The British media have been awash with tributes to a well-loved actor. The late Richard Briers was one of the stars of the 1970s situation comedy The Good Life, which, although it ran for only three years, has an immovable place in the national psyche. Briers played Tom Good, who with his wife Barbara (Felicity Kendal) was trying to live self-sufficiently – pigs, a goat, a chicken, vegetable garden, the works – in a London suburb. The affection, both for Briers and the sitcom, seemed entirely genuine – and probably, in the case of the sitcom, touched with a nostalgia for a time and an idea (pre-BSE, pre-horseburger) that now seem rather innocent and hopeful – but quite quickly it began to annoy me.
This was not because I felt that Briers was being viewed with rose-tinted spectacles, or that behind the convention of de mortuis nil nisi bonum some less savoury aspects of his character were being airbrushed out. I was quite prepared to believe his co-star Penelope Keith (who played his snobbish neighbour Margo) when she said that Richard Briers was just as sweet and lovable in real life as he was playing the character of Tom Good. My annoyance came from a feeling that this was missing the point.
Briers was being mourned not as a fine and versatile actor, but as a national treasure, indistinguishable from the character he played. Even Jim Naughtie, the excellent presenter on the BBC Today programme, speculated irrelevantly that Briers “off-screen, in private life ... was exactly the same kind of character as he was on screen”.
Here I detected the baleful influence of the cult of celebrity, especially as embodied in that ghastly contemporary vacuity, the celebrity interview. Page upon page of glossy magazines is devoted to quasi-interviews that focus (if that is the word) on personality and “real life” at the expense of art and craft. Sycophancy and prurience perform a contorted dance around figures of no proven worth or talent. The aim is to discover who such people “really” are, rather than what they can do. The same hopeless quest for reality leads to the quagmire of reality TV shows.
Richard Briers was unimpressed by all this. Late in his career, he expressed disillusion with television comedy, and even more with reality TV shows, pointing out that television had once conferred magic on people but now “nobody’s magical because everyone’s on TV”.
Surely Briers’ distinction was not that he was “a personality” but that he could subsume his personality into a variety of roles. He was, among other things, a magnificent technician. His comic pace and timing were admired by Noël Coward and John Gielgud. “People don’t realise how good an actor Dickie Briers really is,” commented Gielgud. And though he did have a certain inescapable sweetness of character, when he played the third-string theatre critic Moon in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound he gave what the critic Helen Dawson memorably described as “a performance of sharp hopelessness and vindictiveness”.
The point about Richard Briers was that he was a consummately skilful actor, one of a breed that can never be reproduced because the tradition out of which his gifts grew and were nurtured – provincial repertory theatre – no longer exists. I remember him from stage performances towards the end of his career as a fussy and peevish Polonius in Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre production of Hamlet, and as a surprisingly sympathetic Malvolio. Branagh and Renaissance gave a second wind to Briers’s stage acting, and Shakespearean, career; he went on to appear in several of the Shakespeare films directed by Branagh.
I prefer to remember Richard Briers in a very different context and tradition to that of television and celebrity. I see him as one of a line of character actors, going back 400 years to Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage. I’ve caught glimpses of that line and tradition heading to the pub after performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford or at the Barbican. These modest people blessed with the gift of Proteus, throwing off one role and taking up another, are as full of self-deprecation as of talent, as Briers was.
My final reminiscence is of Briers in the Thèâtre de Complicité production of Eugène Ionesco’s The Chairs, which triumphed both in London’s West End and on Broadway in 1997-98. You might have thought the fine comedic nuance and irony of the British character acting tradition, exemplified by Briers and Geraldine McEwan, would have mixed uncomfortably with Complicité’s physical theatre style, based on commedia dell’arte. In fact they achieved a magical sort of emulsion. Briers found a wonderfully threadbare chivalry in his shabby old janitor, humanising what might seem a forbiddingly bleak work. In the end, the good life for him was about being an actor, in a company, making audiences smile with the quick interchange of wit and words, touching them with the sudden shaft of emotion.