Comedian MEL SMITH talks with James Rampton

Mel Smith and his double-act partner Griff Rhys Jones have had a street-cred bypass - and they are the first to admit it. "I don't expect critics to say anything nice about us," Smith sighs. "We gave up having good reviews a long time ago. We've never been at the cutting edge. Even at the time of Not the Nine O'Clock News, we were called has-beens. We've never been fashionable - which is good. We've never been dangerous or anarchic enough for the press, and we've never been attractive to journo-hype. To the critics, we've always appeared to be a sad act. Actually, we're rather happy."

They certainly have cause to be. Now on their fifth BBC1 series as a double act since the demise of Not the Nine O'Clock News, the duo continue to pull in the kind of ratings that leave critics with large quantities of ovarious matter on their features.

Impervious to the hail of critical darts that have rained down on them, Smith and Jones have proved defiantly, enduringly popular.

Their double-act schtick - Smith the louche wastrel, Jones the anal neurotic - has the easy confidence that only two decades of familiarity can bring. In a darkened suite at Twickenham Studios, Smith takes a break from shouting things like "Can you plumb in the ADR background noise?" at the final sound-edit of Dr Bean, the big-budget movie he is directing.

"Young and trendy is not what we're about," declares Smith, lighting up a chunky cigar. "I used to mind, but now it's OK. I feel secure with what we do. If you spend too much time worrying about what other people think of you, you go crazy."

Jon Magnusson, the producer of Smith and Jones, reckons that Smith's great skill is just this sort of unflappability. "He does everything with great ease. He just puts on a little moustache and becomes a funny character. He can jump out of his trailer having just been watching the racing and smoking a cigar and immediately be in character and do it right."

Simplicity lies at the root of Smith and Jones's longevity - you couldn't, after all, get much more simple than the premise of their head-to-heads: two men in white shirts talk face-to-face against a black background. "It's a marvellously simple form," Smith agrees. "They're just two different versions of stupidity. One is genuine and the other is larded over, but basically it's just two dumb people talking to each other. It's as old- fashioned as you like. It's also an opportunity to develop overwrought moments of emotion. This is going to sound like bollocks, but at its best there's a requirement that they talk. It's not just about doing jokes. You've got to make it seem to matter."

So where does it come from, this back-to-basics mentality? "We're great admirers of the simplicity of Tommy Cooper's world," Smith reflects. "Griff used to produce Frankie Howerd. Our show has nothing to do with `attitude'."

That means they also run a mile from anything party-political. "Our comedy is timeless," Smith asserts, "It's not topical or satirical. It doesn't come with a view about life that you have to share ironically. It doesn't have any personality other than a vulnerability to comic things. It's nice to be able to embrace something like Vic and Bob hitting each other with frying-pans. There's a joy to that. Even on Not the Nine O'Clock News, we were contemporary rather than topical. Griff and I have kept that up. A red warning light goes on if satire ever crops up. It always looks so much cleverer than it actually is - unless you're Peter Cook. It may be a good way in to stand-up, to take a newspaper and do jokes from it. But we steer clear of that because it gets in the way of comedy."

From the music-hall through Morecambe and Wise, Pete and Dud and the Two Ronnies, the British have a great tradition of double-acts which Smith hopes he and Jones are continuing. "A double-act is a natural comic dynamic," he explains. "You've always got someone you can get a cheap laugh at the expense of. It can be as blunt as Griff making a joke that alludes to me being bald and fat - which is fair game. At the lowest level it's the `insult the other one' routine. Then it's various gradations upwards. Comically, you've always got somewhere else to go."

After a two-year break, Smith and Jones have returned to their BBC1 sketch- show with renewed vigour. "Having two separated lives plays a very valuable part in keeping the whole thing going," Smith muses. "Despite the scheduling difficulties, I was able to come back to the series with a lot of enthusiasm. Griff's been winning awards as the funniest man in the West End, and I've been making a film for George Lucas [Radioland Murders] which is literally a turkey. It's nice to get back together and pal around a bit."

At the age of 44, Smith still has the air of a naughty schoolboy at the back of the classroom trying desperately hard not to laugh at the teacher. "In the new series we did this fairground sketch and we were both corpsing," Smith recalls. "Griff was doing his anorak, and I was doing my wide boy in a wig. I was looking at him thinking, `I can't believe you're still doing your anorak,' and he was looking at me thinking, `I can't believe you're still wearing that wig'.We're being paid to have a load of fun just poncing about"

The new series of `Smith and Jones' starts on Thursday at 10pm on BBC1


1950: Born in London

1970s: Studied experimental psychology at Oxford, before taking up post as assistant director at the Royal Court. Went on to be associate director at the Young Vic and the Crucible, Sheffield

1970s-1990s: Theatre: Appeared in: Charlie's Aunt, Big in Brazil and Summer with Monica. Also co-wrote and directed The Gambler. "What I do best is directing," Smith claims. "I'm good with actors, I'm a good motivator, and I'm quite good at the lateral thinking that's required to get on top of the script."

TV: Appeared in: Not the Nine O'Clock News; Alas Smith and Jones (became Smith and Jones); Minder; Muck and Brass; Colin's Sandwich; Milner. "I'm quite grounded as a performer," Smith comments. "I'm not uncomfortable just standing there. You're always acting, but it's a question of just being relaxed and hoping things will happen."

Film: Appeared in Twelfth Night; Lame Ducks; Wilt; Morons from Outer Space; Slayground; Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Restless Natives; Number One; Bullshot; National Lampoon's Vacation II; Bloody Kids. Also directed The Tall Guy and Radioland Murders. He is currently putting the finishing touches to Dr Bean

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence