COMEDIAN Mel Smith has died of a heart attack at his London home.
HE WILL be remembered by his closest friend and colleague as “a gentleman and a scholar, a gambler and a wit” with whom he never had an argument.
Griff Rhys Jones joined the comedy world in mourning on Saturday as news emerged of the death of Mel Smith, one of the best-loved faces in the entertainment industry.
The TV star, actor and director – who was best known for his partnership with Jones in TV series Alas Smith And Jones and as a lynchpin of spoof news sketch programme Not The Nine O’Clock News – died of a heart attack at his home in north London on Friday.
Smith, 60, also founded production company Talkback Productions with Jones, which became one of the UK’s largest producers of TV comedy and light entertainment – boasting Smack The Pony and I’m Alan Partridge among its hit programmes.
Jones, who had been friends with Smith for 35 years, said: “I still can’t believe this has happened. 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. 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 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 dear friend.”
When Not The Nine O’Clock News, which also featured Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson, came to an end, Smith and Jones decided to continue their comedy partnership with their own sketch show, Alas Smith And Jones.
Its trademark became the pair’s head-to-head chats, which saw Smith play a
know-it-all, while Jones took on a dimwitted persona, and they would engage in discussions on every topic under the sun.
Smith had suffered ill health for some time. A 2009 appearance on Mastermind raised fears that he was unwell, with viewers concerned that he looked frail and his speech was slurred.
The BBC said he had been suffering from a virulent throat infection, but it later emerged that his condition had been so extreme that he had been investigated for possible throat cancer.
In the late 1990s, Smith admitted that he had had an addiction to painkillers, which he took for the gout that had spread from his left toe to his knees, wrists and elbows – and which eventually caused him to be hospitalised with stomach ulcers. Jones also hinted five years ago that Smith had been diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease, but the rumour was never confirmed.
Tommy Sheppard, owner of The Stand Comedy Club in
Edinburgh, described Smith’s passing as “very sad”, adding that Not The Nine O’Clock News was the “bridge” between the early 1970s comedy of Monty Python and the alternative stand-up comedy of the 1980s.
Smith appeared regularly at the Edinburgh Fringe – in 2006 threatening to become the first actor to breach the smoking ban when he lit up during a photo call for a production where he played former prime minister Winston Churchill. Sheppard said: “He was a great talent who made a tremendous contribution to contemporary British comedy. Not The Nine O’Clock News was the bridge between surreal English whimsy and the more hard-hitting satirical stand-up that came in the 1980s and we still have with us today. I think it made a great contribution.”
Smith, who was also known for his love of Rolls-Royce cars, became interested in acting as a student of experimental psychology at Oxford University, where he joined the dramatic society. He moved into TV after producer John Lloyd, who had directed the young Smith at the Fringe while a student, offered him a part in an early episode of Not The Nine O’Clock News.
In 1987, Smith, with Kim Wilde – as “Mel and Kim” – had a number-three hit with Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, which was recorded to benefit Comic Relief.
Other friends and associates took to Twitter yesterday to express their sadness at the passing of the well-loved comedian.
“Terrible news about my old friend Mel Smith, dead today from a heart attack. Mel lived a full life, but was kind, funny & wonderful to know,” said Stephen Fry.
Father Ted writer Graham Linehan said he and writing partner Arthur Mathews had been helped in their career by Smith, with their first sketches being broadcast on Alas Smith And Jones. He said on Twitter: “Very sad to hear news of Mel Smith’s death has been confirmed. He and Griff gave Arthur and I our break. Was always so kind & generous to us.”
Actor and comic Peter Serafinowicz also paid tribute.
He wrote: “Very sad to hear about Mel Smith. Such a funny man.”