Top Player: why comedy's big cheeses are paying tribute to Andy Smart

Andy Smart. Copyright: Steve Best

Busker, bull-runner, travel author, cheese-roller, Shrovetide footballer, American football presenter, non-league football columnist, Farnborough FC co-commentator, Fringe bookmaker, Comedy Store Player and remarkably dedicated charity volunteer; it's not your everyday list of credits, but then Andy Smart wasn't your average bloke.

It's just over a year since the devastating news broke that this seemingly unstoppable figure had died, and his status on the circuit is reflected in the calibre of comics gathering to celebrate him next week. At London's venerable Duchess Theatre on Monday 3rd June you'll find Arthur Smith, Milton Jones, Omid Djalili, Shaparak Khorsandi, Hal Cruttenden, Simon Munnery, Charlie Baker, Rufus Hound, and - taking over the second half with a bunch of special guests - Smart's beloved crews The Comedy Store Players and Impro All Stars.

It's all in aid of Crisis, the homeless charity Smart volunteered for every Christmas, usually three weeks or more. He's very much missed there too.

The Comedy Store Players. Image shows left to right: Richard Vranch, Andy Smart, Lee Simpson, Josie Lawrence, Neil Mullarkey, Kirsty Newton

"It meant so much to him," says Neil Mullarkey, Smart's long-serving Comedy Store Players colleague. "He would often go there right after a Players show. And then he would come to play at the Store pretty tired having done ten nights on the trot for Crisis. But as soon as he hit the stage the fatigue left him.

"He loved the Crisis guests - their stories and their sense of humour. He was delighted when a guest was able to move away from the street and find accommodation and a job. Often, when a guest had found their feet, they would return as a volunteer at Christmas. That meant a lot to Andy, who'd spent plenty of time sleeping in unusual places in his hitch-hiking days.

"He did Crisis for about fifteen years, becoming a pillar of the Christmas operation. Doing nights wasn't popular, for obvious reasons. But Andy would be there, making sure guests and volunteers were safe. He would share a laugh or a cigarette moment with anyone."

Andy Smart

As we discussed in a memorable interview at his local a few years back, that dedication spawned from a spell on the streets himself as a younger man ("it was stubbornness," he admitted, "my dad was furious with me for taking the dole, you had to wait three weeks for it, so I had to be homeless for three weeks").

The indefatigable Smart made the best of it, hitchhiking around the world, finding his feet via street performing, then unexpected TV fame as a sports presenter, co-hosting the UK's groundbreaking first foray into broadcasting American Football. Ironically baseball was his big love though. And Farnborough FC.

In later years his love of weird and wonderful sports - often as a participant, hurtling head-first into hazardous situations - earned him a loyal fanbase as a roving regular on TalkSport's long-running Hawksbee and Jacobs show, notably in-game reports from the whole-town moshpit of that Shrovetide football melee in Ashbourne, running with the bulls in Pamplona, and downhill cheese rolling in Gloucestershire. He got about.

As a performer he preferred seat-of-your-pants stuff too, and found his perfect outlet - the Smart metier? - with improv (although he tended to go with 'impro'). So let's reminisce properly with his old mucker Neil Mullarkey.

Andy Smart

Can you remember the first time you ever met Andy?

I think I saw him on telly, when he and Angelo Abela - The Vicious Boys - won Time Out Street Act of the Year, 1984. They were very funny but a bit scary.

Then I was performing with Mike Myers in 1985 in Edinburgh at McNally's. The Vicious Boys were headlining. It was a small venue and small crowd. They needed volunteers. Somehow I ended up holding my hands up in the air, thus making myself a motorbike. Were they re-enacting the motorbike bit in The Great Escape? I think Angelo was Steve McQueen and my wrists were the handlebars. He went at it full throttle. They were still a bit scary.

Then I met them in real life and found out they weren't Vicious at all. Andy giggled a lot. They came down to improvise with us, The Comedy Store Players. Having played on the street, they were used to taking audience suggestions, playing as a team and being funny.

Angelo went off to be a very successful TV director. Andy loved playing with us and we loved playing with him. So naturally he was soon part of the family.

This Duchess Theatre show has a fabulous bill, do you have an idea how it will work - lots of stories?

The first half will be stand-up comedy. Though mostly he did improv of late, many stand-ups knew and loved him. He ran a book on who would win the Perrier (the Edinburgh Comedy Prize), taking bets. From an early age he'd had an excellent grasp of probabilities. Read his book, A Hitch in Time. He tells of taking bets on who would win Wacky Races that week.

The second half of the fundraiser will be improv. We will try and do the best show possible for Andy, but some anecdotes may crop up along the way.

For example, the show after we lost Andy last year, Josie Lawrence introduced the show (which she rarely did, despite Andy's encouragement) by 'channelling Andy'. This meant leaning against the back of the stage, giggling, putting her hands in her pockets. All the things that showed how relaxed Andy was on that stage.

Neil Mullarkey

Did Andy have favourite games with the Players?

He loved them all. In one game, a Player would leave the auditorium then come back and have to guess their job (which had been suggested by the audience). His love of crossword puzzles came through. He would give the most ornate rubric, which the audience eventually realised was heading towards some delicious play on words which would help the guesser on their way.

He loved to sing and to play all sorts of different characters (men, women, old, young, foppish, demure, stand-offish, wizened and more), mostly with a straight face.

But one especially memorable game was where he ostensibly 'translated' another Player who was talking gibberish on topics suggested by the audience. He would weave florid flights of fancy, with the audience convulsed in laughter (Andy too, quite often).

The Comedy Store Players. Image shows from L to R: Richard Vranch, Neil Mullarkey, Lee Simpson, Josie Lawrence, Andy Smart

Andy was incredibly generous within comedy too, the greatest offstage laugher - presumably a natural person to impro with?

He was so generous. He loved to laugh. And he listened. Onstage and off he was curious. Any scene with him was such a joy, because you knew he would go with you anywhere, even if it meant him leaping about, taking on the most outrageous character or soaring into a fantasy world of absurdity.

Your favourite Smarty memories, then, onstage first?

The nature of improv means that you rarely remember moments. But, when we used to play the Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park, Andy would find some unexpected entrance on whatever set was in place. It might be high up, it might involve an element of danger but Andy would commit to delighting the audience as he appeared where they least expected him, playing a Darcy-like captain or the tenderest Juliet you could imagine.

And off?

Offstage, my abiding memory is of Andy meeting people for the first time and quickly finding something in common. Because of my corporate work, I'd have some guests in that I may not know that well, from all sorts of backgrounds, who'd stay for a drink at The Comedy Store bar.

Andy would embrace the chance to get to know them. I'd introduce him to an accountant, a software developer, an NHS manager, a management consultant, or a lawyer. I might turn my back to talk to someone else and minutes later, they'd be laughing uproariously together.

Any idea what they were laughing about?

Andy would often have set up an adventure with them or give a brilliant recommendation of somewhere they must visit. It could be anywhere - from scary rolling cheeses to Iron Age hill forts or just the grumpiest waiters to be found in the West End, or the best value fry-up.

Andy's knowledge was encyclopaedic, and he loved to share that. And his wondrous gift of creating laughter wherever and whenever he could.

A Comedy Tribute to Andy Smart is at the Duchess Theatre on Monday 3rd June. Tickets

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