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Mel Smith, the man who made me howl with laughter


As so many people have said, Mel Smith, who has died at the age of 60, was a comedy giant. And his talent was evident – obvious – when I first saw him 40 years ago. I was then trying to make my way in comedy at Cambridge, and he, then president of the slightly loftier Oxford University Dramatic Society, had agreed to take part, rather to amuse himself, I suspect. He was by a mile the best thing in it. Clever, and very, very funny, as he always was subsequently.

Six years later, when I was trying to pull together a team for Not the Nine O’Clock News, there were two people I knew I wanted above all – Mel and Rowan Atkinson. Mel expressed an initial interest, but, what with the general election and him being tied up elsewhere, we didn’t have a smooth start. And when we were commissioned to produce a series, before committing to it he asked to see the pilot we had made. He watched politely before telling us with his customary honesty: “That was the single worst half-hour of television comedy I have ever seen.” I, with experience only in radio, was learning on the job. Mel, mercifully, and with typical generosity, agreed to join us.

The team barely knew one another, so we arranged a get-together at the Balzac restaurant, a BBC favourite. I remember wondering how they could ever gel, so different were larger-than-life Mel, then with flowing long hair, Rowan (then a shy engineer from Newcastle), Chris Langham, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson. In a way, though, it was bound to work, so talented were they.

But the cement of the whole thing was Mel. For one thing, everyone performed at their best with him. He made them good. And had Rowan and he teamed up subsequently, they too would have made a fantastic double act, on a par with – though different to – Mel and Griff. In some ways he was at his dry and deadpan best with Rowan. The comedy I most enjoy is when, if you were to turn the sound down, you’d assume you were watching a serious drama. That was what Mel excelled at. He invested jokes with belief and conviction. As a comedy producer, you hope to be made to laugh. With Mel, I used to howl.

But the other reason Mel was essential is that everyone liked him. He was always respectful, unfailingly generous with advice, money, hospitality and in spirit. Given how much power he had as a successful comedy producer, it was remarkable he never lost his temper. Latterly, whenever I saw him, once a year or so, it was always enjoyable. He had a stroke a while ago, and rather shrank into himself. I wish I had seen more of him, but he seemed diminished and wasn’t ready to see his friends. But he was still directing his vast intelligence towards history and biography.

I remember Peter Cook’s hilarious memorial service, when there was a vast outpouring of laughter, sadness and, above all, warmth. Somebody said that had Peter known how loved he was, as was so apparent at that service, he would have survived his illnesses and lived longer. It grieves me to say, I feel the same way about Mel. We have lost a great and lovely talent.

John Lloyd was producer of Not the Nine O'Clock News