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Victor Lewis Smith

Radio 1
Series One 1990
Series Two 1992?

Victor Lewis Smith is a talented comedian from the ‘dangerous’ end of the spectrum whose career has, alas, been almost entirely eclipsed by the rise of Chris Morris, who tends to occupy similar ground.  At the time it was broadcast, this show — which Lewis Smith produced and largely performed by himself, with the assistance of Paul Sparkes — was the most extreme and potentially offensive programme ever heard on the network, and was (at least to begin with) given a late-night slot and an on-air pre-broadcast ‘health warning’.  It combined sick one-liners, abuse directed at well-known figures, and hoax phone calls (generally transmitted without the victims’ knowledge or consent, which put him in breach of his contract and caused serious problems with BBC management).  These usually revolved around some kind of predetermined concept (as when he phoned down to reception at Broadcasting House to enquire whether General Pinochet was waiting there), or were guided by old jokes, a frequent Lewis Smith source (he actually, literally telephoned the Monopolies Commission and asked why it was the only one of its kind).

The show led to a TV series, Inside Victor Lewis Smith, which used some of its material (several of the wind-up phone calls were ingeniously set to a film showing Lewis Smith using a telephone — but shot only from the neck down, to avoid the problems of lipsynching).  By this point, however, On The Hour had introduced the world to the talents of Chris Morris, and Lewis Smith clearly felt his position was in jeopardy: he made an allegation of double standards following an On The Hour stunt involving a faked recording of a drunken Neil Kinnock which, he claimed, he would not have been permitted to use, even though On The Hour went out on the traditionally more conservative Radio 4.  He has since engaged in a lengthy public dispute with Morris, whom he accuses of stealing his ideas.  Admittedly, Morris employs a basically similar recipe for causing offence: The Chris Morris Music Show, his next radio project, was also a mixture of hoaxes, abusive comments and tasteless humour.  But there are clear differences in style between the two: Morris tends to adopt a persona derived from the arrogant newsreader of On The Hour, charging across the line into unacceptability because he refuses to accept it is there; Lewis Smith comes across more as a sardonic prankster, deliberately crossing the line to prove a point.  The distinction is more obvious in the less controversial material: Morris’s laid-back, disturbing surrealism contrasts strongly with Lewis Smith’s manic, impatient energy: typically, he will begin the build-up to a contrived and tedious play on words before suddenly getting bored with it and knocking it to pieces.

After Inside Victor Lewis Smith, the comedian produced little for several years, and he remains virtually unknown outside London (where he had become the Evening Standard’s TV reviewer, a position which led him into many more heated personal disputes).  He finally returned to television in 1997 with a late-night Channel 4 series, TV Offal.

© JB Sumner 1998