Leading a good life

Victoria Kingston talks to everyone’s favourite actor, Richard Briers

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“I like living in the suburbs,” says Richard Briers in his Chiswick home. “I was born in Raynes Park, and I’ve lived in Stamford Brook. I don’t like change. We’ve been in this house for about 40 years, and we couldn’t move now – it’s all too full of memories. No, we must stay here until we’re helped out!”

Richard is, I am delighted to find, a genuinely charming and kind man. He isn’t a joke-teller, but he says things that are naturally funny, part of his take on life. “And,” he adds with a laugh, “believe it or not, we’re still trying to get the house cleared up. It’s full of books and papers. We’re working from the top floor down, getting rid of things either to the bin or to charity shops.”

Finding a kindred spirit in each other, we launch into a long discussion about clearing out rubbish. “It’s like the shed,” he says animatedly. “You’re sick of all the junk in there. You have an enormous clear-out, and then two weeks later, you’re looking for one spanner, one spade – and you’ve thrown it out – after storing it and never using it for 30 years.”

It’s impossible (and maybe unnecessary) to list Richard’s credits because he has starred in so many well-loved TV series: from the 1963 programme The Marriage Lines with Prunella Scales, right up to Monarch of the Glen with Susan Hampshire. We all know him as irritating Martin in Ever Decreasing Circles, as Tom Good in The Good Life, in guest parts in such series as: Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, Mr Bean, French and Saunders, Lovejoy and as a much sought-after voice-over and narrator in such series as Bob The Builder, Roobarb and Custard, Wind in the Willows, and the acclaimed movie Watership Down.

Though he is a wonderful comic actor, he is also an excellent character actor too. In Inspector Morse, he played an odious University lecturer who blackmails a young woman in order to sleep with her. “That horrible man,” laughs Richard. “That part shocked my small fan club greatly. Actually, he gave me the creeps – he was repellent and sinister. It was a wonderful break to get that part – John Thaw was an old friend of ours and he put in a good word for me.”

He is constantly working and has always been driven to be a good provider for his family: his wife and two daughters – and now putting something by for his grandchildren. “My father was very happy-go-lucky and so owing money is frightening to me. People aren’t nice to you when you owe them money. I am very cautious about spending, but it’s not virtuous. I have never wanted fast cars or lots of clothes. These things don’t attract me.”

He admits he has never earned “big bucks”. “Well, I’ve never done big movies. I’ve done TV and I’ve done lots of great Shakespeare, but it doesn’t pay well. The better the writing, the less you’re paid for it. The moment you go into blank verse, it’s total penury.”

He is, however, delighted with all the repeats of The Good Life and recalls it with affection. “I was so lucky to be a part of that. Of course, I certainly wouldn’t want to live next door to Tom. I thought he was an appalling man, very self-obsessed and selfish – a fanatic. I’m with Margo on this one – I would have moved house! And what about poor Barbara? She had no new clothes, no treats – and no say in anything. He was a total male chauvinist pig!”

Richard’s need to work hard is balanced with the desire to be with his family. “I left Monarch of the Glen because it was 26 weeks a year away from home,” he explains. “I did three series, realised I couldn’t carry on like this, gave a year’s notice and left. I asked myself – well, at 70, do I want to be missing my family this much? I wanted to get back home. It’s nice to just flop – or as they say nowadays, chill out. I don’t understand ‘chill out’. Does it mean hypothermia? I don’t know.”

His career took a very interesting turn when Kenneth Branagh asked him to join his Renaissance Theatre Company. During the 80s and 90s, he played Malvolio (Twelfth Night), Polonius (Hamlet), Bardolph (Henry V), Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Nathaniel (Love’s Labours Lost) and the great part of King Lear. “Ken said he didn’t want to work with actors who couldn’t play comedy,” Richard tells me. “He felt they’re the best actors. He had grown up on The Good Life and he took a shine to me and started to give me work. It was marvellous for me.”

Being a locally rooted man, Richard was delighted to be asked to appear at the Shooting Star Gala evening at Richmond Theatre last month. He strongly supports the charity, which is currently building a children’s hospice in Hampton. “So many children die from cancer – it’s unspeakable. Life is cruel, but losing a child is the cruellest. And we just stand by and ask ourselves what we can do to put things right, and the answer is raise a few bob to help them. So I’m glad to do it.”

June 3, 2004

Article originally published in the Green Magazine - republished with kind permission