Alas Mel Smith

Mel SmithIt was with great sadness that I learned on Sunday of Mel Smith’s passing at the age of just 60. It came as quite a shock to those (myself included) who were unaware of his recent health issues. Smith had suffered from various afflictions, notably gout and a severe case of pharyngitis. He’d also taken an accidental overdose of painkillers in 2009. Mel finally succumbed to a heart attack on July 19th.

I hadn’t seen or heard much of Smith in recent years, but will always have fond memories of his wonderful comic collaborations with Griff Rhys Jones. I was too young at the time to fully appreciate ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’, Mel Smith’s breakthrough TV show, working with the (at the time) unknown Griff, Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson. Mel and Griff then moved on to their own sketch-based comedy series, ‘Alas Smith and Jones’. I was only 10 or 11 when ‘Alas Smith and Jones’ first screened and was only learning of the joys of British comedy. The sketch format wasn’t anything new, and it could be a bit hit and miss at times, but like life there is a fine line between success and failure in comedy. For the most part however, ‘Alas Smith and Jones’ was extremely well written, beautifully performed and wonderfully, wonderfully funny.

Smith and Jones were perfectly matched, both equally adept at playing the straight man or the fool. The highlight of the show was the recurring ‘talking heads’ piece, a simple conversation between Mel and Griff, shot in profile and with minimal cameras. There was always a loose theme to each discussion, but it was really a chance for both performers to one-up each other in comic stupidity. You can see the tip of the hat to their comedy forebears, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their Pete and Dud sketches. In an ideal world we might have seen all four conversing over a pint or two, a sort of dunce’s tag team death-match. OK, perhaps that happens in my ideal world.

In addition to Smith and Jones’ comic timing and acting ability, Mel had one of those malleable faces which could make you laugh just by looking at it. My favourite example of this was Mel’s brilliant “Night Thoughts” parody. Go to 7.19 in the link below:

Here’s another of my favourites from ‘Alas Smith and Jones’. The football theme may not be familiar to all but is close to my heart, while the humour is certainly universal:

My favourite sketch of Mel’s was a spoof on homemade community television,  the show being something along the lines of ‘DIY for the Homeless’. I don’t  have a clip for this one, despite a quite extensive Youtube search. If anyone knows of this being available online, do let me know. I would love to see it again. Mel and Griff appear as two drunk, vaguely Scottish tramps, hosting their own show in which they are supposed to give out handy tips and words of wisdom on the art of homeless living. Instead they constantly interrupt each other and forget what they are supposed to be doing. At one point Griff tries to instruct his audience in the art of making a ‘wee bundle’, one of those collections of odds and ends that the homeless will sometimes carry around with them. Years after I saw this sketch I was working in a bookshop and noticed a bag of what looked like rubbish lying next to one of the bookshelves. With all the best intentions, I went to remove it, only for a slightly dishevelled but well-spoken old man to tell me off quite sternly for attempting to take his belongings. It dawned on me what the bag was, but a colleague of mine was quite confused. ‘That’s alright’ I said, ‘it’s just his wee bundle’. I don’t think I’ve seen a more bemused look than that on the face of my colleague. Somehow I don’t think my laughter really helped though…

Episodes of ‘Alas Smith and Jones’ (later shortened to ‘Smith and Jones’) aired more sporadically by the ’90s, but it was always a treat to see the show whenever it screened. Mel was also a talented director, and I can highly recommend his directorial debut, “The Fall Guy”, starring Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum.

There’s little doubt Mel’s performances on these classic shows will be available for all to see for as long as there is interest in them, which I’m sure will be a long, long time. Despite this, Mel’s passing feels far too soon. For those of us who grew up watching shows like ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Alas Smith and Jones’, it is almost like a part of our youth went with Mel when he died. He will be greatly, greatly missed. I don’t think anyone could have paid tribute to Mel better than Griff Rhys Jones, his friend and comic partner of 35 years:

“To everybody who ever met him, Mel was a force for life. He had a relish for it that seemed utterly inexhaustible.

“He inspired love and utter loyalty and he gave it in return. I will look back on the days working with him as some of the funniest times that I have ever spent.

“We probably enjoyed ourselves far too much, but we had a rollercoaster of a ride along the way. Terrific business. Fantastic fun, making shows. Huge parties and crazy times. And Mel was always ready to be supportive. Nobody could have been easier to work with.

“We never had an argument about which part we should play or how we were going to do something. We never had an argument, in fact. We loved performing together. He was a very generous and supportive actor. We had a good deal of fun.

“Mel was not a pressure person. He was a gentleman and a scholar, a gambler and a wit. And he was a brilliant actor. But he never took himself or the business too seriously. We are all in a state of shock. We have lost a very, very dear friend.”

Celebrating Mr Lee and Mr Looper

Mr Hooper

Big Bird’s sketch of Mr Hooper, drawn by Big Bird’s puppeteer, Carroll Spinney.

Will Lee was an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life. Until recently I knew nothing about Lee, other than the fact he had played Mr Hooper, an extraordinary character on an extraordinary TV show, Sesame Street. Mr Hooper was a part of my childhood and as real a character as has existed in children’s television, so it is a strange thing to learn of his ‘other life’ as Will Lee, an actor, a teacher, and in essence a humanist.

Will Lee would have had the fullest of lives even if he had never once appeared on Sesame Street. Lee got his start in theatre during the Depression, and was drawn to theatre groups which were at the edge of experimental and socio-politcial theatre. Lee was firmly leftist in his political leanings, and by the time of the McCarthy era had begun to receive some unwelcome attention when he was called to testify before the House of Unamerican Activities Committee. To his credit he refused to be bullied into confessing any communist affiliation. He and other members of his theatre group, The Actor’s Laboratory, were consequently blacklisted. Opportunities for Lee in the theatre and film industry were now severely limited.

By this time Lee had already served in World War II, stationed as far as Australia and the Philippines, where he helped stage shows to entertain the troops. Lee continued to act but got little work due to his blacklisting, so began teaching acting while picking up roles where he could. He appeared in the first season of the soap “As the World Turns” and began to build a reputation as a superb character actor during the late 1950s and 1960s. Lee continued to teach even while working on Sesame Street, primarily at the American Theater Wing, where he taught amongst others a young James Earl Jones. Lee had been part of the Group Theater in the 1930s, which was an early proponent of naturalistic acting. This theory would later become popularised by Lee Strasberg’s Method school of acting.

It is, however, as Mr Hooper that Will Lee will be remembered. Lee played store owner Harold Hooper from Sesame Street’s inception in 1969 until his death in 1982. My memories of Sesame Street (like a lot of my generation) are of the shows produced in the late 70s and early 80s. I remember some of the skits and stories that were played out, but for the most part it is the characters that I loved and remembered.

One of Sesame Street’s greatest strengths was to always treat its audience with respect. The show’s creators knew how smart children were and how discerning they could be. If something didn’t ring true, kids wouldn’t watch it. As a consequence, the characters were written as a reflection of the viewers. As in life, the characters (particularly the Muppets) weren’t perfect. At times they could be silly, angry, stupid and even thoughtless. They were, however, always well meaning, and in learning from their mistakes they taught us how to do the same.

The adults on the show were primarily there to play the parent/teacher role, and Will Lee was perfect for this. Mr Hooper was a brilliantly conceived role. In order for the street to have the right feel and balance, it needed a centre, a heart. This was Hooper’s Store, and at its heart was Mr Hooper. Mr Hooper represented the best aspects of age and experience. Will Lee brought to the role wisdom from a life lived to the full and from battles both won and lost. He would listen to everyone’s problems, and if he couldn’t find a solution would set them on the path to finding it themselves.

Lee and Hooper became so entwined that children would approach him in public and ask how he got out of the television set, or simply whisper “I love you”. One of the long running jokes on the show was Big Bird’s constant mangling of Mr Hooper’s name. It was always Mr Cooper or Mr Looper, or even once, an ad-libbed ‘Mr Cunningham’. The whole set-up was telegraphed, but it was funny and always played beautifully by Lee and Carroll Spinney as Big Bird.

The most memorable moment on Sesame Street was also the hardest to watch. When Will Lee died in December 1982, the show’s producers and writers made a tough but incredibly brave decision. Rather than have Mr Hooper simply ‘move away’, they paid children the ultimate mark of respect – they told them the truth. The following November an episode aired dealing with Mr Hooper’s death. The episode centres on Big Bird wanting to share pictures that he has drawn of his friends. Big Bird finally comes to Mr Hooper’s picture, but can’t find him. He asks the other adults where Mr Hooper is, and what follows is probably as raw and real as any television you will ever see.

If you saw it at the time (it screened once in the US and precious few times elsewhere including here in New Zealand) then you will already know what happens. If you haven’t seen it, I have included a link below. My description could never do it justice. When I saw the episode I would have been older than the target audience, and at that point only occasionally watched Sesame Street, almost like catching up with old friends – which is exactly what the characters had become. I remember being shocked and saddened by Mr Hooper’s death, but it was the reaction of the actors that really affected me. It was clear to me that this wasn’t a performance. These people were not just dealing with the loss of Mr Hooper, they were grieving at the death of their friend, Will Lee.

This was my first real contact with the concepts of death and grief, but I didn’t realise it at the time. I just remember feeling so sad for these brave people who had lost their friend.

If Jim Henson can be called the father of Sesame Street, then I think Will Lee could be considered its honorary grandfather, as Mr Hooper was to so many children. I was lucky enough to grow up with a Sesame Street with Mr Hooper, and I feel sorry for younger generations who missed out on the wonderful episodes from those years. I know a lot of these classic episodes have been released on DVD – I do hope they find a new audience, they deserve to be more than just a wonderful memory.

And yes, I know I got the title wrong for this post – “it’s Hooper of course, Big Bird, not Looper”. I just prefer it that way.

Thanks to Muppet Wiki for most of the information on Will Lee. There is also a wonderful website featuring interviews with key members of the Sesame Street team remembering Mr Hooper and Will Lee:

http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/shows/sesame-street-farewell-mr-hooper

Big Bird’s friends explain Mr Hooper’s death:

If anyone has more information on Will Lee or Mr Hooper or simply personal memories, do let me know. I would love to hear from you.

A Quest for Quincy: Correspondence

This post refers to: A Quest For Quincy

Subject: AT RE: Quincy’s Quest
Dear Villager at Large

Thank you for your recent email regarding Quincy’s Quest.

You would need to contact Thames directly with your enquiry as although Thames are no longer part of the ITV network, they retain the copyright to all of their programmes. Thames’ website is http://www.talkbackthames.tv/ and their archive is http://www.fremantlearchivesales.com/

May I take this opportunity to thank you for taking the time to contact us here at ITV Viewer Services. If we can be of further assistance please do not hesitate to contact us.

Kind regards

ITV Viewer Services


Subject: Quincy’s Quest

Hi there, I have found these email addresses on the Thames websites provided by ITV Viewer Services. Please forward to the appropriate person if necessary.

I am trying to track down availability info on a Thames TV production from 1979 entitled Quincy’s Quest.
My interest is purely personal (excuse the ramblings below) and have no desire to use the film for commercial purposes.
If someone could let me know if the production is/will be available in a format suitable for private use now or in the near future, it would be greatly appreciated.
I did do a general search on the archives site with no success. I appreciate there would be little demand for this film now, but it would be nice to know it is still in existence in some form so there is still the possibilty of it becoming available in the future.

Thanks for your time.

Kind regards,

Villager at Large.


Subject: RE: Quincy’s Quest

Dear Villager at Large,

Many thanks for your enquiry.

I can, as a one-off make this available on DVD but there is a charge of £150 + VAT to cover tape retrieval and duplication.

If you wish to proceed please complete the attached payment form and I will get the ball rolling.

Best wishes

Fremantle Archives.


Dear Fremantle Archives, thank you for your prompt reply.

I have to say I was expecting my search for this film to be long and exhausting. It is amazing what technology can provide nowadays!
Thank you so much for the chance to purchase Quincy’s Quest.
I would love to be able to purchase this now, but unfortunately £150 is beyond my means at this point in time.

I will keep your email to hand so hopefully at some point I can take up your offer. In the meantime it makes a difference to know that an obscure but important part of one of my childhood Christmases is not lost to all but memory.

Thanks again and best wishes to you too.

Regards

Villager at Large.

A Quest For Quincy

Tommy Steele in Quincy’s Quest.

Dear ITV Viewer Services,

To be honest this is a stab in the dark. Even finding this email address wasn’t easy. Please forward this on to the appropriate person if I have sent this to the wrong department.
I’m not even sure if I should be contacting ITV, but you have to start somewhere.

If you don’t get past “DVD Release” and Quincy’s Quest”, I understand. That is the point of this email. The rest is really a background on why I felt it important to ask.

I’ve been looking for a DVD release of a TV movie called “Quincy’s Quest”, which was aired by Thames Television in December 1979. As far as I am aware it has not been aired since and I can’t find any evidence of a DVD release either. I know that there are countless programmes and movies produced for TV that don’t warrant a commercial DVD release, but some of these programmes deserve a wider audience than they might have received when first aired.

Firstly I should say that I am a New Zealander, so this film didn’t air here until a year afterwards, in December 1980. In fact, it aired Christmas Eve 1980. I was 7 years old at the time. I think it takes until you are at least 6 or 7 before you really understand the magic of Christmas. It is one of the few times in life when magic is real and everything seems more defined, more alive than ever before.

That was probably the first Christmas I really remember well, but until recently I had forgotten one of the main reasons why. It is funny how sometimes memories come back to you. You’re supposed to forget things as you get older, but I find that as I age things find their way back to me. I’m not sure why Quincy’s Quest popped into my mind, but there it was.

I had looked forward to seeing it for what seemed weeks. TV advertising wasn’t as aggressive in those days, but I do recall some blanket advertising for the Christmas programming, and Quincy’s Quest was the highlight, the Christmas Eve feature. With only two channels at the time (and one network), there was usually one aimed at kids and one at adults on the other channel. I didn’t know who Tommy Steele was, but the advertising did its job. I was sold. Not surprising really – the storyline involved unwanted toys (led by toy Tommy) in a quest to find Santa so that they didn’t end up on the scrapheap (or worse I think!). Toys, Santa, adventure. Fantastic. It’s no wonder I fell in love with the Toy Story movies later on.

So Christmas Eve arrives. That Christmas feeling hits big time. Excitement? I don’t think you can ever replicate the feeling of excitement for a 7 year old on Christmas Eve. I think sometimes that the joy of anticipation is lost on us until it is too late, but I remember enjoying every moment of that wait. I don’t even remember what time it started, but I’m guessing it was something like 7.30. I don’t remember a lot of the content of the film, only that I loved every second of it. Every second that I saw, that is.

I now know that the film ran for about 80 minutes, but that was about 15-20 minutes too long for a 7 year old. Alas, my bedtime arrived, and despite desperate pleading, I was off to bed and left wondering if Tommy would ever find Santa. Of course in the morning it was Christmas Day, so in the excitement of opening presents I forgot about Tommy and the toys. And there it ended, until today that is.

I have to admit I don’t know if Quincy’s Quest is a good film, by any measure. In a way, it doesn’t really matter. When I remembered the film I was remembering that Christmas as a 7 year old, and the feelings I experienced. Excitement, joy and desperate disappointment. It is a strange thing to feel those things again, it is like you are 7 years old all over again except the emotion is magnified because it has been hidden away for 32 years.

I can’t bring my childhood back, nor would I want to. I guess I want a bit of closure, and perhaps to find a lost piece of my childhood. We all have fragments of our life that are lost along the way, and some of them shape who we are and what we will become. Some of them however, are no more than moments that remind us that life isn’t perfect, and neither are we. This film represents one of those moments.

It won’t be the end of the world if my search proves fruitless, but if there is an opportunity to get one of those moments back, I have to try.

 As a sidenote, I am aware that the film has been posted on YouTube in several parts, however I would rather experience the film as I remember it, on a television screen.

 If you have read this far, thank you for your time and patience. I expect that there is no plan for a DVD release, but even confirmation that the film still exists somewhere in an ITV vault would at least give me hope that the film will see the light of day, one day.

Kind regards

 Villager at Large.