FRED GRIFFITHS was a London cab-driver who, after being featured in a documentary film as a member of the wartime Fire Service, took up an alternative career in the cinema. In 42 years he worked on more than 150 films, under many of the great British directors, from Charles Crichton and Basil Dearden to the Boulting brothers.
Humphrey Jennings discovered him. Griffiths was a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service stationed in Chelsea. Jennings, on behalf of the Crown Film Unit, had been commissioned by the Ministry of Information to produce a feature- length documentary dramatising the work of the Fire Service and met Griffiths on duty in Cheyne Place. The film Fires Were Started (1943) was intended, its opening text tells us, to produce a picture of the early days of the Second World War - 'the bitter days of the Winter and Spring 1940-41 played by the firemen and women themselves'.
Jennings was a director whose work transcends the period in which it was made and the confines of the documentary movement. He had a particular intensity and a poetic vision. His approach was not, however, popular with the authorities, who wanted, above all, realism in the service of propaganda.
Fires Were Started was described by one critic as 'the only British film that looks and sounds as if it came from the land of Shakespeare'. As the cheerful cockney Johnny Daniels at the centre of the film, Fred Griffiths was the spirit of London at war; he embodied the city of Hogarth and Dickens: watching him, one could believe that London was worth fighting for.
When in 1943 JB Priestley gave up his Postscripts, broadcast on the Home Service after the news, his popularity was said to have been second only to that of Churchill. There was an attempt to fill this prestigious slot with an acceptable alternative. Griffiths was one of those approached by David Dyson, a producer at the BBC, to produce a script (later published in the Listener), based on 'the feeling of a person when the notion of war first struck them'.
Previous attempts to broadcast a representative from the Fire Service had failed when the speaker, a Chief Fire Officer, had appeared too pompous and ill at ease. Griffiths was told that they wanted a voice from the people and he gave it to them, simply and sincerely. He proved popular and was asked back again. Between 1943 and 1946 he gave seven other similar talks, including one on 'The Place of Women in the Home'. He became something of a celebrity within the Fire Service and when a car arrived to take him to the BBC the officers at the station would polish the buttons of his uniform.
In 1945 Griffiths had one of his kidneys removed and was retired from the Fire Service. With little work for a cab-driver in London he decided to make a career in commercial films, despite being warned about the differences between commercial and documentary film-making. He had already, in 1943, worked on a film for Ealing, Nine Men, directed by Harry Watt, who had also made the transition from the Crown Film Unit. Thereafter Griffiths was ubiquitous on screen as a supporting actor, often with only small appearances, but instantly recognisable and always Fred Griffiths.
He acted in many of the Ealing comedies and in films such as The Cruel Sea (1953), Reach for the Sky (1956) and I'm All Right Jack (1959), as well as making numerous appearances on television in films and in advertisements. He finally retired in 1984.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content