“He has a face for radio” - a cringe-inducing jibe. It could be (and perhaps has been) said that Arthur Smith has just this sort of face. Not having seen what he looks like in photos or on television, where he was a regular contributor to the BBC series, Grumpy Old Men in 2003/04, as well as in other programmes and series, I had my own mental image before I saw the real thing on Friday evening at the Oxford Playhouse.
Arthur Smith’s House of Fun was a three hour night of variety entertainment, with acts ranging from an illustrator with a digital pen, magic, music and sketches, to stand up comedy routines. Arthur Smith, much taller than I had imagined, compèred throughout the evening with a voice that invites intimacy and complicity, and a presence that does not seem contrived. I believe that he does sleep in his clothing. But none of the visual scrutiny detracted from my enjoyment on finally ‘meeting’ Arthur Smith.
Performers gauge their audiences as an evening progresses. Each of the six acts this evening did the same, sometimes verbally wondering aloud about an ‘Oxford crowd’. A fine example was to be heard in the final act by comedian Hal Cruttenden. Playfully looking at his watch throughout his set, he asked with despair, what does an Oxford audience want? When answers came forth, Cruttenden acknowledged that the audience was funnier than he was. His apparent vulnerability invited enjoyable and good natured banter. Other acts were similarly politely and warm-heartedly received. This was due in no small part to the welcoming tone set by our Arthur.
Smith is a very intelligent and talented person. He speaks fluent French and has exhibited an imaginative approach to a career spanning several decades, ranging from an uncanny impersonation of Leonard Cohen (honouring us with two songs), to writing and presenting radio and television programmes, poetry and plays. Behind the curmudgeonly exterior lies a very generous and spirited soul who clearly enjoys meeting new people (the audience) and exposing them to new talent.