Kenneth Griffith

Actor and documentary-maker


Kenneth Griffiths (Kenneth Griffith), actor and documentary film-maker: born Tenby, Pembrokeshire, 12 October 1921; married first Joan Stock (two sons, marriage dissolved), second Doria Noar (one daughter, marriage dissolved), third Carole Hagar (one daughter, one son, marriage dissolved); died London 25 June 2006.

The actor and documentary film-maker Kenneth Griffith was one of the most distinguished trouble-makers of his time. He could exasperate colleagues by his cantankerous manner and stout refusal to compromise his artistic and professional integrity, especially when offered work by those whom he called the "priggish cuckoos" of the BBC's middle management. Even those who were kind to him found he would insist on marching to a different drum.

On one occasion, after he had started rewriting someone else's script so that he would have a bigger part in it, one of the Boulting brothers, who often employed him, was driven to exclaim: "Why are you always so difficult, Kenneth?"

The answer was far from straightforward. Griffith was a complicated man and, although he wrote an autobiography in an attempt to explain himself, there was a demon in his personality with which he never came, and never wanted to come, to terms. He had a genuine flair for friendship and could be charming in the company of those whom he respected, but cultivated his reputation as a member of the Awkward Squad most assiduously. He would plough his own furrow whatever the cost - and sometimes it cost him dearly.

The subjects he chose for his documentaries were calculated to upset the British establishment by virtue of their partisan view of imperial history: Napoleon (he savoured the fact that Boney had struck terror in English hearts); the War of American Independence (he was in favour of it); the Untouchables in India (he argued for their social emancipation and was president of their society); the Anglo-Boer War (he took the side of the Afrikaners); Irish republicanism (he was a keen supporter of Sinn Féin); the British throne (he thought the House of Windsor had a bogus claim); and so on, in more than two dozen documentaries which are among the most brilliant, and controversial, ever made in Britain. Never one to sit on the fence, he once told Huw Wheldon: "I would never stoop so low as to be objective about anything."

Griffith's support for a united Ireland was given fullest expression in his films about Michael Collins, Hang Up Your Brightest Colours (1973), and Roger Casement, Roger Casement: heart of darkness (1992), in both of which the British government's record in Ireland was roundly castigated. The film about Collins, which begins by quoting his remark "There is no Irish problem, only an English problem", was rejected by Sir Lew Grade at the behest of the IBA and it was to be some 21 years before the BBC would screen it, after which Griffith was taken to the hearts of Republicans in Belfast. A visit to their enclaves in 1993, shortly after the hunger strike that led to the deaths of Bobby Sands and others, confirmed his belief that the British should pull out of the six counties of Ulster, and thereafter he always wore a green ribbon in his coat.

Kenneth Griffith was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, in 1921. He attributed his affection for the Irish to the fact that he was Welsh, albeit from that part of Pembrokeshire that had for long been known as "Little England beyond Wales" because it had been settled by Flemish and English weavers soon after the Norman Conquest.

There was an element of guilt in his sense of Welshness, primarily because it was a compatriot, namely David Lloyd George, who had been largely responsible for the partitioning of Ireland in 1922. This feeling was subsumed by his admiration for what he saw as "the true Celtic spirit" - a passionate response to life that has no place for the dry formalities of the English ruling class - and the essence of which he cherished in his Irish friends Tyrone Guthrie and Peter O'Toole.

Apart from his support for Sinn Féin, Griffith had no party allegiance, for he had a horror of joining anything. In his autobiography, The Fool's Pardon (1994), he described himself as "not a red, but a convinced, though often confused, democrat", and towards the end of his life he did not demur when called "a radical Tory". Yet one of his best documentaries is The Most Valuable Englishman Ever (1982), a study of the egalitarian Tom Paine. Nor did he have any time for trades unions: his Equity membership card was stamped "Under protest".

The instinct to be his own man had been ingrained in him from an early age. His parents having separated while he was still a small child, he was brought up at Penally, near Tenby, by his paternal grandparents, staunch Wesleyan Methodists who taught him to question everything.

If there was something of the sermon in his films, he gladly acknowledged the influence of the Nonconformist chapel of his boyhood - especially the histrionics of the old-time preachers who, with blazing eyes and fiery tongue, had enthralled and terrified him as a child.

The prolonged absence of his mother left an indelible mark on him. "I have never been able to totally forgive my mother for leaving me; therefore I have never been able to love her," he wrote in his autobiography, adding, "I have a deeply aggressive wariness towards women which has left a trail of domestic disaster behind me." He admitted to having spent most of his life in "an emotional mess": all three of his marriages ended in divorce, although he enjoyed a warm relationship with at least two of his former wives and his five children.

He first entertained hopes of becoming an actor at Green Hill Grammar School in Tenby, where he was encouraged by Miss Evelyn Ward, an English teacher, who remained one of his most trusted friends. His performance in a school play was praised by a local newspaper and he forthwith decided to pursue a career in the theatre. Called to an interview with his headmaster, J.T. Griffith, he was advised to drop the s in his surname because it was a mark of anglicisation, and allowed to leave school before his 16th birthday and with no academic qualifications.

In 1937 Griffith made his début as a professional actor at the Festival Theatre in Cambridge, where Peter Hoare cast him as Cinna the Poet in Julius Caesar; he then played Danny in the West Pier Company's production of Emlyn Williams's Night Must Fall in Tenby and took a very small part in Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday. With bigger parts in Little Ladyship, The Corn is Green and Boys in Brown, he gained experience in treading the boards of repertory theatre.

Griffith had barely had a chance to break into the cinema before the Second World War began. He served with the RAF, mostly in Canada. Often in trouble with the military authorities for minor misdemeanours such as imitating the officers, he used the opportunity to read as widely as he could, though his choice of books was nothing if not unorthodox. On his last visit to Tenby before conscription, he had asked his grandparents to give him, as a farewell present, an English translation of Hitler's Mein Kampf so that he could better understand the causes of the conflict in which he was about to become involved, and he may have been the only British soldier to carry that book about with him for the duration.

Declared unfit to fly after contracting scarlet fever and now weighing only seven stone, he was invalided out of the RAF in 1942.

He resumed his career in the theatre with Tyrone Guthrie's Old Vic in Liverpool, playing the Chorus in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, but, never at ease with himself as a stage actor, found he preferred the discipline of the cinema. His first screen role had been in Love on the Dole (1941) and over the next 50 years he was to appear in more than 80 films. Many are now forgotten - by his own admission, he did a lot of inferior work - but some stand out: Lucky Jim (1957), A Night to Remember (1958), I'm All Right, Jack (1959), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Wild Geese (1978), Who Dares Wins (1982), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (1995).

When he was not playing villains or eccentrics - he claimed passengers would take one look at him in a train compartment and hurriedly leave - he specialised in stereotypical parts as a malevolent Welshman, in which he put on an accent which did not win him many fans in Wales. Even so, as the obsequious Ieuan Jenkins who competes against Peter Sellers's John Lewis for promotion to a sub-librarian's post in Only Two Can Play (1962), a film version of Kingsley Amis's novel That Uncertain Feeling, set in Swansea, he made a lot of us laugh.

From about 1965 he began to move away from the cinema to the making of documentaries, partly because they afforded him almost complete control of the medium. His film Soldiers of the Widow (1972), about the siege and relief of Ladysmith during the first Boer War, was the first to be made out of his obsession with South Africa. It was followed by an even more hard-hitting documentary, Black as Hell: Thick as Grass (1979), about the Impis' attack on the South Wales Borderers' outpost at Rorke's Drift in 1879, in which he played the parts of both British officers and Zulu warriors.

Among other documentaries he made were A Touch of Churchill, a Touch of Hitler (1971), a corrosive indictment of Cecil Rhodes; The Sun's Bright Child (1975), a life of the actor Edmund Keane, whose memory he revered; The Light (1986), a typically one-sided view of David Ben Gurion, Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel; and But I Have Promises to Keep (1989), a sympathetic portrait of Nehru that was nevertheless suppressed in India.

In most of these films Griffith appeared as himself - hectoring, loquacious, cranky, wild-eyed, combative, tub-thumping, and utterly riveting in the way he delivered his invective and used the camera to maximum effect.

It is inevitable that opinions of the maverick Kenneth Griffith, especially among documentary buffs, will vary widely. Some critics have been perturbed by his taking so many parts in his own productions - Christ, Napoleon, Hitler, and so on. One, writing in The Times in 1986, commented that he would not be surprised if Griffith were one day to play all the roles in Gone with the Wind. Others have taken the sterner view that his documentaries are merely egotistical exercises in polemic and have only negligible cinematic merit.

Despite these strictures, however, it is generally agreed that his work provides a jolt to complacency and invites the viewer to reconsider conventional wisdom regarding some of the less honourable episodes in British colonial history.

Meic Stephens

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