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Norbert Smith: A Life (1989)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Norbert Smith: A Life (1989)
Hat Trick Productions for Channel Four, tx. 3/11/1989
52 mins, colour
DirectorGeoff Posner
 Channel Four
ProducerGeoff Perkins
ScriptHarry Enfield
 Geoff Perkins

Cast: Harry Enfield (Sir Norbert Smith); Melvyn Bragg (himself); Stuart Harwood (Wilkinson); Peter Goodwright (Will Silly); George Raistrick (Melvyn Merry); Renée Asherson (Lady Norbert)

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Melvyn Bragg interviews the distinguished British actor, Sir Norbert Smith, in the week of his 80th birthday, looking back at his illustrious career.

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In the late 1980s, Harry Enfield's reputation stemmed mainly from his stand-up appearances as Stavros and Loadsamoney on Channel 4's Saturday Live / Friday Night Live (1985-88), so it was an ambitious leap to make an hour-long spoof documentary satirising the television arts biography in the style of ITV's The South Bank Show (1978-) and sending up British cinema throughout the ages. Appropriately, Melvyn Bragg interviews the ageing Sir Norbert, exploring his long, wide-ranging career through a selection of clips and conversations with contemporaries.

The parodic film excerpts provide much of the finest comedy, allowing Enfield to experiment in a variety of roles alongside an extensive supporting cast. Famous actors and productions are gently lampooned, with takeoffs ranging from Oh, Mr Porter! (d. Marcel Varnel, 1937), to Brief Encounter (d. David Lean, 1945) (transformed into a Sudso washing powder commercial), Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) (Noël Coward style), and the Carry On series (featuring cameos from Barbara Windsor, Jack Douglas and Kenneth Connor).

In addition to the more explicit caricatures, there are a host of more generic imitations: a public information film sees a plummy voiced Norbert - seemingly an early prototype of Enfield's Mr Cholmondeley-Warner, later to appear in his BBC series - explaining that venereal disease is caused by 'sordid frightfulness... and by ghastly horridness'; British westerns, such as They Called Him Stranger, feature Norbert instructing his horse to trot on, before riding into the distance over a series of show-jump hurdles; It's Grim Up North ridicules the unremitting miserablism of 1960s social realism; and the WWII epic, Dogs of Death, finds Norbert joining an all-star cast, including Richard Smashed, Dick Booze, Oliver Guinness, and Peter O'Pissed, collectively drinking their way through the film's budget.

The ageing Sir Norbert bears an uncanny resemblance to Laurence Olivier - as interviewed by Bragg in The South Bank Show's 'Laurence Olivier - A Life' (tx. 17/10/1982). Enfield insisted that the character lampooned a type, rather than any specific British actor (in fact the character seems an amalgam of Olivier and fellow knights John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness). But since Olivier had died earlier that year, some of the humour may have seemed in poor taste. In truth, however, Enfield's gentle satire lacks the venomous bite of, say, Spitting Image (ITV, 1984-96), on which he and co-writer Geoffrey Perkins both worked.

David Morrison

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Video Clips
1. Oh, Mr. Bankrobber! (4:31)
2. Sordid frightfulness (1:33)
3. Hamlet (1:30)
4. I'll never forget my Sudso (1:45)
5. They called him stranger (2:28)
Enfield, Harry (1961-)