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Richard Griffiths: An actor with a touch of genius about him


Richard Griffiths, who has died aged 65, was a character actor with a touch of genius about him. He often played borderline creepy types -  the camp uncle, the school teacher with amorous designs on his pupils - but he brought such humour and pathos to these roles that you always rooted for him.

There was nothing self-effacing about Griffiths. He said in interviews that he didn’t like the way he looked but his enormous size certainly gave him presence. His performances continually wrong-footed audiences. They expected broad, pantomime-style mugging. After all, Griffiths was a big man who used big gestures and often seemed as if he had just walked out of a Charles Dickens novel. However, there was invariably delicacy and subtlety in his work too - a sense of yearning and melancholy that took you by surprise.

This was evident in one of his most famous roles as Hector, the school teacher “pissing away his life” in a godforsaken school in The History Boys. For all the comic schtick in the classroom and the high minded asides about art and literature, Griffiths conveyed very movingly the character’s sense of disappointment about the route his life had taken.

As Uncle Monty in Withnail And I, Griffiths tapped into a long tradition of British eccentricity stretching back to Gilbert Harding and beyond. He was wondrously camp, holding forth about everything from his liking for firm carrots to his disappointment at never playing Hamlet. Even here, though, he never quite teeters off into complete ridiculousness. We still feel for Uncle Monty, even as Richard E. Grant yells at him he’s a “terrible c**t!”

Griffiths’ range was wider than might have been expected. There did seem to be a lot of uncles on the CV, for instance his turn as the (wholly obnoxious) Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films. He told one journalist he took this role so he could be “horrible to kids.” That remark partially explains why he wasn’t typecast. He had a spikiness and aggressiveness. He wasn’t going to be anybody’s cuddly mascot.

Surprisingly, for an actor with such a lengthy stage and screen career, he often complained that he didn’t like being photographed. His huge size, about which he was acutely self-conscious, was a result of a glandular condition. In a still image, that size was all too obvious. When he actually acting, audiences would be too caught up in his performance to be worrying about how big he was.

Many felt that the film adaptation of The History Boys wasn’t on the level of the play. Nonetheless, it preserves what was surely Griffiths’ greatest performance. Along with Withnail And I, it will ensure that Griffiths is remembered and cherished as one of the great British character actors of his era.