sun 21/07/2024

Richard Griffiths, 1947-2013 | reviews, news & interviews

Richard Griffiths, 1947-2013

Richard Griffiths, 1947-2013

The history man who played two infamous screen uncles

History man: Richard Griffiths in 'The History Boys'

Richard Griffiths, who has died at the age of 65 from complications during heart surgery, will be remembered above all for three performances, two on screen and one onstage. In Withnail & I (1987), he embodied in Uncle Monty a predatory homosexual who, according to the film’s director Bruce Robinson, was based on Franco Zeffirelli. Many years later Griffiths found himself playing a character parked on the same spectrum in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2005).

As Hector, the teacher with a roving mind and wandering hands, he bagged a notable brace of awards in the form of an Olivier and a Tony. But the reality is that he remained most widely recognised to millions of cinema-goers as another uncle, Harry Potter’s pompous, petit bourgeois guardian Vernon Dursley (pictured below). To each extrovert performance, he brought a winning and highly believable exactness.

Griffiths’ Yorkshire childhood was defined by the deafness of his parents. If acting was an escape from communicating in sign language, it is nonetheless surprising that someone who detested having his photograph taken chose to make his living in public. His considerable size was of course a feature of his screen persona from the moment he played a lead role in the BBC’s tacky Egyptian epic The Cleopatras in 1983. Like many an English character actor, Hollywood asked him to huff and puff and bluster as toffs and petty villains all the way from Naked Gun 2 ½ and, most recently. Scorsese’s Hugo.

For three years, at the birth of the foodie boom in the mid-1990s, he came to a large television audience’s attention as the epicurean crime-solving chef in Pie in the Sky. One of his last television roles was a characteristically lovely turn in the opening episode of Episodes, playing an English actor auditioning to continue in his own role, knowing that he won't get it (the part eventually goes to his thespian antithesis, Matt LeBlanc.)

For all the inescapability of his physique, on stage Griffiths consistently dodged the trap of typecasting. He first made his way in the profession as a comic actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. If his performances had one thing underpinning them above all else, it was a mental agility and emotional nimbleness at odds with his bulk. As he grew older,  these qualties reached full maturity in a series of great theatrical roles. First there was the unimprovable triumph of The History Boys, in which he played an inspiring pedagogue of the old school battling modern box-ticking notions of education. On both sides of the Atlantic he cut an avuncular figure as the psychologist who treats a disturbed young protagonist (played by Daniel Radcliffe) in Peter Shaffer’s Equus. He stepped in for Michael Gambon to play the part of WH Auden in Bennett’s The Habit of Art. Only last year he was part of a double act with Danny DeVito in a West End revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.

A valediction to a great career would not be complete without reference to a particular brand of his fearlessness as a performer. Griffiths' stage career was bizarrely punctuated by interactions with recalcitrant members of the audience. This was an actor was never slow to tell someone to turn their phone off, and in performances of Heroes in the West End and The History Boys on Broadway he made the headlines by ejecting persistent offenders from the auditorium. Perhaps this was another measure of a fine actor who, from earliest childhood, had to learn the hard way about the art of listening.

For all the inescapability of his physique, on stage he consistently dodged the trap of typecasting

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Zeffirelli, eh? That I never knew. It seems a shame for RG to be remembered above all as a Potter person (see BBC News), so good to have a more rounded appreciation. I was charmed by him in The Habit of Art - sublime disregard for Auden likeness - and still remember his Volpone when the RSC took its production to Newcastle in the early 1980s. His role in The History Boys was a bit of a mould-breaker, wasn't it?

A great loss to the world of theatre. I was lucky enough to see him in both The History Boys and Sunshine Boys. Great actor who will be sadly missed.

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