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.
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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.
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