I only seem to write this blog these days when somebody dies. But the death of Mel Smith, which was announced today, has pulled me up a bit short. I think Smith is one of the finest comedy actors this country has ever produced, and he never got enough credit.
When I was about eight or nine my mum used to let me stay up late to watch certain BBC2 comedy shows. I can very clearly remember her allowing me to stay up to watch the very last episode of Fawlty Towers (somehow we all knew it was to be the last ever), and a couple of years later I was given an 'up late pass' to watch a hot new comedy series called Not the Nine O'Clock News. I don't know why I was encouraged by my mother to watch these things, perhaps she wanted to pass her love of comedy on to me and my sisters, but I'm so grateful that she did as I can very clearly remember watching the very first episode of The Young Ones on the night of its first broadcast. We thought Kevin Turvey was a real person until he turned up as Rick in The Young Ones.
Anyhow, Not the Nine O'clock News was something special, it was 'Mum-approved'. Sketch shows in those days were things like The Two Ronnies playing on words that were a bit rude (at which Dad laughed like a drain, even though I didn't get the joke. Too young, you see?), or going to drinks parties which was a totally alien world to us. NTNON on the other hand was fast, 'you don't like this sketch, well there's another coming along in a minute', it was a bit rude, it took the mickey out of people we'd seen on Top of the Pops, it took the mickey out of boring politicians, it took the mickey out of Prince Charles, it had comedy songs that were actually funny, it contained some of the greatest sketches ever broadcast on television. and the man who stood head and shoulders over everyone else on that show was Mel Smith.
And it's easy to see why, from the Oxford University Dramatic Society he went on to work for The Royal Court, The Bristol Old Vic and the Crucible in Sheffield. I don't know much about theatre but I do know that there's three top notch theatres he worked for. He could turn his hand to anything from Shakespeare to the know-all-but-know-nothing slob foil to Griff Rhys Jones in Alas Smith and Jones's famous head-head sketches. He could do sitcom in the much underrated Colin's Sandwich, he could do kids stuff in the guise of a long-forgotten show he made with Bob Goody and his pitch perfect performance as the voice of Father Christmas in the cartoon adaptation of the Raymond Briggs book. He could not only star in (Morons from Outer Space was rubbish but his performance as a detective who arrests himself in Wilt is pure brilliance) but direct films like The Tall Guy and Bean (one of the most successful British films ever made, regardless of your opinion on Mr Bean).
And he was clearly great when helping to spot new comedy talent (Paul Merton, John O'Farrell and Linehan & Mathews all had early work accepted for Alas Smith and Jones). The production company he set up with Rhys Jones, Talkback, was responsible for The Day Today, Big Train, all manner of Steve Coogan stuff, Smack the Pony etc etc.
But it seems the best people die early. I think it came as a shock to most people to see the state he was in when he appeared on Celebrity Mastermind over the 2008 Christmas holidays. His former producer John Lloyd has today said: "We did know he was ill. He's been ill for some time. So although it is the most awful news - I mean, it's a tragedy, it's a great loss...I think he was not in good shape"
So thanks for the laughs, Mel. Sleep well, sir.
And finally, my own favourite. This is what Not the Nine O'clock News was about, especially as Ronnie Barker hated it: