year in France, working as an assistant in a school.
'I lived in Norfolk Terrace on the campus itself for my first year. Then I moved out and went to live up on the Aylsham Road.
'The house was called Seaview Farm and, because of its name, was featured in the Evening News or EDP at the time. There was a picture of it in there too.
'I resolved then to become more famous than that house because so many people had heard of it,' he said.
His colourful student years involved far more than just attending lectures and seminars. As well as writing sketches for the student revue and holding the post of chairman of the Poetry Society, he ran as president of the Student Union, on a 'Don't Vote For Me' platform.
'I was a joke candidate really. I think I came second or third out of nine people so I must have had some votes. I was quite pleased in the end,' he said.
And one particularly happy summer term was spent living in a tent in Bluebell Woods, close to the university.
'It was great fun being at UEA. I talk a lot about that in the show - and about my time in Norwich in general,' he said.
Arthur's autobiography focuses on his days as a scruffy kid on the bombsites of Bermondsey, a road sweeper, dustman, warehouse man, English teacher, failed rock star, boozed-up sexual adventurer and intensive care patient who has been told never to drink again.
'There are a few laughs but I do reflect a little on the world as well,' he said.
An experienced writer - his plays include An Evening with Gary Lineker, My Summer with Des and The Bed Show - he took his time over the book.
'It took quite an effort to write - I didn't have a ghost writer or anything. In fact, there's only one word in the whole book I didn't write, and that's 'grumperdinck.'
'I was telling an anecdote about a grumpy Engelbert Humperdinck and my editor suggested the word 'grumperdinck.''
Arthur, who was born in 1954, was one of the early 'alternative' comedians. Along with others of his generation, he pioneered a new form of stand-up that was edgy, observational and broke away from mainstream styles.
Today, when he's not writing or presenting radio shows, such as weekly travel programme Excess Baggage, he still regularly takes to the stage.
'I like to keep my hand in. I know people who have done very well in stand-up and then abandoned it for a while and found it hard to go back to later,' he said.
'You are a bit of a solitary warrior when you are out there but as long as I am able to speak and stand up then I'll keep doing it.'
Despite the many pies he seems to have his fingers in, Arthur insists he is not flat out with work all the time. 'I try to keep a bit of free time - I'm not a workaholic. I expect I'll have a bit of a rest once the brouhaha of the book launch has settled,'he said. 'I would like to think that I am at a rather pleasant crossroads at the moment. I might write something else, perhaps a novel, but we'll have to see how the book goes down first.'
And he added: 'If it doesn't go down well I'll have to think of something else to do - perhaps I'll go into tap dancing.'
Arthur Smith will be at Norwich Playhouse on September 3-4, 01603 598598 or visit www.norwichplayhouse.co.uk
Arthur Smith's autobiography, My Name is Daphne Fairfax: A Memoir, is published by Hutchinson priced �18.99.