Saturday, 20 July 2013

OBITUARY: Mel Smith


MEL SMITH
3 December 1952-19 July 2013

I had only today been considering writing about the long running comedy partnership between Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones when I heard the sad news of Mel Smith’s passing yesterday at the age of just 60. Having just recently picked up a DVD of highlights from their first four BBC series as a duo, this in turn had me digging out my old Not The Nine O’Clock News LP’s which, in the days before home video recorders became widespread, were the only way to enjoy the show when it wasn’t on the air.

I’m from a generation of Brits who grew up with Mel as very much a part of our lives. It was indeed Not The Nine O’Clock News (hereafter NTNOCN) which brought him stardom, and as a small child a sneaky viewing of this most unsuitable of shows was essential. The political references may have been generally above my head, but there was still plenty to laugh at: The Blue Peter spoof where Smith and Rowan Atkinson failed hilariously at Origami certainly struck a chord, and it's included in this selection...



Then of course there was the Hedgehog Sandwich, delightfully reproduced on the cover of one of my precious records, which featured in the “We Like Trucking” sketch.



Somewhat overshadowed from this time is a children’s series Smith made for Thames with his old drama school friend Bob Goody. Smith & Goody featured the two in a flat overflowing with books and other reading matter, appearing in sketches aimed at encouraging children to read more and, more importantly, enjoy it. It managed one series and a Christmas special, but presumably Mel’s increasingly busy schedule prevented any further episodes.

As NTNOCN reached its third and fourth seasons, it became more popular than ever, the spin off records and a book were bestsellers and a stage show version was also mounted before the four members decided to call it a day. Fortuitously, these later series had seen the forming of another partnership, this time between Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones, and BBC2 decided to try them in their own show.

Alas Smith And Jones made its debut in January 1984, and introduced their celebrated “head to head” duologues which would embrace a range of subjects from artificial insemination to divorce, and all points in between. Smith was the know all who actually knew little, whilst Rhys-Jones knew even less. Picking up where Peter Cook & Dudley Moore's Pete N' Dud sketches left off, the pair took the ball and ran with it. They would go on to mount entire live shows in these personas, producing albums and videos from them which were further best sellers. The series itself maintained a remarkably high standard throughout its four series run, drawing from a large pool of talented writers, many of which had stayed on from NTNOCN



There was a partial falling out with the BBC when the pair headed to LWT for The World According To Smith And Jones, where the two looked at periods in history and illustrated them using film clips, cut together and narrated in comic fashion. The critics weren't terribly kind, but I rather enjoyed it. Sadly, the licensing logistics for the clips used make any DVD release and consequent reappraisal sadly unlikely.

They returned to the BBC for a quartet of 20 minute comedy plays, Smith And Jones In Small Doses, before returning to the sketch format, this time as just plain Smith & Jones between 1989 and 1998. This time the show was produced by their own production company, Talkback Productions (which would produce many successful shows before the pair sold it in 1999). Many of their previous writers returned along with newer talents and it was like they'd never been away.

A neglected gem from this time is the sitcom Colin's Sandwich, where Mel played British Rail employee Colin Watkins, whose real ambition in life is to be a horror writer. The device of Colin often delivering long monologues as he tried to write earned unwelcome and frankly unnecessary comparisons with Hancock's Half Hour. It lasted two series, but deserved much better.


Many of Smith's outside activities are worth mentioning from this period. To select a few, he gave a memorable turn as a sadistic dungeon worker in Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride, voiced the title character in an animation of Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas and turned to directing with The Tall Man in 1989, later scoring a major international hit with his old colleague Rowan Atkinson in Bean (1997).

When Smith and Jones reunited for the compilation series The Smith And Jones Sketchbook in 2006, both expressed a wish to do something new together. Sadly it was not to be. They did, however, perform one last "head to head" for Griff's one-off special The One Griff Rhys Jones in 2012.

Mel Smith will be greatly missed as an exceptionally talented comedy writer/performer/director and comic actor, and will be remembered for some of the most iconic comedy shows and funniest sketches of his era.

I'll end by sharing a few of my favourite moments from his career...










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