Mel Smith: My Last Interview
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.”
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.
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.