Richard Briers A Good Life From a man raising chickens in London suburbia to a cantankerous laird in the Scottish highlands, Richard Briers has created a number of unique characters that have delighted audiences for decades. He is not only loved by audiences, but is also roundly acknowledged by his peers as one of the outstanding actors of his generation. No chance at all. Paul Eddington is irreplaceable and although Penny Keith and Felicity Kendal have worn well, I’m definitely a white-haired old git and it would be a bit sad to see me coming on with my Zimmer frame. -Briers on possibility of a Good Neighbors reunion The future Good Neighbors star was born in London in 1934. His father, Joe, was a bit of a “rolling stone” who by the end of his life had worked nearly 80 jobs. His mother, Morna, harbored dreams of show business success but instead stayed home to raise Richard and his younger sister, Jane. He discovered his vocation at an early age. “I was about eight when I started reading aloud in the kitchen because it had an echo,” he recalls, “which made me sound rather good, so the ego was already in place.” He disliked school and did not excel academically. However, his ability to mimic his teachers was an early indication of his ability to make people laugh. At fourteen he became heavily involved in amateur dramatics. He wanted to be an actor but instead drifted into dead-end jobs, working for a while as a file clerk. Following a stint in the Royal Air Force he was persuaded by his cousin, gap-toothed funnyman Terry –Thomas to join the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). His classmates included such future luminaries as Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney. His time at RADA was followed by a stint with the Liverpool Repertory Company. The hard work and discipline of a repertory company was an invaluable experience for the young actor. The job also provided an extra fringe benefit when Richard met his future wife Ann Davies, who was a stage manager at the time. The couple married only six months after they met. The bride’s engagement ring was bought with a five-pound note Richard borrowed from his future mother-in-law. Richard worked hard to hone his craft, but the process included a few setbacks. The worst was when he was asked to leave a production because he talked so quickly that no one could understand him. Indeed, his future co-star Prunella Scales (Sybil in Fawlty Towers) once described him as doing the “fastest Hamlet in history.” Part of this was due to sheer nerves, but more training and experience helped him sort out the problem. In 1958 he made his West End debut in a play entitled Gilt and Gingerbread. ACT II: KING OF THE SITCOM It didn’t take long for the talented stage actor to make the transition to the small screen. Briers had his first starring role as a young lawyer in the 1962 sitcom Brothers In Law. The next year he teamed up with Prunella Scales in Marriage Lines. This black and white series chronicled the adventures of a young couple as they went through the normal ups and downs experienced by any newlyweds. The show lasted over 40 episodes, which even by today’s standards is quite an achievement. A few years later Briers received an offer to do another sitcom written specifically with him in mind. He thought long and hard about the offer. Part of him – the admittedly pretentious part – felt that he had to choose between being a television personality or a serious actor. Should he return to sitcom or go somewhere like the Old Vic? He opted for the former. Growing up with a financially irresponsible father had turned Briers into a very cautious adult, so as much as he loved the theater, money from television work made it much easier to support his wife and their two daughters. The role created for him was Tom Good in The Good Life, or Good Neighbors, as it became known in the States. Playing Tom Good would truly change his life. As this was a starring vehicle for him written by the team of John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, Briers had some say in the casting. After seeing a production of the play The Norman Conquests, he popped in to talk to the show’s star, Felicity Kendal. Would she be interested in reading for the part of his wife in a new sitcom? She was. Thus one of British comedy’s most memorable couples came into being. Good Neighbors didn’t catch on at first, and Briers admitted that he thought it might be a bit too “southern” or suburban to find an audience in the rest of the country. Yet the marvelous ensemble work by a cast of theatrical veterans, including Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington as Margo and Jerry Leadbetter, proved to be irresistible. Add to this the fact that everyone can relate to dreams of giving up a dreary job and being his own boss caused the UK (and later America) to take the show to its collective heart. Briers knew that, at least on paper, there wasn’t actually all that much to the role of Tom Good, so he had to work hard to build the character. His instincts were right as the innate energy and good humor he brought to the role played extraordinarily well off of the starchy, humorless Margo and the sophisticated, responsible Jerry. Good Neighbors ran for four seasons and ended with a special performance attended by one of the show’s biggest fans, Queen Elizabeth II. The cast was told that not only was the Queen attending, but that they would have to do the show right the first time. There would be no stopping and starting again. The cast was understandably terrified. Briers responded to this news by telling the producers that they’d have to find themselves someone else to do the show – that he was too chicken. The fear eventually subsided and Briers did the show, albeit with a few gaffes that Her Majesty seemed to enjoy. Looking back on Good Neighbors, Briers admits that Tom Good is selfish and not the most likeable of men. He is jovial, courageous and hard working, but puts his wife through any number of hardships including lack of material possessions and children. He can be incredibly insensitive to her needs, though Barbara is not shy in letting him know whenever this happens. Take, for example, the excellent episode “The Last Posh Frock.” Barbara suffers a lack of confidence when a passerby mistakes her for a man. She feels that running around in dirty jeans and shirts all day has left her unglamorous and unwomanly. Tom doesn’t really understand her feelings but nevertheless tries to calm her fears and tells her that she is beautiful and attractive no matter what she wears. She doesn’t need posh frocks and other feminine frills. A little later, Barbara’s former classmate Eileen arrives for dinner in a gorgeous dress. Tom proceeds to drool all over her, totally negating everything he had said previously. After she leaves, Barbara truly lets him have it, starting out with “You two-faced, inconsiderate, selfish rat.” Tom is not a bad man, though - he’s just a man on a mission. On rare occasions he does realize the hardships his wife endures. In the episode “Backs to the Wall,” Barbara falls asleep at the table, exhausted after she has had to get the potato crop in almost all by herself due to Tom’s bad back. Briers does a lovely speech showing that Tom indeed realizes how much she has sacrificed to help achieve their dream of self sufficiency. ACT III: ANOTHER GREAT ROLE Briers seems to do best playing ordinary men who are dreamers and just a step out of touch with reality. He also excels at playing an obsessive, which is just the kind of character that John Esmonde and Bob Larbey are good at writing. Unfortunately, the next collaboration between Esmonde/Larbey and Briers was not as successful. In The Other One, Briers plays Ralph Tanner, a sad innocent who lies compulsively to make himself look worldlywise. When he accidentally meets up with Brian Bryant (played by Michael Gambon) while on his way to Spain, the two cook up a plan to conquer the women. Of course their plans don’t succeed. The Other One was not well received, but Briers, Esmonde and Larbey were back on form with their next collaboration. In Ever Decreasing Circles, Esmonde and Larbey came up with another memorably selfobsessed character named Martin Bryce. They wrote Martin specifically for Briers because they knew he was the only one who could make such an unmitigated prat even halfway sympathetic and funny. Why is Martin such a prat? For a start, he’s organized to the point of being completely anal-retentive. Everything has to be in its proper folder all nicely labeled, the telephone receiver must be placed just so, and every one of the many meetings he chairs has to have a precisely planned agenda. He is zealous, nearly fanatical, about volunteering for numerous civic duties, but Martin thinks that all his do-gooding is worth it to his community. Like Tom Good, Martin doesn’t stop to think about how his activities might adversely affect his wife. When Paul Ryman (played by Peter Egan) moves in, Martin’s tiny world and self-esteem become increasingly threatened. Paul is handsome and easy-going - a successful business owner who gets things done without all the fuss and worry that plague Martin. Paul quickly ingratiates himself with the locals and, though Martin is too often lost in his own world to see it, an attraction grows between Paul and Martin’s long-suffering wife Ann, played beautifully by Penelope Wilton. Throughout the series, Martin tests the patience of those around him and, as tempting as it might be for Ann to run off with Paul, she stays with her man. The fun of Ever Decreasing Circles is seeing how easily Paul gets under the skin of the tightly wound Martin. One of the better episodes involves Paul showing up Martin during a cricket match. A long, slow motion sequence has Paul batting run after run while “The Flight of the Valkyries” plays in the background. The sequence ends by cutting to Martin’s utterly distraught face, which says it all: Paul’s outdone me again. The inspiration for Martin came to writers Esmonde and Larbey one day while they were walking. They passed a park and noticed a very overbearing, officious man refereeing a soccer match. From that small incident came the basis of a classic comedy character. Briers has often said that Tom Good may be his most famous role, but Martin is his favorite. It certainly remains one of his finest performances – just the look on his face at the end of the aforementioned cricket sequence is worth the price of admission ACT IV: THE BARD BECKONS Ever Decreasing Circles ended with an 80-minute special in 1989. Like Good Neighbors, it did not outstay its welcome and went out while still on top. Briers was then about 55, an age when some actors might have just coasted along on past successes. Yet he still craved new challenges, and he got them thanks to gifted actor/director Kenneth Branagh. Joining Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company was another move that changed Briers’ life, giving him the chance to take his already remarkable career in a completely different direction. This move was not so much taking a completely different direction as a returning to his roots. Briers always considered himself more of a serious actor – a theater person - and Branagh gave him the chance to tackle meaty, classical roles. Among others, Briers played Malvolio in Branagh’s production of Twelfth Night and did a tour playing King Lear. Their association was not strictly limited to the theater. Briers also appeared in the Branagh films In the Bleak Midwinter, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V. His fruitful association with Branagh made him “respectable” and proved to people who’d only seen him on the telly that he was clearly an actor with range. This late-career renaissance was capped when – as seems to be his pattern – Briers followed a period of stage and film work with a return to television. And what a return it was. ACT V: THE CALL OF THE HIGHLANDS With his penchant for playing eccentrics, Briers was the perfect choice to play that “irascible, reactionary, right-wing, difficult old git” Hector MacDonald in Monarch of the Glen. When Richard received the script for Monarch he was immediately drawn to it for several reasons. Concerned about the increasing violence and depressing plot lines on current television, he responded to Monarch’s gentleness and whimsy. He also related to the character of Hector, laird of a crumbling Scottish estate, because they’re both old-fashioned and live in a different time, out of touch with the modern world. This feeling of being out of touch with the modern world must have been enhanced by having to spend months at a time at Ardverikie House in the remote Scottish highlands. It may look magnificent if you’re watching from the comfort of your nice warm living room, but Briers recalls that the house was cold, drafty and uncomfortable. The cast and crew also waged constant battle against the pesky midges (an insect resembling a large fly) that populate the area and like to bite. Yet there was a positive side. Forced to live together, the cast of Monarch – like those of Good Neighbors and Ever Decreasing Circles - became a very close-knit group. Alexandra Gilbreath, who plays banker Stella Moon, said that one of the hardest things about her role on Monarch was trying not to laugh when working with Briers. Briers also became like a second father to his on-screen son Alistair MacKenzie. This could only have served to strengthen the scenes between the two because, although it is many things, Monarch is about the complex, difficult relationship between a father and his son. The highly addictive Monarch became an instant hit. After three seasons, however, the remoteness of the location and having to be away from his family for long stretches of time caused Briers to leave. Hector was killed off, much to the consternation of fans who loved him even though he was a cantankerous old coot. ACT VI: THE WHITE-HAIRED PATRIARCH In recent interviews Briers has often made reference to his advancing age. Now a self-confessed “whitehaired git,” he wants to slow down and spend more time with his wife, children (daughter Lucy is an actress) and grandchildren. While he might now be playing fewer roles, his career has been distinguished by an ability to balance the artistic and the commercial. Richard once asked himself whether he should be a serious actor or a television personality To his credit, he has been able to do both. His talent has been twice recognized by the Queen. In 1988 he was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1988 and was named a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 2003. Richard once joked that he lives in high hopes of becoming “Sir Briers,” and somehow that doesn’t seem so far-fetched. He looks back on his professional life with no regrets. “People ask me what I would like to play now but I’ve been so spoiled in my 46 years in the business, “ he recently said. “I’ve played everything and I made it happen.” He certainly did, and for that Britcom fans are very grateful.
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