Monday, July 22, 2013
Mel Smith- 1952-2013. A very funny man. RIP.
The Guardian reports
One of the great comedians dies. RIP Mel Smith.
Mel Smith was once upstaged by a talking gorilla. He was playing a zoologist in a sketch on his hit comedy show Not the Nine O'Clock News and the gorilla suit contained Rowan Atkinson. "When I caught Gerald in 68 he was completely wild," said Smith. "Wild?" retorted the gorilla. "I was absolutely livid!"
If the gorilla had the best line, Smith had the more expressive countenance, mugging with a deadpan virtuosity rarely seen since Oliver Hardy in his pomp. That face – as hangdog as his childhood hero Tony Hancock's – made Smith, who has died of a heart attack aged 60, one of the most recognisable of postwar British comedians.
Smith's face was only part of his fortune. He was a writer and editor of some of the most redoubtable British TV comedies of the 1980s and 90s. He directed films including The Tall Guy (1989), with Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson, and the box-office hit Bean (1997), an adaptation of Atkinson's TV series. As co-founder, with Griff Rhys Jones, of Talkback Productions, he was a TV producer responsible for innovative comedy series including Smack the Pony, Da Ali G Show and I'm Alan Partridge. As an actor, he played a string of well-received roles, but perhaps none more effectively than Winston Churchill, opposite Michael Fassbender as the IRA leader Michael Collins, in Mary Kenny's play Allegiance at the Edinburgh festival in 2006.
Smith was born in Chiswick, west London. His parents, Kenneth and Vera, ran the area's first betting shop. After studying at Latymer upper school in Hammersmith he went to New College, Oxford, where he studied experimental psychology, while many of his 80s TV contemporaries – Rhys Jones, Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie – were finessing their skills in the well-established comedy nursery of Cambridge Footlights.
As a member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, Smith honed his theatrical and comedy prowess with a production of The Tempest in Oxford and shows at the Edinburgh fringe. After graduation he worked in 1973 at the Royal Court theatre in London, as assistant director, and at the Bristol Old Vic, before becoming assistant director at the Sheffield Crucible in 1975. At one stage, he thought of ditching theatre to become a bookmaker in his family's shop.
His breakthrough came when he and the producer and comedy writer John Lloyd collaborated on Not the Nine O'Clock News for BBC TV. The sketch show, which ran for four series from 1979 to 1982, starred Smith alongside Pamela Stephenson (now Pamela Stephenson Connolly), Atkinson, Rhys Jones and Chris Langham. Conceived originally as a topical news-based satire, it was broadcast at 9pm weekly on BBC2 against the actual nine o'clock news over on BBC1.
The series was a child of Margaret Thatcher's recent electoral triumph: in one sketch, a mock Conservative party political broadcast, Smith stripped to his pants and climbed into an overflowing bath to clinch the point made by the snooty party hack in a voiceover (performed by Atkinson) that under Labour, British industry had become flabby. It concluded with Atkinson attacking Smith with a chainsaw to cut off his arms and legs, so he could be leaner and better able to compete in the global marketplace.
But the show was not merely political (the lorry-driver-indicting I Like Trucking song proves that point). Rather, as the pop-culture historian Mark Lewisohn has argued, Smith's first TV success "largely created modern alternative comedy".
Smith found himself suddenly famous. "One minute you're doing a TV show that no one is watching, and then everyone is. That was the biggest change in direction," he told the Guardian in 2007. He resented the resultant intrusion into his private life, though in the same interview noted that Not the Nine O'Clock News was no longer fashionable: "I have a feeling that we are regarded as being out of fashion, but that doesn't bother me a great deal … That's the story of the world."
In 1981, Smith and Rhys Jones founded Talkback, which they sold to Pearson in 2000 for £62m. "Talkback gave me the confidence to direct, so it was a short leap to the cinema," he said. His first film, The Tall Guy, was also Thompson's movie debut. Bean, made for a budget of $18m, took about $250m at the box office worldwide. In between those two films he directed Radioland Murders (1994) under the guidance of Star Wars' creator George Lucas. "The film was a disaster," recalled Smith. "George doesn't understand comedy, so the movie flopped." Smith, though, did understand comedy – at least, British TV comedy. As Lloyd said: "Mel did an extraordinary thing – he taught us all how to make comedy natural."
After Not the Nine O'Clock News, Smith and Rhys Jones became a renowned double act. The pairing resembled Abbott and Costello, with the twist that it was not clear who was more stupid. Between 1984 and 1998 they did 10 series together, first under the title Alas Smith and Jones. TV viewers became familiar with Smith's profile, his lower jaw jutting forward in bulldog surliness, as the two men discussed many subjects, though rarely with insight. In one memorable sketch Smith simulated a faked orgasm in the manner of Meg Ryan while Rhys Jones looked on, unedified.
"We did 10 series together and that was enough," said Smith. "There was no row. We do see each other, but only occasionally. He is always either climbing a mountain or crossing a river, and since I enjoy neither, I'm a bit of a hindrance.'
The pair bought the rights to Neil Simon's The Odd Couple for a mooted West End stage production together. It never happened – a shame, perhaps, since Smith would have excelled as the slob Oscar with Jones as the prissy Felix (unless, counter-intuitively, they intended to play it the other way round). Another sadly unrealised project was Smith's libretto for a musical on the life of Barbara Cartland entitled Romance and Vitamins.
In 1999, Smith was hospitalised after suffering from stomach ulcers. He had been taking more than 50 Nurofen Plus tablets a day. "I'd been swallowing them like Smarties and they ate into my insides," he told one interviewer. "They just helped me relax. But I felt so bad I wouldn't get out of bed until lunchtime."
As an actor, Smith was most memorable on screen in The Princess Bride (1987) and Brain Donors (1992), and was ideally cast as Sir Toby Belch in Trevor Nunn's 1996 film of Twelfth Night. On TV, he starred in Colin's Sandwich (1988-90), a sitcom about a British Rail worker with writing aspirations; Hustle (2006); and John Sullivan's prequel to Only Fools and Horses, Rock and Chips (2010-11).
In 1988 he married Pamela Gay-Rees, a former model. She and their daughter, Alexandra, survive him.