Comedian, actor, writer, podcaster, scrabble-dabbler - and documentarian? Yes, renaissance Yorkshireman Ian Smith is emerging from lockdown with a few new strings to his bow. You may have caught his recent appearances on primetime TV due to a high-profile ad (filmed in his childhood bedroom), and there's a novel new podcast coming soon. But we're here to talk about him becoming the new Kate Adie.
Smith's new Radio 4 project Girl Stuck In Basketball Hoop is a documentary about exactly that, an intriguingly common issue in his home town of Goole. He's been back there during the pandemic, and turned lo-fi travel documentarian early on, showing viewers the sights, including those basketball courts. But then things got heavier, hence this chat happened much later than planned - if also perfect for the radio show, which airs on Tuesday.
The big question is, what hoops did he go through to get it made?
I thought we'd talked about doing this chat about two months ago, Ian: turns out it was a whole year. That's Covid time for you.
I know, I found lockdown frustrating in terms of thinking 'there's so much I could have done, all this time.' But really it seems to have zoomed by - you realise how quick life is, even though you're not doing anything at all.
How are you finding Zoom work?
The trouble I have, I've got this bright window behind me, so I'm often thinking 'why is my skin the same colour as a white ceiling?' I'm already a pale man, but after a year inside...
Could be worse - I didn't realise I go purple when I laugh, before this.
I'd kill for that though. A bit of any colour other than this sort of haunting look I've got going on.
Your backdrop there is quite famous now, due to the Nationwide ad - it was nice seeing some comics getting work this year, on that campaign?
Yeah, they would keep sending through these little writing briefs of 'can you do this? Can you do that?' I got some equipment, then they used a bit that I'd just done on my phone - I wasn't expecting to film something on my phone and it'd be in between, like, the England matches on TV.
The lockdown has changed things I suppose, we're all getting used to lo-fi stuff. I really enjoyed your streamed walks round Goole, in the early Covid days.
I enjoyed doing them, but it was probably scuppered by how little there is to do in Goole. I was running out of things to say, and I didn't have the eagerness for building that online audience that others did, so I put my energy into writing sitcom scripts and stuff. But I look back and think I should have carried on.
Did the Radio 4 show come from moving home? You lived in London beforehand?
It was a bit before that. My pre-lockdown situation, I've lived in London for years, and then I was due to go out to Australia then New Zealand for a few months. So I found some London accommodation until mid-February, and the plan was to be paying no rent in London, come back and then sort that out.
So we managed to do Adelaide, which was amazing. And then things were starting to get pulled, we're having conversations, 'what's happening, can we still make this...?' It was very much imposed on us really: we need to book a flight now, because flights are getting cancelled and the prices are going up. So, flew back, got straight on the train, from London to Goole. And I've been here since then.
It worked out quite nicely, not having a London flat - would you have gone back to Goole for the lockdowns anyway?
I probably would have done, with no work in London I'd just lose, like, a grand every month or something. So yeah, at least this way I've been able to avoid the financial disaster that could have been. Also, this whole situation has made it that you don't particularly need to be in any one location.
And now you have a Goole-based radio show - so it was from a newspaper report, about a spate of girls getting stuck in basketball hoops?
This was before Australia, yeah, I'd been doing a bit of stand-up about it, we did a treatment, then I remember getting it and thinking 'right, I guess I do have to write half an hour about this quite obscure subject now.' So I was excited, but also thinking I have given myself a really specific remit there.
That's good though, it forces you to come up with something different - a bit like your live show experiences, entering scrabble tournaments, going to Chernobyl.
And, with this, more than probably anything else I've done, when I pitch the blurb to people, they immediately seem to be quite keen on listening to it. It sort of stands out.
I've seen four-part Netflix series based on less.
That'd be the dream, that this gets adapted into a sort of Making Of A Murderer style 12-part doc.
And it's made for the Radio 4 factual department, rather than comedy? Did that change the way you did it?
I guess the main rule was: it's not a mockumentary. It can be as funny as I want to make it, but everything has to be true, it all has to be factual. So we can't have actors playing people - we have a few comedians reading out some Facebook comments, but they're all real. Everything really happened. That was the ground rule.
Is it in a whole different slot from the comedy shows - washing-up time rather than dinner time?
Yeah, I'm not really sure what four o'clock on a Tuesday audiences are? Obviously it goes online too, iPlayer and Sounds; I imagine Tuesday at four o'clock, people are picking up kids or something, listening to a basketball documentary in the background.
It could be quite nice, do your washing-up, be eased into some factual stuff, before the more brutal headlines come on at five.
Do you fancy carrying on with factual shows?
Yeah, I'd love to do more of these, where it's kind of like a Louis Theroux-style documentary, but more overtly trying to make it funny. I've been looking, and there's so many unusual subjects. I guess it's just someone trusting me enough to pay me to do it.
Basically I'm trying to think of something madder than going to a nuclear wasteland.
Chernobyl does feel like the endgame, weird experience-wise.
I think I'm gonna go to Svalbard, which is like in the North Pole. If you leave the town centre, you have to take a rifle with you, because it's just polar bears all over the place. So I think I'm going to go there and walk around with a rifle. In case I get murdered by a polar bear.
Like that series The Terror, but with Ian Smith...
Yeah - I wouldn't like to kill a polar bear. But I'd like to nearly have to kill a polar bear. Because I think that's the sweet spot of the anecdote. No one's going to enjoy a comedian coming on stage saying 'I murdered a polar bear.' But if I can say 'it had me been pinned down, and I fired a warning shot,' something like that.
Also, your whole persona, I can see you just wandering into dramatic places. I don't know if you'd want to infiltrate Nazis, admittedly.
I'm quite good at playing dumb; irritating people to the point where they think this guy must be an idiot rather than a journalist.
So how do you go about making a doc?
The main thing we were doing was researching, and interviewing people; who can we talk to, to understand this phenomenon?
We've been looking at incidents around the world where this happened, interviewing a child behavioural therapist and stuff. As you say, it's like an extension of the things in my Edinburgh shows, going off on these weird little adventures, a sort of locked down version of them.
I certainly haven't heard anyone else doing a doc about people stuck in basketball hoops.
It must be the only one, surely.
We were talking to a guy called Captain Frodo, who's a famous contortionist. I remember seeing him when I was a teenager - he fits his entire body through a tennis racket. We talk to him about why there's such a desire to get stuck in things. That's kind of something I've learned, researching this: people try and get through things all the time.
We spoke to a firefighter as well, and he split it in three parts: accidents, curiosity, and sexual fetishes, is why people do it. So I bought a basketball hoop, detached, to see if I could get through it. It's surprisingly easy.
I don't think I could - but I'm wider than you.
I don't know - the hoops are surprisingly big, I think the problem is the frame. Like, if it was just a hoop situation, everyone would be fine. But it's the height, because you need the upper body strength to sort of haul yourself through. Also, lot of people seem to sit on the hoop, then cave in arse-first, and then there's no way out.
It says a lot for the structural integrity of the hoops, that they can take this sort of punishment.
They seem to support the whole weight of the human body: most of these basketball hoops are still playable after someone's been rescued from them. Which is good for Goole as well, because we've been running out of sports equipment.
It was quite poignant on your lockdown Goole walks, seeing the playgrounds locked up.
There's something really grim about seeing swings with 'Do Not Touch' police tape on them. It's haunting.
But I think I got too relaxed about it all, I'd probably go to the supermarket touching loads of stuff then rubbing my eyes, because I just want things to be done: 'I'm rubbing my eyes, I'm going for it.'
The reason we didn't do this chat a year ago, things got quite intense your end?
My mum's a nurse, so she was dealing with some people who had COVID, then she had it and was quite bad with it. And then we were all isolated for two weeks in the house, and it takes a while to get over it, the aches and pains, not eating.
How are you feeling about going back to stand up now?
I've missed doing it a lot. I'm now starting to write more material, because in lockdown I was thinking, 'well, I don't want to put my heart and soul into something that I might not be able to do for a year'. It's gonna be nice, just seeing people on the circuit.
And also, with lockdown, because everyone got very stressed, it meant a lot of people in comedy openly slagging off other people in comedy, which means that there's going to be some really interesting green rooms when we come back: people in there who have publicly slagged each other off.
So I think that's going to be fascinating to watch. If everyone's being polite, I might try and remind them, take screenshots. 'Oh, you became a big anti-vaxxer, and this person was quite vocal about the things you were saying,' It'll be very weird but very funny for the neutrals.
I suppose we'll all have that, people we know going a bit rabid.
Twitter has been insane during the pandemic, and some people have become like the spokespeople for their opinion. So it just becomes very combative. It's going to be fun to interact with all of that.
Are there other random things you're looking forward to, about gigging again?
Outside the performance side? I think it's particular people - you'll see the line-up on an email and think 'its great to be gigging with them.' Especially weekend gigs, where you're not just chatting at the end, you can get lunch the next day.
I remember me, Tom Toal and Pappy's, watching the first new Muppets film somewhere like Darlington, and just crying laughing at it - people with their kids were turning round, being annoyed at us. It's things like that, and the people who run those gigs; its nice going to, like, Birmingham Glee and hanging out with all of those guys as well.
It's a really huge community isn't it. You're starting a new podcast too?
It's called Ian Smith's Cross Words - which is really hard to say with the correct pause. But the basic premise is that I never finish crosswords, there's always a few things I don't know. So I'm getting a different comedian every week, to help.
Good theme - it follows on nicely from your old Scrabble material, too.
There's this dual aim, to finish the crossword and create a nice interview series.
We've given ourselves a 40-minute time limit for the crossword, because that seems like the perfect sort of podcast length. And we have three free Googles, but for some reason we're using DuckDuckGo which is a sort of ethical privacy search engine. So this sarcastic Googler will help us out now and then.
And we use the crossword questions to improvise the interview. Like, I think Phil Wang's episode, the first question was to name a nuclear bomb, and whether or not you'd be happy pressing the red button.
Again, that's something you don't hear often. So how's the rest of today looking?
A bit of work, with the news about Channel 4 Blaps and stuff, trying to push through some scripted stuff I'm working on.
I also just saw on the corner of my screen, I think I've got to have a COVID test before some filming on Thursday. I'd rather not have the thing where they shove it right up your nose, or the back of my throat - I'm panicked that I'm going to throw up on someone.
Perhaps it'll unlock some untapped creative potential...
Yeah, so that's my plan for today - sorting out how to have my brain scratched.