Obituary: Mel Smith, actor and comedian

Mel Smith. Picture: PA
Mel Smith. Picture: PA
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Born: 3 December, 1952, in London. Died: 19 July, 2013, in London, aged 60

MEL Smith, best known for his roles in Alas Smith and Jones and Not The Nine O’Clock News was one of the most innovative British comedians of the 1980s and 1990s. He brought a relaxed, seemingly effortless, approach to humour that belied his mastery of stringing out a story or, especially, his immaculate timing.

In Alas Smith and Jones, he went head to head (almost literally) with Griff Rhys Jones in a duologue comprising much banter and repartee. Smith displayed an uncanny knack for delivering the throw-away line with an insouciant disdain. Later in his career, Smith graduated to the production and direction of movies and set up Talkback Productions, a hugely successful film company.

Smith’s close friend and long-time colleague, Griff Rhys Jones, commented yesterday: “Mel was a force for life. He had a relish for it that seemed utterly inexhaustible. He was a gentleman and a scholar and a wit. He never took himself or the business too seriously.”

Melvin Kenneth “Mel” Smith, who was the son of a bookmaker in Chiswick, attended Latymer Upper School and then studied psychology at New College, Oxford. While there, he showed a keen interest in performing and directed an undergraduate production of The Tempest. He came to the 1974 Edinburgh Fringe with the Oxford Revue, appearing alongside Rowan Atkinson. In Edinburgh, he met the writer John Lloyd and the two became great friends and worked extensively together over the years.

After Oxford, Smith worked as a director at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre and in 1977 Lloyd contacted Smith with a view to their doing a new satirical show called Not The Nine O’Clock News. It was just that – an alternative to the news on BBC1 with a decidedly ironic and critical tone. When it was first screened in 1977, Smith co-starred with Pamela Stephenson, Rowan Atkinson, and Jones. It proved a formidable and winning line-up. The second series proved especially popular and won the Golden Rose of Montreux and a Bafta.

It delighted in being controversial and used modern filming and editing methods that upset many – not least its snappy pace and the habit of including library clips of celebrities and politicians.

In 1982, Not The None O’Clock News ended and two years later Smith joined Jones for the even more popular Alas Smith and Jones. The two often did their own pre-show warm-up (otherwise it was done by Clive Anderson) pretending to be drunk. The audience were left bemused as to the truth, but it set up the show brilliantly.

The head-to-head confrontations with the two stars silhouetted in front of a black background worked wonderfully and allowed them to include political and social asides. They often ad-libbed and this led to much “corpsing” by the stars.

These duets reflected the conversations Peter Cook and Dudley Moore enjoyed a decade earlier – but Smith and Jones’s exchanges had a more sardonic and cutting edge.

They played dim versions of themselves – Smith was inevitably the barroom politician who had the answer to everything – and after meandering through an argument they would arrive at ridiculous conclusions.

They were much assisted by a fine team of writers – Arthur Smith and Anderson figured prominently – and the show rightly is considered one of the BBC’s landmark comedy shows.

It ended its run in 1992 and that allowed Smith to concentrate on making movies and developing his production company – he took, for instance, a keen interest in the off-shoot Talkback Radio.

The company enjoyed considerable success in such projects as Da Ali G Show and I’m Alan Partridge. In 2000, the company was sold to Pearson for £62 million.

His greatest success in films was directing Atkinson in the first Mr Bean movie (Bean) and that was followed by the romantic comedy The Tall Guy, starring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson.

His wealth allowed Smith to live in style. He had a large house near Lords cricket ground in London and properties in Oxfordshire and Barbados. But he suffered badly with gout and this led to a dependence on painkillers.

Smith was a much-loved figure in television and film. His calm manner and ability to make apparently ordinary lines bounce off the page was remarkable. In his hands, with his idiosyncratic dead-pan delivery, such a gibe as, “I have got a terrible memory. And I’ll tell you something else. I’ve got a terrible memory” became a touch of comedy magic.

As Atkinson said yesterday: “Mel had a wonderfully generous and 
sympathetic presence and was an excellent director. Mr Bean took $245m at the box-office and I never thought he was given enough credit for this success.”

Smith, who suffered a heart attack, is survived by his wife Pam and their daughter.