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Griffith, Kenneth Reginaldlocked

(1921–2006)
  • Dennis Barker

Griffith, Kenneth Reginald (1921–2006), actor and documentary film-maker, was born Kenneth Reginald Griffiths on 12 October 1921 at his paternal grandparents' home, Rhos Cottage, Church Park, Tenby, Pembrokeshire, the son of Harold Sydney Griffiths, railway booking clerk, and his wife, Margaret (Peggy), née Davies. Six months after his birth his parents went their separate ways, leaving him behind with his Wesleyan Methodist grandparents, Ernest and Emily Griffiths. As a boy he showed some indications of the individualistic film-maker and presenter he was to become, wheedling, hectoring, and incredulous at the world's folly and duplicity. He felt himself to be always the odd man out, 'not so much at the bottom of the hierarchy as slightly to the side of it' (Griffith, 11). He attended Tenby council school and gorged on films, especially Ben Hur, at the Royal Gate House cinema, imitating the actions of the players for fellow junior school pupils. At Greenhill grammar school, Tenby, his talent for acting was encouraged by his English teacher, Evelyn Ward. When he was fifteen the headmaster, J. T. Griffith, told him that if he wanted to become an actor he should change his name to Griffith, since Griffiths was an Anglicization.

Though his mother, who had reappeared, found a job for him in an ironmonger's shop in Cambridge, Griffith did not like the job. He soon found the Festival Theatre on the Newmarket Road, presented himself at the stage door, auditioned twice, and at the age of sixteen was given the part of Cinna in a modern-dress Julius Caesar. The director of the local repertory company saw the play and offered him the part of the cheeky office boy in London Wall. During the summer season he played the sinisterly plausible and murderous psychopath Danny in Night Must Fall; intangibly threatening and odd characters were to become his forte.

Turned down for the weekend pilots scheme for the RAF City of London air squadron (he had displayed his ruthless regard for the truth by telling the recruiters that he was 'prepared' rather than 'keen' to fly), Griffith was accepted as a student at St Martin's School of Art in London and carried on acting, Emlyn Williams giving him a small role as a coachman in The Corn is Green. His first part for the cinema was in the film of Eden Phillpotts's play The Farmer's Wife (1941). While rehearsing Macbeth at Burnley for a production by Tyrone Guthrie, who was to become a mentor, he volunteered a second time for the RAF. At last called up, he carried a copy of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf with him for the remainder of the Second World War, because he wanted 'to understand fully what the war was about' (Griffith, 68), an early illustration of his indifference to other people's possible view of him. Suffering from scarlet fever, he was invalided out in 1942. Having recovered, he then toured Britain as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. At a cadets' ball in Stratford upon Avon he had, meanwhile, met Joan Mary Stock, a schoolteacher a year his senior, daughter of Archibald George Stock, journalist. They were married in Heysham parish church on 11 March 1944, and had two sons.

During the latter stages of the Second World War, Griffith appeared with Guthrie's Old Vic company at Liverpool in a number of plays, including The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, Scandal at Barchester, and John Gabriel Borkman. Following the Old Vic's return to London he remained with the company. He was due to play the poet Villon, the major role in The Other Heart, in 1951, but Hugh Hunt (Guthrie's successor) decided instead to assign Alan Badel to the role, offering Griffith a smaller part. Griffith regretted accepting it, and his meagre facility for compromise shrank even further. When he went to South Africa with the Old Vic one member of the company was Doria Noar, whom he married following his divorce from his first wife, Joan; they had one daughter, the actress Eva Griffith.

As an actor Griffith preferred the cinema to the theatre, and in a career lasting more than fifty years he appeared, often in warped, threatening, or eccentric roles, in some eighty or more films, including Private's Progress (1956), Lucky Jim (1957), I'm All Right Jack (1959), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Wild Geese (1978), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), and The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain (1995). He also enjoyed a long career in television, from The Shop at Sly Corner (1946), to The Prisoner (1967–8), to Holby City (2003). He claimed that he saw these film and television parts as a plumber might see his job.

It was after Griffith was interviewed on the British–Boer conflict on BBC television's Tonight programme in 1964 that Huw Wheldon and David Attenborough asked him to make a film about any one of his enthusiasms. Griffith suggested the siege and relief of Ladysmith, resulting in Soldiers of the Widow (1967), which he wrote and presented, and in which he acted most of the roles (as he did with most of his documentaries). From that point he was able to turn his desire to tilt at received opinion into his life's work. Inevitably, however, his career as a film-maker was marked by controversies and conflicts. In 1973 he made Hang Up Your Brightest Colours, about the Irish nationalist Michael Collins, for Lew Grade's ATV company, but the Independent Broadcasting Authority asked Grade not to submit it to them (because they did not want to have to refuse him permission to screen it). Griffith included a reference to the 'suppression' of this documentary in his Who's Who entry, and in 1974 made The Public's Right to Know, dealing also with the problems encountered in making a documentary on Lord Baden-Powell, as a result of the trade union boycott of South Africa. (Griffith himself had joined the actors' union, Equity, only under protest.) His film about Napoleon, The Man on the Rock (1975), would have been less controversial had he not seen himself as Napoleon's advocate. As part of the bicentenary in 1976 he was asked by the American Broadcasting Corporation to make a film about the American War of Independence, but he found his script emasculated and the title changed. His projected film in the late 1970s called Curious Journey, based on talking to IRA survivors of the Easter rising and Anglo-Irish War, was taken up by Harlech Television, but predictably ran into trouble; Harlech later offered him all rights for 1d. provided the company's name was taken off the film.

In the 1980s Griffith's clashes with authority continued. His film about Tom Paine for BBC Wales, The Most Valuable Englishman Ever (1982), had been opposed behind the scenes, and he believed that attempts had been made to dissuade BBC commissioning editors from using him in future. When Channel 4 approached him, he suggested a film on William Gladstone and Paul Kruger, having already come to the view that the Afrikaners had been unfairly maligned by the British. Two weeks later his business partner David Swift was told by a Channel 4 executive, 'Kenneth can't work here'. Asked by Indira Gandhi to make a film about her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, he filmed all over the country. The resultant film, But I Have Promises to Keep (1989), was suppressed and not screened until 1993. He was in even worse diplomatic difficulties when he planned a film on the life of Dr Ambedkar, the political leader of India's untouchables. He was obstructed in his efforts to film in India itself, with the result that the film was not made, though Thames Television paid his salary in full. Zola Budd: the Girl Who Didn't Run (1989) was about the Afrikaner barefoot runner who had twice broken the women's 5000 metre world record, then after taking British citizenship had competed for England, only to be suspended by the International Amateur Athletics Association for supposedly running in an event in South Africa. Griffith, who quixotically saw her as a victim, wrote that 'there are no bigger racists than the Blacks' (Griffith, 362), and similarly disparaged western left-wingers who supported what he regarded as persecution of her.

Altogether Griffith made over twenty documentaries. In 1993 he had one made about himself, called The Tenby Poisoner, an epithet given to him by the Welsh writer Alun Richards. Roy Davies, head of BBC Wales's documentaries department, also made sure his long-banned film Hang Up Your Brightest Colours was screened as part of a season of Griffith documentaries, resulting in death threats against him by protestant unionists. But he found that his one real problem was what he called 'this support and expression of approbation' (Griffith, 384). He had grown so used to vetoes, opposition, and denunciation, that friendly approval temporarily threatened his raison d'être, which was to use the truth as he perceived it to shake up establishments of any kind. Late in life he said, 'I've been accused of being a Marxist, a fascist, a traitor and probably worst in most people's eyes, inconsistent. I was a radical Socialist. I'm now a radical Tory. It has been a very painful journey' (The Times, 21 Oct 1992). His autobiography, The Fool's Pardon, was published in 1994.

Griffith's third marriage, to Carole Hagar (with whom he had a son and a daughter), ended, like the first two, in divorce, after which he had relationships lasting two years with Madeline Bell, a singer, and seven years with Margret Kopala (b. 1945), a Canadian-born BBC production assistant (and later a conservative activist in Canada). He died at his home, 110 Englefield Road, Islington, London, on 25 June 2006, from the effects of Alzheimer's disease and diabetes. He was survived by his five children.

Sources

  • K. Griffith, The fool's pardon (1994)
  • The Independent (26 June 2006)
  • The Times (27 June 2006)
  • Daily Telegraph (27 June 2006)
  • The Guardian (27 June 2006)
  • WW (2006)
  • personal knowledge (2010)
  • private information (2010)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert. [1944]
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • NL Wales, Emyr Humphreys papers

Film

  • BFINA, current affairs footage
  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, performance footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, performance recordings

Likenesses

  • J. Chillingworth, photograph, 1953, Getty Images, London, Hult. Arch.
  • obituary photographs
  • photographs, repro. in Griffith, Fool's pardon
  • photographs, Rex Features, London

Wealth at Death

£608,147: probate, 7 Dec 2006, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

(1849–)