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Griffiths, Richard Thomasfree

(1947–2013)
  • Alex Jennings

Richard Thomas Griffiths (1947–2013)

by Steve Shipman, c.1990

(1947–2013), actor, was born on 31 July 1947 at 1 Garden Place, Thornaby-on-Tees, Yorkshire, the elder surviving son of Thomas Griffiths (1916–1976), a steel fixer, who also fought in pubs for money, and his wife, Jane, née Denmark (b. 1919), a shop worker. His parents also had two stillborn children, and a daughter who died only days after her birth. Both his parents were deaf and mute, and he learned sign language at an early age in order to communicate with them. He would later describe the poverty and hardship of his childhood as loathsome and Dickensian. 'I was big and fat and had weird parents', he said (The Independent, 8 Jan 2011).

Griffiths was educated at Our Lady and St Bede Roman Catholic Boys' Secondary Modern School, in Stockton-on-Tees, and said that his time there was a 'pathetic shambles' (The Independent, 10 Oct 2006). He frequently ran away from home, and dropped out of school at the age of fifteen, working for a while as a porter on the fruit and veg. counter in the Stockton branch of Littlewoods department store, until his manager persuaded him to go back to school, with the warning that otherwise he would never amount to anything. As a child he wanted to be a painter, but having attended evening drama classes at Stockton and Billingham Technical College, and finally armed with some qualifications, he studied drama at the Northern College of Music (later Manchester Polytechnic). In 1970 he graduated with a first class degree, and joined the BBC Radio Drama Company, having won the Carleton Hobbs Award as best student radio actor of his year. He then worked with the Orchard Theatre Company in Devon, toured Northern Ireland with the Interplay Theatre Company, and played at the Library Theatre in Manchester. He made his television debut in an episode of Crown Court in 1974, and the following year played a small role in his first film, It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet. In 1973 he met (Mary) Heather Gibson, when they were both appearing in Lady Windermere's Fan in Ireland, and they were married in 1980.

It was at this time that Griffiths was spotted by Trevor Nunn, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The company experienced a golden age under Nunn's leadership, and Griffiths stayed for ten years, from 1974 to 1984. He quickly gained a reputation as a sublimely delicate, and (not an easy thing) a genuinely funny Shakespearean clown. He started in small roles, playing the Nurse's servant in Romeo and Juliet, the asp-bearing Clown to Glenda Jackson's Cleopatra, Trinculo in The Tempest, and 'big-bummed Pompey' in Measure for Measure. In Nunn's joyful musical re-imagining of The Comedy of Errors, he was mesmerising in the virtually wordless role of the Officer, resplendent and hilarious in Greek national dress: short skirt, white tights, and with pompoms on his turned-up shoes. Griffiths soon graduated to leading roles; he was an enchanted and enchanting Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1977); sweet and romantically flustered as the King of Navarre in John Barton's beautifully autumnal Love's Labour's Lost (1978); Lariosik in Bulgakov's The White Guard (1979), for which he won the Clarence Derwent Award as best supporting actor; and George Lewis, the innocent abroad who ends up running Hollywood, in Nunn's scintillating revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's vintage Broadway comedy, Once in a Lifetime (1979).

In the early 1980s television and film work also came Griffiths's way. He had leading roles in sitcoms with Elaine Stritch (Nobody's Perfect in 1980) and Frances de la Tour (A Kind of Living in 1988). There were dramatic leads too, notably as Henry Jay, a humble civil servant caught up in a computer conspiracy, in Bird of Prey (1982), and as Henry Crabbe, the 'disillusioned policeman and pie chef extraordinaire', in the hugely popular Pie in the Sky (1994–7). Other television work included another chef, the grotesque Swelter, in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast (2000). On film, throughout the 1980s, Griffiths played a string of supporting roles for some of the major directors of the time: Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire, 1981, and Greystoke, 1984), Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant's Woman, 1981), Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, 1982), Lindsay Anderson (Britannia Hospital, 1982); and in Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I (1987) he gave an unforgettable performance as the lascivious and predatory Uncle Monty, intent on deflowering his nephew's cute friend, declaring 'I mean to have you, boy, even if it must be burglary'.

Despite continuous work on both small and large screens, Griffiths never abandoned the stage, and in 1983 he returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company, to play Shakespeare's Henry VIII and Ben Jonson's Volpone. In the 1990s he gave fine performances at the Almeida Theatre, as Leone Gala in Pirandello's The Rules of the Game (1992), as Brecht's Galileo (1993), and as Captain Shotover in David Hare's production of Shaw's Heartbreak House (1997), which, Hare recalled, 'brought out a mix of the effortlessly breezy and the impenetrably dark which was his stage hallmark' (The Guardian, 30 March 2013).

Griffiths began his association with Alan Bennett playing ‘Factory Boss’ in Afternoon Off on television in 1979, and gave a lovely performance as Allardyce, the town accountant who forms a special bond with the hidden and unlicensed pig, in Bennett's film A Private Function (1984). In 2004 at the National Theatre, he created the role of Hector, the flawed but inspirational teacher of Bennett's The History Boys, in a production by Nicholas Hytner that became a huge international success. Griffiths's performance was, said Hytner, 'overwhelming: a masterpiece of wit, delicacy, mischief and desolation' (BBC website, 29 March 2013). In London this won the Olivier Award and all the critics' prizes, and he repeated that success in 2006 in New York, winning the Tony and Drama Desk Awards, and on film.

By this time Griffiths had gained global recognition as the vile Vernon Dursley, Harry's foster father, in the Harry Potter movies (2001–11). He was a babyish George II in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), and was Monsieur Frick in Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011). In the theatre he played opposite Daniel Radcliffe, who was the boy wizard in the Potter films, in Thea Sharrock's revival of Peter Shaffer's Equus (2007) in London and New York; in 2009 he returned to the National, as an actor playing W. H. Auden in Bennett's play-within-a-play, The Habit of Art. He made his final appearance, he and Danny DeVito playing a pair of crusty vaudevillians, in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (2012).

It was sad, but perhaps inevitable, that comment on Griffiths's physical shape and size went hand in hand with any critical appreciation or mention in the gossip columns. As a child he had been skinny, 'pasty and whey-faced' (Desert Island Discs), and, aged eight, underwent sunlamp treatment for a faulty pituitary gland. His metabolism slowed, he said, resulting in a huge gain in weight. At school the bullied little boy fought back, and that mixture of anger and vulnerability fuelled his work and his life. He could be cantankerous: late in his career he gained notoriety for ticking off, understandably, and in no uncertain terms, audience members who had forgotten to turn off their mobile phones; and he said that he wished 'all actors over 55' could slap the faces of any 'young, beautiful, successful upstart' with a wet, three pound salmon; '“That's for being so lucky, you bastard!” he would shout' (Daily Variety, 11 Dec 2006).

Griffiths was an actor of grace and delicacy. The kindness, gentleness, curiosity, intelligence, and melancholic crankiness of his huge personality infused the humanity of his creations. He was held in great affection by public and colleagues alike, and among his army of friends that affection was as much for his legendary loquacity, perhaps a result of the silence of his childhood, as for the repertoire of side-splitting anecdotes that had no end, and that could only be stopped, if stop they did, by walking away. The critic John Lahr wrote, 'It is always a pleasure to be in the company of the wry Mr Griffiths, a big man with a big heart' (New Yorker, 6 Oct 2008).

Once asked in an interview about his choice of gravestone epitaph, Griffiths replied, 'Richard Griffiths. Actor. Born 1947. Died 2947' (The Guardian, 29 Sept 2006). It was not to be. He died from complications following heart surgery, on 28 March 2013, at University Hospital, Coventry (having lived latterly in Bearley, near Stratford-upon-Avon). In a rare tribute all the theatres in London's West End dimmed their lights to honour him. It was somehow fitting that his funeral was held at Shakespeare's church, Holy Trinity, in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was survived by his wife.

Sources

  • New Yorker (6 Oct 2008)
  • obituary, BBC News website, 29 March 2013, www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21975321, 6 Sept 2016
  • New York Times (29 March 2016)
  • The Times (30 March 2013)
  • Independent on Sunday (31 March 2013)
  • National Post (3 April 2013)
  • Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com/name/nm0341743, 6 Sept 2016
  • WW (2013)
  • personal knowledge (2017)
  • private information (2017)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, performance and interview footage
  • documentary, interview, and performance footage, www.youtube.com

Sound

  • BL NSA, performance and documentary recordings
  • Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 8 Jan 2006, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0093w1l

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1984, Moviestore Collection / Alamy
  • S. Shipman, bromide print, 1990, NPG [see illus.]
  • I. Gavan, photograph, 2011, Getty Images
  • D. Wooller, photograph, 2012, Shutterstock / Rex Features
  • obituary photograph
(1849–)