Actor’s blueprint for his career and Fitzrovia
By Brian Jarman
Versatility could be Griff Rhys Jones’ middle name, if he wasn’t already using one in that Welsh single-barrelled kind of way.
Comedian, actor, TV presenter, producer, director, writer, King of West End farce – he’s always up for a new challenge. Who else could you imagine playing both Charley’s Aunt and Fagin?
And when I meet him for lunch in a new cafe on Warren Street, near his home on Fitzroy Square, there are of course many moments of schoolboy giggles.
The son of a Welsh doctor, he spent his early years in Cardiff until the family moved to Essex.
“I was a back of the class person,” he says. “What made me funny was that I liked being around funny people. I like clowns.”
One of his first stage appearances was as First Witch in a school production of Macbeth alongside his classmate, the writer Douglas Adams.
Then it was up to Cambridge to read History and English and work with the famed Footlights Club, appearing in and directing many productions. A job as trainee radio producer at the BBC introduced him to Fitzrovia. It was a love affair that was to develop into a thirty-five year relationship.
“I was brought up in suburban Essex and for me London was an exciting place, a remote place,” he says. “I always wanted to live in central London. I never wanted to live in a middle-class ghetto.”
And it was then he realised that people did live in the area – not just BBC people and actors like his friend David Jason whom he was producing and who had a flat in Cleveland Street – but a wide diversity of people who chose to come to live here.
He fell easily into Fitzrovia’s pub culture (he’s since given up alcohol) and remembers sessions in The Stag, The Yorkshire Grey, and The George.
“The George was called The Glue Pot by the conductor of the BBC orchestra because that’s where the brass section used to go and he could never get them out of there.
“How much has the area changed in those 35 years? Not much. What a triumphant achievement”.
This is why Griff is against the proposed Business Improvement District (BID) and the Fitzrovia Area Action Plan, which he has already criticised in these pages. It is here that the giggles turn into gravitas.
As President of Civic Voice, which aims to conserve and preserve the character of our neighbourhoods, he fears such grand plans are undemocratic and serve big business and retail interests rather than those of the people who live and work here.
But more of that later. First let’s return to the career which made him such a familiar presence on our stages and screens.
It was in those early years at the BBC that Griff went along to the Paris Studios in Lower Regent Street to see his hero Frankie Howerd record his radio show. He was with his colleagues Rory McGrath, Clive Anderson and Jimmy Mulville, who went on to co-found the famous Hat Trick production company and produce Griff and Mel Smith in Alas Smith and Jones.
The producer was taken ill, so Griff stepped in.
“The scales fell from my eyes”, he says. “I loved Frank but he was quite a difficult person to work with. He was very naughty and could be lazy and blamed his laziness on anybody else. He was exhausting.
“He had twenty-year-olds writing those extensive monologues which were supposed to be off-the-cuff. He’d ring me at two o’clock in the morning the night before the show and say that he wasn’t going to do any of the monologues – he hated them – and so we’d all have to get in and start all over again.”
But despite all this, Griff says, “It was my favourite year,” referring to the Peter O’Toole film in which he plays an ageing, drunken film star working with a young writer for a TV show in New York.
He went on to have a few minor roles in the first series of Not The Nine O’Clock News with comedians such as Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Anderson. It broke new ground in TV comedy which, says Griff, was in the doldrums after the success of Monty Python. But after the pilot, which was according to Griff ‘a bit of a disaster,’ the first series was only a moderate success.
Griff felt it needed more editorial rigour.
“There was quite a bit of rambling”, he says. “I was there saying, ‘Why don’t we cut it there?’ That was my role. So the second series was a huge success and that was down to me. Can you put that in inverted commas or something to indicate there’s a bit of irony there?”
In 1981 Griff and Mel Smith set up Talkback, one of the most successful production companies in British television which would go on to make classics such as The Day Today, Smack The Pony, and Da Ali G Show.
They’d move into old offices in Newman Street and Percy Street, restoring them as they went along and winning awards for doing so.
Then they bought an old factory in Clerkenwell, and Griff puts up his hands to starting the gentrification or yuppification of the area.
He was the driving force behind the acclaimed renovation of the Hackney Empire, and through this got the job presenting the BBC series Restoration, in which viewers voted for the old buildings they wanted to see rescued and done up.
Meanwhile Griff had brought his house in Fitzroy Square and moved his family in. His friends thought he was mad.
“I used to wake up in the middle of the night worrying about bringing my children here. But then I’d look out of my window onto Fitzroy Square and it was the quietest place I’d lived in my life.”
He mentions the novel Saturday by his neighbour Ian McEwan which, he points out, is about the paranoia of inner-city living. He’s amazed that people still think of Fitzrovia as a rough place.
Instead he lauds the mix of small shops and businesses, houses and flats, pubs and restaurants, the old and the new, the quiet streets. It’s not ‘glossed up’, he says, but like a ‘quartier’ in a European city, and the last thing he thinks we need is a grand plan. He points to development to the north of Euston Road which he describes as sterile.
“I’m not against planning or vision, but I am against what appears to be the consensus building up among the Mayor and big business that what this place needs is a shake-up for action and improvement.
“This is a perfect city centre. You need to be more like this place – you don’t want to try to create an area which has all the life taken out of it.
“It’s really important that we realise that the act of preservation of what works is about reducing or watching out-of-scale improvements to an area which actually serve other interests than the interests of what makes the place attractive.
“We’re the pioneers of what life is going to be like for the rest of the 21st century.”
The Business Improvement District (BID) plan embraces only those businesses which have a rateable value of £100,000 and to sit on the board you have to pay £10,000 or more. For Griff, this smacks of a return to property-owning oligarchy.
He waves his arms around the Middle-Eastern restaurant called Honey where we’re having a delicious lunch.
“I fear that places like this, which is a wonderful addition to Warren Street, will not be included in the debate. The owner has no knowledge of it. It should be held up as the epitome of central London.”
As to his own future, he also eschews grand plans. He looks for things he will enjoy, like the series he did about the Pembrokeshire farm he bought and renovated with his architect son.
He’s exploring options including more comedy in the theatre.
“What I really enjoy is making people piss themselves,” he says.
But his problem, he insists, is that he finds it difficult to say no. I ask him about the BBC programmes Losing It, in which he explored his own anger management problems. Is he really such an angry person?
“I wish I’d never made that programme,” he says. “It makes me so cross.”
And at this point we both dissolve into schoolboy giggles.