Comedic actor also had a serious side

RICHARD BRIERS ACTOR 14-1-1934 - 17-2-2013



14-1-1934 - 17-2-2013

RICHARD Briers, the actor, who has died aged 79, played the engaging free spirit who strove for a self-sufficient lifestyle in Surbiton in BBC Television's classic 1970s comedy series The Good Life.

Although acclaimed on television for a style of dithering comedy, Briers also proved adept in serious roles in the classics. In Kenneth Branagh's 1997 film of Hamlet, his Polonius was praised by one critic for its "conspiratorial edge".

In The Good Life, Briers played the hapless Tom Good, a draughtsman who decided to abandon the office rat race and live off the land. Instead of moving to the country, however, he and his wife Barbara (Felicity Kendal) eviscerated the lawn at their suburban home, planted vegetables and kept livestock — all to the horror of their relentlessly middle-class next-door neighbours, Margo and Jerry Leadbetter (Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington).

With his omnipresent grin and boyish mannerisms, Briers proved perfect for the role. The Goods' attempts to be truly self-sufficient were constantly thwarted by the machinations of the snobbish Margo, who feared they were lowering the tone of the neighbourhood beyond repair; but Tom and Barbara always laughed in the face of adversity, and never lost their affection for their tormentor.

Screened in 30 episodes between 1975 and 1978, The Good Life was probably Briers' best-known vehicle on television.

From 1984 to 1987, he starred in another popular sitcom, Ever Decreasing Circles. It featured an obsessive, middle-aged fusspot whose settled routine is unexpectedly threatened by a flashy rival for his wife's affections.

It all seemed a far cry from Briers' earnest portrayal of the Dane in a student production at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts of Hamlet, when his naturally rapid delivery led one critic to liken him to "a demented typewriter". Yet with his sense of timing, air of hapless innocence and his ability to keep the straightest of faces amid the mayhem typical of his brand of embarrassed humour, it was no great surprise that Briers went on to become one of Britain's leading practitioners of light comedy.

He continued to be offered TV work, and starred as the Reverend Philip Lambe in All In Good Faith (1985-88). Lambe, the former vicar of an affluent rural parish, had to knuckle down to life in a tough Midlands city and meet its challenging problems. But after Briers' conspicuous success at the BBC, this series — his first for ITV — was regarded a disappointment.

Richard David Briers was born on January 14, 1934, at Merton, in Surrey.

The family lived at Raynes Park, south-west London, and occasionally received handouts from a wealthy relative. Richard was educated at Ridgeway School in Wimbledon, where he failed to shine scholastically but showed an interest in acting. The family's flat overlooked a cinema, and he could hear the films playing below.

His first job, at 16, was as a filing clerk, and after two years he endured "a further two years' hard grind" doing similar work for the RAF during his national service. He relieved the boredom by taking part in amateur dramatics and was encouraged in this by the actor Terry-Thomas, his father's cousin.

Briers was offered a place at RADA, where he was a contemporary of Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole. For the first time in his young life he found himself excelling, and he won RADA's silver medal for his portrayal of Hamlet. "Until then, I could just see failure staring me in the face," he recalled. "Now there was a glimmer of hope."

He made his professional debut at the Playhouse Theatre in Liverpool, where he met his wife, Ann Davies, herself an actress. "My first professional part," Briers recalled, "was as a botanist who was mad about getting rare plants from America, and I've played fanatics on and off ever since."

Briers made his first London appearance, in 1959, opposite one of the West End's best-known theatrical couples, John Clements and Kay Hammond, in Lionel Hale's comedy Gilt And Gingerbread.

Unlike some actors, Briers was not content with the notion of "resting" between jobs. His childhood poverty made him yearn for financial security; he seized every opportunity that came his way, and was careful with his money.

His break into television came in 1962, as a troubled pupil barrister in Henry Cecil's Brothers In Law, in a 13-part adaptation by Frank Muir and Denis Norden. Although he was a success in the first series, he declined to take part in a second, despite being offered double the money. "I wanted to be an actor rather than a TV personality," he explained, although it was TV that drove his career forward.

Created specially for him, Marriage Lines (1963-66) was the series that established him in the public eye. Briers starred as a young man adjusting to married life with his former secretary in a small flat in Earl's Court, south-west London. The series ran for 45 episodes and helped Briers establish the amiably enthusiastic comic persona that became his signature.

His stage career continued in parallel, and in 1972 he returned to Shakespeare in the title role of Richard III on a provincial tour.

Briers' TV career continued to flourish with parts in The Other One (1977-79); One-Upmanship (1976-78); and the Alan Ayckbourn trilogy The Norman Conquests (1977). When he befriended Kenneth Branagh, the young actor cast Briers in stage productions of Twelfth Night (1987), King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream (both 1990) and Coriolanus (1992), and in his film versions of Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Frankenstein (1994) and In the Bleak Midwinter (1995).

Between 2000 and 2005, Briers played the engagingly dotty laird Hector MacDonald in the BBC series Monarch of the Glen.

Off camera, Briers' pursuits were essentially suburban: gardening or drinking in the garden, golf, entertaining friends and reading. He published four books: Natter Natter (1981); Coward and Company (1987); A Little Light Weeding (1993); and A Taste of the Good Life (1995).

He was appointed OBE in 1989 and CBE in 2003.

Diagnosed with emphysema in 2008, he estimated he had smoked half a million cigarettes before giving up in 2003.

Richard Briers married Ann Davies in 1957; they had two daughters.

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