Friday, 10 June 2011

Arthur Smith's sober look at celebrity

Ten years ago at the Edinburgh fringe, a group of stand-ups and journalists were glumly discussing the imminent demise from alcoholism of the comedian Arthur Smith, when a strangely familiar cadaver walked into the bar.

“Arthur?” said a voice in disbelief. Smith held his thin arms wide and proclaimed to the disbelievers: “I have arisen, but the jokes remain the same.”

This year, alive, well and on the wagon, Smith returns to the Edinburgh for a new show - “maybe my 25th” - which is built around the drinking habit that nearly killed him. The title speaks for itself: Arthur Smith’s Pissed-up Chat Show.

The format will be familiar to television viewers of Parkinson, Wogan, Norton et al, but the rules will be radically different from mainstream on-the-couch entertainment. Smith, 56, the host, will be stone cold sober (as he must be, one drink could kill him). His interviewees will be breathalysed to make sure they are drunk.

The compere already has some of his guests lined up, and has been surprised at the very positive reaction he has received from his friends in comedy.

“It’s an excuse for them to be drunk I suppose,” said Smith. “People generally are quite drunk when they go on late night chat shows in Edinburgh. Normally they would try to be sensible. In this show, they’ve no need to be. In fact it would be disappointing if they were sensible.”

The show features stand-up mixed with with facts and figures about alcohol and its consequences, before Smith leads his audience into the main event: his celebrity drunk.

He said: “I figure that if someone starts on a long rambling drunken story I can interrupt and give a commentary: ‘You’ll notice the drunk here is doing the classic manooeuvre of embarking on a long-winded, boring story, repetitive and without any punchline...’ before turning back to the guest, and saying, ‘Please, carry on.’

“Drunk pople often say more interesting things than they do when they’re sober, or chained up by a PR girl. In vino veritas, I refer you to Pliny the Elder.”

After a lifetime on the razzle, Smith almost died of acute necrotising pancreatitis (“when you have the necrotising in the middle you are in real trouble - my pancreas was consuiming itself”). He was seriously ill for four months. Now a diabetic, he looks askance at his drunken past.

There’s a comic path running through all this, which appears to lead to the moral high ground. Smith admits as much.

“When I first quit,” said, “I thought, ‘how stupid is drinking?’ It’s such a dangerous thing, yet it's treated like our jolly friend. I used to go out at midnight and look at the drunks weaving up the road near my house, and thought ‘Jesus, they look so strange’. People absue it so badly. I’ve so many friends who have fallen foul of booze.

"But I wouldn’t want to adopt a moralistic tone. Everyone’s funnier when you've had a drink. If there was no drink there would be no stand up."

Not all of Smith’s fringe shows have been hits. Sod, the follow up to his hit show An Evening With Gary Lineker, caused at least part of his audience to fall asleep. Another production - the title eludes him - was meant to be staged halfway up the Pentland Hills, south of the city. The buses bringing the audience were unable to climb up the dirt track and the show had to be performed instead in a nearby beer garden.

This year’s offering at least has a certain commercial logic. Edinburgh boasts more bars and restaurant per head than city in Britain, and has a legendary drinking culture. With it’s broad-minded fringe audience the box office should be good, or at least that how it seems to the unbefuddled comedian.

"Edinburgh’s like a little cocoon during the festival - it’s like the rest of the world doesn’t matter,” he said. “Audiences are genuinely up for something, they’re a pretty sophisticated bunch."

They have to be sophisticated for this? “No. Yes. They’re sort of open, aren’t they? Goodness knows what the show will be like, to be honest. It might be terrible.”

* Arthur Smith’s Pissed-up Chat Show, Pleasance Somewhere

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