Sunday, July 21, 2013

Memories are made of this

Mel Smith RIP

Tyne - picture from Side Gallery

It’s been a week of stirred memories. 

Live Theatre’s production of Tyne was a treat. Michael Chaplin had encased this compilation of Tynerabilia within a loose-fitting narrative about an ex-pat Geordie who returns for his father’s funeral. It was undisguised sentimental indulgence – a perfect show for the theatre and the region. I’m rather glad Jo didn’t go: my American wife wouldn’t have understood a single reference. 

As I spent my own childhood in Tynemouth, in a house that looked out over the two piers, the play was two hours of nostalgia-inducing pleasure.

The Black Middens (photo: fatmansqueeze)
In the bar after the performance I told Michael Chaplin about being woken with the rockets from the lifeboat station below our house, and going down to Prior’s Haven at midnight to look at grounded vessels on the formidable Black Middens, the rocks that over the centuries had captured hundreds of ships. 

Every Friday night I accompanied my Dad to the fish shop at Knott's Flats (“three haddock and two chips please – no extra batter”). Sometimes as a treat I was given a bottle of Wilkinson’s Smila lemonade. 

I remember playing on the cannons on Collingwood’s monument, I recall the smell from Kelsoe’s kipper factory on a westerly wind, and I remember fishing for mackerel (but never eating them – if you only saw what was in the river in those days). 

I’ll never forget the extraordinary sight of the gigantic Esso Northumbria being towed down the river on its maiden voyage in 1969 – towering over the entire landscape, and how that loss-making giant marked the beginning of end for the Tyne as a shipbuilding power – our industry was too inefficient to compete with the threat from the East. 


I guess the formative period of my life was inextricably linked to that coal black river. 

If the play invoked memories of my childhood, the news at the weekend of the untimely death of Mel Smith stirred up recollections of another crucial period of my life. 

Today’s newspapers were full of warm tributes to the comedian, writer and director, who died of a heart attack aged just 60. His round, jocular, lugubrious on-screen persona endeared him to millions in the 1980s. 

He was an actor with brilliant comic timing, and a director who understood comedy as well as any. He was well-liked by everyone who met him, and will be sadly missed. 

Our paths only crossed maybe half a dozen times, mostly in the 1980s, but indirectly he influenced my own career. Not The Nine O’Clock News had become a huge hit and one that, a couple of years after it launched, the BBC wanted to replicate. So they paired me with one of its two producers, Sean Hardie, and together we made a series called A Kick Up The Eighties

Sean showed me many of the new comedy techniques that he and John Lloyd had learned or devised during NTNOCN. There was the trick of cutting between scenes just on the peak of an audience laugh, rather than afterwards; of deliberately finding thematic links between totally disconnected sketches to give the illusion of structure; of commissioning far more “quickies” from writers than you would ever hope to use; and, most important, of keeping all the characters’ performances natural and understated. 

That’s where Mel Smith had the biggest influence: his comedy was instinctive and unforced, each of his many characters appeared real on screen. He was a comedy actor, not a comedian. 

He was also an inveterate gambler (I later filmed an extract of his stage musical, The Gambler, for an arts programme), and in 1982 he played a very risky hand by starting his own production company with Griff Rhys Jones. Talkback was originally set up to make commercials, but soon became a magnet for television comedy talent. It was this success that inspired several other producers to follow suit, and as a result I set up my own production company two years later. 

15 years on, I proposed merging our two businesses, but Mel wisely refused. Instead, he and Griff eventually sold out to Pearson Television for £62million. 

Now that was a very good bet indeed.

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