Colin's Sandwich: Comedy Legend Mel Smith's Unsung Masterpiece

How a sitcom about an aspiring writer provided the Not The Nine O’Clock News funnyman with his finest six hours...
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How a sitcom about an aspiring writer provided the Not The Nine O’Clock News funnyman with his finest six hours...

It was always going to be hard for the BBC2 tribute Mel Smith – I’ve Sort Of Done Things to do justice to its subject. At barely an hour long, there couldn’t help but be omissions. So while we got to hear about the big man’s career as a movie director, there was no mention of his in-front-of-camera film work, which is a shame given how it swung from the utterly sublime (The Princess Bride) to the insultingly ridiculous (if you’ve half a mind to watch Brain Donors, you’re precisely the sort of person the picture’s aimed at). Also absent was a show that, while it’s never enjoyed half the attention of Not The Nine O’Clock News or Alas Smith & Jones, was every bit as funny as both of them.

The programme in question was Colin’s Sandwich, a late ’80s-early ’90s sitcom starring Jones as Colin Watkins, a British Rail office worker who staves off boredom by writing horror stories. He’s hampered in this cause by colleagues including Grange Hill’s Lee Cornes and The Day Today’s Tony Haase, and endlessly encouraged by his girlfriend Jenny, played by the wonderful Louisa Rix, daughter of Whitehall farce legend Brian. Scripted by Terry Kyan and Paul Smith – regular collaborators to both NTNOCN and Smith & Jones, Colin’s Sandwich mightn’t sound anything special but outside of The Rise And Fall Of Reginald Perrin, no programme has better dealt with the aching frustrations of everyday life. And if you’re someone who writes for a living, or has harboured ambitions to do so, Colin’s Sandwich will speak to you at full volume in Dolby stereo.

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Colin’s rise from flustered clerk to budding screenwriter might have been a bit rushed but it pushed all the right buttons. Kyan and Smith were particularly good at handling the thrill that comes with seeing your first piece published. From phoning the publisher to ensure that his story hasn’t been dropped at the last minute to rushing to Waterstone’s to pick up a copy the moment the doors open and then lapping up the compliments at the launch lunch; every beat rings true. And as for when Colin says that being showered with praise is “better than sex”, he’s only wide of the mark because, in my case at least, I’m really, really good at the sex.

His contribution to The Langley Book Of Horror leads to Colin being courted by Alan Hunter, an Alan Parker-esque writer/director played by Hazell star Nicholas Ball (perhaps not that coincidentally, the ex-husband of NTNOCN’s Pamela Stephenson).  As for the other key figures in Watkins’s life, they include his best mate Mike Grady (Citizen Smith) and his mother played by a pre-One Foot In The Grave Annette Crosbie (Lindsay Duncan’s also very good as Rosemary, the most annoying woman that’s ever lived). But though the supporting cast’s undeniably excellent, everyone had their work cutout for them by Smith, who embraced the chance to escape sketch comedy the way a diabetic might embrace insulin. Whether it was getting dressed while fielding a boring phone conversation, failing to intervene in an attack on a tube train or delivering a poorly received best man’s speech, Melvin Kenneth Smith knew where the gold was and mined it mercilessly. His widely acclaimed flat acting style, meanwhile, lent the British Rail admin sequences an atmosphere not unlike that which

Ricky Gervais

and Stephen Merchant later created for The Office.

Spanning just two series and 12 episodes, Colin’s Sandwich is, for the majority of those old enough to have seen it, but another one of countless half-remembered TV shows. That it’s rarely been considered more than a cult oddity might have something to do with Smith daring to compare the programme with a true television classic, Hancock’s Half Hour. If invoking the lad himself was bound to put backs up, it oughtn’t to prevent audiences from rediscovering Colin’s Sandwich, a sitcom that, were it airing today, would be thought of as furlongs ahead of the opposition. And if for some frankly bizarre reason you’ve never warmed to Mel Smith, this is the show to change your mind. For as it proved how good he was at playing arrogance and self-absorption, Colin’s Sandwich coaxed other, finer qualities from the actor, like vulnerability and charm, the latter never more evident than in the moment when Jenny finds a scrap of paper upon which Colin – having just had his first short story published - has written down his Desert Island Discs.

Colin's Sandwich is available now on DVD