Entertainment & Arts

Obituary: Comedian Mel Smith

Mel Smith
Image caption Smith studied at Oxford University and was president of his college drama group

Comic star Mel Smith, who has died aged 60, became a household name during the 1980s when TV sketch shows Not the Nine O'Clock News and Alas Smith and Jones were at the height of their success.

But he was also a writer, actor and acclaimed director whose love of performing started at an early age.

The son of a bookmaker from Chiswick, west London, Smith was directing plays with friends at the age of six.

After school he studied experimental psychology at New College, Oxford.

He chose that particular college because of the lure of its dramatic society, and went on to become the drama group's president.

Smith directed productions at the Oxford Playhouse and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe festival while he was an undergraduate.

After leaving university he pursued directing, working at the Royal Court in London, before moving on to the Bristol Old Vic and the Sheffield Crucible.

But Smith was a solo act until he was introduced to Griff Rhys Jones by TV producer John Lloyd, who invited them to join the Not the Nine O'Clock News cast, along with Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson.

Their hugely successful show, which was billed as an alternative to watching the BBC's flagship news bulletin, was a series of sketches, skits and musical parodies.

Smith, Rhys Jones and Atkinson also wrote for the show, with the former two going on to set up Talkback Productions in 1981.

It became a highly successful independent production company and talent agency, responsible for hits including Da Ali G Show and Alan Partridge's Knowing Me Knowing You. The firm was sold in 2000.

The pair also found even more success with their 1984 hit sketch show, Alas Smith and Jones - its name was taken from US Western series Alias Smith and Jones.

Sketches included their trademark deadpan head-to-head chats, shot in close-up, which went on to be compared with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Dagenham Dialogues.

Smith played a know-it-all while Rhys Jones took on a dim-witted persona while they engaged in discussions on a myriad of topics.

Image caption Smith directed Atkinson in Bean - The Ultimate Disaster Movie

Over the next 14 years, there were a total of 10 series of the show.

The pair also made films and radio programmes together, and performed in plays, clip shows and Christmas specials.

Their charity work included introducing Queen at 1985's Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium.

Although the last series of the eventually renamed Smith and Jones series aired in 1998, the pair continued to work together, and in 2005 they collaborated on The Alas Smith and Jones Sketchbook, a showcase of their past shows.

Smith's directing work was also a key part of his career, and his work included Bean - The Ultimate Disaster Movie, which starred Atkinson, and Richard Curtis' romantic comedy The Tall Guy, starring Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum.

Acting roles included Babylon in 1980, the 1987 hit The Princess Bride and Sir Toby Belch in Trevor Nunn's 1996 production of Twelfth Night.

He drew headlines in 2006 when he threatened to flout the ban on smoking in enclosed spaces in order to play a cigar-puffing Winston Churchill at the Edinburgh Fringe.

In the end, Smith didn't light his cigar after a visit to the theatre from an environmental health officer.

Image caption Smith leaves his wife, Pam. The couple are pictured together here in 2010

Smith became known to a whole new generation in Raymond Briggs' animated Father Christmas in 1991, in which he sang the song Another Bloomin' Christmas in the title role.

He also teamed up with singer Kim Wilde in 1987 for the Comic Relief song Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, which reached the top five in the singles' chart.

And his vocal talents had an outing in 1981 with the single Mel Smith's Greatest Hits, produced by Queen's Roger Taylor, who featured on instrumentation and backing vocals.

Smith went on to sing and act on stage in 2007, making his West End debut in the hit musical Hairspray as Wilbur Turnblad, alongside Michael Ball as Edna Turnblad.

Last year Smith worked with Rhys Jones once more on a sketch show for BBC One.

He leaves wife, Pam, with whom he lived in north west London.

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