From 1983-5 he presented a Sunday morning programme "Snooze Button" for BBC Radio York, featuring humorous but erudite conversations with local personalities (including John Scott Whiteley who later featured in his 21st-Century Bach series), music towards the more intelligent end of the pop spectrum, and some of his own interpretations including the now famous "York Minster Rap". This took the backing track of "Street Dance" by Break Machine and overlaid a rap in which he claimed through his sexual prowess to have caused the York Minster fire of 1984. For local radio, Snooze Button was, as he described it, "dangerous radio" and a precursor to, or rehearsal for, his later work.
In 1986 he became a freelance writer, a regular on BBC Radio 4's Colour Supplement and a contributor on Loose Ends. During this time, he won nine awards at the 1988 Independent Radio Advertising Awards (including the Gold) for his Midland Bank student campaign.
His company, (Associated-Rediffusion), made two comedy series (Victor Lewis-Smith) for BBC Radio 1, for which he won a Best Comedy Radio Programme award in the 1990 British Comedy Awards.
In 1991, he released a CD and cassette entitled Tested on Humans for Irritancy, which was drawn from his broadcasts on Loose Ends and Radio 1. A second cassette Nuisance Calls (re-released on iTunes in August 2006) was marketed by Associated Rediffusion. Some of these calls later appeared in TV Offal.
Radiohaha, the online encyclopaedia of contemporary British radio comedy , says this about him: "Victor Lewis-Smith is a talented comedian from the 'dangerous' end of the spectrum whose career has, alas, been almost entirely eclipsed by the rise of Chris Morris, who tends to occupy similar ground." Morris (then working in BBC Radio Bristol) in fact sent a Lewis-Smith-style tape to Loose Ends in 1988, asking if he could be on the programme (doing something similar a couple of years later by writing to Time Out editor John Morrish, asking to take over Lewis-Smith's column when the latter was on holiday). The demo-tape and an example of Lewis-Smith's Loose Ends work is at the end of this page.
Lewis-Smith's prank phone calls include:
When re-released, a compilation of these calls peaked at No.1 on the iTunes comedy chart on 27th July 2006. At the time of their first broadcast, they attracted controversy: in The Sunday Times (15 April 1990) Paul Donovan argued that Lewis-Smith's hoaxes are "repugnant". Donovan claims first that Lewis-Smith's company broke a "written undertaking that permission to broadcast would be obtained from all the people who had received the hoax calls" and that subsequently the BBC made illegal broadcasts in breach of their producers' guidelines ("Lewis-Smith was unavailable for comment"). Donovan then says that the material "invites us to snigger at what men and women, particularly those not blessed with Lewis-Smith's education, say when caught unawares". Yet the compilation has continued to be offered for sale.
Lewis-Smith has made a number of programmes for British television:
He made contributions to other shows, such as BBC 2's TV Hell theme night, and the Great Bore of the Year Awards.
Lewis-Smith is Chairman of a TV and radio production company called "Associated-Rediffusion" (the name being taken from the original Associated-Rediffusion - the first commercial TV station in Britain) and is executive producer of an ongoing collection of documentaries. Several were one-off programmes, including the BAFTA-winning, Dudley Moore - After the Laughter, for BBC1's Omnibus, which was the cause of a dispute as to whether Moore was dying or not (The Strange Saga of Dudley and the BBC ). Also Scandal in the Bins, about Benjamin Pell, a man who steals the garbage of public figures in order to find incriminating documents.
Other documentaries include The Man Who Ate His Archbishop's Liver? (Channel 4) about Idi Amin; Alchemists of Sound, about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; a biography of clarinettist Artie Shaw (nominated for a Grierson award); one on singer/songwriter Jake Thackray; and a BBC Four programme about British experimental music of the 1960s and 70s called Here's A Piano I Prepared Earlier (also nominated for a Grierson). Documentaries about British views on eschatology, the French chansonnier Jacques Brel, the musical partnership of Dame Cleo Laine & Sir John Dankworth, and the harmonica are completed and awaiting scheduling.
Lewis-Smith is currently writer and Executive Producer for Keith Allen's documentaries for Channel 4, which have so far included Little Lady Fauntleroy (2004) about Lauren (formerly James) Harries and her/his family; You're Fayed, about businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed; Michael Carroll - King of Chavs about the British lottery winner known to the press as the "Lotto Lout" (a third Grierson nomination); Tourette de France following a group of young Tourette's Syndrome victims on their trip to Paris; and Keith Allen Will Burn In Hell, focussing on Allen's accompanying Westboro Baptist Church on their mission. These documentaries have attracted comments covering a spectrum of opinions from The Guardian, "It makes me want to declare Allen my new God" to The Scotsman calling these films (22 June, 2007) "an intermittent series of purposefully scrappy and deconstructive documentaries from Allen and director Victor Lewis-Smith, each hamstrung by the fact that the unctuous Allen isn't particularly amusing or likeable".
Lewis-Smith is the executive producer of a series of short TV programmes called 21st Century Bach - The Complete Organ Works. These feature Johann Sebastian Bach's organ works, filmed in performance by John Scott Whiteley on, mainly, authentic instruments of the time. The televised recitals include both conventional coverage of the instruments, performer and buildings, and also shots of the organ mechanism at work (including filming within the wind-chests using an endoscope), cameras suspended from helium-filled balloons which range freely across the enormous Baroque instruments, and close-ups of the player's face. The series started on BBC2 in June 2003, and a third tranche of programmes has just (July 2007) been completed and awaits scheduling. Reviewer Graeme Kay, commenting upon the programmes in "Choir and Organ" magazine in August 2006, praised the series, saying "the imaginative range of content in these well-crafted miniature programmes ... will withstand repeated viewing. I would certainly hope to see the series completed."
In June 2007 Lewis-Smith's company made a programme featuring an interview with Rupert Murdoch, funded by Murdoch's Sky 1 channel: How TV Changed Football Forever (Guardian Unlimited, 22 June, 2007).
Lewis-Smith started his writing career in the late 1980s, with weekly columns in Time Out magazine where he took over from Julie Burchill, the short-lived Sunday Correspondent, and The Mail on Sunday (where he often substituted for Burchill) as well as Esquire magazine. He has also written for The Independent, and was Restaurant Critic for Harpers & Queen magazine from 1995 to 1998.
Since 1993 he has written for the Evening Standard, contributing daily television reviews along with other writers, as well as occasional restaurant reviews and travel articles. He frequently uses his TV reviews to criticise the British Royal Family, the importance of social class in the United Kingdom (particularly in the context of what he regards as a cynical, exploitative attitude to viewers by television executives), the Iraq War and other foreign policies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, British cuisine, and organic farming. He supports Britain's involvement in Europe (often condemning his own country as "America Junior") and is a critic of what he terms "Little Englanders". His critical targets also include celebrity chefs, Jeremy Clarkson, Vanessa Feltz and, especially, Esther Rantzen. He was a vociferous critic of Director-General Greg Dyke and BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey, who he blamed for lowering the standards of the BBC. He also appears to have a particular loathing of "Mockneys" such as Nigel Kennedy, Ben Elton and Jo Brand. His other pet hates include Endemol, Peter Bazalgette and Big Brother, and the general direction of Channel 4 since the 1990s.
It was announced in June 2007 that Lewis-Smith would be retiring from his daily television column. In The Observer's Media Diary on June 17th, 2007 , a London Evening Standard spokeswoman was quoted as saying: "Victor is a wonderful writer, and he will continue to feature in the Standard".
Since 1993, he has edited the "Funny Old World" column of bizarre news stories in Private Eye, and he wrote a weekly page for the Daily Mirror for some years until 2003. From autumn 2004 to April 2005 he was the resident restaurant critic of The Guardian's Saturday magazine supplement. His columns included reviews of a Little Chef restaurant , an East End Pie and Mash Shop and (in his final column) a Bridlington Fish & Chip Shop
His books include Buy-Gones and Inside the Magic Rectangle, a collection of his early Evening Standard TV reviews.
Over the years several commentators have drawn attention to Lewis-Smith's repeated use of his own material. Some examples of self-plagiarism appeared in The Guardian (3 May, 2007):
Much of Lewis-Smith's work after 1987 can be co-credited to Paul Sparks, who is given a co-writing credit on Inside the Magic Rectangle and the BBC Radio 1 series as well as a co-producing credit on much of the TV work. The Independent newspaper (19 December, 2000) commented Dr Sparks and Lewis-Smith evidently think alike. They even write alike and quoted two pieces of identical writing, one by Lewis-Smith and one by Sparks.
Musician Dave Stewart provided a (straight) musical number for the second Radio 1 series, and later provided music for Lewis-Smith's TV projects. The originally cited producer for his programmes, one Anton Piller, is a joke, the name belonging to a real but unconnected person who gave his name to a particularly Draconian kind of court order. Another of his cover names is Harold Coltart, which he used in 1989 when he appeared on a "Call the Controller" phone-in on BBC Radio 4 condemning the station's controversial soap opera Citizens, fooling everyone in the studio. Other regular collaborators are producer/director Ned Parker and John Warburton.
"Good evening. My name is Victor, I am a TV critic and I live inside your televis-i-on set."
More recently The Guardian (22 June, 2007) drew attention to conflicting opinions expressed by Lewis-Smith about BBC executive Alan Yentob:
In June 2006, Gordon Ramsay, his production company, and his producer accepted an out-of-Court settlement of £75,000 from Associated Newspapers, after an article written by Lewis-Smith which alleged that Ramsay had faked scenes and installed an incompetent chef appeared in London's Evening Standard.
On 28 July 2006, hypnotist Paul McKenna successfully sued the Daily Mirror for libel over articles written by Lewis-Smith from 1997 alleging that Mr McKenna was in the possession of a false PhD, having obtained the qualification from a non-accredited institution in the United States, whose Principal has since been imprisoned for making misleading claims about the status of degrees he handed out to candidates
When Lewis-Smith returned to writing in his Evening Standard column on 29 August 2006, he referred to himself as Dr Lewis-Smith, saying that he had received a PhD in the same manner as McKenna (by paying a non-accredited institution) and suing anybody who suggests his PhD is "bogus".
IT was Friday, it was 5 o'clock and I was legging it out of the office, heading for Direct Wine Shipments for what the invitation called a 'Walkabout Wine Tasting', which I found virtually impossible to say without an Australian accent for some reason -- something to do with Crocodile Dundee, no doubt.
Jul 05, 2009; IT was Friday, it was 5 o'clock and I was legging it out of the office, heading for Direct Wine Shipments for what the invitation...