Mel Smith found fame as the deadpan, jug-faced straight man to Rowan Atkinson, Gryff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson in the now classic Not the Nine O’Clock News. He cemented his place in the comedy elite that emerged in the 1980s thanks to his long-running partnership with Rhys Jones in the hugely popular Alas Smith and Jones.
But Smith was also a formidable force behind the camera as a writer, director and producer, talents that had been fine-tuned both on- and off-stage in the theatre before Not the Nine O’Clock News made him a household name.
Born in Chiswick, west London on December 3 1952, he quickly became involved in drama while studying experimental psychology at Oxford. After graduating, he spent two years as an assistant director at the Royal Court and Bristol Old Vic before joining the Crucible Theatre in 1975. Directorial assignments in Sheffield included Salad Days and Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus.
Other directorial credits included productions at the Bush Theatre, the Overground, Kingston and at the Old Vic where he took the reins of Look Back in Anger. He also acted in Stephen Poliakoff’s American Days in a cast that also included Antony Sher and Phil Daniels at the ICA Theatre in 1979 – the same year the first series of Not the Nine O’Clock News made its debut.
Its four-year run coincided with Margaret Thatcher’s first tumultuous term in office, and it helped usher in a new generation of alternative comics.
In 1981 the success of the show gave Smith and Rhys Jones the opportunity to form their own production company – Talkback Productions. Talkback went on to become (and remains) a comedy powerhouse, swiftly dominating television schedules – not least with 10 series featuring Smith and Jones (1984-98), Da Ali G Show, The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and the still- running QI – while also establishing footholds in radio and film. Smith and Rhys Jones sold the company to Pearson in 2000 for a reported £62 million.
As a director, Smith scored cinema hits with the Richard Curtis-penned The Tall Guy starring Hollywood star Jeff Goldblum in 1989. In 1997, he reunited with Not the Nine O’Clock News colleague Rowan Atkinson to make Bean – a movie spin-off featuring Atkinson’s popular, silent comic misfit. It took more than $250 million at box offices worldwide.
Smith maintained a presence in theatre both as an actor – in The Gambler (co-written with Bob Goody) which opened in Hampstead and transferred to the Comedy Theatre (1986), as Winston Churchill in Mary Kenny’s Allegiance (Edinburgh Fringe, 2006), and as Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray (Shaftesbury Theatre, 2007–08) – and as a director, most recently in 2007 with the Theatre Royal, Bath’s revival of Charley’s Aunt.
On the big screen he appeared in The Princess Bride (1987), Wilt (1989), Brain Donors, a 1992 remake of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera and as Sir Toby Belch in Trevor Nunn’s film version of Twelfth Night in 1996. His television credits included Colin in Colin’s Sandwich, about a put-upon desk worker in
British Rail’s complaints department who aspired to be a writer (1988–90), Hustle (2006) and John Sullivan’s Only Fools and Horses prequel, Rock and Chips (2010–11).
Smith survived an addiction to painkillers that had hospitalised him in 1999 but his health had been declining in recent years. He died, aged 60, following a heart attack on July 19. He is survived by his wife, the former model Pamela Gay-Rees.