Stand-up comic, actor and writer Michael Smiley talks to Jason Holmes about how a life forged in the white heat of Belfast brought him to London and his heart's delight.
He's a strange brew, at once funny, then turning on a dime, as serious as a prophet. Born in Belfast in 1963, Michael Smiley grew up in a cultural atmosphere which fed his ire, and ultimately, his humour.
Cutting a comtemplative figure in a tailored overcoat, moleskin trousers and black brogues, he props up the formica in Bar Italia. I tell him I misspent my youth here, which jogs his memory. 'I got a summer job at the Fox's biscuit factory in Batley, west Yorkshire when I was 16, and the other workers were slightly older. All the cool ones liked me because I was this mad wee northern Irish kid. Anyway, I was seduced in the chocolate department by an older woman called Tanya Tingle.' Then comes the smile.
A life as varied as Smiley's - early fatherhood, a period of homelessness, a long spell as a London cycle courier, and then the leap into stand-up comedy - has left upon his face a look of sweet rapture. Moroseness has not, will not, eclipse it.
But how has his adoptive city treated him? 'London is a forgiving place. It tells you "shut up and get on with it". You have to work hard, but it will pay you dividends.'
As a late entrant to the world of stand-up, he brought an unusual wealth of experience to the spotlight. 'I was a dad at 19, married at 20, so my mid-life crisis came at 30 when I became a stand-up comedian. My [first] wife and I split up and then I made a desperate lunge into a creative life.
'I was always surrounded by creative mates, and I had a yearning to be like them. They suggested I do stand-up because they thought I was funny, but I had never seen myself as capable of making that leap. I had that working class humility. But I didn't want to be Joe Normal and do a nine-to-five job,' he says.
'That first lunge was an open-spot, and the scales fell from my eyes. I got up at a comedy club in Belsize Park. My mates bet me I wouldn't do it. With spotlights in my face, I couldn't see the audience. So I hit them with the old joke of "Look at these spotlights, it's enough to make me feel homesick" and that got a laugh. And then I was off. I was going through the Rolodex of my brain, throwing the jokes out as quickly as I could. Then the next thing I knew, five minutes was up.
'That night I couldn't sleep, because I had discovered something. My new life.'
Smiley's words tumble and flow, the sinews of his mind made verbal, and he himself delights in it, wanting to share it with you. I ask him how he feels now he's turned 50. 'I feel good. This is the way I want to look for the rest of my life, to wear handmade shoes, Smedleys, a nice suit. All this is timeless.' So he's a Mod? 'My taste in clothes was borderline Mod, rude boy and Belfast costermonger,' he grins.
'A man who has always been spot on clothes-wise is Paul Weller. He's the most consistent musical hero of my life. He's been musically honourable to whatever age he has been... but the only thing he hasn't been honourable to is his barnet. His barnet is wandering around the place on its own. It's got its own chat show.'
There's no microphone but there may as well be. Smiley's hair is neatly combed. Mine is greying. 'Don't dye it,' he says. 'Where do you stop after you've dyed it? You'd have to dye your temples and eyebrows, then your nose hair, then your eyelashes, then your beard, and before your know it you'll look like David Guest!' He makes a point well.
After his stand-up blooding in Belsize Park, Smiley spent six months doing every gig he could get his hands on, then entered a newcomers competition in Edinburgh called So You Think You're Funny?, and nearly won it. After that night, things would never be the same again. 'That members club I wanted access to: I was in it at that point, as the new boy.
'I'm the kind of person who likes to look you in the eye and get about you, and in the old days I attacked before the audience did. It was fear-based because I was frightened they'd get the better of me.'
Cycling accidents and boxing has seen Michael break his nose seven times. 'I wasn't born with a face like this. I used to be a Donny Osmond lookylikey. I broke my nose twice before my balls dropped. I used to box for my school.
'I've been hot-tempered in the past, but I pick and choose my fights now. I fight for my family. I protect and nourish and nurture them, and if I have to be the attack dog of their love, so be it.'
Comedians he rates include Sean Lock, Tom Stade, Mandy Knight and Roisin Conaty, but does he think stand-ups have assumed the role of the novelist when it comes to addressing the issues of the day? 'No. An audience wants a stand-up to tell them in 15 minutes what it would take them five days to discover in a book. The audience also wants the stand-up to keep it interesting and make reference to their lives too.
'But if an audience is looking for its politics through the eyes of a stand-up comedian, there's something inherently wrong there. Pre-chewed, pre-masticated politics should not be taken from a guy standing on stage, otherwise I would vote for Cameron.'
So are the Irish the most humorous tribe of these isles? 'Of course, all day long,' he laughs. 'But seriously, the funniest people are regional. I like humour that has been borne of the industrial revolution, because it cuts to the chase quicker. It's lobbing smart bombs into your frontal lobes.'
With memorable roles in TV series such as Spaced (as Tyres O'Flaherty, 1999) and, currently Black Mirror, Smiley has also been carving himself a career in film, and in 2011 won the Best Supporting Actor award for Kill List at the British Independent Film Awards.
With a new film due out this year called A Field in England, directed by Ben Wheatley, he is heading in the direction of serious drama and says he'd like to work with the likes of Shane Meadows and Johnny Harris. 'There's talent out there, in front of and behind the camera,' he says. 'Belief is all you need. Belief is what keeps you going. I want to work more and write more. And get better.'
The father of four and husband of writer and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer considers himself a man blessed. 'The only revolution you can have now is in your head. On a daily basis. Where you can project love, rather than fear. I care about people, about my fellow man, and believe this,' he says, a serious gaze fixing me, 'the only thing that is going to save us is love.'
And whether he's a stand-up comic, actor or prophet, I believe him.
© Jason Holmes 2013 / firstname.lastname@example.org / @JasonAHolmes
For more information, visit: www.michaelsmiley.co.uk
Photograph courtesy of the BBC
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