Saturday 30 March 2013

Richard Griffiths

He wasn't simply a great actor - he was also invariably the right actor, cast in roles that nobody else could get away with. He was especially good at eloquent queers - Hector in The History Boys and (of course) the immortal Uncle Monty in Withnail & I.

I saw him last on stage at the National Theatre in the role of Fitz, an irascible old ham who is in turn portraying W H Auden in Caliban's Day, the play-within-a-play in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art. He was the best thing in it, and had reportedly taken the role on at the last moment, when Michael Gambon was indisposed. I remember this exchange between Griffiths as Fitz as Auden and Auden's biographer Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough):

CARPENTER:    I'm not a rent boy. I was at Keble.
AUDEN:             That can't be helped.

It's not much of a line but Griffiths freighted it beautifully with lust and impatience and camp condescension - and he brought the house down. At the end of the play he delivered, beautifully and very movingly Auden's elegy In Memory of W. B. Yeats ('He disappeared in the dead of winter: The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted'). 

His unusual shape was caused by an elaborate and untreatable hernia. It would be untrue to say that one didn't notice his extraordinary bulk, but his wonderful voice and toothy grin are what one chiefly remembers, and his incredibly light and elegant movements, more Ariel than Falstaff. He lumbered daintily. I learn from an obituary that his working-class parents were both deaf and mute, that he had to support them in many ways from the age of four. and that his childhood was very unhappy. Yet he seemed neither bitter nor scarred by what sounds like a dreadfully loveless upbringing, and is fondly remembered by everyone he worked with or who saw him perform.

Griffiths was only 65 when he died yesterday, which means he was (incredibly) under forty when he appeared as Withnail's fabulously strange Uncle Monty. I was unable to find a clip of him delivering my favourite line in the film: 'We live in a kingdom of rains, where the royalty comes in gangs'. So this will have to do: his scene-stealing first appearance in the film.

If you've never seen Withnail & I you'll have to take my word for it that Bruce Robinson's script is the most brilliant for any British film since Kind Hearts and Coronets. Here (from memory) is another bit of Uncle Monty, recalling an undergraduate passion:

'I sometimes wonder where Norman is now. Probably wintering with his mother in Guildford. A cat, rain, Vim under the sink, and both bars on. But old now, old. There is no beauty without decay.'

If you have seen Withnail the chances are you've seen it many times. It's very good, very funny and very rude. Griffiths apparently didn't mind strangers yelling 'Monty you terrible cunt!' at him in public. It was a catch phrase of sorts. He will be much missed.

Auden extract © The Estate of W. H. Auden

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