A fortnight ago, I blogged about the death of music and comedy act The Amazing Mr Smith. And followed it up with comedian Martin Soan’s memories of him in a second blog. His friend and former manager Joe Stead now tells me: “His state of mind the last nine months had actually been very good. He had a wonderful new girl friend. I popped down to Dorset regularly after his wife Viva died in 2009 to keep an eye on him. I was last there (twice) in November when he was in good spirits except for toothache.
“He had undergone tooth surgery in Hungary in July. Yes! Only Derek would choose Hungary over Guy’s Hospital in London and things were not quite right. He went back to Hungary for further remedial treatment in September and had been in pain on and off since then. The specialist he saw in Dorchester (private) hospital advised him there was nothing wrong, he was simply chewing incorrectly. Apparently if he chewed up and down like normal people – and not sideways like cows – his pain would disappear in a couple of weeks.”
Now Joe Stead has posted memories of an Amazing man in his own online blog: The Ramblings of an old Codger, which I reprint with his permission below:
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Derek (The Amazing Mr) Smith was born a genius on the 1st April 1948. Now whether you believe in astrology or not you have to admit that out of the 366 days in which Derek could have chosen to be born that year, he chose the 1st of April. A pretty toxic mix don’t you think?
He had an IQ of over 160 and history is littered with people of equal or near intelligence all of whom walked the fine line of normality as they knew it.
Spike Milligan was another hyper intelligent man who had spasms of deep depression that plagued him throughout his life. There was a time in the sixties when Milligan was living with his then wife near me in a house in Blackheath, London. Spike lived upstairs, his wife lived downstairs. They weren’t really talking to each other. But Spike would phone her up every time he wanted a cup of tea.
Educated at a grammar school in South East London, Derek went on to Bristol University graduating sometime in the late 1960s with an honours degree.
He went to work at Burroughs Wellcome in Beckenham (later to become GlaxoSmithKline) as one of their top scientists specializing in heart diseases.
He stayed in that employment until 1994 when he and his wife Viva bought the house down in Loders, Dorset. One of the first things he did, to fill his spare time when he arrived, was to take Pure Maths at University Degree level. He took two exams and got 95 and 99 percent marks. He was genuinely annoyed he didn’t get 100 in both exams because he couldn’t see anywhere, in his reasoning, where he had gone wrong.
He was, of course, an inventor par excellence. And most were quite simple inventions that you and I would never dream of. The condom bagpipes being just one example.
I remember one time, before he moved to Dorset, visiting him at his house in Bromley. He had taken a standard dining chair, sawn the back off it, drilled holes up each leg and he had it hanging from the ceiling as a lamp shade.
I actually first met Derek around about 1970. It might have been a little later; I can’t remember the exact year. Derek had appeared on the folk scene in South East London performing as the guitarist in the group Wild Oats.
Viva was lead singer. Ray Tassie played mandolin, with Mike Flood on bass. Ray tells me that apparently Derek, not Viva, worked out the four part harmonies for the group and he did them all at the same time. Note by note. He was never wrong. He was able to work on four harmonies at the same time note by note – and the bloke couldn’t even sing!
Derek and I became the closest of friends and we did many crazy things together. All instigated by Derek of course.
In January of 1982, Derek came to my flat in Greenwich to ask me if I would be his best man.
I said” “Certainly. When are you getting married?”
He said: “I don’t know. I’ve not asked Viva yet”
At the time I was his manager, so I said: “Right, look. You’ve got three weeks in May when you don’t have any work. If you marry Viva on May 9th (a Saturday) I’ll get you an American tour between May 13h and May 30th.”
He said “Right” and apparently went home, woke Viva up and said: “Joe says we can get married on May 9th and go to America on May 13h. He’ll get me some gigs there.”
Viva apparently said “Yes,” and went back to sleep.
A slightly off-the-wall marriage proposal I suppose. But, with Derek, I guess you would expect nothing less. And so it was, as his best man, I got him to the church on time – and only just, if I’m honest, as we couldn’t find the church.
I’ll tell you about some of the crazy things.
There was the time he showed up at my house just before Christmas one year to go out for a Christmas drink. In those days, Derek was always super untidy. When I opened the door, he was in full evening dress – bow tie, the lot – and carrying a parcel which apparently was my Christmas present. I was really very embarrassed that I had not thought of buying him a Christmas present until he explained it was my present to him.
When he entered the house, I suddenly realised that his evening jacket was rent at the back, down the middle, from collar to hem. In fact, it was only the collar holding it together. It sort of flowed open at the back showing his white shirt. Apparently we were off to Welling on a pub crawl and I was to give him my present when we were in the first pub. At the pub, Derek dashed off to the bar to get the drinks, making sure at least half the occupants saw his jacket, while I sat at a table with the parcel. Not knowing what was in it. When he came back, he enthused really quite loudly that I had bought him a present. He opened up the parcel and therein was the most hideous jacket you could ever imagine any American wearing to church on a Sunday morning.
Derek was, of course, delighted with it and he swapped jacket immediately putting the dinner jacket with the rent back straight back into the brown paper parcel. Thus we made our way to the next pub and the whole procedure was acted out again in reverse. We did that all night going round at least eight, maybe ten, pubs drinking half pints to try to stay as sober possible. This was an impossibility in Derek’s case because, in those days, it only took a pint or maybe two to get him completely pissed.
A bit childish you might think. Not for Derek. He was in his element. He had a great need to entertain people.
I remember a time in Northolt High Street when he proceeded to water lamp posts, telegraph poles and phone boxes with a kettle he had filled in a friend’s kitchen. When he got to the bus stop, the queue all backed away from him by about three feet. And this was years and years before anybody tried making a TV programme like this.
One hot summer Sunday lunchtime in early May, we stopped off at Teignmouth for a drink at a pub by the dockside where workmen were laying huge pipes about 2 feet in diameter by about 45 feet long on the other side of the bridge. The pipes were stacked up on the dockside about 30 yards from the pub. A lot of people were drinking outside. Derek disappeared, ostensibly to go to the bathroom, but instead he appeared alongside the piping. Bending down, he sung into the pipework: “Day-o; Day-o, Daylight come and I want to go home” very loudly. He then ran the 45 feet or so to the end of the pipe, cupping his hand to his ear to hear the sound come out the other end.
He did this at least half a dozen times, always from the same end, much to the amusement of the people drinking on the dockside, not to mention the workmen who were all totally non-plussed.
I heard somebody nearby murmour: “The lunatic must be drunk”.
I turned and said: “No, it’s just a man with an IQ over 160 acting quite normally”.
His humour camouflaged a creative, sensitive, vulnerable man who, with careful artistry, consistently challenged his own inventiveness and put everyone, including himself, outside of their comfort zones.
He never ceased to amaze.
SO WHY DID THE AMAZING MR SMITH COMMIT SUICIDE?
Derek was being treated by his doctor for a number of problems which included either severe toothache or severe pain in the jaw.
Despite being assured by a specialist at Dorchester Hospital only 48 hours before his death that he had nothing wrong with him, he was convinced he had a poisoned bone which antibiotics could not touch.
His doctor had prescribed Seroxat. Which he had taken for precisely two nights.
The NHS describe Seroxat thus………
Some people who take Seroxat may find that it intensifies depression and suicidal feelings in the early stages of treatment. These people have an increased risk of self-harm or suicide in the early stages of taking Seroxat. As Seroxat starts to work these risks decrease.
If you are taking Seroxat, or you care for someone who is taking Seroxat, you need to look out for changes in behaviour that could be linked to self-harm or suicide.
If you notice any of these changes or are worried about how Seroxat is affecting you or someone you care for, you should contact your prescriber, a mental health professional or NHS Direct as soon as possible.
It is important that you discuss with your prescriber how long it will take before you can expect to feel any benefits from taking Seroxat.
Do not share your medicine with other people. It may not be suitable for them and may harm them.
I therefore have to wonder why Derek Smith (a genius but, like so many geniuses, a manic depressive) was prescribed a drug that the doctor knew might cause him to commit suicide.
Seroxat, by the way, is supplied by GlaxoSmithKline UK. The very company for whom Derek had worked as a heart specialist.
I would like to thank those of you who wrote expressing their amazement and horror at the awful events that occurred in West Bay, Bridport in the early hours of Sunday December 8th.
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There is a 7-minute mini-documentary about The Amazing Mr Smith on Vimeo…
…and snippets of his various acts on YouTube.
BBC TV’s current affairs series Panorama transmitted a programme on the dangers of Seroxat in 2002. The transcript is HERE.