Saturday, July 20, 2013

Mel Smith 1952-2013

It is a beautiful, if still warm and humid, evening here in Wainscott, and we wait for the promised thunderstorms. After a day of writing for Sunday, chores about the house, errands for tomorrow's parish party, welcoming two house guests and wondering (with more than a touch of envy) how Sandi and Kate are doing in the North Carolina mountains and Cashiers, I had planned to settle back, munch on pizza, pour some wine and read another couple of chapters of Never Look Back by my friend Richard Thornburgh. This is a summer ritual for me, visiting in my mind and through his pages the towns and villages en route to Rocomadour.

Yet I find myself back at the keyboard lamenting the news that Mel Smith has died. “Who?” I can hear some people ask. Mel was a British writer and actor who, in addition to his already established talent in theatre, emerged as a comic genius in 1979 in the BBC comedy Not the Nine O'clock News (1979-1982.) And then many times again over the following forty years. His biographical details are out there in all media for people to read, but I offer a brief personal tribute and apology to him.

As one who has always been interested in media, scriptwriting and comedy, Mel stood out in ways that are always apparent. Look back at the sketches of NotNON and the later, long-running series Alas Smith and Jones (1984-1998) and notice that he hardly ever smiles. Playing the sad clown to other brilliant comedians (Griff Rhys Jones, Rowan Atkinson et al) he performs in the tradition of Tony Hancock and Ronnie Barker, and his varieties of character and costume echo those of Stanley Baxter, Dick Emery and many others.

My note of apology stems from my own comedic and satirical inheritance in 1985 when it was determined that I take over as editor of the church-based and orientated magazine Pharisaios. Listening to early tapes of Mel Smith and crew performing I did indeed borrow themes, ideas and even lines, translating them into church settings and genres. Not too often , but in the last of the recorded Pharisaios albums one sketch may be directly attributed to Mel. Even the accents required.

Requiescat in pace, Mel. I am deeply sorry. May your genius find another home.

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