When Griff Rhys Jones first met his comedy double-act partner, Mel Smith, in a pub in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket in 1972, he was distinctly underwhelmed. Smith was “legendary” at Oxford University for his dramatic work and late-night carousing, a mythology that the Welshman found rather incongruous with the pudgy figure before him. Yet as he reveals in this fond tribute to his late, invariably late friend, Smith was a Falstaffian force of nature who swept you up in his whirlwind, to the extent that Jones couldn’t keep pace and effectively retired from alcoholism, swearing off drink for more than three decades.
Griff Rhys Jones: Jones & Smith ***
It was, it transpires, The Scotsman that once harshly dubbed them a double-act with “two straight men”. But Jones soon grew accustomed to being seen as Smith’s foil. That was patently unfair on his writing and acting talent, and he acknowledges his irritation with good humour. But it affords a bittersweet flavour to the admission of his health concerns and exercise regime, as he refers to a scientific study suggesting that “the funny one” in comedy duos always tends to die first.
There’s rather too much dwelling on a colonoscopy and personal fitness trainer in a very stand-up like section, at least compared to the relaxed raconteurship that proceeded it. However, it’s set within an ever-present context of mortality. There’s poignancy, certainly, as Jones finds himself empathising with his dog, who having licked his bowl clean without noticing, can’t accept how much life has passed him by in a blur. Similarly, Smith only began visiting Jones in his dreams when he died.
Droll and self-aware, Jones doesn’t seem to put any great stock in fame, judging by his embarrassed accounts of the pair meeting Paul McCartney and Princess Margaret. Even setting the record straight about a story stitching him up in the broadsheet press, he happily plays up to and pokes fun at the image of himself as an out-of-touch millionaire.
Best of all, he closes with excerpts from his unbroadcast sitcom pilot with Smith, Three Flights Up. Very funny and featuring the late Ken Campbell too, it’s bewildering to hear the reason Jones attributes to the BBC for not commissioning it, a criminal oversight. A shame too that with the plot focusing heavily on a corpse, it was ultimately deemed inappropriate to screen at Smith’s funeral, with Jones surely correct to suggest that Mel would have loved it.