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Mel Smith

There was a time during the 1970s when a young man spent a few years at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, developing his talents before moving on to bigger things.

This review appeared in The Stage in October 1975: –

“There is no doubt about the entertainment value of Rex Doyle’s musical documentary The Great Sheffield Flood, given its premiere at the Crucible Studio. The songs by Rodney Natkiel cover a wide range of styles – from a pastiche patter song to romantic ballads to a more contemporary folk sound – and there is a bit of comedy, a bit of drama, and in Mel Smith’s production a great deal of pace to keep the pot boiling throughout.”

The Mel Smith in question was THE comedian Mel Smith (1952-2013), who, is now largely forgotten for his role as an associate director at the Crucible during the seventies.

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.

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 arriving at the Sheffield Crucible in 1975.

And it seems he had some expertise with pantomime, contributing to Cinderella in 1976, and writing and directing Jack and the Beanstalk in 1977.

“This new version is without doubt the most original and witty pantomime I have seen this year,” wrote Paul Allen in The Stage. “This Jack is a would-be pop singer with a group that desperately needs new equipment; the good fairy, a New York Jew who turns herself into an agent to help him get the necessary cash; the villainous demon a punk rocker who was never really understood as a child.”

In 1979, he tackled musical theatre with Salad Days, written in 1954 by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds.

“The audience has a collective sigh of relief they appear to be having at being confronted with a piece of theatre their rose-tinted memories tell them the way it used to be 25 years ago,” wrote The Stage, “Mel Smith’s production doesn’t quite send it up, but I doubt if anyone would have noticed if it did.”

And Salad Days was perhaps a sign of things to come.

“The production has toy props; doll’s house sets and the kind of costumes which look as though someone has stumbled on a fifties theatrical skip. The choreography is all jolly-hockey-sticks prancing, the music is sweet and decorative, and it is stuffed with gags.”

In September 1979, Paul Allen’s review of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus, directed by Smith, was described as funny if not entirely successful.

“There is perhaps more weight and drive to Habeas Corpus than the production is prepared to allow; a readiness to slip into an over-jokey revue style doesn’t help Bennett’s acute verbal dexterity and it often obstructs the play’s speed of thought and action.”

I suspect Mel Smith’s kind of humour was ahead of its time, and he had other projects in mind.

Having performed with the Oxford Footlights at the Edinburgh fringe festival, he met John Lloyd who invited him to join Not the Nine O’Clock News with Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, and Griff Rhys Jones, as well as Chris Langham in the first series. It ran from 1979 to 1982 and was conceived originally as a topical news-based satire, broadcast at 9pm weekly on BBC2 against the actual nine o’clock news over on BBC1.

Smith and Griff Rhys Jones continued from that TV sketch show to create Alas Smith and Jones. The pair later formed Talkback Productions which was responsible for dozens of comedies shows, including Da Ali G Show and I’m Alan Partridge. The company was sold to Pearson for £62million in 2000.

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 (1988-1990), 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 (2010-2011).

Mel Smith died in 2013 of a heart attack, aged 60.