Griff Rhys Jones on his comedy soul mate Mel Smith

"I think we made some 50 hours of TV together. God knows a lot of it won’t bear repeating, but when it was good it was sheer bliss to perform with Mel"

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Griff Rhys Jones on his comedy soul mate Mel Smith
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Griff Rhys Jones

We both had under-hung chins, but in different ways, apparently. He had an inverted upper jaw. I had a protuberant lower one. Or so some Edinburgh dentist who wanted to use our photos in his lectures gloatingly told us.

We were not similar, really. I invited Mel to my country cottage and he never took his coat off. He took me to the races and I read a book. I dragged him sailing and he asked to “go in” when we were halfway home and 30 miles from the nearest port. He loved a drink. I am teetotal. He never carried a credit card. I never have cash. He never went for a walk. I run ten miles a week. He worshipped Stephen Sondheim. I think Sondheim is a pretentious, overrated introvert, who can’t write a tune...

It is a long list and a weird one and not exactly a marriage made in heaven. We used to joke that we stayed together for the money. (And then it would be quoted back at us. Never be ironic, that’s my advice to you.)

But we really didn’t have a lot in common, except this.

When Mark and John, or Clive and Rory, or Howe and Preddy, or Smith and Kyan (all writing double acts who scribbled our jokes for us and, for all I know, were similarly disparate in their tastes) brought forth a real cracker, we both loved it, equally and unequivocally. We knew what it wanted and how to do it.

“She was at death’s door, her lungs down, both her legs gone, completely gaga, done for. But would they turn off her life-support system? Course they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t even sack her from the Post Office.”

You may like sailing, gardens, country cottages, exercise and teetotalism. But if you don’t find that funny you could never have been my soul mate, double act partner, my dear.

And, more importantly, if you couldn’t have packaged it up and sent it down the line with the minimum of fuss or self advertisement, then you couldn’t even begin to be Mel Smith.

I can see Mel now, reading a joke for the first time. “How did Paul Getty know that it was his grandson’s ears they sent him? For all he knew, they could have cut off one of their own ears.”

Leaning forward and then starting to shake with glee, looking round triumphantly at the writers with watery eyes, slapping the table and taking a long drag on his cigar. (I hate cigars.) But I love that joke, just like him. And I don’t really care if you think it is a bit obvious. What both of us adored was the opportunity to finesse a construction as bald as that goose, to find a simple meaning in it, to waft it across, to deliver it on a platter, all trussed up, and ready to be wanged out to the back of 3,000-seater for a colossal and possibly undeserved woofer.

There was a section towards the end of our stage act when all the frenzy of the show evaporated. We sat on a couple of chairs and just “talked” our way though a series of crude, tasteless, punning, obvious, simple, undemanding boffers. It was sheer pleasure. Because at that time, when all was still, and as the focus came down, we could, if it was a nice night, draw even the biggest auditorium into a little emotional pinhead of space.

Mel was patient and serious. The essentials. They talk about pace, but however fast you get you are best unhurried.

After a discussion of sexually transmitted diseases I asked him the question that had been bothering me.

“What is it, that Aids then?

"Aids. Well...”

He had been served a tricky one. He frowned very slightly. It deserved a serious reply. He would sit quietly. They would begin to laugh. How was he going to answer his brain-dead friend? Like an excited tennis match, the audience settled and leaned in to the server. And Mel began very plainly and sincerely. He took every word carefully. No silly voice. No crudity. This was a genuine explanation to his brainless, pig-ignorant mate. Sincere. Innocent, even. There was a great helpful tone in his particular idiotic explanation.

“Well... you know when you stick your **** up another man’s ***.”

I guess the security of working with Mel was never more palpable than at that particular moment. My character did not do anything. I didn’t have to. Neither did his. We never rehearsed, got directed, coached or instructed by anyone to do anything. Least of all by each other. He sat. I sat. Both looked slightly worried. Neither of us moved. We were far from frozen. Both characters were thinking. Perhaps on different arcs, of course. There was just a thread. The thread was so strong that I was astonished by the way the audience right at the back of these huge auditoriums could see it, exactly.

Finally, with a certain authority, and perhaps the slight hint of a positively affirmative but quietly enthusiastic nod I would say...“yes”.

It was a cracker. The biggest laugh of the evening. Off a non-joke. Off an unspoken mutually undertaken pact. And two of us did it.

I don’t like writing this. It sounds vainglorious to me. And there are a hundred comedians with better material and huger laughs. But if you are in a double act there has to be faith. I’ve worked with marvelous actors who trample your laughs, who never understand the nature of breathing, who can’t see that you are working together in a system of mutual support.

I understand. Almost as a matter of principle, they don’t see it. “Reality” does not work together, they would argue. Reality keeps the psyches separate. They are quite right. But Mel understood that if you do low comedy, boffo comedy, you have to work to the same end. It’s as if you are both responsible for the line.

I recently had to scrub an account of a double act that spoke of “rivalry”. Rivalry is impossible. We were together to make the material do its work. And we loved it when it did. I think we made some 50 hours of TV together. God knows a lot of it won’t bear repeating, but when it was good it was sheer bliss to perform with Mel.

And, you know what. He would hate to read me trying to make some sense of this. Dear, oh dear. Now one of us is dead and the other is still alive. That is pretty different, I guess. And a terrible pity.

A Tribute to Mel Smith is on tonight at 10:10pm on BBC2

 



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