Last 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.