An Interview with Griff Rhys Jones
PUBLISHED: 11:49 12 September 2016 | UPDATED: 15:52 12 September 2016
The party’s not over for Griff Rhys Jones. He is about to embark on a theatre tour about life with his much missed comedy partner, Mel Smith. He tells Catherine Larner what to expect
“If you stand on the top diving board for hours, you’ll never go for it,” says Griff Rhys Jones of the challenges he has undertaken in his wide-ranging career. “You just have to jump. And then you go, ‘wow! This is fun, let’s do it again!’”
It’s easy to see how he applies this to his various TV travel programmes. Whether talking about Rivers, Mountain, or A Great Welsh Adventure, he always seems to receive an invitation to jump off a towering building, tall cliff or high bridge. This time he’s talking about his latest venture – a speaking tour in theatres around the country, including two dates in Suffolk, where he lives.
“It’s a cross between a book talk and stand up,” he says, and admits, when we meet, that he is still devising the format, eager to get the right mix of rehearsed and spontaneous entertainment.
“I like to tell stories and I like to make an audience laugh. But it’s not just a series of jokes. It’s got a thread, and I’m doing it because I can. It’s sheer indulgence.” The inspiration and motivation for the tour is to celebrate the time Griff worked with his comedy partner, Mel Smith, who died three years ago.
“I never had such funny times as when I was with Mel,” he says of the 20 years they worked together, first as part of the team on the ground-breaking satirical sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News and then on their own comedy programme, Alas Smith and Jones.
“We were very different personalities. I’ve always been neurotic and slightly obsessive, Mel was very expansive and got on very easily with anybody. It was one of those rather strange relationships. It was rather like being married, or being brothers.” And just as in many marriages, the complete opposites complemented each other. “I invited Mel to my country cottage and he never took his coat off,” Griff wrote in a tribute. “He took me to the races and I read a book. I dragged him sailing and he asked to ‘go in’ when we were halfway home and 30 miles from the nearest port. He loved a drink. I am teetotal. He never carried a credit card. I never have cash. He never went for a walk. I run ten miles a week. He worshipped Stephen Sondheim. I think Sondheim is a pretentious, overrated introvert, who can’t write a tune . . .”
But their performance, and their timing, was intuitive and instinctive, most evident in their head-to-head sketches, which have become iconic. Naturally, having such a close bond, Griff has felt Mel’s loss very keenly.
“Mel was somebody who never wanted to leave a party early. He was usually up until four or five in the morning, long after I had folded my tents and gone home to bed. And now he’s left this party very early.”
Looking back on the material they produced has left Griff nostalgic, wishing that they could work again once more – “but he went and died”.
“Some guys were working on a memorial for Mel,” he goes on, “they said ‘you should have a look at this because it’s one of the funniest things you’ve ever done’.” It was a pilot of a TV show for the BBC and will be shown on Griff’s tour. “It is an amazingly tight piece of work and it’s quite poignant because it’s about a death.”
So, not only will Griff be reminiscing about his time with Mel – the TV shows, the comedy tours, the fame, the friendship – he will also be contemplating the big issues of life and death.
“There is something to be said about the shock you feel when a friend dies at an early age,” he says, looking into the distance. “And what it tells you about getting old.” Getting him to elaborate on the wisdom he has gained is, as you might imagine, difficult.
“Oh, this isn’t deep,” he booms. “I’m 62, and this is the age my grandmother went to the old lady shop and got her old lady stuff and became an old lady. She did it for another 38 years in her case, but it is a phenomenally complicated time. If people think hitting 50 is a big moment, it’s nothing to being 62.”
He and Mel had always assumed they would be spending their dotage performing The Odd Couple in Cromer, he says, despite not working together again after their sketch show came to an end. They sold their company, Talkback Productions, in 2003 for £62m and both pursued different interests, Griff in the theatre, writing books and presenting TV, and Mel in films, directing his former colleague, Rowan Atkinson, in Bean, and Emma Thompson in The Tall Guy.
Now, taking a break from his TV adventures, Griff is returning to the theatre, with a run in the West End from March 2017 of Moliere’s play The Miser. He relishes experiencing the excitement of live performance again.
“When you work in television, you put forward your ideas and see if anyone is interested. I didn’t want to spend my life waiting for them to say yes or no any longer.
“It’s about being in the moment. The point is to look at what you’re doing and say, ‘Is this fun? Am I enjoying myself? Is this life enhancing for me and the audience?’” He hopes that people will find his stories about life with Mel amusing, and that they might also go away thoughtful and challenged, just as he has been about seizing the day. “The nature of comedy for me, and probably for Mel as well, is that if you can’t joke about it, you’re not being serious. Comedy is about rendering things absurd and saying it doesn’t matter.”
The Jones and Smith tour comprises 13 dates nationwide. In Suffolk, he will be at the Riverside Theatre, Woodbridge (September 15) and the Quay Theatre in Sudbury (October 8). Griff will be donating ticket sales to local charities.