Working on the bit in the middle: Despite a string of solo affairs, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones remain faithful to their double act. Jim White watched them rehearse

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Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith were wrestling with a critical comedy problem. They had abandoned rehearsals for a sketch pastiching The Silence of the Lambs and Rhys Jones was pacing the room, leading with the chin, arms wind-milling, ideas spewing forth.

'I think the best thing,' he said, miming the action of opening a door, 'is to put a false cupboard behind the desk. Here. Yes, here. Yes, yes that would do it.'

Mel Smith was sitting with his feet up on the table reading the racing results, a large Havana wedged into his mouth. 'Do you know what we are discussing here?' he said, pulling a squashed tomato face and making a sarcastic smacking sound with his lips. 'How do we get a pantomime cow on set. Jeez, the rigours of satire.'

This month (22 October) sees the start of the eighth series of the pair's television show, called simply Smith and Jones. (The Alas has long gone from the title: it disappeared when they made the switch from BBC2 to BBC1, perhaps because it was feared the mainstream audience wouldn't get the pun.) Nine years on from their first televisual appearance as a double act they have become famous polymaths. When Rhys Jones popped out of rehearsals for lunch (Smith spent his break in a nearby editing suite), a queue of nice middle-aged women crocodiled from his table asking for autographs or photos.

'You were simply marvellous as Toad,' they said. Or 'Can I say your production of Twelfth Night was the best I've seen for ages?' Or 'I've already booked my tickets for your live show at the Dominion.'

But despite the radio commercials, the straight parts, the forays into film and theatre directing, the pair's first love is the television series which upped their voltage from the lesser lights on Not the Nine O'Clock News into mega-watt stars. And they expend considerable effort on it. Pantomime cows after all, cannot just appear on set; they must enter from somewhere.

'We have to retain an element of reality here,' said Rhys Jones. 'Ah yes,' spluttered Smith ironically. 'I completely forgot the element of reality.' 'Also, very importantly' said Rhys Jones, 'doing it this way gives me an extra line.'

As they had been for much of the summer and early autumn, the pair were rehearsing in a central London YWCA. They used to rehearse at the BBC's studios in Acton. But as their other business activities were centrally located, it became something of a chore disappearing westwards to the corporate headquarters. Now that they produce the show themselves, independently, they can go where they like.

Doing what they like is very much the Smith and Jones way. There was a scurry of script-writers, script editors and producers in their rehearsal room, but it was Smith and Jones who made the decisions.

'Now has everyone got a pencil?' Rhys Jones said in schoolmasterly tones to the assembled team after a run-through of a sketch. 'Good, right. Let's cut the colonic irrigation gag here. Every comic in Edinburgh had one of those.'

'And very clean they felt afterwards,' said Smith, who was generally more caustic in his assessments. 'I'll lay you three to one this bugger doesn't make the cut,' he added. 'Catch it now while you can.'

Since the pair worry at their scripts to the point of neurosis, it is an odd thing that some of the material that has made its way on screen in the past has been below par. True, they can turn in a sketch to match Morecambe and Wise or a song (they are very strong on songs) that out-Ronnies the Two Ronnies. But their miss rate is surprising for two such naturally funny men. It is something that concerns Rhys Jones.

'10 per cent of what you do is bonzer stuff,' he explained. '10 per cent is boffo and it's the bit in the middle you desperately try to improve on. Where someone like Harry (Enfield) scores over us is that, if he has duff stuff, he has those brilliant characters, so he can get away with it. People know they should be laughing because they have laughed at those characters before. Whereas we don't have any trade-marks, apart from the head-to-head.'

The head-to-head, when the pair struggle intimately and gormlessly with everyday concepts, is some trade-mark. Last Sunday it became, officially, a national institution: Spitting Image cast John Smith and Gordon Brown as the clueless duo, failing to understand the ERM.

'People say we pinched the idea off Pete and Dud. Funnily enough, that's not true at all,' revealed Rhys Jones. 'We pinched it off two Americans called Dick and Burt who used to do radio commercials.'

The invention was, Rhys Jones always thought, purely a televisual vehicle. Then they tried it out on stage. 'It was extraordinary that one raised eyebrow or nod of the head could raise a laugh at the back of a 2,000 seat hall,' he said. Now they can perform 45 minutes of head-to-headery in their live act and still have the audience baying for more. But that does not satisfy Rhys Jones.

'We need new material in a format in which we feel secure,' he confessed. 'When you are a sketch show you live and die by the sketch, you have no system to fall back on. So I'm looking for new systems in which we can work.'

One idea he is developing for the new series is two characters he calls, imaginatively enough, Mel and Griff.

'The head-to-head is a very specific form of reference - working class, south London,' he explained. 'Mel and Griff is in a wider context. It's about people's lives dominated by trivia, finding ways to fill in time. Filling time is quintessential to Hancock, Steptoe, The Young Ones. We are trying to produce a series of sketches about trivia.'

Rhys Jones is particularly keen to remove the pair's reliance on what he calls 'Come in Mr Perkins' sketches.

'You know the sort,' he said. 'When someone is sitting in a room and says 'come in Mr Perkins' and then there's a long list of gags. The Constable Savage sketch that Rowan and I used to do was basically a Come in Mr Perkins. In fact, I think the first line was 'Come in Constable Savage.'

'The funny thing about a double act is that you are constantly looking for a raison d'etre. There's no point in two of you being there if all you are doing is telling a series of gags. One person can do that.'

At their best, usually in the head-to-head, Jones reckons the pair are 'almost in Dalton and Simpson territory; there's a naked dependency in the relationship. It's something we're trying to achieve in other parts of the show. I think we're getting there.'

In the meantime, back at the YWCA, rehearsals were about to begin on a Mel-and- Griff sketch involving massage. Griff has cricked his neck and Mel is offering instant relief. As usual a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

'Ooh your shoulders are like, are like,' said Smith, addressing Rhys Jones's back. 'Something funny, think of some funny line. Your shoulders are like . . . It screams out for a funny line here and we haven't got one.'

One of the script-writing team on hand suggested that the shoulders could look like the outside of the Pompidou Centre. Rhys Jones loved the allusion.

'Yes, yes. I can see it. Your shoulders look like the outside of the Pompidou Centre, yes, yes. Brilliant, brilliant. Ha ha,' he shouted in excitement, before fading rapidly. 'But would they understand it? I don't think they would. How about a bag of boiled sweets? No, no, we need a brand name. Brand names are funnier. Anyone know one? Phone Alan Bennett, he'd know a funny brand name.'

Smith clicked his lips and pulled another squidgy face.

'It's a pragmatist's business, comedy,' he said. 'Start off with good intentions and references to the Pompidou Centre and you end up with boiled sweets and a pantomime cow.'

(Photograph omitted)