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SMITH, MEL: BEAN

NOT THE NINE O'CLOCK SMITH
Mel Smith is best known for his hilarious on-screen jibes in such landmark television shows as the classic Not the Nine O'Clock News and Alas Smith and Jones. But the chubby-faced comic is now busy behind the camera, teaming up with TV alumni Rowan Atkinson to directed Bean - the movie. Mel Smith talks to PAUL FISCHER.

Bean, the movie derivation of the immensely popular Mr Bean television show, may indeed have taken over $1 million in its first weekend at the Australian box office, but for its director, actor/writer Mel Smith, it was a case of the film that almost got away. "I'd never been a huge fan of the TV series, nor had I ever directed any of the TV shows. I also hadn't touched base with Rowan for quite a while and besides, I kinda assumed that it was underway and all the people appointed to work on it. It never crossed my mind that it would come up."

But old pal Atkinson did contact Smith. "They'd been working on ideas for a script for some years before they contacted me, and I think they needed some sort of a sounding board." Smith might not have been "the world's number one Bean fan", but he was intrigued enough with the film to stick with it. "It was important from the outset that all of us concerned with the film would have to REALLY want to do it, and therefore be very hard on ourselves in the way the character would reach the big screen."

"We always knew that, ultimately, if you try and make a movie that is movie-sized, you're going to be interested in the American market."

Some conscious changes were made to Bean's character and situation. "We knew we had to do little bits with the character, such as give consequences to his actions." They also had to broaden the film's appeal, so a cynic might argue that setting it in Los Angeles was more to do with marketing than art. "I think it's a mixture of both and to say anything else would be a lie. But having said that, it's not as if we all sat around and said: now we've GOT to appeal to Americans. We always knew that, ultimately, if you try and make a movie that is movie-sized, you're going to be interested in the American market."

In the movie, Bean, a lazy art gallery security guard, is sent to Los Angeles by scheming colleagues wanting to be rid of him, to be taken for a brilliant doctor and art expert, there to lecture on an important American painting acquired and returned ‘home’. Bean stays with the gallery's curator, and subsequently causes mayhem at every turn.

"I wanted the film to be a little bit surprising, as well as rich and buffed up."

"Filmically, it was great to shoot in Los Angeles because of the contrast it provided. If you look at the TV show, it is fundamentally grey, suburban and lots of close-ups. I wanted the film to be a little bit surprising, as well as rich and buffed up." He also allowed the character to speak more than TV audiences are used to.

"It would have been deadly boring otherwise." And how did the American actors react to working with the inimitable Mr Atkinson? "Well, surprisingly, they were all great fans of his, so they took to it all like ducks to water."

After university, Smith went into professional theatre, working as a straight theatre director for six years, an experience, which left him bitter after a falling out with the New Vic theatre company. "I had nothing to do so I'd written this two-man show with this mate of mine who was an actor, and we took it to the Edinburgh Festival. That's when my performance juices finally started flowing."

"It really was life-changing. If it hadn't been for that, I'd probably be out running the Royal Shakespeare Company."

Smith gained some notoriety on the trend-setting comedy "Not the Nine O'Clock News" (1979-82) with Griff Rhys-Jones, Pamela Stevenson and Rowan Atkinson. The series was an irreverent satirical revue that ran the gamut from purely tasteless to memorably brilliant. "I took that job, as much as anything else, because I was offered 100 pounds a program to do it, and I was out of work at the time." Which was fortunate, and it certainly was an experience that changed his life. "It really was life-changing. If it hadn't been for that, I'd probably be out running the Royal Shakespeare Company."

Smith teamed with Rhys-Jones to write and star in the top-rated sketch comedy program Alas Smith and Jones, now in its 11th season, "and I'm pleased to say that it's still at the top of the ratings."

Smith played character parts in films before making the transition to feature directing with "The Tall Guy" (1989), a pleasantly quirky comedy starring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson: "I'm credited with being the first director to get Emma to get her gear off."

(No such luck with Bean, eh? - Ed.)

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Mel Smith


On the set with actors Rowan Atkinson (left) and Peter MacNicol (centre)


Getting into the act in the operating room

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See Paul Fischer's interview with Rowan Atkinson







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