Richard was a musician. To my knowledge he wasn’t a singer per se, or player of any particular instruments, beyond the odd doodle on a guitar. But as much as anyone I’ve encountered he had a complete understanding that it is what one does with the silences between sounds that give those sounds their impact. And even though the sounds he dealt in were those of the spoken word, and not ‘notes’, this remains the only way to describe his profound, innate musicianship.
It only occurs to me now just how spoilt we History Boys all were, as new practitioners of our trade, to get to listen to Richard night after night, over two and a half years, handling Alan Bennett’s non-naturalistic text – those long, elegant, carefully constructed sentences – with such natural, deft delicacy that it just seemed self-evident those words were supposed to be spoken that way.
Richard Griffiths with the original History Boys
Somehow it seems to me now vitally important, for us in a generation following behind, to grasp that that easiness belied the amount of conscious thought he gave to giving that impression. Richard belongs to a very select handful of actors who manage not to let their classical apprenticeship stifle their ‘modern-ness’; that required spontaneity; the mandatory ‘realness’ all actors need to have any hope of longevity – and without abandoning the lessons learnt during that apprenticeship regarding rhythm, complexity and particularity.
For a man who could easily tell you the same half-hour shaggy-dog anecdote several times without realising it, he remains one of the most accurate on-stage thinkers I can ever imagine coming across. He has that in common with his History Boys co-star Frances de la Tour, and others such as Paul Scofield and Roger Allam. It may sound a ludicrous tribute, but the man spoke in whole sentences – while making damn sure the audience clocked every single word along the way.
Honestly, there are not many around who can do both; who can fine-tune the very same inflection on the very same line from night to night, in order to make it seem like it’s being thought of for the very first time. This way of working may be less pyrotechnical than an improvised, unpredictable, ‘dangerous’ approach, but it is every inch as exciting, entirely as flamboyant, absolutely as compelling, just as infinitely fascinating, vibratingly beautiful – and moreover, it’s the kind of thing that’s deeply needed if we are to retain our ability to bring epic and larger-than-life texts to life; to manifest them in real time for the collective mind.
That phenomenon seemed to have an unending fascination for him, and his enthusiasm was infectious, to the point where, now, I will always associate certain stories and images with him – getting drunk on vodka with him and watching him get all choked up recounting the tale of the battle of Marathon; his never-ending and yet irritatingly still hilarious anecdotes such as the gas-man who tried to shut off the lights half-way through Wolfitt’s Antony and Cleopatra; his suddenly reciting Berowne’s opening speech from Love’s Labour’s Lost out of nowhere for no reason; his random gifts of books about anything from Ulysses S Grant to Thermopylae; the fact that he wrote up Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken in his beautiful handwriting and it ended up on our kitchen pin-board for ages somehow; his memorising of William Hazlitt’s On Actors just because; his never-ending cigarettes; his occasional, hysterical narcolepsy.
It would be pointless to deny that one couldn’t know him and help wondering how long his health would hold out – and yet his death now seems such a terrible shock; for, while at moments he could be said to have been infuriatingly interminable, that is exactly what he seemed – as if he would last forever, and now he’s gone.
The man was brilliant, generous, naïve, cynical, studiedly unpractised, and an utter delight to share a stage with. I shall miss him a lot more than perhaps I imagined I would.
Follow Jamie Parker on Twitter @DickLeFenwick. Other graduates of the original History Boys class who have posted tributes to Griffiths on Twitter include Samuel Barnett (@mrsamuelbarnett), Russell Tovey (@russelltovey), and James Corden (@JKCorden), who also penned a tribute to him in the Guardian.
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