Mel Smith stubs out plan to defy Scottish smoking ban

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The actor Mel Smith avoided a confrontation with Scotland's legal system yesterday when he backed down from smoking on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

The veteran comedian, who is playing Winston Churchill in a show at the Fringe, had vowed to flout Scotland's smoking ban in public places, introduced in March.

Under the legislation, anyone smoking in an enclosed space, including theatres, sports venues and bus shelters, faces a £50 fine. The owners of premises can be fined up to £2,000 and lose their licences if they continue to permit the flouting of the ban.

Smith, who with his former comic partner Griff Rhys Jones was a member of the satirical Not The Nine O'Clock News team in the 1980s, had said he would flout the law in the interest of historical accuracy.

Smith, an enthusiastic cigar smoker off-stage, went so far as to suggest that the Scottish Parliament's ban on smoking would have delighted Churchill's arch-enemy, Adolf Hitler.

Appearing in the play, Allegiance, directed by Brian Gilbert, which is inspired by the visit of the Irish independence leader Michael Collins to London in 1921, the actor said he had no intention of rewriting history or using a fake cigar to portray Britain's wartime prime minister.

Less than 24 hours before the show opened at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh yesterday, Smith was photographed puffing on a Havana cigar at the theatre in defiance of the legislation.

However, a threat from Edinburgh's environmental officers responsible for enforcing the ban that the venue could lose its entertainment licence appears to have changed his mind at the last moment. He went to light the cigar but stopped short of actually setting it alight yesterday morning in the first performance of the play.

"We had a visit from the chief environmental officer this morning who said he would shut the venue," said William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director at the Assembly Rooms. "During the scene, Mel got the cigar and a lighter out, but then he put them down to the side," said the director, who said it had been made clear that he would be held liable if a performer smoked and would face a large fine and the loss of his licence.

Mr Burdett-Coutts, who admits to being very angry over the interference of legislation over artistic expression, said the ban in theatres was ridiculous. "I think it's absurd. In the context of an international festival like this, it's crazy," he said. "It's integral to the part of Churchill and it doesn't affect other people - it's just absurd."

Smith had given him no assurances before the show, he said. "I am very glad Mel didn't smoke although one cheeky part of me would have loved to have seen him do it."

Several other Fringe producers have hinted they also intend to flout the ban, even though the Scottish Executive has said that while "realistic alternatives" could be used for the purposes of theatre shows, there was no need to relax the ban.

"The smoking legislation aims to protect the public from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke," said a Scottish Executive spokesman. "This applies equally to actors, performers and theatrical audiences, as it does to other workers and members of the public."

Sheila Rait, a member of the audience, said: "It really didn't matter that he didn't light up. It didn't spoil the play for me."

Smith took a puff out of a theatre window after the show instead.