‘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.


Tim Worthington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Jeremy Hardy: a ferocious talent who radicalised radio comedy
Provocative and political, the stand-up – who has died aged 57 – shook up Radio 4 at a time when it was in danger of resembling a Rotary Club quiz night

Mark Lawson

01, Feb, 2019 @1:30 PM

Article image
Let the BBC's new boss do his worst – with comedy, I'd rather be offended than bored | Suzanne Moore
New director-general Tim Davie will reportedly steer TV comedy to the right to correct years of perceived anti-Tory bias. But it was Brexit, not the BBC, that put a spanner in British humour

Suzanne Moore

02, Sep, 2020 @10:37 AM

Article image
I’m Sorry, I [Still] Haven’t a Clue … how radio’s smuttiest show has beaten the censors for 50 years
Innuendo, tone-deaf singing and dreadful wages: as the cherished BBC panel game celebrates its half century, we look back at its finest moments – and its future

Mark Lawson

11, Apr, 2022 @4:47 PM

Article image
Porridge and politics: how the breakfast broadcasting war got brutal
Early morning programming on TV and radio is in the grip of a brutal ratings war. So what’s the perfect recipe for a hit show in these fractured times – and can we learn anything from the last 35 years?

Simon Usborne

20, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Rewind radio: Ayres on the Air; Dan and Phil's Guide to Happiness – review
Pam Ayres's comedy and Dan and Phil's Guide to Happiness were a perfect cure for the January blues, writes Miranda Sawyer

Miranda Sawyer

18, Jan, 2014 @5:59 PM

Article image
'Suddenly it was like Beatlemania' – how we made Cabin Pressure
‘By the time we did the third series, Benedict Cumberbatch had starred in Sherlock. Suddenly the audiences were 90% young girls who’d queue round the block’

Interviews by Imogen Tilden

27, Mar, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Count Arthur Strong's transfer to BBC2 confirms Radio 4 as comedy pioneer

Steve Delaney's creation about ageing variety performer is latest of many BBC radio comedy shows to migrate to television

Mark Lawson

07, Jul, 2013 @2:38 PM

Article image
Iain Pattinson obituary
Longstanding main scriptwriter for the much-loved Radio 4 panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue

Simon O'Hagan

17, Feb, 2021 @4:55 PM

Ben Dowell on television comedy

Television comedy has long borrowed from radio. But should commissioners be casting their nets wider, asks Ben Dowell

Ben Dowell

27, Apr, 2008 @11:02 PM

Article image
Nicholas Parsons obituary
Popular broadcaster and television host best known for Sale of the Century and Radio 4’s Just a Minute

Stephen Dixon

28, Jan, 2020 @12:56 PM