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How Richard Briers’ stage work brought out The Good Life actor’s serious side

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Richard Briers found fame in beloved TV sitcoms including The Good Life, but his real love was theatre. Biographer James Hogg tells Nick Smurthwaite how stage work such as Shakespeare with Kenneth Branagh brought out the late actor’s serious side

Behind the scenes, he may have smoked roll-ups, knocked back glasses of wine and swore like a trooper, but the affable characters Richard Briers played in much-loved TV sitcoms such as The Good Life, Marriage Lines and Ever Decreasing Circles weren’t a whole lot different from the real-life actor.

In interviews, he was often the first person to admit that Tom Good, the happy-go-lucky suburban farmer in The Good Life, was just an alternative version of himself.

A new biography of Briers, More Than Just a Good Life, by James Hogg, talks to the surviving creatives of that hit 1970s sitcom, and reveals that the actor had mixed feelings about accepting the role when he was first approached. He’d just turned 40 and after years of TV sitcoms he was longing to get back to the kind of weighty dramatic roles he’d tackled at RADA and Liverpool Rep as a younger actor.

Briers with Anna Massey in Special Providence, directed by Celia Johnson, in 1960

Of course he did accept the role in The Good Life, but as soon as he’d completed the fourth and last series in 1978, Briers wasted no time in returning to his first love – the stage.

After a riotous outing as Nanny Goodlife in Babes in the Wood at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, he was invited by director Michael Blakemore to take on the lead in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

Blakemore told author Hogg: “I’d always felt that Richard was a very underrated actor and was much better than people gave him credit for. The part I offered him obviously wasn’t a comedy role but it did, I felt, have a lot of comic potential, and I wanted to try to unlock some of that without losing the character.”

Briers with Terry-Thomas in the film A Matter of WHO in 1961

The playwright Alan Ayckbourn, a lifelong friend of the actor, took him out for dinner after seeing The Wild Duck and asked him how he’d managed to make it so funny. “Richard said to me: ‘Ibsen? Terribly funny. I mean, you remember the scene where I leave home to go to a dinner while the rest of my family are starving hungry. Naturally the family ask me to bring something back, expecting a doggy bag, and what did I bring? The bloody menu. Look what we had, I cry. Only a farceur could write a sick joke like that.’ ”

Ayckbourn considered Briers “a straight actor with an uncanny comic instinct”; his talents could just as easily be deployed to great effect in the tragedies of Ibsen and Shakespeare as they could with the comic work of The Good Life writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey. When Briers appeared in the first of many Ayckbourn plays – Relatively Speaking – in 1967, the playwright nicknamed him “Anadin” because “nothing acts faster than Richard Briers”.

It was the great Celia Johnson, his co-star in Relatively Speaking, who had suggested Briers for the role of Greg, her daughter’s boyfriend, on the strength of a BBC radio play they had appeared in together. The only problem for Ayckbourn and the director, Peter Bridge, was that Johnson couldn’t remember the “unknown” actor’s name nor the name of the play they’d recorded.

Richard Briers in Home at Wyndham’s Theatre in 1994. Photo: Marilyn Kingwill

When Ayckbourn finally tracked down the actor she was referring to, Johnson exclaimed: “That’s the fellow – Richard Briers. He’s the unknown actor.” By this time, Briers was already one of the UK’s best-known TV faces thanks to Brothers in Law and Marriage Lines.

It seems no amount of fame or praise for his sitcoms was ever quite enough to convince Briers that television was the right medium for a serious actor. Luckily for him, in 1987 Kenneth Branagh came to his rescue, offering him the role of Malvolio in Twelfth Night with his new Renaissance Theatre Company.

Branagh is quoted in the book as saying: “I just thought [Richard] would have that combination of gravitas and humour that would be great to see in Malvolio. He was surprised to be asked. Frankly I was surprised to have had the gumption to ask him. His reaction? Perplexed and worried, but I sensed he was also excited.”

Briers went on to play King Lear for Branagh, and appeared in eight films directed by him, including Hamlet, Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing.

Briers on tour with Renaissance Theatre Company in King Lear.

The surprisingly close working relationship of Briers and Branagh developed throughout the 1980s and 1990s – the light-hearted sitcom star alongside the man regularly tipped as the new Olivier. Briers’ daughter, Lucy, also an actor, observed the relationship first hand.

“It was a partnership,” she told Hogg. “Ken was learning, but so was dad. He enjoyed learning about his craft. To be approached by somebody, regardless of their age, who quite literally lived and breathed Shakespeare, was incredibly exciting for dad.”

Briers always imagined that the Royal Shakespeare Company would come calling at some point during his six-decade career but it never happened. “He’d had so much experience and had the RSC contacted him he’d have said yes immediately,” Lucy Briers said. “They didn’t though, because at that time they didn’t have Ken Branagh’s imagination.”

More Than Just a Good Life by James Hogg is published by Constable

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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