‘Nobody was safe’: the shocking, dangerous brilliance of Victor Lewis-Smith
He was an acerbic satirist with a maverick streak – and he would happily target everything from Captain Pugwash to Jimmy Savile. His legacy is enormous
If you’ve ever wondered why so many people are so insistent that the BBC children’s show Captain Pugwash featured characters with rude names – it didn’t – then look no further than Victor Lewis-Smith. The details are characteristically vague, but for whatever reason, Victor repeated the obscene, fictitious names in one of his newspaper columns – part of his ongoing fascination with the odd, the arcane and the now completely unacceptable in bygone popular culture. This resulted in a legal rebuke from Captain Pugwash’s creator John Ryan. The urban myth stuck, however, and this unexpected turn of events inadvertently underlined every point Victor tried to make with his comedy.
In Victor’s comic world nobody was safe – including him and often, it felt, even the audience. With his regular co-writer Paul Sparks he was one of the few practitioners of what could genuinely be labelled “dangerous” comedy, and more than happy to make the joke and deal with the consequences later. Never far from controversy, he found himself in hot water over everything from a tasteless gag about a terrorist attack which allegedly saw him suspended from local radio to constant tabloid uproar over his contributions to Channel 4 arts show Club X. Late one night on Radio 1, he even alluded to certain rumours about Jimmy Savile directly in a phone call to the Jim’ll Fix It production office. Surprisingly, the host did not see fit to launch legal action on this occasion.
Victor began his career as a pop DJ at BBC Radio York, before moving to Radio 4 as a producer. Bored and frustrated by the formulaic nature of the shows he worked on, his maverick streak soon began to show, most notoriously when he booked thickly accented actor Arthur Mullard as a holiday stand-in for regular presenter Libby Purves on the magazine show Midweek. His sharp wit did not go unnoticed for long and he was invited to join the regular contributors to Ned Sherrin’s new Radio 4 show Loose Ends. With a combination of sonic trickery, caustic wit, disdain for celebrity culture and above all mastery of pointed crank phone calls – all of it presented in a distinctive comic universe occupying a weird postwar world of pop-culture references – he somehow managed to stand out as the loose cannon even on a show that already featured Stephen Fry.
Adored by audiences, even if they sometimes could not believe what they had just heard, Victor’s Loose Ends contributions led to a short but hugely influential stint at Radio 1, the album Tested on Humans for Irritancy, and longstanding columns for publications as diverse as the Evening Standard, Esquire and Private Eye. Despite a strong start on Club X, where his “Buygones” led to a bestselling book, he never really managed to break through to a wider television audience, although shows such as Inside Victor Lewis-Smith, Ads Infinitum, and TV Offal were never less than original and wickedly funny. Behind this abrasive edge, however, Victor cared deeply about uncelebrated areas of popular culture and after retiring from performing he produced acclaimed documentaries about, among others, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Jake Thackray and Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth.
His unwillingness to compromise, liking for virulently acerbic put-downs and refusal to tolerate media hypocrisy won him few friends in the industry. He also felt – with some justification – that others had taken aspects of his act and enjoyed greater success without affording any credit to him. Some did acknowledge his influence, however, and Charlie Brooker having a character in one of his shows describe Victor as “like a rich man’s you” ably demonstrates the affection in which he was held.
Meanwhile, contrasting sharply with his views on his comic peers, Victor was only too happy to share theories on his cultural obsessions with anyone else writing about them. If you ever had cause to contact him to try to resolve a mystery surrounding, say, George Martin’s comedy albums or early electronic instruments, chances are you would receive a lengthy reply with the information in question surrounded by tons of gags and topical observations and – inevitably – the closing line”: “I’m afraid I don’t normally do this, of course – sorry I can’t help.”
Perhaps most significant, however, was his influence on a generation of listeners. While the legacy of his tendency to push comedy to shocking extremes is more debatable, his high speed make-do-and-mend approach to presentation – which somehow managed to appear hazardously rough-edged and impossibly technically slick at the same time – had a profound effect and in many regards anticipated the energy and ingenuity of internet creativity. Sometimes, it really is possible to simply arrive too early – but you can bet there’s a meme about those nonexistent Captain Pugwash names going around right now.