Michael Coveney: Mel Smith and other fond farewells in wake of Snoo

I was out of town on Friday and unable to attend Snoo Wilson’s funeral, but my friend Peter Ansorge assures me that Simon Callow was on fine form, in a purple suit, singing Snoo’s praises and recounting their hilarious adventures while researching in Sicily the film about Aleister Crowley they never managed to make.

Frances Barber read from More Light (“There are many heavens, but few as sweet as ours. If you lose me, look for the one very like England.”) And Alan Rickman summoned up the deluge from Darwin’s Flood. Dusty Hughes, once of the Bush Theatre alongside Jenny Topper and Simon Stokes, brought things to a rousing conclusion, the whole affair in Golders Green crematorium done without a hymn or a prayer but peculiar to Snoo and therefore curiously moving and metaphysical as a result, says Peter.

Snoo’s untimely demise prompted three more thespian tragedies as we learned of the passing of two fine actors — Paul Bhattacharjee and Briony McRoberts – and Mel Smith, the comedian, though Mel was absolutely brilliant on stage in his last two acting performances, as Churchill in a play by Mary Kenny at the Edinburgh Festival fringe, and as Michael Ball‘s tubby husband in Hairspray, the musical, at the Shaftesbury. He also directed the definitive version of Peter Straker’s Jacques Brel cabaret.

Mel Smith with Michael Ball in Hairspray
Mel Smith with Michael Ball in Hairspray

Mel, a London bookie’s son who was president of the OUDS at Oxford, started out as an assistant director at the Royal Court, and was best known for his work with Griff Rhys Jones on the BBC TV comedy shows Not the Nine O’Clock News (with Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson) and Alas Smith and Jones. Before then, though, he was part of another double act on stage with the tall, beaky comedy actor Bob Goody – Smith and Goody – before he struck out with Rhys Jones and Goody joined Shared Experience, appearing in the early shows there directed by Mike Alfreds, notably The Arabian Nights and Bleak House.

Bhattacharjee was found at the bottom of some cliffs in East Sussex, McRoberts under a tube train at Fulham Broadway. Immediately, there was story in The Times suggesting that the life of an actor was a particularly lonely one, which seemed a bit glib and also a bit wrong; most actors are by nature gregarious. It was suggested in the Independent, though, that Bhattacharjee had financial worries, having recently been declared a bankrupt in the High Court.

And that sounds doubly sad as he was so regularly employed on both television and stage. But who ever knows what really goes on deep down in our private lives, as Noel Coward said? Bhattacharjee was devoted to his mother and his son, and had a new girlfriend, and was appearing once again at the Royal Court, where I first saw him 35 years ago. He had played Benedick in the West End with Meera Syal as Beatrice for the RSC, and was renowned as probably the leading British Asian actor of his generation, thanks to his crucial association with Jatinder Verma’s Tara Arts; his mother was of Russian Jewish lineage, so he had more mixed blood than most.

Briony McRoberts was a much loved soap star on television, appearing in both EastEnders and Take the High Road, but she was always fierce and bright as a button on stage. She was married to David Robb who plays Doctor Clarkson in Downton Abbey and who, we learn, was a volunteer of some years’ experience with the Samaritans, which may or may not be an indication of Briony’s state of mind. Most people who work for the Samaritans do so altruistically, not because their nearest or dearest needs professional advice or succour.

So that was a particularly bad news week, that was. But the sun’s still shining and everyone’s making long term plans for holidays and the Edinburgh Festival, and short term ones for Barnum at Chichester on Wednesday and All’s Well That Ends Well at Stratford-upon-Avon on Thursday. So, as always, in the midst of death there is life; it’s the suddenness and unexpectedness of last week’s departures that has brought people up short, and there is a great amount of sadness and woe washing around.