Griff Rhys Jones talks about his shock at the news of his former comedy partner's death from a heart attack at home
Mel Smith, the British comedian, writer, actor, producer and film director, known for his long and popular television partnership with Griff Rhys Jones, died on Friday at the age of 60. He suffered a heart attack at his London home.
Smith's deadpan style, along with his lugubrious manner and large build, quickly established him as one of the country's favourite television performers in the early 1980s.
Jones, his friend for 35 years, said he had lost "a gentleman and a scholar, a gambler and a wit" and that he was in a state of shock. "I still can't believe this has happened. To everybody who ever met him, Mel was a force for life. He had a relish for it that seemed utterly inexhaustible.
"He inspired love and utter loyalty and he gave it in return. I will look back on the days working with him as some of the funniest times that I have ever spent. We probably enjoyed ourselves far too much, but we had a rollercoaster of a ride along the way."
Jones said that Smith was a brilliant actor who had never taken himself or showbusiness too seriously. The comedy partners had never argued about their roles or lines. "We never had an argument, in fact," he added. "We loved performing together. He was a very generous and supportive actor."
Smith was described as having "extraordinary natural talent" by Peter Fincham, director of television at ITV, who was a business partner of Smith and Jones at their former television production company Talkback Productions. "Life was always exciting around Mel. Mel and Griff were one of the great comedy acts and it's hard to imagine that one of them is no longer with us."
Born and raised in Chiswick, west London, Smith was one of the original members of the Not the Nine O'Clock News comedy programme, the sketch show that ran on BBC2 from 1979 to 1982 and made the names of fellow cast members Jones, Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson and Chris Langham.
He and Jones later scripted a series of face-to-face dialogues in the character of two bar-room pals that became one of their trademark acts. Jones played the slightly more intellectually challenged of the pair, while Smith's anger and frustration typically mounted to explosive levels during their regular exchanges on their BBC1 show Alas Smith and Jones, (its title a pun on the name of the American western series Alias Smith and Jones), a comedy fixture in the 1980s. The series Smith and Jonesfollowed in 1989.
Last seen on television this year in Steven Poliakoff's BBC2 drama serialDancing on the Edge, Smith had been suffering from ill health for some time, according to friends, having previously had an addiction to prescription painkillers. He died in his sleep at his home in St John's Wood, his agent Michael Foster announced yesterday on behalf of Smith's wife, Pam.
The son of the owner of Chiswick's first bookmakers, Melvin Kenneth Smith grew up above a chip shop and was a pupil at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith. He developed a love of the stage and comedy while studying at New College, Oxford, and performed at the Edinburgh fringe with the university dramatic society. Competing for audiences with the Cambridge Footlights one year in the city, he met director John Lloyd, who was later to ask Smith to join the young cast of a new satirical television show, to become Not the Nine O'Clock News.
This weekend Lloyd told Sky News of his sorrow at the death of an "amazingly talented" man. "We did know he was ill," said Lloyd, creator of QI. "So although it is the most awful news – I mean, it's a tragedy, it's a great loss not just as an amazingly talented guy in all sorts of areas but also as a friend – I think he was not in good shape, so in some ways we try and put a good spin on it by saying it's a relief for him."
Smith appeared on television screens in a comedy duo with Bob Goody, but it was as one half of Smith and Jones that he became pivotal to the BBC's light entertainment output. In 1981, Smith and Griff Rhys Jones founded TalkBack Productions, a company that has produced many of the most significant British comedy shows of the past two decades, including Smack the Pony, Da Ali G Show and I'm Alan Partridge.
In 1989 Smith starred in a ITV adaptation of Tom Sharpe's novel Wilt, having played the lead in the space comedy film Morons from Outer Space, which he co-wrote with Jones. He starred as property dealer Tom Craig in ITV's drama Muck and Brass and played the title role in the sitcom Colin's Sandwich.
In America he was best known for his role in the film comedy Brain Donors, a 1992 update of the Marx Brothers classic A Night at the Opera, which starred Smith as a cheeky cab driver. He fulfilled an ambition to direct films with his hit British comedy The Tall Guy, scripted by Richard Curtis and starring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson. He went on to direct Atkinson in the lucrative film Bean in 1997.
Seven years ago Smith returned to the stage after some 20 years, appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in Allegiance, Irish journalist and author Mary Kenny's controversial play about Churchill's encounter with the Irish nationalist leader Michael Collins in 1921. In the autumn of the same year he starred in a tour of his own adaptation of the comedyAn Hour and a Half Late by French playwright Gérald Sibleyras. He then directed a West End revival of Charley's Aunt starring Stephen Tompkinson and from October 2007 to January 2008 played Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre. One of the least likely of Smith's many achievements was his cover version of Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, made with Kim Wilde for Comic Relief in 1987. It reached No 3 in the charts.