Mel Smith, Comedy and the Evolution of British Culture

The tragic death of comedian, actor, writer, director and producer Mel Smith will cause many to pause for thought.

The tragic death of comedian, actor, writer, director and producer Mel Smith will cause many to pause for thought.

Some might pause for thought because he died at the age of 60. They may consequently consider their own health - especially if they have been enjoying themselves a bit too much over the years. However, I am not going to discuss Smith's health or speculate about his demise.

I would like instead to pause to reflect on how far British comedy and culture has evolved in the last thirty years or so. I'm not a comedian and my view is just that of someone who has been fortunate enough to grow up in a golden age of British satire. However, I also saw the tail end of mainstream comedy based on ignorance, prejudice and spite. Therefore I have an appreciation of how comedy has been at the forefront of British cultural evolution.

Having spent a great deal of time in comedy clubs since my teens, I have huge admiration for anyone who can get up on a stage and make people laugh. I've been at open mike nights and witnessed near meltdowns but more often budding comedians have endured moments of dead silence and bounced back enough to get some laughs.

Mel Smith - along with his former colleague Rowan Atkinson - were fortunate that they could make people laugh before they even opened their mouths. It wasn't that they merely had funny faces but that comedy was always within them, perhaps as a result of a strong empathy for the audience.

The comedy persona often adopted by Smith was that of an interested but bewildered man, without a great many clear facts at his disposal, who blundered through interactions with a look of confusion. Sasha Baron Cohen, Al Murray, Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington would no doubt acknowledge a debt to Smith. Mel Smith himself might have acknowledged a similar debt to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

I don't think that Smith was mocking the general public when he adopted the persona of the dazed everyman trying to make sense of a confusing and rapidly changing world. I think he had his finger on the pulse of society and managed to mock the establishment while also gently poking fun at general ignorance.

Smith may have been so good at this because he had a foot in the establishment while also being rooted in ordinary British life. His parents owned a grocers shop, which they later turned into a bookmakers. Smith grew up in a flat above a chip shop and then went to study psychology at Oxford. My guess is he would he would have had enough of an outsider's perspective in each setting to see comedy all around him.

Smith became famous for his involvement in Not The Nine O'Clock News, which was first screened in 1979. Due to my age I did not see this until years later but even then it seemed heads above most other television comedy.

Although other 'alternative comedy' programmes - such as The Young Ones and various shows featuring stand-up comedians also helped push the boundaries, the reality is that tedious, obvious, lowest common denominator comedy based on prejudice was mainsteam fodder throughout the 80s. Where it still exists on television it tends to be in a format where the comedian can claim to be ironising racism, sexism, homophobia and attempts to mock disability, rather than doing those things.

We are living in a different comedy and cultural world to when Mel Smith started out. This is no small part due to Smith and his contemporaries. His production company Talkback, which he formed with Griff Rhys Jones, has made some of the most extraordinary British comedy of the past 30 years, including Da Ali G Show, I'm Alan Partridge, The Day Today, The Eleven O' Clock Show and Big Train.

It is fantastic living in a country when brilliant people who could go into any walk of life choose comedy - and by doing that manage to shake-up society while making us laugh. It is a sad indictment of modern politics, however, that comedians have done more than politicians have to challenge racism, bigotry and abuses of power in Britain.

In 60 year's time the world will have hopefully forgotten the likes of Jeremy Hunt and Grant Shapps but I'm sure they will still be watching Mel Smith's Head to Head sketches with Griff Rhys Jones and his other performances.


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