Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Repose and Cheerfulness

[Editor’s note: the title of this post is from a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about the characteristics of a gentleman.]


The world of show business lost a remarkable participant earlier this week. Sadly, not many people on the American side of “the Pond” probably heard about it, at least if they were paying attention to the American news media. This particular gentleman was a number of things that tended to disqualify his passing from meriting 24-hour wall-to-wall coverage. He was a Shakespearean actor … he was very, very English … and by all accounts, he was a quiet and courteous person. Strikes one, two and three.

If you have ever chanced to see Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptations of Shakespearean plays, you have likely seen Richard Briers. His work might have been overshadowed by the star power of other people on screen at the time – anywhere from Mr. Branagh and Emma Thompson to Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench to Denzel Washington and even a very young Kate Beckinsale.

In England, the tributes from fellow actors and performers have been piling up since Briers’ death from lung disease on Sunday; they all speak of him as a gentleman. The BBC called him “one of Britain’s best-loved actors”; Kenneth Branagh himself described him as a national treasure, a great actor and a wonderful man”, Brier’s agent called him “a consummate professional and an absolute joy to work alongside”. These are all remarks that one might expect to hear about someone who enjoyed a success-filled, half-century-long career on radio, television, stage and screen – somewhat kinder than mere boilerplate press-release text, but still, on the standard side.

Other colleagues of Briers’ went further.

The critic for the UK newspaper The Guardian, Michael Coveney, described Briers as “always the most modest and self-deprecating of actors, and the sweetest of men.” And fellow television sitcom star Penelope Keith said in an interview, “He was always courteous, always generous and always self-deprecating … he was also such a clever actor that he made you feel secure.”

Keith’s remarks, in particular, came as something of a relief to me when I read and heard them.

The first time I ever saw Richard Briers was not in a stage performance of Shakespeare or George Bernard Shaw. It was on a black-and-white TV screen, when I was probably eleven years old. My parents were watching an evening of British situation comedies on our local public television station. I wandered into the room, heard the accents, and sat down.

At first I thought my father had probably gravitated toward this particular program because of the accents, and the fact that its story was set in a London suburb that looked rather strikingly like the West Midlands neighborhood where he had grown up. The houses were small; the back yards were, to this American suburban child’s eyes, positively tiny; and everything was various shades of brown and green (at least I assumed so, as the TV set was not very colorful, but I had been to the little town of Sutton Coldfield, and the houses were brown, the grass and hedges were very green, and the skies were gray a lot of the time).

The week after that, I made sure to wander into the TV room at that same time. And the week after that. And so on.

It was not American television. By this I mean the pace of the sitcom could be charitably described as “ambling”; there were very few huge studio-audience belly-laughs; there were no pyrotechnic displays, either visual or dialogue-based; the stories put the characters briefly into slight conflict or tension with each other but easily 95 percent of the time, their basic friendships and appreciation for each other remained obvious and undisturbed. And there was little or no insult humor. It was, quite honestly, gentle TV.

Not all British TV programming has been this way. All you have to do is stumble over a rerun of John Cleese’s “Fawlty Towers” or any installment from Rowan Atkinson’s “Blackadder” series to know that the English can play the insult-gag, raucous-entertainment game very well, thank you.

But this particular show, originally called “The Good Life” and renamed “Good Neighbors” by the American public-television stations that broadcast it, was something that TV had never shown me, up to that point in my mid-1970s childhood. In tone, if not in story, it reminded me strongly of my dad. And, for that matter, my mom and dad together.

Briers played Tom Good, a draftsman who decides <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELu_6SavE7U&gt; to stop being a cog in the English corporate/industrial work machine, and instead to pursue a life of self-sufficiency. He quits his job, and he and his wife Barbara set to work turning their home into that self-sufficient place: they farm their own food, make their own clothes, and use the barter system at least as much as currency. In the process, they horrify their upper-middle-class neighbor friends Jerry and Margo Ledbetter, an executive and his social-circle-obsessed wife. Jerry and Margo go to great lengths not to understand the Goods’ choice, but still are very fond of them. And the most attractive thing about the Goods and the Ledbetters is that they are obviously very great friends, with a very comfortable sense of humor and very stable relationships.

Not the situation American sitcoms tend to thrive upon, except in very rare, Cosby Show-like cases. But the actors make it believable.

As a kid (admittedly an unusual kid), I was all over it. Tom Good seemed like a very fine, friendly sort; and let’s just say I took note of Felicity Kendal, who played Barbara Good; but the main reason I kept coming back every week and watching “Good Neighbors” because they all, all of them, seemed like people you’d like to know.

Show business has been filled with actors good enough that their performances make audiences believe they’re that way in “real life”. Far too often as a kid, I grew to admire TV and movie characters, only to find out that the people responsible for creating those images were, indeed, creating merely illusions. The radio DJ’s voice sounded warm and inviting but his personality turned out to be cold. Not often did Mean Joe Greene turn out to actually be that softie who’d give his game towel to any little kid.

So it was a relief to find out that … thanks to my first impression of Richard Briers, which was “quiet, polite, slyly humorous, decent Tom Good” (watch this clip from the show and see if you don’t agree with me) … and thanks to my next impression of him, which was “the fatherly Leonato” in the Branagh adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (and watch this clip from that film and see if he doesn’t in fact stand out from his co-stars just a little) … and thanks to video of any Briers interview I’ve seen in the last few hours, as I’ve scoured the Internet (the 21st-century response to the occasion of a famous person’s passing) … all contributed equally and similarly to an inescapable conclusion.

The man was a gentleman. And there aren’t nearly enough of those these days that could fill the gap that Briers left.


February 20, 2013 - Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, humor, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I loved his performance as Hero’s father. Sad.

    Comment by Holly Anderson | February 22, 2013 | Reply

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