Much loved actor of stage and screen
Richard Briers: Born: January 14th, 1934: Died: February 17th, 2013:When he played Hamlet as a young man, Richard Briers, who has died aged 79 after suffering from a lung condition, said he was the first Prince of Denmark to give the audience half an hour in the pub afterwards. He was nothing if not quick.
In fact, wrote the veteran critic WA Darlington, he played Hamlet “like a demented typewriter”. Briers, always the most modest and self-deprecating of actors, and the sweetest of men, relished the review, happy to claim a place in the light comedians’ gallery of his knighted idols Charles Hawtrey, Gerald du Maurier and Noel Coward.
“People don’t realise how good an actor Dickie Briers really is,” said John Gielgud. This was probably because of his sunny, cheerful disposition and the rat-a-tat articulacy of his delivery. “You’re a great farceur,” said Coward, “because you never, ever, hang about”.
Although he excelled in the plays of Alan Ayckbourn, and became a national figure in his television sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s, notably The Good Life, he could mine hidden depths on stage, giving notable performances in Ibsen, Chekhov and, for Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance company, Shakespeare.
The Good Life defined his career, though he spent a lot of time getting away from his television persona as the self-sufficient, Surbiton [south-east England] smallholding dweller Tom Good in the brilliant series – 30 episodes between 1975 and 1978 – written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, and produced by John Howard Davies.
Paired with Felicity Kendal as his wife, Barbara, and pitted against their snobbish neighbour Margo Leadbetter (Penelope Keith) and her docile husband, Jerry (Paul Eddington), he gave one of the classic good-natured comedy sitcom performances of our time.
Briers was born in Raynes Park, southwest London, and educated at schools in Wimbledon. He described his bookmaker father, Joseph, as a feckless drifter. His mother, Morna Richardson, was a pianist. Richard’s cousin was the gap-toothed film star Terry-Thomas.
While doing his national service with the RAF, Briers attended evening classes in drama. He then worked as an office clerk before taking a place at Rada. He won a scholarship to the Liverpool Rep theatre for the season of 1956-57 and was never out of work thereafter. At Liverpool he met Ann Davies, whom he married in 1957; they spent most of their married life in Chiswick, west London, in a house they bought about 10 years later.
He was well-established as a theatre actor by the watershed year of 1975 and The Good Life. But the sitcom launched him on a much more varied theatre diet than he had enjoyed heretofore, including Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1980; George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man (his was a richly nuanced, physical performance as the battle-weary Bluntschli) in 1981; Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife (as a bigamous taxi driver, with Bernard Cribbins as his “cover”) in 1983; and Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse at Chichester in 1986, as Lord Foppington.
He worked with Kenneth Branagh on many projects, enjoying success in particular as Uncle Vanya, directed by Branagh in 1991, in which his body, said one critic, seemed to be in a state of permanent civil war between his adoration of Yelena and a simmering outrage about his treatment at the professor’s hands.
He owed his late-flourishing film career to Branagh, appearing in a string of his movies: as Bardolph in Henry V (1989), Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing (1993), the old blind man in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), a cantankerous old thespian in A Midwinter’s Tale (1995), Polonius in Hamlet (1996) and Sir Nathaniel in the musical Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000).
Briers became quietly disillusioned with television comedy and the cult of celebrity, noting that people used to be magical because they were on television and that, now, “nobody’s magical because everyone’s on television”.
He wrote several light-hearted volumes, including Coward and Company (1987), A Little Light Weeding (1993) and, with his wife, A Taste of the Good Life (1995). He was made OBE in 1989.
“And I suppose you’re getting this for making people laugh?” said Queen Elizabeth, a great fan of The Good Life, and he also received a CBE in 2003.
He is survived by Ann and their daughters, Lucy and Kate.