The Withnail And I, Harry Potter and Sunshine Boys star talks to Matthew Amer about autograph hunters, celebrity and growing older.
“Sometimes people say ‘The thing about Richard Griffiths is he’s very good at talking. He talks and talks and talks.’ It’s probably true, but I wish they’d say so. They’ve just sat there and looked politely at me.” Having sat and looked politely at the Withnail And I, Pie In The Sky and Harry Potter star for the last half hour, I can tell you exactly why they don’t say anything.
It is for one simple reason. Listening to Griffiths talk, whether he’s directly answered a question you’ve posed – unlikely – or been led off on a tangent like an easily distracted school teacher – entirely possible – is hypnotic. Every point is met with an anecdote, a historical explanation, a philosophical argument, even an impression. His Gambon, I can tell you, is one of the best.
To stop Griffiths in full flow would be like trying to turn off Niagara Falls. The beauty and intrigue would be gone; better to let it flow and enjoy the majesty.
This particular majesty is being enjoyed sitting on a bench outside the Savoy theatre’s stage door. As Griffiths draws on a cigarette – he packs in a fair few as we chat, as he won’t have time for any more until the show comes down near 23:00 – he enlightens me on the theatre’s history with fire; one of the reason’s he’s not allowed to smoke indoors.
He has reunited with director Thea Sharrock for the third time in the West End – they previously worked together on Heroes and Equus – to bring Neil Simon’s 1970s comedy The Sunshine Boys to London. “I think it could be nice,” he says, which, to me, sounds rather underwhelming for a piece starring Griffiths and Hollywood star Danny DeVito, directed by a woman widely regarded as one of the most talented young directors around. “Coming from me, that’s a lot,” he clarifies. “Nice for me is huge. I’m fairly grudging with praise, and self-praise is no praise at all.”
"Even if you just came on, stood still and spoke the lines, it would be dynamite"
“I love doing it,” he says of the show that follows the reunion of a vaudeville double act who have not spoken for more than a decade. “I cannot tell you. It’s more fun than you can shake a stick at. It’s terrific dialogue. The writing is so beautifully crafted. But getting it right…”
Griffiths, even with his history of success that includes an Olivier Award-winning performance in The History Boys, a memorable appearance in The Habit Of Art, an impressive Royal Shakespeare Company CV and film credits such as Chariots Of Fire, Ghandi, The Naked Gun 2 ½, Sleepy Hollow and Hugo, is not one for counting any chickens before they hatch.
“There’s glorious humour in the attitude of the characters who are actually incredibly frail, very defensive, very cautious and it’s wonderfully human because none of that is ever admitted. They’re so full of s**t. They tear each other to pieces. Even if you just came on, stood still and spoke the lines, it would be dynamite. Trying to get in all the stuff of performance that goes on top of that, that’s the gilt on the gingerbread. The problem here is have we got enough time to get this to the place we want it to be? We’re doing it without any stutters. We know what we’re doing. Now is the time for fine tuning things. We’re twitchy about it because we hope nobody f**ks up or gets it wrong or stutters and it just goes the way it’s written and the way we’ve been doing it.”
This, I suspect, is a pragmatism that comes from many years in the business. While we, as the audience, recognise the highs – the iconic nature of Withnail, the popularity of Pie In The Sky, the all-conquering behemothity of Potter – Griffiths has dealt with the lows that go with it and the reality that accompanies our misguided perception. Harry Potter, for example, in which he played the boy wizard’s less than friendly uncle Vernon Dursley, was 12 weeks work over 10 years. “12 weeks’ great pay, but it was only 12 weeks.”
There is a sense, as well, that his world-view is not entirely dissimilar to that of his Sunshine Boys character. Both have seen the world around them change, both aren’t as young as they used to be.
“However long you live,” Griffiths explains, “in your heart you will always feel emotionally as you did when you were 17 or 18. You burn the same way you burned. You lust the same way you lusted. You despair the same way you despaired. You feel guilt. You feel aggression. The emotions are permanently on fire, but the sack around them is going to stab you in the back by falling to bits.”
"The emotions are permanently on fire, but the sack around them is going to stab you in the back by falling to bits"
“It kills me that when I was 17, [girls] didn’t look like they do now,” he continues as his mind takes him off into pondering how the world has changed. “They’re adorable and wonderful and free and saucy and cheeky and independent. They were then, but not in the same way. The thing that’s most regrettable is that I’ll never be 23 again, knowing what I know now, because if I did, I’d have so much more fun. I’d have been so much more wicked. I think I’ve been too nice and too much of a model citizen for my own good. It’s too late now.”
Too nice doesn’t sound a bad thing, and his actions have played their part in getting him where he is now, being driven to and from his Midlands home every day to perform on the West End stage opposite Danny DeVito. If you could cut out the travel time, it would be the best of all worlds; performing in the world’s greatest centre for theatre at night, sitting at home during the day letting nature wash over him: “I have a huge garden and I just sit and watch the animal life. It’s like heaven.”
It is the type of phrase you expect to hear from a gentlemen of extended years, who has lived through the flames of youth and has the burns and scars to show it. He can’t do the long motorway drive from Stratford-upon-Avon anymore – “I nod off. When I was a kid at the RSC the road was mine” – and he has little tolerance for the age of celebrity which he describes as “the stuff of nightmares. I avoid it like the plague. I know it’s worth it because somewhere there’s a connection with income, but it’s not for me.”
Among his particular pet hates are autograph hunters, the scourge of his life for 35 years. There was a time when he found it exciting to be stopped by a scribble seeker, he says, working for the RSC in Stratford in 1974, but the novelty wore off after a week. “Why do they want them,” he asks. “You’ve got a signature; you’ve got nothing. I find it tiresome.”
Before he can launch into another anecdote, time is called on our meeting as he has to prepare for the show. A final puff of the cigarette and he is off, leaving me happily splashing in a metaphorical plunge pool of tales, stories, and impressions, thinking back on the Billy Connolly routine on ageing, the Profumo affair and Dylan Thomas. Why don’t journalists ask him to stop? Why would they?