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TV comic Mel Smith was at home on stage and big screen


Not the Nine O'Clock News arrived on BBC2 in 1979, a bridge between the posher Monty Python and the apocalyptic The Young Ones.

ITS stars, Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, who has died aged 60, were a disparate bunch, though all proved adept at upsetting the apple cart in spoof news reports such as: "Mrs Thatcher has ordered an immediate inquiry into the number of jobless blacks: she feels there aren't enough." But Smith's life before the programme was in theatre directing. He was also a talented actor whose versatility was too rarely explored.

Born in Chiswick in 1952, the son of a bookmaker, Smith read experimental psychology at New College, Oxford, where he joined the Dramatic Society. He became President but ditched his studies after two years to direct at the Oxford Playhouse, where a well-received Tempest was seen by the Royal Court's new Artistic Director, Oscar Lewenstein.

Lewenstein made him an assistant director. It was a lively time in its history, with the now legendary Beckett and South African seasons achieving acclaim. Years on he still winced at the memory of Beckett's Not I (1973).

A nightmarish experience devised to work on "the nerves, not the intellect", it saw Billie Whitelaw locked in place in a pitch-dark theatre with a spotlight on her mouth as she performed verbal nausea for 15 harrowing minutes. It was frightening theatre to its square root, but Smith was dismayed at having to spend a day auditioning actors for the role of the cloaked figure who stands stage right throughout and whose only duty is to raise his arms weakly four times.

He directed and acted alongside Antony Sher in Stephen Poliakoff's American Days (1979) at the ICA, but at the Young Vic clashed with its head Michael Bogdanov and quit, telling his dad he was ready to take over the betting shop.

The next day a phone call came from BBC comedy producer John Lloyd inviting him to become part of Not The Nine O'Clock News. Lloyd had seen Smith perform in Edinburgh the year that Smith first met Griff Rhys Jones, who had then been in the Cambridge Footlights. Once the series began the two worked particularly well together, and became friends.

The show was described by the critic Philip Purser as "erratic and fitful, but emitting at least two beautiful jokes every week", an early example being a delicious parody of the uproar over Life of Brian (1979). Together Smith and Jones delivered many memorable moments over the show's three years, including a savage attack on The Two Ronnies.

Immediately the series finished Smith took on a straight leading role in the brutal Muck and Brass (1982). The grimy saga of an unscrupulous property developer grippingly exposed Thatcher's Britain as a society on the skids.

He followed up with another good one as a menacing music mogul in Minder (1984), but there was still more mileage in him as a comedy performer, and the same year he reunited with his old oppo for Alas Smith and Jones (1984-98). There were strong moments throughout the long run, especially the entertaining head-to-heads, Jones as "the idiot who knows nothing" and Smith as "the idiot who knows everything".

Colin's Sandwich (1988-90) should have been the most celebrated of his comedy performances, but the show was largely overlooked. As Colin Watkins, who handles complaints for British Rail and dreams of becoming a horror writer, Smith created a histrionic neurotic who every week was hilariously sucked into a maelstrom of humiliation.

Smith and Jones formed Talkback Productions in 1981, which they sold in 2000 for £62m.

Smith's film career included starring with Jones in the enjoyable Wilt (1990) and directing Atkinson in Bean (1997). His directorial debut, The Tall Guy (1989), was his most endearing piece and one Smith himself thought his career highlight.

He returned to his stage roots, acting at the Edinburgh Fringe in Allegiance (2006), in which he played Churchill to Michael Fassbender's Michael Collins. The publicity stunt of Smith threatening to flout the smoking ban certainly got the play noticed, but rather clouded an impressive performance.

The following year he directed Stephen Tompkinson in Charley's Aunt and then bowed out on stage with his musical theatre debut in a revival of Hairspray (2007-8) at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

Mel Smith will be remembered for being one of the most high-profile and consistently funny comedy performers of the 1980s. But he should also be remembered for his passion for the stage, his capabilities as an actor and his success as a film director. And for nurturing young talent throughout the 1990s, so much of which has gone on to achieve things as great Smith did himself.

Married to Pam, the couple had one daughter, Alexandra.


From Belfast Telegraph