Richard Briers, star of 1970s TV comedy series 'The Good Life', dies aged 79

Tue, Feb 19, 2013, 00:00

The popular 1970s English television series The Good Life, which portrayed former draughtsman Tom Good’s politely phrased rage against the pointlessness of corporate life, ran for just three years. But it has earned a form of TV immortality ever since.

Richard Briers (79), who played Good, was already a star before The Good Life, alongside Paul Eddington, Felicity Kendal and Penelope Keith, but the show sealed Briers’s reputation with British society.

His death yesterday, following “a lifetime of 500,000 cigarettes”, was mourned. Fellow actor Peter Egan, who starred alongside him in Ever Decreasing Circles, said he had been part of British life “for over 50 years”.

Actor and writer Stephen Fry, a seemingly ubiquitous presence in British life today, said: “Oh no, I’ve just heard the news that he has died. How sad. He was the most adorable and funny man imaginable.”

By the end, Briers’s life was a difficult one. “I’ve got emphysema, you see, so I’m buggered. Five hundred thousand cigarettes, that’s the trouble,” he told the Daily Mail in his final newspaper interview last month.

“I haven’t even got the strength to garden any more. 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 said.

Following decades, Briers decided to do something different and joined Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance theatre company to act in Shakespeare.

Branagh and he adored each other, with Briers describing the Ulsterman as “truly exceptional”.

In the years that followed, he played the self-righteous, priggish Malvolio inTwelfth Night, before Branagh persuaded him to take the lead role in King Lear, followed by Menenius in Coriolanus and the title role in Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.

In the hours after his death yesterday, reporters trawled through press clippings in search of the bons mots that would reflect a life. In Briers’s case, the choice seemed endless, illustrating a kind, generous man, who never took himself too seriously.

In his early years, he had played Hamlet, but he happily deprecated his performance: “I may not have been the best Hamlet of my generation, but I was the fastest. On the opening night I took 24 minutes off the running time.

“I think it must have been the only Hamlet in recent times where people were able to go out to the pub afterwards for a drink. I always remember [theatre critic] WA Darlington coming to review it, saying: ‘Mr Briers plays Hamlet like a demented typewriter’.”

By the end, Briers had palled of TV’s attractions, particularly the latter-day cult of unearned celebrity. In the past stars had magical status with the public because they were on TV but today “nobody’s magical because everyone’s on television”.

His self-deprecation and lack of grandeur downplayed his artistic reputation, perhaps: “People don’t realise how good an actor Dickie Briers really is,” said actor John Gielgud four decades ago.

In the end, however, they did.