Farewell, Richard Griffiths
It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and, quite reasonably, says to himself: “I will never play the Dane.”
“And soon, I suppose, I shall be swept away by some vulgar little tumour.” So said Uncle Monty in Bruce Robinson’s timeless Withnail and I. As it happened, Richard Griffiths was, in fact, swept away by complications following heart surgery. The news that he was just 65 reminds us how absurdly young he was for the role of Monty. Do the sums. Born in 1947, he was not yet 40 when the film was shot in 1986. Of course, it is quite plausible that Monty could have been only 10 years older than his nephew (Richard E Grant was, indeed, born in 1957). But the implication is that he was a failed thespian from a much earlier era. It’s a shame that film-makers are so much more picky about these things nowadays. Remember that John Cleese was in his mid-thirties when he shot Fawlty Towers. Nobody complained. We were happy to make allowances.
Griffiths went on to become a charming, much-loved comic regular. He played (why ever not?) a chef who solved crimes in Pie in the Sky. He originated the role of the schoolmaster in the stage production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and later starred in Nick Hynter’s film version. He also played somebody-or-other in the Harry Potter sequence.
So, he should not ever be represented as a one-role actor. But there is little doubt that his finest creation remains Uncle Monty. Younger readers may be dimly aware that Withnail and I was not an immediate success. There is no exaggeration in those rumours. I remember it opening to very glum notices in 1988. Ian Penman, normally reliable, compared it very unfavourably to the contemporaneous (and sloppy) Barfly in The Face. Philip French, the still mighty critic for The Observer, admits that he didn’t get it at all on first glance. I, thus, toddled along to the Metropole Cinema in Dublin — now The Screen — with no great expectations. I can’t think of a film at which I have laughed so hard and so often. I am sure there is no other film I paid to see three times on its first run. It was only on video that it began to pick up a following. Happily, unlike poor Nick Drake, the cast and crew all lived to receive the adulation of a million students and a few million normal people.
The attention the film then attracted did stimulate some criticism of its attitude to homosexuality. Robinson’s claim that he was inspired by the unwanted sexual advances of Franco Zeffirelli during the making of Romeo and Juliet doesn’t quite get him off the hook. The picture does play to certain unhelpful stereotypes of the predatory gay man. But Robinson was right to point out that Monty is, in fact, a chap of great decency and humanity. The saddest point (in a genuinely sad film) comes when Paul McGann’s “I” reads the note that Monty leaves after fleeing the “horrible little shack”. He has been genuinely impressed by the happiness “I” pretends to have found with the frightful Withnail.
But, of course, it was Griffiths who was most responsible for injecting humanity into the role. There is a fantastic literal and figurative size to Monty. That is to say he occupied the room in a way only the most delightfully Dickenisan characters can manage. Robinson is an avowed addict of that writer. He would, thus, be pleased to hear that he and Griffiths created a comic personality that can sit comfortably beside Mr Pickwick, Mrs Gamp and Mr Micawber. Come to think of it, we really should have seen Griffiths play that last character. He had just the right blend of energy and mischievousness.
“Laisse-moi respirer longtemps, longtemps, l’odeur de tes cheveux.” Ah, Beaudelaire!