Best of 2006: Mel Smith

""Oh how very smart, how very moral high ground, how very pleased with themselves they are""

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
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Published 09 Jul 2007
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It is Mel Smith’s first day in Edinburgh and something is bothering him. “When I got off the plane last night, there was this big lit-up panel and it said ‘Welcome to a Smoke Free Scotland’, it’s the first thing you see”, his face rolling up into the incredulous ball that so many are familiar with. “I just thought to myself, ‘oh how very smart, how very moral high ground, how very pleased with themselves they are’.“

We are speaking in the Assembly Rooms bar, at the base of the venue where Smith will be walking the boards this week as a cigar puffing Winston Churchill in Mary Kennedy’s “Allegiance”. Having just come out of rehearsals and still dressed in costume, it seems that Smith’s mind is still very much in character as he nurses his drink. “Churchill? He wouldn’t have liked this ban at all. There is a speech in the play where he says ‘I have little liking for these puritans who seek to curb us from smoking and drinking and eating -from pleasure.’ But,” he adds, repeating a comment that has seen the letters page of the Scotsman ablaze with both plaudits and criticism, “what I would say is that Adolf Hitler would have been delighted.”

Despite much publicity indicating the contrary, Mel Smith is not actually here to launch a one-man campaign against the Scottish executive’s decision to ban smoking in public places, legislation that five months down the line is now threatening to land him in hot water should his Churchill choose to light up at any point. When talk turns to the play itself, his face rolls back from incredulousness to a big-lipped smile. “You know, I don’t want to sound glib about it but if I could be doing anything right now it would be this,” he beams. “When I was sent it I was fascinated by the history it represented, by the fact that these two men met.”

Kennedy’s play, chronicling a night in 1921 when the portly great statesman and Michael Collins, leader of the IRA, formed an unlikely bond over alcohol is indeed fascinating. Churchill, at that point, is at one of the lowest ebbs of both his political and personal fortunes. His mother and daughter had both recently died, the First World War was responsible for culling an entire generation and he was becoming increasingly marginalised in parliament. Collins, played by Michael Fassbender, is sent to London on a mission to make progress with the then stagnating cause of Irish independence. “During 1921 with the Irish over here, trying to come to some deal about Irish home rule with the British cabinet things were going absolutely nowhere. It was really at deadlock, just the same old bloody problems,” Smith continues enthusiastically, “and then it was Churchill’s idea to invite Michael Collins to his house that night and have a drink, just the two of them. By the end of that evening they had come to the basic agreement that led to the Irish Free State, which is just remarkable. It’s remarkable when you imagine that Michael Collins sent a message to Churchill from Ireland just before he died saying, “Tell Winston we couldn’t have done it without him”.

When asked about his feelings towards the man who topped a 2002 poll of Great Britons, Smith, who now at 53 is close to Churchill’s age in the play, is quick to emphasise the complexities of a figure that for many epitomises the classic imperialist reactionary. “Yes those things are vaguely true,” he says. ”But there is a whole other side to him, a moralist, a pragmatist and someone who by no means was a warmonger. There is a stereotypical view of what he was like but there was more to him, and therefore as a character to play for an actor it’s very exciting and interesting.” There are also aspects to Churchill that appeal directly to the actor in Smith. “He was also a great speaker. It was something he worked tirelessly on spending at least a day working out all of the rhetorical flourishes. When you listen to those speeches he really has remarkable authority.”

Then we come back to the smoking ban. Many will be eagerly waiting to see if Smith will sufferer for his art and be prosecuted for lighting a cigar on stage. “It would be quite amusing if someone jumped onto the stage and wrestled me to the ground” he says doing an impression of being tackled, making struggling noises and grunting. Smith soon returns to more serious tones. “Lets say I lit a cigar, now I don’t think for a minute that any sensible person is going to stop me”. This rebelliousness continues when he all but confirms, that yes, he will be smoking on stage this week. “You know I do actually trust in human nature a little more than politicians do, in fact the bad ones are the politicians and I can’t stand them. So I will light the cigar just as it says in the script. It’s not going to be the end of the world and I hope that a little common sense prevails”.

Mel Smith, a man who said five years ago “I wouldn’t be bothered if I never did any acting again” is clearly now relishing the prospect of appearing in a play that previews have been tipping to be one of the finest on the Fringe, smoking ban or not. “I don’t really espouse the idea of acting for its own sake but if there is something this interesting I will always do it. It only remains for me to make such a balls up that I really do never act again”, he says, his laugh booming around the bar.

Just before he leaves to return to rehearsals I ask him what he is going to do when the dreaded smoking ban hits London, where he lives, in the summer of 2007. “I don’t know what I will do then”, he says wearily. Then his eyes light up again, some of the Churchillian spirit clearly having rubbed off on him. “We will just have to fight another battle down there won’t we?”