Alas Smith: on set with the late Mel Smith

21 Jul

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Sorry to hear of the death of Mel Smith, from a heart attack aged 60. His head-to-head dialogues with Griff Rhys Jones on the BBC’s Alas Smith And Jones (above) were must-see viewing when I was young, and the company they co-founded – Talkback – changed the face of TV comedy with series including I’m Alan Partridge, Da Ali G Show and Smack The Pony.

As a film director Mel Smith had mixed success. I went on set of The Tall Guy, his 1989 directorial debut, which was also Richard Curtis’s first produced screenplay, though in Mel’s hands it did not achieve quite the success that Four Weddings later would (“uninhibited by finesse”, was Time Out’s verdict of The Tall Guy). He seemed somewhat at sea.

Jeff Goldblum, uncontrollable and fizzing with nervous energy, gave a wildly different performance and line reading with every take, regardless of whether it was being redone for dramatic or purely technical reasons. And I could be wrong, but I thought I detected a hint of superciliousness towards Mel on the part of the crew, crowded into the sitting room of a north London house. When Mel asked for a shot to be set up just so, the cameraman said words to the effect of “Interesting idea. To have the mike visible in frame.” Instead of confessing to an error, Mel blustered that yes, he thought he would just try a take like that…

He went on to make several more comedy features, equally uninhibited by finesse but with some great moments: Radioland Murders, Bean, High Heels And Low Lifes, and Blackball. One of them at least was a huge box-office success.

Mel Smith was clearly much loved by his peers. As Griff Rhys Jones said yesterday, ““He was a gentleman and a scholar, a gambler and a wit. We are all in a state of shock. We have lost a very, very dear friend.”

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