Why we loved Linda

I’ve been reading I Think the Nurses Are Stealing My Clothes, a compilation of the best comedy work of the late and sorely missed Linda Smith. Edited by Linda’s long-term partner Warren Lakin and old friend Ian Parsons, it collects highlights of her stand-up routines going back to the mid-80s, together with her most memorable radio and TV appearances, interspersed with tributes from her friends. It really is a wonderful book to dip into.

I never met Linda Smith, but I suspect like a lot of people, after hearing her on the radio a few times you felt you knew her. She had a terrific likeability and accessibility that caused audiences to warm to her immediately, as well as a great comic voice that fairly leaps off the page here. And, although she came up with the generation of 1980s political comedy, she had her own distinctive style that actually reminds me a lot of another comic genius, Dave Allen. This is probably best explained by contrast – today an awful lot of comedy, even in the mainstream media, seems to be based on the idea that effing and blinding is funny in itself, or that you can get an infinite amount of laughs out of knob jokes. Like Dave Allen, Linda wasn’t averse to the odd bit of swearing or smut, but those become minor parts of your act when you actually have something to say.

And this was the thing about Linda – she did have something to say, and she said it in a way that was uniquely Linda. Although she was definitely a woman of the far left, and her political edge is much to the fore in this book (her wonderfully vicious bitch-slapping of Neil Kinnock is here, and if there’s any justice David Blunkett will never live down her “He’s Satan’s bearded folk singer. How can someone who looks so much like a jolly fisherman be such a miserable bastard?”) but she wasn’t a ranter. Her observational humour was as likely to take in English literature or Test Match Special as politics. And even when she stuck the boot in, she would do it in such a nice, disarming way that you couldn’t really take offence. This is probably why the Radio 4 audience took her to their hearts as they did.

I think there are a couple of reasons why Linda stood out as a political comedian. In the first place, she was a genuine working-class intellectual, coming from Erith (which the maps say is in Kent but at ground level looks like Magnitogorsk) and living for years in unglamorous Sheffield. This background gave her observations an edge that was denied to those comedians who were middle-class kids slumming it; it also meant she didn’t romanticise the English working class. She struck a fine balance between idealism and cynicism.

She also, like most leftwing comedians, was sensible enough not to join a leftwing group. She was therefore free of those left vices – dogmatism, a concern with orthodoxy, political correctness, internecine feuds with other left groups and backstabbing within the group – that, apart from being just plain unpleasant, would be deadly to any comic sense. Imagine if you will a comedian who was a fervent member of the Militant Tendency. Hard, isn’t it? Mark Steel I suppose is the exception who proves the rule, managing to combine membership of the SWP with being a very funny man. But even Mark tends to shy away from mining the rich seam of comedy in his own organisation.

But I think the key point in Linda’s success, and why she is so fondly remembered, is the personality that shone through her work. The tributes in this book invariably focus on her tremendous warmth and kindness – unlike an awful lot of socialists, she not only hadn’t forgot why she was a socialist, but she practised what she preached and embodied those characteristics that I think a better society would encourage in the population at large. Combine those human qualities with a fantastic ability to communicate, and it’s easy to see why Linda was a beacon for any of us who have ever had to say, “I’m a socialist, but I’m not weird, honest.”

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