The Big Interview - Mel Smith

~ London Theatre Guide Interview with Mel Smith - 24/10/2007 ~

It is an unusual piece of casting. Mel Smith, who counts a novelty Christmas single among his singing experience and whose musical theatre credits are even more limited, is taking to the West End stage in the latest all-singing, all-dancing Broadway import, Hairspray . For Smith, it is another happenstance in a career full of happenstances, and besides, he tells Caroline Bishop, he has been a closet musical theatre fan for years…

He is best known as half of one of British comedy's greatest double-acts, but at the Shaftesbury theatre this autumn Mel Smith will be sharing the comic limelight not with Griff Rhys Jones but with a partner of a very different ilk – musical theatre star and housewives' favourite Michael Ball. “I'm having a ball actually,” says Smith, entirely deadpan, when we speak on the phone during rehearsals.

Playing Wilbur, husband of Michael Ball's curvaceous Edna Turnblad, in comedy musical and Broadway hit Hairspray, is a corker of a role for Smith's musical West End debut. Though he has flexed his vocal chords during episodes of comedy sketch show Alas Smith And Jones, voiced Santa singing Another Bloomin' Christmas in the animation of Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas, and made it onto Top Of The Pops with his 1987 festive duet with Kim Wilde, Hairspray is a different animal entirely. “I have some pedigree,” Smith says with tongue-in-cheek pride, “but having said that, when you're singing with Michael Ball it's a rather different class, you know. The best I can do is to sing in tune and keep my end up, as it were,” and he gives a throaty chuckle.

It is also a plum job for this secret fan of musicals, who gets as much enjoyment from watching Hairspray being rehearsed as he does from participating. “Yes, tragically I'm afraid I am,” he laughs when I ask if he is a fan of the tuneful side of the West End. “It's a hidden passion that I've always had actually. So it's nice to be involved with one, and to be involved with one that's such a cracker.”

So there wasn't much agonising to be done when Smith was asked to take on the role of Wilbur. Not only would it indulge his passion for musicals, but Smith was particularly drawn by the idea of being able to tell people he was playing Michael Ball's husband. Handily, he also had time to fill before his next project – he hopes to bring Edinburgh Festival historical drama Allegiance, in which he plays Winston Churchill, to the West End in 2008. All in all, the time was right for Hairspray. “It appealed to me very, very much and I've not been disappointed,” he says.

"The best I can do is to sing in tune and keep my end up"

Based on the original 1988 film by John Waters, Hairspray the musical opened on Broadway in 2002 winning a plethora of awards, including the 2003 Best Musical Tony Award. Set in 1962 Baltimore, it tells the story of big-haired teenager Tracy Turnblad, who attempts to change sizeist and racist attitudes when she enters the local television dance competition. A film of the musical, starring John Travolta and Christopher Walken as Tracy's parents Edna and Wilbur, came out this year, which Smith says he adored. But Walken hasn't influenced his portrayal of Wilbur. “Obviously, of course, the songs are all the same and there are comparisons, but it's a slightly different thing to be honest, so he's barely crossed my consciousness while I've been doing it.”

Wilbur, Smith says, is “basically a bloke who runs a joke shop that nobody ever comes to. So there's a sadness on that level. But on the other hand he's a very happy man. He's very happily married and he's very optimistic. I'm playing it as some sort of extreme version of Mel Smith I suppose.”

As husband to Edna, Smith gets to grab hold of her ample love handles, but frankly, Ball's dress and fat suit don't float Smith's boat. “I'd love to be able to say I find him sexually alluring, but I have to say I find him more sexually alluring before he puts the dress on!” he laughs.

The musical theatre veteran is, says Smith, “absolutely a ball to work with”. Of course he is. “When you're like Michael and you're in his league as it were, he takes on – unasked almost – the role of the senior citizen of the whole company, and it's something he does terribly well, and with a great deal of affection and humour. I know he regards [Hairspray] as possibly the most exciting thing he's ever done, which is nice, but he has done it all before, so it's good for me to look to him for… Basically, I let Michael give me notes, whereas I wouldn't let anybody else in the world in any show I've ever done up until now!”

As it is Smith's first proper foray into musical theatre acting, taking notes from Ball doesn't seem such a bad idea. Particularly seeing as before this recent spell of stage acting – which began with Allegiance in Edinburgh last year and has also included French comedy An Hour And A Half Late on tour, which he both adapted and starred in – it had been around 15 years since his last piece of “legit acting” on stage, not counting tours with Jones. So why the flurry of stage work now? “The way I think that one's life works is rather less to do with how one plans it, as to how circumstances join together,” he says. “Whereas three or four years ago I probably wouldn't have even given credence to the idea of starting to do any stage acting again, it's sort of come along, if you see what I mean, and I found that I'm enjoying it, and so therefore I'd like to carry on.”

This is an approach that seems to have shaped his whole career. On paper, Smith seems very much the instigator of his own success – from his early theatrical career as President of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and directing productions at theatres including the Oxford Playhouse and the Sheffield Crucible, to his ongoing comedy performing and writing partnership with Jones and the production company, Talkback, that they set up together – but Smith, perhaps giving himself less credit than he is due, attributes it more to luck than good planning.  “I've never found in the end that one's career is as planned as it looks in retrospect. It tends to happen to you, a career, I think.”

This is true of his first big break in television, writing and starring in BBC satire Not The Nine O' Clock News in 1979. “It was one of those lucky coincidences,” he relates. “I'd just left the Young Vic [where he was associate director at the time]; I resigned and to be honest with you I was very happy to consider getting out of the whole f**king thing. I wasn't particularly happy about the work that had been going on at the Young Vic at that time. And then lo and behold, literally the next morning, I got a phone call asking me if I'd be in a satirical TV series. Timing doesn't come much better than that.”

"It tends to happen to you, a career, I think"

Smith became one of the founder members of the John Lloyd-produced show, along with Chris Langham, Pamela Stephenson, Rowan Atkinson and, replacing Langham early on, Griff Rhys Jones. Little did they know how successful and influential that series would be, and how many writers' careers it would launch – Clive Anderson, Rory McGrath, Richard Curtis and Ruby Wax were just some of the names that wrote for the show. “At the time it just sounded like a fun thing to do for £100 quid a week,” says Smith.

The series was the beginning of Smith's friendship and comedy partnership with Jones. The two had known of each other previously, as Jones was President of the Cambridge Footlights at the same time Smith presided over the Oxford equivalent. “I think we'd met at a couple of cocktail party type things” says Smith. Working together on Not The Nine O' Clock News, they gelled. “We kind of just found that we wrote stuff together rather effectively. Particularly he and I laughed at the same things very much, [we had the] same sense of the absurd, same sense of things that we would like to do. It became fairly self-evident.” After three years, when the show came to an end, Lloyd encouraged them to create their own series, and they were given a pilot. “And the rest, my dear, is geography,” he chuckles heartily, his sense of the absurd firmly intact.

Alas Smith And Jones was born, a sketch show that lasted, with slight name variations, throughout the 80s and 90s. It was produced by Talkback, the production company that the pair founded together in 1981. The company became extremely successful, producing shows including I'm Alan Partridge, Smack The Pony and Da Ali G Show. The duo, along with (recently resigned BBC1 Controller) Peter Fincham, Talkback's managing director since 1986, sold the company to Pearson in 2000 for £62 million. Again, luck played more of a part in this than strategic planning, according to Smith. “We hadn't at all considered selling it, we didn't think that it would necessarily have any value. We'd been so busy building it up, we'd spent years putting money into it, but funnily enough it had never crossed our minds! Then one December somebody came in and a company made an offer for it. That was what made us think, well now hang on, if somebody is interested in buying it, maybe we should find out if it has a market value, so that's what happened.

To hear him talk, you would think an enduringly successful career, a place in the comedy history books, a highly profitable production company and a portion of £62 million all dropped in his lap. Somehow, I am sure it wasn't that easy, but Smith does make it seem like it all took him by surprise. Maybe it is the quintessentially English tradition of not blowing your own trumpet – and Smith, polite, friendly and slightly absurd, does seem quintessentially English.

Perhaps this is why he has the humility to be genuinely pleased to hear that people enjoyed the sketch shows that made him famous. “You don't walk around consciously being aware of having had a successful career or anything like that, and yet you know from what people say that they've really enjoyed it and it's represented something to them. And that's when you realise, yeah, d'you know something? What we did was ok! When you're in the throes of it, my dear, you can imagine, it's basically let's churn out another sketch show. And then it's put together and then you're doing another one and the whole thing, in a sense, whizzes past. When people stop you and say, ‘hey listen, I really love what you used to do', it's great.”

He is even, I am delighted to hear, touchingly proud of Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree, his Comic Relief single with Kim Wilde that has reared its jolly head every festive season since 1987. “Funnily enough I genuinely find it a pleasant surprise when I hear it again,” he says.

Perhaps, I suggest, he should take the opportunity of working with Michael Ball on Hairspray to release a new Christmas duet, 20 years after the first? “Ooh I don't know luvvie. Well actually I'll suggest it now and see what he says!” You never know, he just might.


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