I was very sad to hear of the death of actor Richard Griffiths yesterday, following heart surgery aged 65. Judging from the reaction on Twitter he is best remembered for his role as Monty in Withnail & I, while more recent admirers will know him better from the 1990s culinary detective drama Pie In The Sky or from his recurring role as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films. He was also a star of the stage, appearing on Broadway with his Potter co-star Daniel Radcliffe in Equus and starring in Alan Bennett’s The History Boy, a role he later took to the film version.
Personally I remember him first and best for one of his earliest starring roles, a 1982 BBC conspiracy drama called Bird of Prey, which I rewatched last night as a mark of respect. Griffiths stars as a middle-ranking civil service non-entity at the (fictitious) Department of Commercial Development, whose neurotic worries about his promotion and pension get swept away when he uncovers a piece of information pointing to a massive high-level business fraud and conspiracy involving a prominent European politician, senior civil servants, intelligence officers and corrupt British police officers.
Griffiths is wonderful in the role of Henry Jay, especially early on as the fussy, small-minded bureaucrat whose only true failing is his stubbornness and refusal to let things go when he should. I watched the show at the time little realising that 18 years later I too would end up being in the civil service, and it’s worrying how many little bits of office procedure (and even some of the security cabinets!) from the drama showed up during my own time in the service.
I was probably a little too young for Bird of Prey when it first aired, but I was attracted into watching the ‘grown-up drama’ by the Pacman-style computer graphic title sequence and the so-trendy 80s electronic synth score by Dave Greenslade. This was the first TV drama I can remember seeing that dealt seriously with computer hacking, which Jay uses to do battle with the overwhelming forces arrayed against him. Watching now, I howled with laughter at the saleperson’s description of the state-of-the-art computer that Jay buys for the outrageous sum of three thousand pounds. He wants to take it with him, but the store insists on delivering since – despite assuring him that it’s ‘portable’ – it’s too big to fit in his car to drive away with!
Inevitably dated technology aside, it’s a sound serial although it has the failings of most early 80s drama. The pacing is a generation away from the modern fast-cutting approach, and Michael Rolfe’s direction fails to make the most even of its most gripping moments as the cast gets increasingly bumped off. There’s a lot of obvious studio bound sets together with a dash of location shooting around London, and even a day trip to Brussels, but the whole thing looks very flat and lacks any attempt at overt style.
The script is very strong for the first one-and-a-half of the four episodes, but thereafter runs into troubles in the middle section. I can’t make up my mind whether the original story ran long and whole chunks had to be hacked out (which would explain sudden odd jumps in location, plot and character motivation and the crowbarred-in exposition) or whether it actually under ran and forced writer Ron Hutchinson to stuff in some ill-thought-out new blocks of red herrings at short notice and add the sudden late arrival of half-baked characters, which include the world’s least convincing ‘top Aussie bloke’ and an impossibly glamorous journalist who apparently styled her entire over-the-top fashion sense on Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction.
But all this is only a problem in as far as it keeps Griffiths on the sidelines: as long as he’s on screen, this Bird of Prey soars even 31 years on. The show’s success is entirely thanks to Griffiths’ top-notch portrayal of the ordinary but loveable schlub that we all identify with and root for. It was just one of the many exemplary performances that Griffiths went on to produce over the next three decades, comprising a body of work that deserves far more public praise and acclamation that it arguably actually received.
Those in the industry knew his first class talents and unmatchable skills all too well, and won’t need me to tell them just how much the British acting scene has lost with his too-soon passing. I’m certainly sad to come to terms with knowing that he won’t be popping up in another film or TV programme, his contribution alone always promising to make little gems from what might otherwise be unloved lumps of blackened coal and soot.
Richard Griffiths might have been the archetypal ‘muggle’ in the Harry Potter films, but when it came to the stage and screen he was the true magician.