Watching the glorious anarchy of Not The Nine O’Clock News as a child, I would never have guessed that Mel Smith would turn out to be the quiet one. Rowan Atkinson went off to become Blackadder, Pamela Stephenson to Strictly (via a Psychology doctorate), and Griff Rhys Jones became one of those people who lurks around BBC2 much of the time, near a boat.
But Mel Smith was something different. He was one of the first truly naturalistic sketch performers: watch him playing it straight in 1980 opposite Gerald the Gorilla (played by Atkinson). The premise is ludicrous, but Smith performs it with exactly the same seriousness he brought to Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing On The Edge, earlier this year. He changed the way sketch comedy could be performed.
It hasn’t been the same since.
At the same time, he carved out an impressive directorial career. Bean might not be to everyone’s taste, but it was enormously successful: the budget was £18m, and it took over £250m worldwide. Although, for me, it’s The Tall Guy which has always stuck in my mind: who else but Mel Smith could have directed the musical number from Elephant!, which is the highlight of the film? I can still be reduced to speechless laughter, 20 years after I first saw it, just by thinking of the phrase: “Somewhere up in heaven, there’s an angel with big ears.”
He bridged the gap between the UK and Hollywood film industries with incredible ease. He could write something as ridiculous as Morons From Outer Space, then appear alongside Christopher Guest and Cary Elwes two years later in the peerless The Princess Bride. His performance as the Albino is one of many perfect cameos in that film: the way he turns a nod into a headshake is a thing of true comic beauty. And then, of course, he was the voice of Father Christmas in the TV adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ story.
To say that Mel Smith will be much missed is an understatement. He was immensely encouraging to new writers: Graham Linehan has been quick to point out that Smith gave Linehan and Arthur Mathews (the creators of Father Ted) their first break. Meanwhile, the production company that Smith co-founded with Rhys Jones, Talkback, has become one of the most successful programme-makers in the UK.
He was a wonderful stage actor too: audiences saw him as Churchill in Allegiance at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, opposite Michael Fassbender. He threatened to cause the local councillors considerable trauma by flouting the cigarette ban, but in the end, he kept his cigar unlit. I hope the BBC takes the opportunity to repeat some of his work (not least the hugely under-rated Colin’s Sandwich), to remind us just how diverse and brilliant Smith really was.