Norbert Smith – a Life
Norbert Smith – a Life is a spoof TV documentary film (a "mockumentary") charting the life and career of the fictitious British actor Sir Norbert Smith. It stars Harry Enfield in the title role. It was written by Harry Enfield and Geoffrey Perkins and directed by Geoff Posner. It was made by Hat Trick Productions for Channel 4 and was first broadcast on 3 November 1989.
The film is presented as if it were an edition of the ITV arts programme The South Bank Show, and features Melvyn Bragg, the presenter of the real South Bank Show, playing himself as the interviewer visiting Sir Norbert at his home, and encouraging him to reminisce about his past career. The humour arises from the fact that although Sir Norbert is acclaimed as one of Britain’s “Knights of the Theatre”, in the mould of a Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud, actually none of his contemporaries has anything particularly good to say about him, and he appears to have had limited success in landing good film roles. Interviewed now in his old age, he is demented, and has confused memories about his past.
The main point of the film, however, is the parodying of various 20th century film genres, through interspersed clips that feature Enfield as Sir Norbert in a variety of film roles.
Parodied film genres
- Oh, Mr Bankrobber! (1936). This is based on the comedy films of Will Hay, and features Peter Goodwright as "Will Silly", with Smith playing the "Albert" character (played by Graham Moffatt in the original films). This sketch is an affectionate homage to the Will Hay films, and the script does not so much parody the originals, as represent their style exactly.
- Rebel Without a Tie (1937). Although the title hints at Rebel Without a Cause, this excerpt is more a parody of pre-war British films, with a strong moralising tone, and possibly with a touch of The Blue Lamp. Smith plays a petty criminal who, after a clip round the ear from a policeman, suddenly sees the error of his ways and is reformed.
- Lullaby of London (1940). In the style of a Busby Berkeley musical. This excerpt pokes fun at Hollywood’s misinformed ideas about Britain, e.g. one lyric is "The Tower of London, where the President of England chopped off the heads of his wives".
- Venereal Disease – the Facts (1941) is a spoof public information film. Smith speaks direct to camera, in deadly earnest, about the dangers of sexually transmitted disease. However, due to the film censorship and prudishness prevalent at the time, he is unable to convey any useful information at all. Any reference to the disease is hidden behind euphemisms such as "unmentionables". The clip has deliberate jump cuts, scratches on the film and clicks on the soundtrack, to make it seem old. This spoof became the basis for the Mr Cholmondley-Warner sketches in Enfield’s subsequent TV sketch shows.
- Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1949), imagined as if Noël Coward had made a film version of it. Smith plays Hamlet/Coward. This spoof had previously appeared in producer Perkins' radio comedy series Radio Active.
- A parody of Brief Encounter (with Smith in the Trevor Howard role). After a few moments it turns out that what we are watching is not a feature film at all, but an advertisement for "Sudso" soap powder.
- They Called Him Stranger (1955). Satirising low-budget British attempts at producing home-grown Westerns in Technicolor.
- Mozart – Man of Music (1957), a historical costume drama.
- Beethoven – Man of Music (1958), and Andrew Lloyd-Webber – Man of Music (1984). Two identical remakes of the Mozart film but with the subject changed to Beethoven and then Lloyd Webber.
- It’s Grim Up North (1962). A spoof of the kitchen sink realism films of the early 1960s, with working class Northern English settings, such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Smith (now Sir Norbert) plays the father of a poor working class household, unable to exert any authority over his family, and over his rebellious adult son in particular: "If I find out who's taken my belt, I'll take my bloody belt to them".
- Keep Your Hair On, Daddio (1962). A parody of early 1960s films featuring Cliff Richard, in particular The Young Ones. The Cliff Richard character is portrayed here as "Davey Throb". Sir Norbert plays Throb’s father, unable to appreciate the new beat music performed by Throb and his friends, but he finally grows to love the music scene, and joins in.
- Rover Returns Home (1964). Poor British attempt at replicating the American Lassie films. This excerpt pokes fun at the acting "versatility" of Michael Caine, as it is implied that Caine plays the role of the dog Rover, dressed up in a dog suit.
- Head to Head. A parody of the TV interview series Face to Face, where interviewer John Freeman famously unsettled his guests by asking deeply personal questions. In this spoof Cyril Freebody throws insults rather than questions at Sir Norbert, e.g. "all the films you've been in have been total rubbish, and the last three made me physically vomit".
- Dogs of Death. All-action World War II epic featuring a cast of veteran actors, parodying films such as The Wild Geese. By now Sir Norbert has a drink problem, and his fellow cast-members appear to be similarly afflicted: they are Richard Smashed, Dick Booze, Oliver Guinness and Peter O’Pissed (references to hell-raising actors Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Peter O'Toole). Sir Norbert drinks heavily on set, and in a two-way dialogue scene his glass has been re-filled each time the camera returns to him.
- Carry on Banging. Excerpt from a Carry-On film, whose setting is the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp of the 1980s. This sketch features three actors from the genuine Carry On series: Barbara Windsor, Jack Douglas and Kenneth Connor.
- Martha (1983). Sir Norbert plays a British butler, similar to Sir John Gielgud’s role in the film Arthur.
- A biopic of Nelson Mandela, with Sir Norbert putting on blackface make-up for the title role. When asked by Bragg why Sir Norbert cast himself in this role, despite public criticism, Sir Norbert replies “well, Sir Alec Guinness simply wasn’t available”. Enfield would later play an affectionate parody of Mandela in his sketch show Harry & Paul.
A VHS video version was released by Polygram Video in July 1991. The film has not been re-issued since, and is not available on DVD release.