“A Raffish Disregard for Pretensions”: Griff Rhys Jones
Griff Rhys Jones is not a sombre man.
From his first forays into show business as a trainee producer for BBC Radio in the seventies, he has charged headlong into his myriad professional pursuits with the pace of a runaway freight train, and has entered ‘national hero’ status through his BBC comedies, travel presenting and championing of rural affairs. It is incredibly difficult to ever imagine Griff sad. However, four years ago saw the tragic death of his decades-long comedy partner, the equally electric Mel Smith. Mel’s death led Griff to consider his career and begin touring a loosely formatted stage show of an introspective nature – which comes to Chipping Norton and Oxford in early 2018.
Here, he talks to Jack Rayner about student comedy, sailing away and the search for the exotic…
Hi Griff. In the past, you’ve often credited a lot of your success to sheer luck – being in the right place at the right time, or knowing someone who was going out with someone else. Is this self-deprecation or do you really experience that kind of impostor syndrome?
Ah, it’s self-deprecation really. What’s really kept me going is a willingness to try various things. I never expected life to turn out this way, and I know a lot of people – like Hugh Laurie – who feel exactly the same. Having said that, it’s not like I ever intended to be a doctor, or anything important or worthwhile. I intended to be a theatre director, and that was exactly what I did when I was an undergraduate. Then suddenly, because I tried my hand in the [Cambridge] Footlights, I found myself doing a lot of comedy. Then of course I’ve ended up presenting travel shows, and so on. I’ve been reasonably efficient at the things I’ve been asked to do but not so super-efficient at one particular task that one thing has become ‘the thing which I do’. I’m not sure what my vocation actually is.
What about now? When you take on a new venture, are you a little more confident or are you still not really sure what you’re doing?
Well, I’m still just as happy when people come to me and ask me to do things. How it works is a bit like how my dog used to eat its supper: at extraordinary speed, after which he’d look at the bowl and look at me as if to say, “What happened to my supper?” That’s very much what my life has been like; I’ve had a really full-on career. I did my first BBC radio show whilst I was still at university, and after that everything, including producing Frankie Howerd, feels like an enormous rollercoaster. Not the Nine O’Clock News felt like being a pop star, and that was when I was about 27. It all just charged along. After Mel [Smith] died, I thought to myself, “Christ alive, wait a minute. Where did that bowl of kibble go?” My show can end up a bit like that as well. When I come off, someone might say, “Did you know you were speaking for an hour and 10 minutes there?”, when I feel like I’ve only just come on.
That’s part of the appeal, surely?
In a way. Part of what I do in my show is tell stories – it’s not as much a stand-up show as it is knitting stories together. In my last show, I started with the idea of Mel dying, and I went through my own thoughts about being in my sixties – I think a lot of people in my generation are still trying their best to be about 15. It feels like a lot of us are trying to go on ‘gap years’ that we didn’t have when we were younger.
Obviously you’ve presented and championed a number of things to do with travel, the countryside, rivers and so on. What is so important to you about rural affairs and travelling?
The two are sort of interlinked. A while ago I realised that, due to my London-centric comedy career and relentless projects, I’d hardly been abroad. I decided to take a ‘gap year’ and sail away because I felt that I’d missed out on that kind of adventure. I made my own adventure: I bought a boat and sailed to St Petersburg and had a year just drifting away. I said to my agent, “That’s it, nobody wants me, I’m off, thanks.” I got as far as Denmark and my agent rang me up and said “Oh, don’t sail too far, I’ve got people who want you back!” After that, the whole idea of presenting started for me, with a whole new set of privileges, which is an amazing thing. Two things happened when I became a presenter: as far as television companies were concerned, I became a human being, rather than just cattle. I started talking to people in high places as if I actually existed, just because I’d talked directly to cameras. It’s quite insulting to actors! The second is that I found myself travelling all over the world. When it comes to the countryside, the thing that’s important to me is that the beauty in our own country is neglected. Everyone should go to see the Lake District, the Highlands and mid-Wales. These are extraordinary places and I simply never knew. I used to tour around the country a lot with Mel on a bus, but we’d only see the motorways. Once you get off the motorways you start to see what an amazing country we live in. Britain is sort of like a continent in miniature: we have the mini-mountains to the one side, then the great eastern plains to the other.
British countryside is hardly natural; it’s been formed by history. Simon Jenkins called it the greatest historical artifact that we could possibly possess. With that in mind, we need to be careful not to wreck it. I’m not trying to insinuate that we don’t need to build houses – we absolutely, fundamentally, 100% need to. Everywhere I go in Britain I’m struck by the need to build more houses. What I am saying is that we need houses that are better planned, better built, and better thought through.
I wanted to talk about Mel Smith, perhaps less concerning his work and more as a man and as your friend. What was Mel really like when the cameras were switched off?
Well, we were very much ‘yin and yang’ and worked together in a rather weird way. Mel was totally laidback, very easygoing, very urban, and a man’s man: he liked the pub, he liked to gamble, and he liked to lie around watching the sport on television with the Sporting Life on his lap. Mel and Peter Cook spent many, many afternoons just sitting there with a bottle of vodka, watching the horse racing! I’m not that person at all – I’ve always been into sailing and getting outside and so on. Mel also didn’t have children and stayed a party man all his life. In those ways, he and I were very different, but what Mel did have was a raffish disregard for some of the pretensions of the world, and that’s what we shared very easily. When we first met, we had many life experiences in common, and we weren’t exactly ‘aspiring’ in the traditional sense. It always slightly frightened us to meet these very career-focused, obsessive performers. That’s what I mean when I’m talking about our good luck: we never decided that we wanted to be hugely successful actors, but rather we just wanted to do things that made us laugh. Mel also had the loyalty of a water buffalo. You could always rely on Mel.
What do you think is different about the industry compared to when you were first ‘up and coming’? How do you think the challenge has changed?
Not much is fundamentally different in terms of the art; you hear modern comedy and think, “Oh this is just like so and so.” What is different is that the comedy scene is so much bigger. I’ve met so many people who go to comedy school and fully intend to be stand-up comedians and there’s comedy being pursued at every corner. That’s amazing because when I first left university, we had to organise our own sort of ‘circuit’, because it just wasn’t there. I still don’t feel particularly comfortable in a dedicated comedy club.
Why is that?
I’m not entirely sure. When I used to go out with Clive Anderson and Rory McGrath, we did a show called ‘An Evening Without...’, we’d have to ring up theatres and try to persuade them to let us put on comedy nights. Nobody did it. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Not the Nine O’Clock News was such a success – it sort of opened up the idea that there was a distinction between prime-time comedy and what you might call ‘young people’s comedy’. Once television companies started to think in those terms, it became a huge phenomenon in the eighties and nineties – for a period in the early nineties, there was nothing else; the short-changed people were the middle-aged people, who were all thinking, “Do I really want to watch more students?”
What about yourself Griff – do you ever have a view to retiring or do you just want to continue taking opportunities as they come?
Oh god, I’m not retiring. I hope not. One of the great things about doing this show and talking to audiences is that I never did solo tours in the past, and I absolutely love travelling to a show with not a clue in my head about what I’m going to talk about, to begin with at least. It’s a weird experience, and a new one, but one that I find really satisfying as it begins to click in.
I was going to ask you something along the lines of ‘What can we expect to see at your Oxford show?’, but now that seems like a bit of a pointless question.
Not completely. What I do is decide which bits worked and which didn’t work as well in previous shows, and take the good bits onto the next show. One example of what I’m trying to do is to look at this idea that as an adult you stop having adventures until you have children, and then you start having adventures again. So, we go through this great journey after we leave school and search for the exotic, and then we go searching for romance and things that make us feel good, and then we have kids and all of your priorities change into what makes them happy. I think that’s the reason why, now that my generation has reached their sixties, everyone is out adventuring again – their children have grown up. That’s one thing that you might not have noticed about Paul Theroux, or Jonathan Raban, or Bill Bryson: they never take the kids. Travelling alone is an entirely different experience to travelling with family or other company. You get a sort of serendipity happening to you. Travelling for TV shows, in contrast, can often become fairly bland, and I fight against that even whilst doing it.
Main Image © Dean Chalkley
Below © Steve Ullathorne
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