MEL AND GRIFF FEATURE
veryone‘s got something to say to Mel Smith. ‘Tell him I like him.‘ said my mother. ‘Ask him how fat he is.‘ quipped the office wags. ‘What about his postcard collection?‘ said another. But that was Ronnie Barker. Yes. Mel Smith is so famous that he‘s already blurred into the mythical media morass of celebrity where anecdote and trivia fill column inches irrespective of who you are. just as long as you‘ve been on telly. It isn‘t even preposterous for the press release to claim that ’it seems inconceivable that there is anyone left in the UK who has not heard of Mel and Griff‘.
Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones are indeed public property. Maybe not universally liked. but too inoffensive to be hated. And with moments of inspired comic brilliance — from the Gamefora Laugh skit in an early Not the Nine O'Clock News. to the everyday surrealism of the head-to—head sequences in the various Smith andJones series — they can‘t easily be dismissed as pre-Comedy Store old-timers. As far as journalistic pigeon-holing goes. they‘re an awkward fit; too late to be classed with a generation of Morecambe and Wise-style Music Hall double-acts. and a few years too early to be part of the early 80s alternative comedy boom. But as far as audiences go. they‘re funny. Funny enough to be transferred from BBCZ. where they repeatedly drew some of the best viewing figures. to BBC] . where they‘re happily doing the same.
[catch Mel Smith after he‘s spent the morning on the cold stage of London‘s Ambassador‘s theatre playing to an empty auditorium in rehearsal for the forthcoming 25-date British tour. ‘Cream-crackered. we are.‘ he says. slipping into Cockney rhyming-slang to jolly up yet another interview sandwiched between a snatch of administration and a shot ofwriting more material, sitting in the offices ofTalkback. the production company he set up with Rhys- Jones. So. we know he‘s fat and we know he doesn‘t collect postcards. but do we know exactly how famous Mel Smith is? ‘I‘ve never got round to the false beard.‘ he admits. ‘But there are some things you think twice before you do. It‘s difficult to think about popping into a pub to have a drink with somebody. I tend not to bother. It‘s silly. because mostly people are very nice: it‘s just that sometimes it gets in the way and ifyou want to have a chat with somebody it‘s easier to do it in your house.‘
A small price to pay for fame and it‘s hardly Rollermania. but working so much in the public eye. the duo must be conscious of audience expectations. Taking to the stage is a risk. not least because for all their theatrical experience. Mel and Griff have made their name on television. Apart from the early TV spin-off. Not in Front ofthe Audience. their live work together has been limited to the sell-out Scratch ‘n‘ Snifftour of
1986, and what works on the box doesn‘t necessarily work on a stage. ‘I hope that what they want is to laugh.‘ Smith speculates with more than a degree of caution. ‘I know that sounds a banal thing to say. but the main thing that Griffand I are trying to do is find ways of making our live show work as successfully as our TV show works in a different way. It is a different job. You can‘t
‘Ever since we first worked together on Not the Nine 0’Clock News, we have shared a sense of humour. It just so happens that we’ve found the same things hilarious.’
just go on stage and do sketches where characters talk to each other inside the closed shell of a reality of their own. You don‘t get the live response doing that kind of thing. You really do have to be much more aware ofthe audience.‘
Ironically. the thing that goes down best live is also the most televisual: the celebrated head-to-head sequences shot in close-up as two ﬂoating faces against a black backdrop. in which Smith plays the empty-headed know-all to Rhys Jones‘s naive and gullible foil. ‘At the front ofthe second halfwe do a lot of head-to-head,‘ says Smith who worked as a professional theatre director for several years before making a quick exit into comedy in 1979. ‘It sounds impossible. but it is the most incredibly successful part of the show. It‘s not done in quite the same way — we‘re two little dots on the stage to a lot of people. so there‘s a lot more body language involved and ofcourse the audience becomes involved. I think it‘s probably as strong as we‘ve ever done. Remembering the last time we toured. we did the Edinburgh Playhouse which is 3500 people and the head-to-head there was absolutely fantastic. It‘s an easy one to turn out to the audience — you wouldn‘t guess it. but it works incredibly well.‘
Part ofthe charm ofthese intimate dialogues is their free-form quality. seemingly swooping off at tangents at the whim of the performers. but as Smith points out. the effortlessness is part ofthe illusion of a well-honed craft. “In the creation of thatscript. improvisation is important.‘ he explains. ‘because it‘s only via the improvisation that you get a loose. weird and strange association. You couldn‘t do that ifyou weren‘t working it. When we do one. we sit round and talk a lot and try to edge our way towards reactions that those characters would have. It‘s a good way of writing it. When you do it on stage, it can go in different directions at any time. but largely you‘re working to a thing that you know is a script.‘
So even when the leaps of logic are sublime and when the train of thought goes off on the most unpredictable siding. the chances are it‘s all been written down before. True. Mel
and Griff will occasionally try and put each other on the spot. but only when they are very sure of themselves. ’It‘s something that you can do.‘ says Smith. ‘but you‘ve got to do it very, very carefully. If you try and throw your partner a curve ball. the consequences can be hilarious and they can be absolutely appalling. Solo stand-up artists, for whom I have nothing but respect. have a much easier job in this respect. They can change their routine as they go. they have swathes of material and ifsomething‘s not going well they can change tack. They only have themselves to answer to. The double act is pretty much of a different gig.‘
And a different gig needs a different approach — the relationship between the two performers has to be watertight. the creative partnership must be special. What is it then about this double act that has proved so durable? ‘The straightforward response is that ever since we first worked together on Not the Nine O’Clock News, we have shared a sense of humour.‘ says Smith. ‘It just so happens that we‘ve found the same things hilarious. The other thing is that we‘re both trying to do the same job when we‘re on stage; that is. trying to get some sort of strand running through the material that feels real. I know this sounds barmy. but the strength of our stuffwhen we do it well is that it has an emotional ring of truth to it. We spend a lot ofour time round‘the table making sure that we don‘t just hop from joke to joke just because it‘s funny. There has to be some strand that we can follow. This particularly applies when we‘re just sitting on stage chatting with the audience. Other people get terribly funny shows without going through that process. but we find it‘s important for us.‘
‘li you try and throw your partner a curve ball, the consequences can be hilarious and they can be absolutely appalling.’
Confident that the all-new set will be their best. the duo have found that the freshest material is working most successfully. while older ideas are being dropped. The stage-show will consequently have an original feel to it. something that will help when they come to make a new series of Smith andJones later in the year. but the comic principles that have kept them at the top of the ratings for over a decade remain intact. ‘One thing we don‘t do is start off with a target.‘ Smith emphasises. ’Sometimes if a topical reference is appropriate then you use it. But I hate the idea ofsatire for it‘s own sake. Satire isn‘t always funny and I think by now we‘ve learnt to spot the difference between something that‘s purely satirical. and something that is satirical and funny. There‘s nothing that we‘re trying to have a go at. I don‘t think . . . oh. well. there are a lot ofthings we‘re trying to have a go at. but none of them are po-faced and important: it‘s people‘s self-delusion really. and we like to laugh at the misfortune ofothers!‘ '
é - l Tired and Emotional. Glasgow Royal ' Concert Hall, Wed 4 Mar; Edinburgh
Playhouse. Fri 6 Mar.
The List 2s February L I: March 1w: 7