It 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.”