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Smith, Mel (1952-2013)

Comedian, Actor, Writer, Director

Main image of Smith, Mel (1952-2013)

First coming to prominence on Not the Nine O'Clock News (BBC, 1979-82), Mel Smith cemented his reputation as a top comedy performer with his long-standing partnership with Griff Rhys Jones, while also directing numerous big-screen comedies including the international hit Bean - The Ultimate Disaster Movie (1997).

The son of a Chiswick bookie, Smith was already directing plays at six years old, when he staged 'Little Plays for Little People' with his friends. He read experimental psychology at New College, Oxford, choosing the university because he wanted to be involved with its Dramatic Society.. He became its president, and in his third year he sacrificed his degree to direct numerous productions at the Oxford Playhouse and the Edinburgh Festival. He then worked as an assistant director to Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court, moving onto the Bristol Old Vic and Sheffield Crucible.

After seeing Smith performing at the Edinburgh Festival, television producer John Lloyd invited him to join the Not the Nine O'Clock News team. While this was running, he wrote and performed (with Bob Goody) the children's sketch series Smith and Goody (ITV, 1980) and the stage production The Gambler. Before each performance they tossed coins with members of the audience for a refund of their ticket.

After the demise of Not the Nine O'Clock News, Smith continued to work with Griff Rhys Jones for their sketch series Alas Smith and Jones (BBC, 1984-88). Their personas complemented each other perfectly, especially in the 'head to head' conversations between a know-it-all Smith and a bemused Jones. They formed their own production company, Talkback, making commercials and training films and producing television series for themselves (Smith and Jones in Small Doses, BBC, 1989; Smith and Jones, BBC, 1989-98) and others (Knowing Me Knowing You, BBC, 1994; Da Ali G Show, Channel 4, 2000).

Smith is a life-long admirer of Tony Hancock, and Colin's Sandwich (BBC, 1988-90) cast him as the Hancock-like British Rail complaints clerk Colin Watkins, who aspires to be a horror writer. Smith's vocal talents can be heard every Christmas in the title role of Raymond Briggs' animated Father Christmas (Channel 4, 1991), which also allowed him to showcase his singing voice with the song 'Another Bloomin' Christmas'. No stranger to singing, in 1981 he released the single 'Mel Smith's Greatest Hits' and, with Kim Wilde, the top five hit for 1987's Comic Relief, 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree'.

He has also played serious roles with surprising success, starting with a minor part as a bouncer in Bloody Kids (ITV, 1979) and then leads as the aspiring property developer in the gritty drama series Muck and Brass (ITV, 1982) and as a solicitor in the title role of Milner (BBC, tx 19/12/94). On the big screen, he made his debut in Babylon (d. Franco Rosso, 1980) and went on to play the Albino in The Princess Bride (US, 1987) and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night (d. Trevor Nunn, 1996) as well as two co-starring roles with Griff Rhys Jones, Morons from Outer Space (d. Mike Hodges, 1985) and Wilt (d. Michael Tuchner, 1989).

His career shifted gear in 1989 with his cinema directorial debut, the well-received Richard Curtis-scripted romantic comedy The Tall Guy. The film caught the attention of George Lucas, who hired Smith to direct the lacklustre noir-infused Radioland Murders (US, 1994). His next film project was far more successful, as he directed his former Not the Nine O'Clock News colleague Rowan Atkinson in Bean -The Ultimate Disaster Movie.

The sale of Talkback in 2000 netted him a considerable profit and he has continued to direct features, though neither the comedy thriller High Heels and Low Lifes (2001) and the crown green bowling comedy, Blackball (2003) matched the success of his earlier work. He has since returned to performing; as Winston Churchill in Allegiance (d. Brian Gilbert, 2005), in an episode of Hustle (BBC, 2004 - ), and a new collection of 'head to head' conversations in The Smith and Jones Sketchbook (BBC, 2006).

Graham Rinaldi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Babylon (1980)Babylon (1980)

The trials and tribulations of a young West Indian rapper

Thumbnail image of Bloody Kids (1980)Bloody Kids (1980)

Stunning Stephen Frears/Poliakoff drama about a prank gone wrong

Thumbnail image of Not the Nine O'Clock News (1979-82)Not the Nine O'Clock News (1979-82)

Satirical sketch show that paved the way for a new comedy generation

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Atkinson, Rowan (1955-)Atkinson, Rowan (1955-)

Actor, Writer

Thumbnail image of Rhys Jones, Griff (1953-)Rhys Jones, Griff (1953-)

Actor, Writer, Presenter