Opinion: Dynamic Duos – The Secret of Successful Double Acts

Smith & Jones

Interesting to read about Griff Rhys Jones paying tribute to Mel Smith in the Radio Times this week while also pointing out how different they were. “I invited Mel to my country cottage and he never took his coat off. 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…"

This was not to imply that they didn't get on. Just that their personalities were chalk and cheese. What they did, of course have in common, was a laser-guided, razor sharp sense of humour. Whenever they were presented with a “real cracker” of a joke, Griff recalled, “we both loved it, equally and unequivocally. We knew what it wanted and how to do it”.

In fact the fact that they were not necessarily on the same wavelength outside their comedy partnership might have been what made their onscreen chemistry gel so well. Showbiz history is littered with genius double acts who had their differences once the cameras were turned off. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's friendship was probably one of the strangest relationships in comedy. Very close at times, but also at times hugely competitive, whether in terms of career or bedding women.

The thing about Smith and Jones is that they were one of those double acts who never seemed like an umbilically-joined double act in the same way that, say, Lee & Herring were or Vic & Bob were when they broke through. They came together initially as part of a quartet on Not The Nine O'Clock and then span off into their own series, but they also did their own thing, orbiting separately and occasionally colliding to everyone's delight. One of the shows that Smith did that did not get much of a mention in his obituaries was the great Colin's Sandwich in which he played an existentially dreamy British Rail employee. Smith also directed movies while Griff Rhys Jones appeared onstage among other places. I remember seeing him in a very funny Dario Fo play, Trumpets & Raspberries.

The cliche about double acts is that they are like marriages without the sex. If that's the case maybe the most successful ones are the ones where partners are allowed to play away. David Baddiel has even played away to the extent of having two different double act partners, Rob Newman and Frank Skinner, separately though, otherwise that would be some kind of double act bigamy. In recent years Armstrong & Miller (who split for a while and then got back together, like the Burton & Taylor of comedy duos) and Mitchell & Webb both seem happy to spread themselves around.

The only outstanding exception to this rule of thumb that double acts work best when they have room to breathe seems to be Morecambe and Wise (I'm not counting Little & Large, Cannon & Ball etc as I don't really think they were in the M&W league). I'm not aware of anything of note on screen or stage that Eric did without Ernie. The only clip I've ever seen of Eric solo is his very last performance the night he died, a strange Q&A thing with Stan Stennett. Elsewhere The Two Ronnies did their own things, Fry and Laurie did little bits without each other. Lucas and Walliams have worked on their own projects as well as together. As with Smith and Jones, it seems that the double act that doesn't always play together still stays in our memory together.

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