Nicola Barry

Monthly Archives: July 2013

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Mel Smith

Mel Smith: My Last Interview

"Snow in the cottage"

Mel Smith with Griff Rhys Jones

Mel Smith has one of those unforgettable faces. Best known as a founder member of Not the Nine 0’ Clock News and as comedy partner to Griff Rhys Jones, the multi-talented Mel has turned his hand to almost all aspects of showbiz. He has been, variously, comedian, film and theatre director as well as actor. I spoke to him in 2009 when he directed Peter Straker in a wonderful cabaret called, Early Long Island Iced Tea, at The Pleasance.

He told me how, in 1981, he and Griff Rhys Jones had founded TalkBack Productions, a company which has produced many of the most significant British TVcomedy shows of the past two decades, including Smack the Pony, Da Ali G Show, I’m Alan Partridge and Big Train. In 2000, they sold the company to Thames TV for £62million.

Here is the interview:

Like his great heroes Tony Hancock or Eric Morecambe, Mel has the perfect face for comedy; the flattish features, those deadpan eyes and the irresistible droopy mouth. In fact, before he lost a lot of weight, Mel’s face bore a close resemblance to a collapsed sponge cake.

“I am afraid I have had this face a long time now,” he says, smirking. “And, it has stood me in good stead, thank you very much.” But he has changed. His face is thinner, skin smoother. It is all natural, he insists, laughing out loud at the suggestion he might have had “work done”. Sitting in the Pleasance courtyard, puffing on a cigar, he says, as a toddler, he enjoyed putting on plays for his family. Since the age of six, he has been directing masterpieces. He says: “I was fairly bright as a child. My primary school teacher told my parents, Ken and Vera, I would probably end up going to Oxford or Cambridge. God knows how she knew.”

Oxford

He did go and loved his time at Oxford although he says he did not do much work. “Unfortunately, drama was not a study option back then,” he muses, “so I read experimental psychology but did not spend much time learning. “I spent most of my time doing plays and going to the races.” He met Griff Rhys Jones early on. They are still friends and Mel watches his friend’s many TV series when he finds the time. Mel says: “The funny thing is that Griff is actually a very good presenter. Yet, we spent years doing spoof presenter skits; looking at the camera and pretending to be straight. “After that, when you start doing it for real, you can find yourself slipping into satirical mode. Not Griff. He is good. “Strangely enough, Griff was President of the Cambridge Footlights at the same time as I presided over the Oxford equivalent. We got on well.” Mel used to come up to the Edinburgh Festival in his student days with the Oxford Theatre Group. He did the odd revue and wrote a few shows for The Traverse. “The Fringe has changed,” Mel says. “Back then you got a piece of paper telling you what shows were on. Now it reads more like a novel. There is just so much. “I mean, you walk past a greengrocer’s shop and there are 12 posters all for comedy shows in the window and you think, “How can that be?”

He doesn’t think the recession has adversely affected the Festival. “Comedy tends to prosper in hard times,” he says. Most actors would give their right arm to have started out like Mel. He did not leave Oxford with a degree but a job. “At university, I did a production of The Tempest,” he says, “and people from The Royal Court came to see it and offered me a job as an assistant director with them.” Just 20, he accepted. “My parents were very good about it. They trusted me to make the right decision.”

He then worked at the Bristol Old Vic and Sheffield Crucible. After five years of being immersed in theatre, he began to have second thoughts. He resigned from his job, telling his father he would take over the betting business, only to get a call the next morning inviting him to join a new satirical sketch show, called Not the Nine o’ Clock News; his first big break in television, in 1980. The series featured satirical sketches on current news stories and popular culture, as well as parody songs, comedy sketches, re-edited videos and spoof television formats. It also featured Griff Rhys Jones, Pamela Stephenson, now Mrs Billy Connolly and Rowan Atkinson.

After its demise, Mel continued to work with Griff Rhys Jones for their sketch series Alas Smith and Jones. The highlights were the ‘head-to-head’ conversations between brassy Mel and a very bemused Jones.  The pair were reunited in 2005 for a revival of their previous TV series, in, “the Alas Smith and Jones Sketchbook”.

“It was great fun,” he adds, “and we are firmly committed to doing more together. You don’t throw that sort of chemistry away. Of course, I’ll have to pretend I like Restoration.” In August 2006, Mel returned to the stage, at the Festival, in Allegiance – Irish journalist and author Mary Kenny’s play about Churchill’s encounter with the Irish nationalist leader Michael Collins in 1921. The play created a lot of controversy, with Mel proposing to flout the Scottish ban on smoking in public places.

After gaining a lot of free publicity, the scene was adapted. “Allegiance was the reason I got back on my hind legs,” Mel says. “I have never really pushed myself as an actor, but I can act.” That same year, he starred opposite Belinda Lang in a new comedy, An Hour and a Half Late, by French playwright Gérald Sibleyras, which Mel adapted. He then directed a West End revival of Charley’s Aunt, starring Stephen Tompkinson. His family background belies a successful showbiz career.

Gamble

Born and brought up in West London, Mel’s father, a miner-turned-grocer-turned-bookmaker, opened the first betting office in Chiswick. His wife of 25 years, Pam, is a former model. The couple have homes in St John’s Wood, Oxfordshire and Barbados. “I met her through a mutual friend,” he says. He does not have children, but Pam has a grown-up son. He likes reading and horse racing and owns several race horses. He had successes with films such as The Tall Guy, in 1989, a quirky and successful comedy starring Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum, then Radioland Murders, in 1994, and High Heels and Low Lifes in 2001, a gangster comedy featuring Minnie Driver and Michael Gambon. His biggest success, however, was directing his Not the Nine o’ Clock News colleague, Rowan Atkinson, in Bean -The Ultimate Disaster Movie. “That film made the best part of 300 million bucks,” he says. Then there was his strange departure into musicals, when he took to the West End stage in the all-singing, all-dancing Broadway import, Hairspray. He knows more about musicals than people realise. As a young director at the Sheffield Crucible, Mel staged My Fair Lady, which he remembers principally because he “Turned down Elaine Paige for the part.” He still enjoys musicals; one reason why he is directing Peter Straker in Early Long Island Iced Tea. Last year the two worked together on Jacques Brel. Born in Jamaica, Straker is a unique and versatile performer. In 1968 he starred as Hud in the original London production of the seminal musical Hair.

Our conversation is suddenly over and Mel is on his feet, going back to supervise Peter’s performance. Then he is rushing off to catch a train back to London.

“My work here is done,” he says grandly, stubbing out his half smoked cigar and turning on his heel with a wide grin.

I can just imagine him saying that now.

 

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Fear of Bats

My fear of bats (a rant)

article on fear of bats, image of bat

Bat out of hell (Photo credit: Lee Carson)

No wonder we use the words bats and batty to describe lunacy of various kinds. For years we have lived in a graveyard, next to a church where, of an evening, at exactly the same time, bats gather around the belfry. Because these horrid creatures are protected under European conservation laws (God knows why) there is nothing you can do to eliminate them. Bats have more rights than humans, it would seem. I have spent several hours of my life waving my hands and arms in front of me like a maniac; trying to protect myself – never mind the bats. I hate them, with a passion.

Please don’t judge me. If you have never had a bat circling your bedroom at what seems like 150MPH, you will not appreciate my loathing. The worst time was when I was alone in my bedroom one night in the heart of the English countryside, when I heard a rustling noise from the corner of the room. It sounded like someone trying to eat sweets furtively at the cinema. The rustling got louder and louder. In the darkest recesses of my mind, I imagined that The Thing had started chomping its way through the wooden floorboards of that old, cold cottage and was coming to get me. My heart was thumping. I tried to conjure up harmless, Beatrix Potter type images of vermin in pretty pink gingham bonnets, wearing matching aprons and brewing cups of tea over a warm stove. But fear won the day. Bravely, I switched on the bedside light and, in an instant, my heart almost stopped. Out of the darkness swooped a winged creature from hell – an open-mouthed, hairy beast with pointed teeth, ears sticking out and horrid little clutching hands, all enclosed between large, flapping wings. Yes, you guessed it – the species we insist on protecting – the bat. Apparently, bats face extinction if we fail to give them adequate protection.

If only…

I have to admit I just wanted the winged creature out of my bedroom, alive or dead. First, it charged up and down the room as if executing some weird tribal dance. I managed to make it out of bed and rush from the room.  I then explained to my host that there was a bat in my bedroom. When we returned to search, the wretched creature had curled up into a ball and we couldn’t find it anywhere. Eventually, when we discovered the bat, it began to screech the place down in alarm.

That almost finished me off. I don’t know who was more afraid – the ugly old bat or the creature hiding behind my chest of drawers. Boom, boom. Within the hour, the bat was released, alive and well.

RISKS

Bats are dangerous, mainly because they can transmit rabies. So, if you are unfortunate enough to come into contact with them, you need a rabies injection afterwards. The bad news is that docs don’t give this jab in your stomach any more. You actually have to pull down your pants and bend over for this treatment.

After it, in other countries, they smack you with a large bill.

We live in a part of the town that seems more like the countryside, with all the joys that entails. There is, however, a downside: every wild animal in existence lives close by. There are hundreds of grey squirrels with huge bodies, arms like Popeye’s and vast, clodhopping paws which look more like hands. They eat all the food we put out for the birds, they grow fat and cheeky beyond belief. It’s bad enough when you go out at midnight to throw away a piece of rubbish and something large and hairy leaps out of next door’s wheelie bin. It’s like someone leaping out of a cake when you least expect it. Every time it happens, I nearly die of fright. The last straw came one evening when I arrived home to find a squirrel the size of a well-fed Labrador, sitting on one of the large wheelie bins, having what looked like a fish supper. It was sitting up, as they do, wrapper between its legs, clutching an entire fish in its hands, guzzling away to its heart’s content. Most alarming of all, it didn’t budge one inch when I approached.

The bats are just as confident and love flying straight at you, out of the darkness; hundreds of them flitting through the treetops at twilight like some strange school of waterless flying fish. OK, so bats are an endangered species, but it cannot be right. Why not gas them – I mean sedate them, take them to some deserted spot, miles from civilisation, and release them into freedom. And before all you batty bat lovers accuse me of cruelty, think again. Most of us are afraid of something. How would you feel, if, for example, 1,000 spiders or snakes, protected by some idiotic and arbitrary rule, suddenly invaded your space?

 Article focus: fear of bats
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Piper Alpha

Piper Alpha

Memorial in Hazlehead Park, to the victims of ...

Memorial in Hazlehead Park, to the victims of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those who endured the agony of Piper Alpha, time has not turned out to be a great healer. It is 25 years since the massive oil rig exploded into the North Sea, 120 miles off the coast of Aberdeen and the scars are still visible. It was just before 10pm on July 6, 1988, when the primary pump in the processing area failed and the men in the control room started the back-up, not realising it was under maintenance. Gas escaped from the hole left by an absent valve and the back-up pump exploded. Twenty minutes later, heat from the fire ruptured the gas line, causing a major explosion. Several more followed.
The men had to make a terrifying choice, between remaining on the burning Piper Alpha oil platform or jumping six-storeys into the North Sea. Those who jumped and survived paid a very high price. Forced to wait for the rescue boats and helicopters, they managed to stay alive by treading water on the sea’s boiling surface. They survived by keeping their heads under the freezing water one minute, and above, in the smoke and flames, the next. For those still trapped on the platform, smoke and flames blocked all routes to the lifeboats. Many ran back to the accommodation area, believing it safe because it was a fair distance from the blaze. They escaped the heat and flames but not the choking smoke. Starved of oxygen, they ended up on the floor, holding wet rags over their mouths and faces, unaware that the accommodation block was slowly sliding into the sea.
A total of 167 men died. There were 60 survivors. For many of the latter, recollections of the day the sea caught fire have had ongoing repercussions. Apart from burns, the most serious injuries were psychological. Survivors were traumatised. For example, a survivor might be happily walking down the street, a car would backfire and he’d find himself curled up into a ball in a shop doorway. Many saw their dead friends floating past them, on fire. Afterwards, they would lie down at night to sleep and the same video would keep replaying in their heads; galling re-enactments of what they had experienced.
The rescue workers suffered as well. The young men on the trawlers were traumatised beyond belief. Support vessels like the Silver Pit, an old converted trawler normally bobbed around the rig, checking everything was alright, with nothing much happening. Suddenly, they had to fish 30 to 40 burning bodies out of the sea; a highly dangerous task since the platform was on fire and parts were falling off into the water. Some were awarded the George Medal for their bravery. Research carried out a decade after the tragedy revealed that more than 70 per cent of the survivors interviewed said they felt very guilty about having lived when others had perished. Some of these people went on to gamble with their lives, indulging in high-risk activity, subconsciously willing themselves dead.
Sadly, many of the dead were found in the galley, waiting for helicopters which were unable to land because of the fire and thick smoke. Eventually, about 100 terrified men gathered there. There was a further explosion, the rupture of the pipeline between Piper Alpha and the Frigg gas field. The nearby rescue boat disappeared in a fireball, killing two of the crew and six men who had already been recovered from the sea.
Occidental Petroleum, the operator of the platform, paid out £110 million to survivors and the families of victims. Lord Cullen’s Inquiry made 106 recommendations which have revolutionised the oil industry in relation to safety. Piper Alpha once stood proud, towering 100 feet above the roughest water in the North Sea.
The fires took a whole month to put out. Soon, there was nothing left, just a blackened wreck, most of it melted away into the sea, leaving nothing but lifelong scars in the souls of those who survived.

 

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