A HEADY COMBINATION

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

EYE TEST

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

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