Richard Griffiths
[ Issue 12 ]

Emily Bronto is definitely one of Richard Griffiths’ many fans

Bikwil salutes Richard Griffiths

Richard Griffiths

Tony Rogers here celebrates the work of English actor Richard Griffiths, star of the TV series Pie in the Sky

When we first meet him he is kitted out in a pale blue T-shirt emblazoned with the message 'Die Laughing with Bernie'; later he dons black trousers, a bow tie and a silver lamé jacket, and turns down his sunnies ready to meet the Queen Mum

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Puddin' 'n' Pie — Tony Rogers

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A reference in the May 1998 Bikwil (No. 7) to the TV series Pie in the Sky prompted me to recall the many times I've appreciated the screen work of that show's amply framed star Richard Griffiths, and to do some research on him. Here’s what I’ve found out.

He was born on 31 July 1947 in Thornaby, in north-east England. Of course, the nearby towns are far better known than the village of Thornaby. Darlington, for example, with its locomotive from the first public passenger rail service. And there’s Durham too, with its 12th century cathedral, Middlesbrough, where the Dorman Long Co. constructed the Sydney Harbour Bridge in sections, and Whitby, where Cook’s Endeavour was built.

One of the few things Griffiths sometimes mentions of his childhood in interviews is the poignant fact that both his parents were deaf mutes — extraordinary, perhaps, given his later career. Unlike Lon Chaney Jr., also the actor son of identically disadvantaged parents, Griffiths has of course made a name for himself in non-silent roles. Inevitably, though, he became fluent in sign language before learning to speak with the help of radio.

Leaving school poorly qualified at age 15, he took on a variety of jobs until he enrolled at Billingham Technical College as a mature-age student, then subsequently went to the University of Manchester.

Although best known to audiences here as a screen actor, Griffiths works a lot in the theatre too. Apart from Shakespeare, for instance as Henry VIII (surprise!), he has acted in such diverse plays as Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Pirandello’s Rules of the Game and Brecht’s The Life of Galileo (in the title role). In December 1998 ABC TV treated us to a tiny taste of his stage presence, when he recited T.S Eliot’s wonderful Journey of the Magi as part of a Christmas concert.

But right now let’s get to his screen appearances over the past 20 years, starting with feature films. Some of the following were made originally for TV, but are included here because of their movie length.

Probably the first was The Comedy of Errors (1978), in which he appeared as an officer (presumably non-speaking). Next came All Things Bright and Beautiful (1979), though in what role I can’t say.

Chariots of Fire (1981), after opening with a 1978 funeral, soon does a flashback to 1919 and Cambridge University. And there, in all his glory, is Griffiths as the top-hatted, racially prejudiced Rogers, head porter at Caius College.

The following year Griffiths had roles in two films. One was The Merry Wives of Windsor, where he was cast (surprise again!) as Falstaff. The other was the black satire Britannia Hospital, in which he played Cheerful Bernie, the hospital’s radio DJ, complete with cigar and fold-up sun specs. When we first meet him he is kitted out in a pale blue T-shirt emblazoned with the message “Die Laughing with Bernie”; later he dons black trousers, a bow tie and a silver lamé jacket, and turns down his sunnies ready to meet the Queen Mum.

In A Private Function (1985) he played Allardyce. This is a farce about the 1950s, when ham was still in short supply in England, and concerns the kidnapping and attempted fattening of a most desirable pig.

In 1987 he appeared in Withnail and I, a cult movie about two boozing unemployed actors in the late 1960s. At one stage they take a holiday in the Lake District. But nothing goes to plan, with the weather, the locals and even rich Uncle Monty (played by our man R. G. as a predatory camp figure) conspiring to make the sojourn less than tranquil, and they soon escape back to London, to booze anew.

In The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) Griffiths had a more substantial presence, and in fact played two parts, those of Dr. Mainheimer and Earl Hacker.

That year he also appeared in King Ralph. Here he is grey-haired Duncan Phipps, a Buckingham Palace Assistant Private Secretary who is sent to America to track down and help train the only surviving member of the Royal Family (“the Wyndhams”). Most of the film has him dressed in a bespoke Savile Row suit, occasionally with bowler hat. One of my favourite scenes occurs when he is caught grooving at an electronic drumkit, surrounded by music synthesizers.

Blame It on the Bellboy came in 1992. This farce depends on a confusion of identities between three guests in a Venice hotel — a real-estate buyer, a hitman and Maurice Horton, a lustful politician (Griffiths). An inept bellboy gets their similar names mixed up, so the real-estate customer is mistaken for the hitman and becomes the target of a mobster, the hitman thinks a harmless woman is his mark, and when a real-estate woman approaches the politician, he thinks he's meeting the bird a computer dating service has arranged for him.

A large, gap-toothed man in a comedy sex scene? A bit cruelly written, but well done, R. G.

In Guarding Tess (1994) he plays manservant Frederick, a role memorable for a short manic scene in which he dances backwards and forwards across a doorway miming Leporello’s Catalogue Song from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

What about other movie appearances? Such as his roles as a French-accented terrorist on the Eiffel Tower in Superman II (1980), a studio engineer in Breaking Glass (1980), Sir Tom in The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), lawyer Delmas’ assistant in Ragtime (1981), Collins in Gandhi (1982), Anton in Gorky Park (1983), Captain Billings in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984), Willie Tuttle in Shanghai Surprise (1986), a cardinal in Casanova (1987), the Second Admiral in Goldeneye: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming. aka Spymaster (1989), and Jim Minty in Funny Bones (1994).

It was in the early ‘80s when I first noticed Griffiths myself. It was on TV, and he was at last the star — in a short but exciting serial in which he played a computer whiz who stumbles on to a big crime. It was called Pig in the Middle, and it had a really catchy electronic theme tune and opening titles in the style of a PacMan computer game. A bit like Pie in the Sky, in so far as there was detecting going on, but to the best of memory few culinary moments. Soon after, they made a second series, with the same characters, called Birds of Prey, which had the hero chasing all over Europe. Anyone remember some more details about these mini-series — the hero’s name, for instance? And what a shame the ABC no longer has the rights to rescreen either.

One of his other notable TV appearances is his part as Humphrey Appleton in the Inspector Morse episode called The Day of the Devil. This concerns not only a convicted rapist on the run from a high-security mental hospital but also signs of Satanic practices in Oxfordshire. If I remember it correctly, Appleton is one of the chief suspects in the latter bit of nastiness.

Before we get to Pie, here is as complete a list as I can muster for the rest of his TV work: as Jean-Pierre in Bergerac (1981), as Premier Dubienkin in Whoops Apocalypse (1982), a satire of superpower disputes, as a window cleaner in The Five Minute Films (1982), as Sidney Garbutt in the Glasshouse People episode of Boon (1986), as Hans Koopman in the They Call Me Midas episode of Lovejoy (1986) (about a fake Klimt con job), and as Ronnie in Model by Day (1994).

In 1998 we were treated to In the Red (from Mark Tavener’s satirical novel) in which R.G. plays beautifully the three-piece-suited Geoffrey Crichton-Potter (“Potty”), incompetent leader of the Reform Party, more interested in a good meal at the Savoy than policy. Here again the script calls for a couple of nasty references to his girth, but he finally gets his moment of glory, where his size actually comes in handy.

And finally there’s the glorious Pie in the Sky, which began in 1993, and ran for four series. Plainclothes Detective-Inspector Henry Crabbe, who adores cooking, wants to take early retirement and open his own restaurant, Pie in the Sky. At the last minute, however, he is suspended from duty on a trumped-up charge by his manipulative boss, who allows him to indulge his culinary passions so long as he answers any call to solve a case.

Well-written regular characters abound in Pie. Henry Crabbe, of course, is the most commanding of our interest. Apart from his intelligence as a detective, his humanity is what attracts us — he is not Crabbe, but Henry. For him, food represents love, as we see again and again in the many kitchen scenes. To his staff he gives commitment, and in return gets their enduring loyalty. And, what’s more, he plays tapes of Elgar’s music to his hens!

Freddy Fisher, Henry’s boss, has the seniority that Henry lacks, but none of his brains. On the face of it, your stock weak character with all the outward trappings of authority, but developed with enough subtlety to keep us from getting bored.

The great irony in Pie’s characterisation, and a stroke of genius, is the portrayal of Henry’s wife Margaret, an accountant, as no lover of fine food whatsoever. She prefers potato crisps and takeaways.

And who could forget vegetable grower Henderson? A minor part, maybe, but vividly reminiscent of similar lesser characters in Dickens.

It’s hard to pick a favourite episode from so many gems, but what about the one where Henry has to mind a frightened prosecution witness? She is rude and uncooperative, and insists on smoking marijuana. Far worse, she won’t eat the food he offers — she likes fish fingers and chips, which she fondly remembers from childhood. Needless to say, after much argy-bargy, not to mention the usual interference from Fisher, Henry saves her from the crims, and the episode ends with a special meal of f. & c. that he solicitously prepares for her, as guest of honour at Pie in the Sky.

Another episode has Henry and Fisher on an appalling management training course. The best bit occurs as part of the subplot when Henry sneakily swaps their psychological tests. The stupid course leader later sadly tells Henry that he will never amount to anything in the Police. Fisher of course simply glows when informed that he is superior in every way — intelligent, highly imaginative, and destined for great things.

I should also mention the very last episode, throughout which Henry carries a lemon in his pocket, so he can dejectedly sniff it from time to time in case he regains his sense of smell, which he has lost.

What with the Two Fat Ladies and all, there seems to be a welcome drift lately on TV away from health-crazed epicurean trendies towards programs featuring corpulent cooks. Whether Griffiths himself is a fervent chef, I haven’t been able to ascertain, although according to a quote in TV Week (20/6/98), he claims not to share at least two other of Henry Crabbe's finer qualities:

Henry's a great guy, the kind of bloke I wish I was. I don't feel I could live up to his standard of moral rectitude, and he has incredible patience. I'm very impatient, really.

Even so, Griffiths really understands Henry, and always delivers a wonderfully downplayed performance that accentuates, rather than obscures, the admirable, lovable character of this detective/restaurateur.

There are several further Griffiths appearances I have read of, but the details available are very sketchy. Whether they are all TV roles, I can’t say; I suspect so. They include An Dich Hab' Ich Gedacht, The Cleopatras, El Cid, The Goody Guys, The King of Living, Light Snack, Perfect Scoundrels and World Cup — A Captain’s Tale.

Now, how often do you see anyone throwing a grand piano into a swimming pool? Well, I’m happy to announce that Griffiths did it — in an episode of Minder. If memory serves, the character he played lost his temper with the way his wealthy father was treating him, and his revenge was the aforementioned aquatic, albeit unmusical, deed.

Delighted I am, also, to inform you that in 1998, together with two other famous figures in the arts — Booker Prize winning author Pat Barker and crime novelist Baroness P.D. James, Richard Griffiths was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Durham. And who was conferring the degrees? None other than the Uni Chancellor, Sir Peter Ustinov.

A lovely actor, Richard Griffiths, built for comfort, not for speed. He may be a one-man theatre-in-the-round, but in our house we can’t get enough of him.

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