How loss of Mel Smith prompted Griff Rhys Jones to try stand-up comedy

Comedian, broadcaster and actor, Griff Rhys Jones brings his new stand-up show All Over the Place to Leeds City Varieties tomorrow. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Griff Rhys Jones his bringing his tour to City Varieties in Leeds
Griff Rhys Jones his bringing his tour to City Varieties in Leeds

Griff Rhys Jones is having a busy year. Just over 12 months since his last stand-up show Where Was I? went down a storm with audiences in the UK and Australia, he is back out on the road again with All Over the Place.

“That just about sums me up,” laughs the veteran comedian, broadcaster, actor and writer. “What I really love doing is rambling on, so the show kind of wanders hither and thither and is very anecdotal.” Audiences can expect to hear plenty of true stories, observations on family life and celebrity including his encounters with the rich, famous and royal – and, inevitably as a man of a certain age, details of some of his recent medical procedures.

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Jones’ career got off to a flying start with overnight success in his twenties as part of Not the Nine O’Clock News, a topical sketch show in which he performed alongside Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson and Mel Smith. He went on to form a long-standing comedy partnership with Smith, who also became a very close friend. Their double act featured in the hugely popular and successful BBC TV series Alas Smith and Jones and later Smith and Jones which ran from 1984 to 1998; together they also set up the production company Talkback.

Poignantly, the reason that Jones began to try out stand-up for the first time was in part due to Smith’s death in 2013. “After Mel died I was asked to go and talk about him at a literary festival and I found I really enjoyed it,” says Jones. “Then I went on tour partly to show a pilot we had made and forgotten about and I thought if I took it with me I could get more people to see it than ever would have done on BBC2.” The result was a show of two halves – with Jones introducing and chatting followed by a full screening of the video. “It was maybe a little strange for the audience,” he admits now, chuckling. “But I found I had more and more stories to tell and by the end of the tour the film screening had been reduced to a few excerpts.”

In recent years Jones has become known for his travel documentaries and this was the starting point for Where Was I? “I realised that a lot of people don’t necessarily remember Not the Nine O’Clock News or the stuff I did with Mel and probably just think of me as one of those middle aged men they see on television talking about travelling.” (He has, he says, frequently been mistaken for Michael Palin). “So the show became about travel and all aspects of it.”

His current tour, with All Over the Place, kicked off in July and continues until the end of November, stopping off at City Varieties tomorrow. So far it has been going well and Jones says he has enjoyed the challenge of putting himself out there solo over the past few years. “Mel and I were TV performers so it is quite different interacting with a live audience. I undertook this in order to learn how to do stand-up, it’s been a really interesting learning curve.”

This desire to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ seems to have been a feature of his career. “I have always been very greedy for new experiences,” he says. “I have spent a lot of time grabbing anything that comes along and then being scared.” It seems to have paid off. Over the past few months he’s completed travel documentaries in New Zealand and Australia, taken a part in Midsomer Murders and once the comedy tour finishes he’ll be heading to the Lowry to begin rehearsals for their festive show the musical How the Grinch Stole Christmas. “I’m slightly busier than I intended,” he says. “But I’ve always found it’s better to be busy than sitting around worrying about whether or not you are doing anything.”

And he is looking forward to coming to Leeds again. “I love the City Varieties, it is a place with so much history, it feels like such a privilege to perform there.”

Griff Rhys Jones is at City Varieties, Leeds on September 13.