Goodbye to a Good Life: Richard Briers was not just a national treasure, he was a suburban everyman

view gallery VIEW GALLERY


Reporting on the death of the actor Richard Briers today at the age of 79, the online version of The Surrey Comet understandably looked for a local angle: “Surbiton’s Most Famous Fictional Resident Dies” ran its headline - a distillation of a long and distinguished acting career that might at first glance look dismayingly reductive.

It’s a risk all actors take, of course, potentially fated to be eclipsed in public memory by their best known roles - in this case that of Tom Good, the suburban subsistence farmer who, with his wife Barbara, turned his back on the rat race in Bob Larbey and John Esmonde’s hugely popular 70’s sit-com The Good Life. But if, as Larbey and Esmonde did when they situated their comedy, you take Surbiton as a metaphorical location rather than a real one, there’s nothing really parochial about it at all. In his best known television roles, as Tom or as Martin Bryce, the fretful obsessive in Ever Decreasing Circles, Briers was never just a local man. He was a suburban everyman.

It was the kind of life he might easily have lived for real, but for a youthful attraction to the idea of performance. Leaving school at 16 without qualifications he began his working life as a filing clerk and early attempts at amateur performance were undermined, according to his own account, by a nervous speed in delivery which often made him unintelligible to the audience. But with the encouragement of his cousin, the actor Terry-Thomas, he applied for and gained a place at RADA in 1954, doing well enough to go straight into rep on leaving.

The breathless quality of his performance didn’t disappear entirely: when he played Hamlet, he told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs in 2000, “I knocked about 40 minutes off the average run”. One critic described him as playing the character “like a demented typewriter”. But that ability to rattle off a line proved useful in comedy. He could play rapid wit and foolish garrulity with an equal deftness.

Noel Coward identified the speed as important - “you never, ever, hang about” he once said approvingly. But a long apprenticeship in stage comedy, particularly the plays of Alan Ayckbourn, taught Briers the importance of silence too, in part simply because of his growing ability to work an audience.

“To wait for a laugh is confidence”, he once said - and, as with all great comic actors, some of his funniest moments were mute. Coward had spotted something else besides an effective comic briskness though. “You’re a very, very emotional comedian” he once told Briers, a recognition that he could convincingly bring sympathetic depth to a comic role.

Briers himself did not much care for Tom Good (“this awful obsessive man getting up at five to do his goats”) but, as he told Sue Lawley, he always tried “to act from the person’s point of view, not my point of view.”

He wasn’t an actor you’d easily associate with menace or danger. But he found a nuance in milder, meeker roles that preserved them from sickliness. It isn’t easy to think of many performers who could have carried off that burdensome, Pilgrim’s Progress name - Tom Good - and successfully persuaded you that the character really might be, without simultaneously making him dull.

It’s a little surprising to find that the first words Tom utters to Barbara - in a sit-com that presented husband and wife as loving allies rather than perpetual combatants - are “You bitch!” They are though and they’re words Briers could get away with because of an underlying sweetness to his own character that audiences recognised. Even playing Martin in Ever Decreasing Circles - an envious, stubborn, comically small-minded man - Briers found pathos in the character in a way that was quietly humane. Because he identified with him we could too.

His Malvolio, for Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance company, was simultaneously hilariously contemptible and very moving.

Briers died “peacefully” at his London home on Sunday, his agent said today. He had been suffering with a serious lung condition for a number of years. The actor recently said years of smoking had been to blame for his emphysema.

One of his co-stars in the Good Life, Penelope Keith said his death was an “enormous loss” and called him “the most talented of actors”.

Branagh, who collaborated with him on numerous occasions on screen and stage, said: “He was a national treasure, a great actor and a wonderful man. He was greatly loved and he will be deeply missed.”

When he was asked late last year to sum up his life in just six words, for a feature in this paper, Briers replied, with a characteristic modesty, “Acting for 50 years. More please”. Colleagues and audiences will be sad that he didn’t get his wish. 

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own