Richard Briers CBE actor

Biography by James Hogg reviewed by Bridget Osborne

July 2019

Photographs above: Richard Briers; More Than Just a Good Life cover; The Good Life BBC photo

The actor Richard Briers CBE lived in Chiswick for about 50 years. He died in 2013. He had become something of a ‘National Treasure’ through his role as Tom in The Good Life with Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington in the 1970s. Less well known now is the fact that he was also very much identified with the early success of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays around the same time or that he went on to play major Shakespearean roles, making no fewer than eight films with Kenneth Brannagh.

In More Than Just a Good Life, his biographer James Hogg quotes many of the people he worked with as well as his daughters Katy and Lucy. The actors who shared their memories of him read like a Who’s Who of British film, television and theatre. James writes The Good Life was the pinnacle of a 60 year career and ‘sits atop a mountain of roles that represent one of the most productive and varied careers in British entertainment history’.

The 2019 Chiswick Book Festival celebrated the life of one of Bedford Park’s favourite residents with biographer James Hogg, Lucy Briers and and Ever  Decreasing Circles co-star and friend Peter Egan.

Early life

Richard Briers grew up in Wimbledon during the war. His mother served as an ARP warden and his father worked on ambulances. School didn’t interest Richard. He became a ‘junior spiv’ according to his younger daughter Lucy, selling sweets to other kids at school. He himself once said that he might have become a real life Arthur Daley is he hadn’t discovered acting. He loved PG Wodehouse, Danny Kaye and the Victorian actor-manager Sir Henry Irving. He read PG Wodehouse, impersonated Danny Kaye and studied Sir Henry Irving and by the age of 15 had become obsessed with Shakespeare.

His first job, as a clerk in an electrical company bored him to tears. He kept his spirits up by acting in an amateur dramatic society, and joined another group when he was stationed at RAF Northwood for National Service. It was his cousin, the comic actor Terry Thomas, who persuaded him he should try for drama school. He applied to RADA and auditioned the same day as Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole, who both got much higher marks than him. He reckoned it all came naturally to them whereas he had to work much harder. Alan Bates and Peter Bowles were also contemporaries. Peter Bowles (who became a really good friend) remembered he was really bad at accents, which was one of the reasons he specialised in playing ‘rather nervy, up-beat middle class types’. He won a prize for diction and was known for the speed and precision of his delivery. His daughter Lucy (now an actress herself) thinks his nerves might have helped him – ‘no one could match dad for speed and clarity’.

His first acting job was ‘in rep’ at the Liverpool Repertory theatre, where he met his wife Annie, though on first impressions she thought he was gay. She was the assistant stage manager at the theatre, earning more than he was at that stage. Richard played all sorts of parts ‘you learn so much doing rep. It’s the variety’ and it was where he honed his craft.

His breakthrough came when director Harold French gave him the lead role in There’s Something About a Sailor in 1957. After that, offers came flooding in for West End roles. Not long after, Frank Muir and Denis Norden cast him in Brothers In Law for television – 13 episodes with an audience of 16 or 17 million (nearly half the population) in the days when there were only two channels. Denis Norden told James Hogg: ‘TV was a very placid medium. It needed energy. Anybody who brought energy to the screen immediately stood out’.

That led to a show called Marriage Lines, written specially for him – ‘a pre-cursor to just about every British middle class sitcom there has ever been’. It captured the public’s imagination in the early ‘60s and in it he played opposite Prunella Scales (best known later as Basil Fawlty’s shrewish wife in Fawlty Towers).

Photographs above: pages from More Than Just a Good Life

‘I enjoy being recognised’

By 1963, when their first daughter Katy was born, Richard and Annie were living at 16 Pleydell Avenue in Stamford Brook. By now Richard was earning enough money to buy a house. Annie put her career on the back burner, as they couldn’t both be away, but carried on doing a bit of acting. Seeing him go out every day and do what she wanted to do, while she stayed home, would have driven her mad says their daughter Lucy, who is herself now also an actor.

TV adverts were in their infancy and Richard was very much in demand. Marriage Lines had made him popular, instantly recognizable, the bloke who everyone wanted as their neighbour. He was always insecure about money, always very hard working, a reaction perhaps to the insecurity of the war years and his father’s rather patchy ability to provide.

He also loved being recognized. ‘I have a very gregarious character and I enjoy being recognised’ he once said. ‘If I played baddies all the time, people might not want to talk to me and that would never do’. He said of himself that he played characters which were quite old-fashioned, middle class Englishmen – in contrast to the prevailing trend for northern working class actors playing bleak, gritty realism.

‘One of our greatest farceurs’

Noel Coward asked him to star in Present Laughter. He described him as ‘one of our greatest farceurs’. From there Richard did Relatively Speaking with Michael Hordern, Celia Johnson and Jennifer Hilary, which was considered by critics to be Ayckbourn’s best-crafted play. Ayckbourn was young and still working at the BBC when he wrote it and they became good friends. Ayckbourn called him ‘Anadin’in reference to the advertising slogan – ‘nothing acts faster’.

Relatively Speaking was very well received and ran for 350 performances (about a year). The play was the toast of the West End. Noel Coward’s reaction on discovering Alan Ayckbourn was only in his twenties was simply: ‘Oh, dear God’. Richard Briers became identified as one of Alan Ayckbourn’s coterie of actors and he was very much a part of the playwright’s early success.

Voice of a generation

Richard and Annie’s second daughter Lucy was born in Queen Charlotte’s hospital in 1967 (as Katy also had been). Two years later he started presenting Jackanory, a children’s TV show in which really famous actors sat and read children’s stories. He said he felt better qualified to do the show as a father. His daughters describe life with him as great fun. When he was working in theatre and coming in late, they had to creep around in the morning so as not to disturb him and they weren’t allowed anywhere near him if they had a cold. But when he wasn’t working he was great fun, with a very mischievous sense of humour. If there was any telling off to be done he would stand back and let his wife do it, while he pulled faces behind her back.

In 1973 he was asked to do Roobarb and Custard – mad tales of a very energetic green dog and a pink cat, for children’s TV, with a great script and very distinctive, scribbly graphics for the animation. He did the voices. He had a reputation for being tremendously hard working and his work in TV, radio and theatre often overlapped While recording Roobarb and Custard he was also doing Absurd Person Singular alongside Sheila Hancock.

Roobarb and Custard went to air 21st October 1973 and got 7 million viewers straight away. It meant his voice was instantly recognisable to a whole generation of children. Grange Calveley, the creator (who based the series on a very energetic sheep dog he and his wife rescued from being euthanised) says Richard was a master of the art of swearing. That’s a recurrent theme. He called everybody ‘love’ and regaled them with tales redolent with some very ripe language. Richard’s agent thought Roobarb and Custard would only last six weeks. In fact they made 30 episodes which were shown just before the evening news and the show was brought back in 2005 – Roobarb and Custard Too. more than thirty years later.

Photographs above: Penelope Keith, Richard Briers, Paul Eddington and Felicity Kendal in The Good Life – BBC photos

The Good Life

After Lucy was born in 1967 the family moved into a much larger house in Chiswick. Katy remembers them not going on holiday much until the 1970s because their father was always afraid of being out of work, or being forgotten, but in the 1970s he was evidently feeling more confident, as they started going on regular holidays to Cornwall.

When he was offered The Good Life by the BBC, he had mixed feelings about it, unsure whether a return to sitcom was best for his career or whether he should concentrate on being a serious actor, but once he got to know the writers and the team which was being assembled, James Hogg writes that ‘he bought into it 100%’. Richard’s character Tom had reached the age of 40, was doing a job he loathed and was unfulfilled. He and his wife Barbara decided to use their garden to become self-sufficient. The idea of self-sufficiency was catching on in the seventies but seen as a leftie, hippie kind of thing, so the comedy was based on snobbery: ‘we don’t do that kind of thing in Surbiton’. Richard is quoted as saying that what made it work was that the neighbours got on and that both couples, Tom and Barbara and Jerry and Margo, were likeable.

Richard said: ‘Making the Goods and the Leadbetters old pals and Tom and Jerry colleagues, at least initially, was a stroke of genius on the writers’ behalf. It gave the show a wonderful platform and led to conflicts of loyalty, making the whole thing a lot more interesting. With Tom, who I actually thought was quite selfish and conceited, there wasn’t a great deal to latch on to, unlike Jerry and especially Margo, who was a marvellous character, and so we started making the show and the character began to mature, just based on myself’. In 2007 he described Tom as a ‘selfish parasite’, obsessed: ‘it was always about him and his plans. Poor old Barbara never got any presents, any treats’.

He carried on doing theatre while he was recording The Good Life, working with Peter Bowles in Absent Friends, another Ayckbourn play. Richard was considered one of the ‘definitive interpreters’ of Ayckbourn’s work, writes James Hogg. Alan Ayckbourn said: ‘He recognised what I wrote very quickly and his instincts were always right: when to speed up, when to slow down, when to leave that moment and when to darken things. He was a true interpreter’.

His wife Annie said Richard loved being in his plays and loved being part of something successful. It was Richard who brought Felicity Kendall to the cast of The Good Life. He saw her in The Norman Conquests (for which she later won the Best Newcomer award). He was then a big star and she was was just starting out in her career. Her co-star was Penelope Keith, so they got both actors from that play. Paul Eddington was also acting in an Ayckbourn play when The Good Life started.

Life after The Good Life

By the end of the seventies Richard was desperate to do straight theatre again. The public’s perception of him had changed. Before The Good Life he’d been known as a versatile actor who was good at comedy, says Lucy. He had a reputation rather than a brand. Afterwards he was Tom Good, Middle Englander, and approaching National Treasure status. The antidote was to play Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (about which the critics were quite condescending) and then Bertie Wooster on radio. In the 1980s he started doing pantomime. Then he did another TV sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles and continued as a jobbing actor – in everything from a Restoration comedy at the Chichester festival to Extras on TV with Ricky Gervais. In 1989 he received an OBE and in 2003 a CBE.

Partnership with Kenneth Brannagh

Kenneth Brannagh offered him the part of Malvolio in his production of Twelfth Night in 1987. Brannagh was 26 and had no money to offer. Briers did it because he wanted to do something that challenged him as an actor again. ‘He had an almost permanent twinkle ad was on the edge of a laugh at all times’ recalls Kenneth Brannagh. He could be ‘waspish and sharp’ when tired, but was always kind. The reviews for Twelfth Night were like nothing he’d ever had before, with several critics describing his performance as a ‘revelation’. It was the start of a great partnership.

Richard Briers went on to play King Lear, the complete opposite of a sitcom. Brannagh said: ‘Richard had to take a few deep breaths before agreeing to the world tour of King Lear, but he had a really strong capacity for creative risk and was at a point in his life where a new adventure for him and Annie was something intriguing’. … ‘The biggest challenge was leaving Fred the dog behind’. They did 102 performances in 30 countries and Annie went with him. He’d done a coffee advert with Penelope Wilton just previously, which had paid enough that he hadn’t had to worry about how successful the King Lear tour was. He was worried because after The Good Life, the public didn’t like him playing characters which were nasty or unsympathetic.

Kenneth Brannagh was impressed by his professionalism and his leadership by example. He was always on time (early) and always prepared, lines learned. He went on stage in a broken ankle in a cast to play one of the most physically demanding roles in theatre. ‘He always threw himself at it’ said Brannagh. ‘Full energy, full voice, full commitment from day one’. He was also a great scholar of actors and acting, so drew on how the greats had played the part or how he thought they would have played the part. Lucy said ‘Ken was learning, but so was dad’ so it wasn’t just a case of an old, grand actor helping out an up and coming one. She found him playing Lear quite traumatic. He played him as a manipulative bastard who played his daughters off against each other. He gave the performance of his life in Zagreb and all the other actors just stood in the wings watching. Brannagh: ‘other actors felt what it was like to be in the presence of greatness’.

He went from playing Lear to Ratty in Wind in the Willows at the National. Alan Bennett’s adaptation with Gryff Rhys Jones and Michael Bryant in 1990. From the sublime to the ridiculous. Alan Bennett says ‘he could be quite crotchety’. He also played Uncle Vanya for Kenneth Brannagh. Peter Egan acted and directed (with a little help from Brannagh once he got called off on another project). ‘To watch Richard develop through a Chekhovian character like Uncle Vanya and to bring his wonderful suburban humour and his mania to it was a privilege’.

Richard made eight films with Kenneth Brannagh including Much Ado About Nothing, which they filmed in Tuscany in the summer of 1992. It had a huge Hollywood cast – Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves – and also the cream of British theatre – Kenneth Brannagh, Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale and Brian Blessed. It’s considered one of the most successful adaptions of Shakespeare of all time, commercially and creatively and won loads of awards. His partnership with Brannagh enabled him to tackle big, classical roles and be taken seriously as an actor after his sitcom success. It was a career changer.

Monarch of the Glen

The came Monarch of the Glen, another long-running, successful TV sitcom, which aired 2000 – 2005 for seven series. Richard played Hector MacDonald, the curmudgeonly and extravagant father of the main character. It took him away from home for long periods, which he didn’t like. Going up to Scotland to film one time, he bumped into a group of American tourists in the bar on the train who were on a Monarch of the Glen tour. They thought he was part of it, so he just played along with it and went into full tour guide mode.

End of his life

Accepting his OBE in 1989 he did a comedy trip as he walked along the carpet to meet the Queen. She said: “I think you got this for making people laugh”. When he got the CBE in 2003 he took it more seriously.

He started coughing a lot an experiencing shortness of breath. 2007 he was diagnosed with Emphysema. He carried on working and enjoying being a grandparent. He didn’t do self-pity. His typical rejoinder was ‘I’m fine love, just a bit of a cough’ or ‘’I’m completely buggered. Would be surprised if I last a week’.

He managed to cram a lot of work into his final years. Miss Marple and Torchwood among them and London Assurance at the National theatre with Simon Russell Beale. The last film he ever made was Cockneys V Zombies, which he thoroughly enjoyed making. His role as an old man in a care home involved killing zombies with an AK47 gaffer taped to his zimmer frame.

He died of cardiac arrest on 17 February 2013, at home in Chiswick. He trended on Twitter for a day ‘which would have amused and baffled him’. His funeral was held at St Michael & All Angels Church. The last time Fr Kevin had met him at a church fundraiser he’d said “I do enjoy these things even though I’m not religious”. ‘ “Well” Fr Kevin told the congregation as he looked at Richard’s coffin covered in flowers and surrounded by candles, “you are now”. The congregation burst into laughter’. There was also a memorial 14 months later, with many of his actor friends present and a speech from Kenneth Brannagh.

His friends who contributed their memories to the book read like a Who’s Who of British theatre, including: Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Simon Beresford, Michael Billington OBE, Sir Kenneth Brannagh, Peter Bowles, Bernard Cribbins OBE, Dame Judi Dench, Ricky Gervais, Sheila Hancock CBE, Nerys Hughes, Griff Rhys Jones OBE, Dame Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal CBE, Dame Sian Phillips, Simon Russell Beale CBE, Prunella Scales CBE, Dame Emma Thompson, Sir Tom Stoppard, Kevin Whatley, Dame Penelope Wilton.

More Than Just a Good Life is available in bookshops and on Amazon.