Tuesday, February 19, 2013
From The Good Life to Shakespeare, actor Richard Briers was a huge name on both stage and screen and he also played a role in many of Norfolk’s arts venues over the years.
Richard Briers was one of the most popular television sitcom actors of his generation, but he was no less acclaimed as a distinguished Shakespearean actor.
He will be best remembered as a bumbling, fussy and occasionally downtrodden figure in some of the most successful TV comedies of his era. He was the lynchpin of Marriage Lines, The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles.
But after a long career in popular television, Briers joined Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987, and his already very successful professional life took a new turn as he moved on to major classical roles.
Briers was born on January 14, 1934, and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he won the silver medal and a scholarship to Liverpool Playhouse in 1956. Two years later he made his first West End appearance in Gilt And Gingerbread. His big screen career began with the British features Bottoms Up (1960), Murder She Said (1961), The Girl On The Boat and A Matter of Who (both 1962) and the multi-national The VIPs (1963).
Over the next 36 years, he alternated his TV and film work with such plays as Present Laughter (1965), The Real Inspector Hound (1968), Butley (1972), Run For Your Wife (1983), Twelfth Night (1987-88) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as Bottom, 1990).
He was regularly on TV including such shows as Brothers In Law (1962), Bird On A Wing (1971), and starring with Michael Gambon in the series The Other One (1977). Briers also provided the voice for the character of Fiver in the animated feature Watership Down (1978).
It was in 1987 that he joined Branagh’s company, saying at the time: “Ken offered me Malvolio in his production of Twelfth Night at the very time I had decided to expand my career when I realised I had gone as far as I could doing sitcoms. As soon as I worked with him, I thought he was truly exceptional.”
After his Malvolio, Briers took on King Lear, followed by the title role in Uncle Vanya and Menenius in Coriolanus.
However, Briers still considered himself a sitcom clown, and on film Branagh cast him as Bardolph in Henry V (1989), as Stephen Fry’s father in the comedy Peter’s Friends (1992), Don Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing (1993), the blind grandfather in the controversial Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) and as a cranky old trouper in A Midwinter’s Tale (1996).
In recent years the actor saw his health deteriorate after being diagnosed with emphysema five years ago.
In an interview only a few weeks ago, he told how he blamed his years of smoking for the condition. “It’s totally my fault. So, I get very breathless, which is a pain in the backside. Trying to get upstairs... oh God, it’s ridiculous. Of course, when you’re bloody nearly 80 it’s depressing, because you’ve had it anyway.”
He was made an OBE in 1989 for services to the arts.Briers married the actress Anne Davies in 1956. They had two daughters.
As the news broke yesterday that 79-year-old Mr Briers had died peacefully at his London home on Sunday, only weeks after he told how years of smoking had left him with emphysema, members of the county’s arts scene paid tribute.
While for many he will be best remembered starring alongside Felicity Kendal in the 1970s BBC1 sitcom The Good Life, at Norwich Theatre Royal Mr Briers played everything from a pantomime dame to Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Jane Claridge, Norwich Theatre Royal’s general manager, said: “We were all saddened to hear of the death of Richard Briers, who is remembered as one of Britain’s most versatile actors.
“He made a number of appearances on the Norwich Theatre Royal stage over the years in a variety of plays, including Richard III in November 1973, Absent Friends in July 1975, and Prospero in an acclaimed production of The Tempest in 2002.
“Richard was also a member of the Norwich Theatre Royal panto family in 1978/79 when he played Nanny Goodlife in Babes In The Wood and was remembered as a charming, kind and very warm member of the cast by his performing colleagues.
“One of his final visits to Norwich came in March 2008 as he saw his daughter Lucy star in the play Sexual Perversity In Chicago, which was presented by the Norwich Theatre Royal Actors Company at the Playhouse.
“He showed enormous enthusiasm for both the production and the venue, of which he was a patron.
“He was truly deserving of his position as a national treasure and will be much missed by his many on-stage colleagues, as well as those he entertained for well over half a century on stage, screen and TV.”
Keith Simmons, who along with his brother Alan performed in Babes in the Wood with Mr Briers at the Theatre Royal and has exchanged Christmas cards with him ever since, described Mr Briers as “a great character” and “a very generous artist”.
Yesterday Mr Simmons said: “It is a very sad day, because Richard was a great human being.”
He added: “He was really nice, genuinely a really nice person and very generous as an artist. On stage he liked to make sure everyone had a fair crack of the whip.
“We had done a lot more pantomimes than him because we did our first pantomime in 1968 and Norwich was his first, so he asked us for tips and he would come into our dressing room for a chat. I found him to be a really personable man.”
Charlotte Corbett, who now runs the Norwich-based Central School of Dancing and Performing Arts and was part of the Babes in the Woods ensemble, said: “It was a massive privilege to work with someone who was so successful on television and to find him to be such a lovely and kind person who was so generous and warm.”
Mr Briers also came to the county in 2007 for the TV show Kingdom and filmed on location at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.
As well as visiting Norwich as an actor, Mr Briers gave his support to the launches of two new venues which have gone on to become key parts of the city’s arts community.
Mr Briers pledged his support to the campaign to convert St James Pockthorpe, in Whitefriars, into Norwich Puppet Theatre in the late 1970s, at the time describing it as an “imaginative and exciting” project.
Libby Waite, from Norwich Puppet Theatre, said: “Norwich Puppet Theatre will be eternally grateful to Richard Briers for his support of our theatre, of Norwich culture and of the arts in general.
“Richard initially helped the founders of the theatre, Ray and Joan DaSilva, to raise funds for our launch back in 1979; a leaflet in which Richard urged people to contribute to the theatre was distributed with the slogan “string along with me”.
“The campaign was a success and the theatre opened in December 1979, when Richard also became a patron.
“Richard aided the theatre again in 2008 when we lost our core funding. He designed a calico glove puppet sold at our charity auction to help secure funds for future projects.
“The support of figures like Richard, who was without question a national treasure, is of the utmost importance to organisations such as ourselves. He had an unforgettable smile and will be remembered as a true champion of the arts and a great talent.”
Similarly with Norwich Playhouse, Mr Briers also backed the idea for the St Georges Street venue and was among those who helped it become a reality.
Caz Slota, marketing manager at Norwich Playhouse, said: “Richard Briers first became involved with the Playhouse in the early 1990s after an invitation from theatre founder Henry Burke and he became one of the theatre patrons alongside Timothy West, Stephen Fry, Prunella Scales and others. He helped with fundraising, from the early stages of the building work until the theatre first opened its doors in 1995.
“In later years he was less involved, but he continued to visit the venue when he was in the city. He last came to the Playhouse to watch his daughter, Lucy Briers, in a production of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, when the current Playhouse team had the pleasure of meeting him, and we discovered he was just as friendly and charming as his on-screen persona suggested.
“He was a brilliant comic actor who was always keen and enthusiastic in his support of Norwich Playhouse, and he will be very much missed by the theatre industry as a whole.”