Comedian Arthur Smith is probably best known these days for his droll narration on BBC’s upcycling show Money For Nothing… which may be very galling considering the long career he has had on the comedy circuit since the 1980s. His approach hasn’t changed that radically since he was tagged with the alternative comic label although he has diversified into writing, acting and even singing (more of the latter anon). He’s been a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe since he started out, although he once famously turned down the Perrier Lifetime Achievement Award: “Basically, they wanted to tell me I was old and cool; well, I know that already, and anyway, my ego is bloated enough.” And this year he’s back there again although not physically. His show simply called Syd which premiered at 2018’s Fringe is now an online show recorded at Falmouth and being streamed via the Pleasance.
Syd is both a memorial to and celebration of Smith’s father, by all accounts a self-effacing man who considered himself ordinary and yet was directly involved in historical events. For most of his life he was a simple copper on the beat and yet he saved a young woman from committing suicide and showed a toleration to others that many would say is sadly missing from the force today.
Before this he fought at the Battel of El Alamein, was captured and spent time in a forced labour camp and eventually found himself an inhabitant of the notorious Colditz. The body of the show is taken from a set of memoirs about his life which Smith Senior wrote in his last years and the father/son visit to Colditz the pair made – the prison has since become a hotel. They shared a similar sense of humour, and the show is peppered with a number of Syd’s jokes some of which are delightfully groan worthy but others which are classics of the form.
In many ways it’s an odd show; sometimes it’s a stand up routine, sometimes a stage reading, sometimes proper scenes are enacted. But it all hangs together very well and proves to be as entertaining as it can be.
It veers into proper theatrical territory with its (admittedly limited) use of costumes, props and characters. And there’s a particularly clever piece of paralleling when Smith compares himself to his father at the age of 19. One of them is in Egypt facing up to Hitler/Mussolini while the other is in Paris attending a student riot though without any real understanding of why.
There are also plenty of musical numbers from traditional cockney songs (‘Lambeth Walk’, etc.) through to songs from Ray Davies, Simon and Garfunkel and Peter Gabriel. Leonard Cohen is also represented in song and style as Smith’s well-known respect for the writer/performer shines through. It has to be said that Smith is far from a great vocalist (though to be fair I don’t think he has any ambition to be so) but he puts the numbers over with gruff tenderness and they complement the narrative appropriately. He is accompanied by Kirsty Newton on the piano; she in contrast is an excellent singer and gives a stunning rendition of ‘I Go To Sleep’. She also plays the occasional female character.
The stage is suitably homely in appearance, totally appropriate for this warm bath of a show which celebrates the life of someone without pretensions to greatness but who, nevertheless, touched many lives. Smith and I are almost exactly the same age and were born and raised in similar areas of London. I can, therefore, completely empathise with this memoir of a time when people tended to put others first even though deprivation and horrendous world events were taking place. To reverse Mr Dickens, “it was the worst of times, it was the best of times”. To relive it, do join one of the rest of the streamed versions of this show playing until the end of the week.