Mel Smith has just died.
He was great in sketch shows and also in the more straight role of Colin in Colin’s Sandwich.
Some videos of him and the Not the Nine O’Clock News gang doing their spoof songs.
Gob On you (Punk)
I Like Trucking
Country and Western
Mel Smith, who has died at the age of 60, had a perfect face for comedy. Hangdog and irritable, Smith’s often had the demeanour of a man who had just been trapped in a lift for 12 hours with an angry bluebottle. His gift for comedy is rightly recognised, but a look at his 40-year career reveals a more versatile talent.
The son of a bookie, Smith was born in Chiswick in 1952 and attended Latymer Upper School and Oxford University where he became president of OUDS. At the Oxford Playhouse, he directed a production of The Tempest which led to his being hired by the Royal Court as an assistant director.
This was the Royal Court of the mid-Seventies, a tremendously fertile period when playwrights such as David Edgar and Caryl Churchill broke through. However, Smith’s career stalled after an unhappy spell at the Young Vic and he decided to take over his dad’s betting shop. Then he got a call from John Lloyd.
Lloyd had created a satirical sketch show, Not the Nine O’Clock News, with a short-but-already-troubled history. It was 1979 and, in a year of a General Election, the BBC had pulled the pilot episode because they feared it took too overtly political. Lloyd decided to recast the show, and that was when Smith was asked to join.
Smith’s performances throughout the series’s four-year run are uniformally good. He played it beautifully straight as the Hush Puppy-wearing professor who has reared a rather urbane gorilla called Gerald. He was also the terribly polite customer who wanted to buy a “gramophone”, enduring the derision of Rowan Atkinson’s shop assistant with a stiff-upper-lip decency.
Although these were only three-minute sketches, Smith had the talent to completely immerse himself in the characters he played and make them memorable.
Of course, Not the Nine O’Clock News also starred Smith’s long-term collaborator Griff Rhys Jones. The pair formed the TV production company Talkback (which they eventually sold for £62million) and created Alas Smith and Jones, another successful BBC comedy show. It became famous for the pair’s wonderful quasi-philosophical face-to-face dialogues, which were filmed in profile.
But aside from these hit series, Smith should also be praised for the now largely forgotten Colin’s Sandwich. In this 1988 sitcom he played Colin Watkins, a British Rail clerical worker who dreamed of becoming the next Stephen King. The series was peppered with long monologues which Smith delivered brilliantly in the style of Tony Hancock.
However Smith’s comedy appearances were fewer and further between after this, and he concentrated largely on directing. Although the results were variable, he directed the underrated The Tall Guy (1988), which featured a brilliantly awful pastiche of West End musicals called Elephant, about the life of John Merrick. A decade later, he stepped in to direct Bean (based on Rowan Atkinson’s extraordinarily successful TV show) when the original director was fired.
The last 15 years of his life saw a marked reduction in his output. He had become addicted to painkillers and was hospitalised with stomach ulcers.
His last appearance was in Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge earlier this year. (By a curious coincidence, his first TV role was in Poliakoff’s Bloody Kids in 1979.) Smith played Schlesinger, a jobsworth hotel manager bristling with hostility towards Louis Lester’s black jazz band.
It was a neat, perfectly judged performance and an indication of how, had he lived, Smith might have developed into a successful character actor as well as a deceptively talented comedian.