Check Out Norbert Smith: A Life

Norbert Smith: A LifeLast week on The Majority Report, Sam Seder mentioned on old mockumentary, Norbert Smith: A Life. It is a direct parody of the British series The South Bank Show. In fact, the host of the show, Melvyn Bragg, is the host of Norbert Smith. So a good deal of effort was put into making it all seem like the real thing.

It tells the story of now 80 year old acting giant, Norbert Smith. He is not quite as with it as he once was. Early on, Smith talks about working with a young John Gielgud as a horse in “The Scottish Pantomime.” This is a reference a theatrical superstition where one must refer to Macbeth as “The Scottish Play,” or disaster will plague the production. When Bragg asks Smith about the name, Smith replies, “That’s not its real name, of course. I never say it’s real name. Oh no! I never say its real name because, you see, I can’t remember it.”

The movie is filled with these kinds of things. And they are generally very funny. But the focus of it is on scenes from things Smith performed in when he was younger. His first film role in a kind of Abbott and Costello film, opposite “Will Silly.” But later ones get very embarrassing, like an Elvis knockoff where Smith plays the father.

Apparently, the film didn’t do well in the UK because it came out right after Laurence Olivier died. And there is more than enough in the film to argue that Smith is primarily modeled after Olivier. Part of that is just that the actor (also co-writer) who played Smith, Harry Enfield, seems like Olivier. But there are also a number of similarities to Olivier’s career. The biggest is his career as a director.

This sets up what is probably my favorite bit in the film: his production of Hamlet, which he co-wrote with Noël Coward. I’m sure you can imagine, but it makes me laugh just to think of it. Smith also produced a series of films on great composers, where he showed his usual level of creativity: Mozart: Man of Music, Beethoven: Man of Music, and finally, Andrew Lloyd Webber: Man of Music. We get to see the same scene from each of these great productions.

No biographical documentary would be complete without some obstacle that was overcome, and Norbert Smith is no exception. In his case, it is alcoholism. And this sets up one of the best parodies of the lot, The Dogs of Death. It’s one of those old World War II movies that give stars lots of latitude to mug for the camera. But his costars were: Richard Smashed, Dick Booze, Oliver Guiness, and Peter O’Pissed.

Now you might be thinking that this all sounds very silly. It is. That may explain why I like it so much. But it is also the reason it works so well as a parody of a whole genre of television documentary. They are silly themselves. You can’t really shoehorn a person’s life into a three act structure without falling into these kinds of cliches, and Norbert Smith: A Life skewers them.


I’ve put together a playlist so you can watch the whole thing. I highly recommend it. It is one of the funniest things I’ve seen recently.

22 thoughts on “Check Out Norbert Smith: A Life

        • That’s brilliant. It’s also not that much of an exaggeration of what is still thought by some men. It’s also great that she’s exactly right about the gold standard and for exactly the right reason. The men have no reasons, of course. That’s better than today’s gold bugs who have plenty of “reasons.”

          • It also clearly illustrates the difficulties women have in discussing anything of importance to them or in general with men. You have to pick your battles as a woman on when you are going to fight something or back down for the sake of peace and not suffer the social (and as shown sometimes physical) consequences of being “unfeminine.”

            I once had a discussion with a gold bug and he could not explain why it was sensible to use a finite object with both social and industrial uses as a basis of for exchange of other objects of value. I knew why he wanted to have gold as the standard but I was curious to see if he did.

            • I’ve seen women get short shrift to my advantage in meetings. I find it very upsetting. Culturally, men don’t tend to even see it. Of course, I’ve been on the other side where big, loud men get listened to. So I have a taste of it. If I were a women, I probably would have been a terrorist — or at least a terror.

              What I’ve never managed to get out of gold bugs is why they think there is less inflation on the gold standard. The truth is that prices have been far more stable since we went off it than ever before. The closest I’ve ever heard to an explanation is a conspiracy theory: inflation actually is really high — just look at the price of milk!

              • It is surprising how used to it you get as a woman. Luckily though there is 3rd and 4th wave feminists who do not like it and are young enough to not care about having to fight the battle. After a certain number of years you just give up and start going along to get along and I am getting into that age.

                They think there is less inflation because most of them have never been on a gold standard and have no understanding of history-economic or otherwise. It is like do you not know about the Gold Ring or the 1907 panic that freaked everyone out over how much power JP Morgan had? And that is just the stuff I know from reading odd chunks of American history. There are probably a lot more examples I cannot think of because I don’t know the history.

                • I remember Krugman writing about how gold bugs don’t know history, but they do all know these very specific, very obscure bits of history that supposedly show we should be on the gold standard. Of course, when you look, they don’t show that at all. They are just a kind of smokescreen.

                  • I spent about eight hours today with three libertarians and it was startling how little anyone brought up statutes, history, data or other information that can be backed up.

                    But they sure did have their opinions based on nothing at all.

                    • I misread that as “librarians.” I thought, “That doesn’t sound like librarians!” Yes, well, libertarians…

                    • I have never really hung out with librarians. The one I did, well…lets say he is an asshole and leave it at that.

                    • The only libertarians I can deal with are I call pot libertarians. I would never blame someone for being a libertarian because they want their drugs. I figure if I give them their drugs, they will mellow out.

                    • And we all could use some mellowing out, this is true.

                      One of the things we discussed was pay day lenders. They were pretty much against them yet they acknowledged they shouldn’t be because if they were real libertarians they would be okay with them. I pointed out that being against some government management of the economy doesn’t mean it turns off their empathy.

                    • That’s typical of the total lack of practical thought among libertarians. It doesn’t matter that people have theoretical rights when they have none practically. It’s good they showed empathy. There’s hope!

                    • I found that pointing out that rights may be natural but they sure are not free tends to drive libertarians nuts. And since I enjoy that, I point it out.

                    • Sounds like a game we could start: Torture the Libertarian. The only problem is that it is torture to play as well.

                    • Maybe for you but I enjoy tormenting them since I like researching why they are wrong.

  1. Thanks for that – I’d heard of it, but never seen it (though, being in Britain, parts 2-4 have been blocked on copyright grounds by Channel 4 who originally broadcast it, though pt 1 and 5 escaped that for some reason).

    ‘Will Silly’ in “Oh Mr. Bankrobber!” is based on Will Hay in ‘Oh Mr. Porter!‘; and I was laughing out loud at ‘Carry On Bombing’ in the final bit, in which the other speaking parts were taken by actors from the real Carry On films (comedies of highly variable quality, with lots of innuendo and bad puns, but occasionally decent parodies of other genres).

    • That’s for that info! The Will Silly clip actually reminded me more of Three Stooges, but most people associate them with the violence and not their fast paced rhetoric, which they were really good at. Anyway, I will have to check out Will Hay.

  2. I dont think there is any specific thesp aimed at here – Norbert is there almagam of Olivier, Geilgud and Business but without the success of any of them. Will Sil!y is I think a parody of Will Hay rather than Abbot and Costello. It’s probably the best thing Harry Enfield has ever done, though not that well known. Certainly deserves to be better known, so than you for the boost!

    • I agree that it isn’t going after anyone in particular. But the character does come off most like Olivier. You are right about Will Silly. Barney noted that it was a parody of Hay’s film, Oh Mr. Porter! I agree with you. I like other stuff that Enfield has done, but none of it has been as great as this.

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