This from today's Sunday Times
Laughing to the end
Linda Smith’s lover tells how the popular comedienne kept joking right up till her untimely death
Only days before Linda Smith died from ovarian cancer, a gang of her best friends and family surrounded her bed, wanting to spend every last second with the woman Radio 4 listeners voted the wittiest living person.
And witty she was, to her very last breath. As Linda drifted in and out of consciousness, her fellow comedian Mark Steel noticed Joan Collins on the television. “I was on a chat show with Joan Collins,” he told fellow comedian Andy Hamilton. “How old is she?” Hamilton asked. “I think she must be close to 75,” replied Steel. From beneath the pile of bedclothes a little voice piped up: “How much is that in human years?”
Linda Smith was days from death but her wit shone through to the end. And it’s these bruising one-liners that her partner of 23 years, Warren Lakin says, he misses more than anything else. “She’d come out with these scorchingly funny things several times a day.”
Veteran of Radio 4 programmes such as The News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Linda Smith had become a national treasure when she died in February 2006. The satirist of everything which was pretentious or sentimental, Linda Smith was, Lakin says “an intensely private person who chose not to make a show of her illness. She didn’t want her cancer to get the upper hand”.
Her friend and co-panellist of The News Quiz Jeremy Hardy adds, “Had she decided to write about her cancer she’d have set an unattainable standard for the genre. But she hated her cancer and didn’t want to give it the publicity.”
On the day Linda died all her old comedian friends came to visit and toasted her with her favourite whiskey. She died at 10pm, with Warren and her sister Barbara by her side, with her three wishes intact: “She died at home; she died without pain; and she died with her hair.” She was 48 years old.
In his tender memoir of their times together, Driving Miss Smith, published by Hodder and Stoughton, Lakin recalls Linda’s long blonde hair when they first met in 1983, in the early days of the stand-up comedy circuit. “She was several inches taller than me – she was 5ft 10; I was 5ft 6. We talked long into the night about everything, jazz, theatre, comedy. She was very funny and a great storyteller but she never wanted to upstage people. She was also a very good listener, and I could probably go on about myself. I thought she was completely perfect. Within a very short time, we were in love. Perhaps we looked like the odd couple but all I know is she was gorgeous and she was fantastic company.”
If Warren Lakin makes Linda sound ideal, he was also acutely aware that her early life was far from idyllic. “She was born in a maisonette with an outside toilet in Erith in Kent, a town, she’d said, ‘which isn’t twinned with anywhere but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham’.”
Her mum was a factory worker; her father worked on the railways. Lakin says: “Linda was a daddy’s girl. He was very intelligent, clever and witty; he liked comedy; he liked Pete and Dud. But her father was a Jekyll and Hyde character.” He was also an abusive alcoholic and her mother was on the receiving end. On the day of Linda’s parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, her father left for work and never returned. Lakin recalls: “When I met Linda she was very traumatised by the dreadful rows which had gone on for years. I’m quite proud of the fact that in our 23 years together we never rowed once.”
Not long afterwards Lakin went with Linda to track her father down to south London. “A woman opened the door and it was obvious Linda’s father was doing more than just lodge there. From that moment on, if anyone asked about her father, Linda would reply that he was dead. And to her, I suppose he was.”
Like so many kings and queens of comedy Linda’s comic artistry may have provided an escape from her unhappy past. The roots of her comedy also surely owe something to her background, and how, like Victoria Wood, she found humour in the prosaic. As Lakin says: “Linda never had to work at anything; she was like one of those posh well-educated performers like Stephen Fry. She had a natural panache. She used to say that her family came from that bit of London known as ‘Greater’ but which should, more accurately, be known as ‘Lesser’ London. Where she came from was not the kind of place which inspired you to write poetry.”
Throughout the 1980s Linda Smith served her time on the comedy circuit, performing a memorable impersonation of Margaret Thatcher, complete with twinset and pearls, for miners’ strike audiences. She broke into radio in the late 1990s, holding her own alongside established wits such as Alan Coren. For Lakin the new breed of comedians such as Paul Merton and Jeremy Hardy made Linda’s radio popularity possible.
Audiences and fellow panellists adored her brilliant comic riffs. Lakin says one of his great favourites was Linda on the subject of weapons of mass destruction. “I do sympathise with Bush and Blair trying to find WMDs,” she said. “I’m like that with my scissors. I put them down, then I search all over the house, and I never find them. Of course, I do know that my scissors exist.”
Linda Smith and Warren Lakin’s days together were often taken up with eccentric expeditions, whether it was driving to some gig, frantically late, because they’d failed to include the time it took to drive from east to west London in their journey’s timing; they lived in Stratford East before it became fashionable. Or their quest to find the perfect crab sandwich which took them on the miniature Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway, to Dungeness, where Linda’s ashes were finally scattered.
Lakin also remembers the hundreds of times he’d bring her a cup of tea after she’d been gardening for hours. “Where’s the time gone?” she’d say. But how would she know? She always refused to wear a watch. For many years, Linda Smith escaped time. Then it caught her, cruelly, with cancer. It is Lakin’s huge loss – and ours, too. “She was just the funniest woman I know,” he says. “I miss everything about her.”