Entertainment & Arts

Obituary: Richard Briers

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Media captionA look back at the actor's career

Richard Briers, who has died aged 79, was one of Britain's best-loved actors.

Famed for his role as the hapless Tom Good in the 1970s BBC sitcom The Good Life, Briers was an also an accomplished stage actor playing roles such as Shakespeare's King Lear and Chekov's Uncle Vanya.

He also appeared in several films, including a cameo as a bishop in the Spice Girls' 1997 movie Spice World.

Richard David Briers was born in London on 14 January 1934 to parents Benjamin and Morna.

He was inspired by his mother, a music and drama teacher.

Initially brought up in a flat above a cinema, Briers attended Rokeby Prep School in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, leaving at the age of 16 with no qualifications.

He briefly studied electrical engineering but gave it up to become a filing clerk, a job he continued in the RAF when he was called up to do his national service.

The Good Life

While serving at RAF Northwood in Hertfordshire, he met actor Brian Murphy (George and Mildred) who introduced him to the dramatic society at London's Borough Polytechnic Institute, now the South Bank University.

Briers starred in a number of productions after catching the acting bug and, taking advice from his father's cousin, the comic actor Terry-Thomas, went on to study at Rada for two years.

He was in a class with Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney, "who didn't need any lessons at all," he later recalled.

"I was painstakingly slow in my progress in comparison with them," he added. "I knew nothing about acting, I had to be taught everything."

Briers credited Rada director John Fernald with nurturing his talent. "He had a great confidence in me which allowed me to relax," he told the Guardian in 2008.

The young actor soon won a scholarship with the Liverpool Playhouse, where he met Ann Davies, the stage manager for the company and herself an actress. The pair were married within six months.

Image caption With Prunella Scales in Marriage Lines

Briers made his West End debut in Gilt and Gingerbread at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1959 and two years later he got his big break in TV after landing the lead role in Marriage Lines alongside Prunella Scales.

He went on to star in Brothers in Law, and appeared in several other popular television programmes, including the Morecambe & Wise Show and Dixon of Dock Green.

Distinctive voice

In 1975 Briers was cast in the lead role for new BBC sitcom The Good Life - the part that would make him a household name.

The part had been specifically written for him by the scriptwriters, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey.

His character, Tom Good, decided to give up his steady office job on his 40th birthday and become self-sufficient.

Image caption The Good Life became one of TV's favourite sitcoms

He and wife Barbara (Felicity Kendal) continued to live at their plush home in the Surrey commuter belt of Surbiton, but to the horror of their well-heeled neighbours Margo and Jerry (Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington) they turned their garden into an allotment where they kept livestock, and started making their own clothes.

"I actually didn't think the series was going to be successful when I first read the script," he said last year. "I worried that it was all a bit mundane and middle class.

"But the moment that my character, Tom Good, leaves his job as a draughtsman for a company that makes plastic toys for cereal packets and attempts to live off the land in Surbiton, he becomes much more interesting."

The series, which came ninth in a 2004 poll to find Britain's best loved sitcoms, was hugely successful, with the last episode filmed in front of the Queen in 1978.

It was often repeated over the years prompting Briers to quip that people still expected him to look the same 25 years on when in fact "I'm an old git with white hair".

Serious roles

His distinctive voice was heard in a number of productions.

He was the narrator on the popular 1970s children's TV series, Roobarb & Custard and was the voice of the rabbit Fiver in the animated film of Watership Down.

He was a frequent voice on radio where he played Dr Simon Sparrow in BBC Radio 4's adaptations of Richard Gordon's comic novels Doctor in the House and Doctor a Large.

He also made a number of appearances as Bertie Wooster in radio dramatisations of PG Wodehouse's Jeeves books.

Image caption He played the Laird of Glenbogle in Monarch of the Glen

He appeared in a number of commercials, including voicing the griffin in advertisements for Midland Bank, now part of HSBC.

Briers went on to star as the obsessive Martin Bryce in Ever Decreasing Circles, again written for him by Esmonde and Larbey.

In 1987, hankering for more serious roles, he joined Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company where he took on a number of stage roles and appeared in Branagh's films of Henry V and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

In Frankenstein, he played alongside Robert De Niro, whose acting techniques were in stark contrast Briers' own, no-nonsense style.

"I'd learn the lines and say them, hopefully at the right time," he told BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.

But in one scene, Briers' character had to call De Niro, playing Frankenstein's monster, into a room.

"I said, 'I know you are there, come in, come in' - but nothing happened.

"Branagh was behind me saying, 'don't be a fool, you've got to make him come in. He's not like you. You've got to make him feel he must come in.'"

"I said, 'I've read the script. I say 'come in' and he comes in."

In 2000, he was catapulted back into the TV spotlight when he played Hector Macdonald, the ageing patriarch in Monarch of the Glen.

In recent years he had roles in Extras, New Tricks and Holby City and in 2012 he appeared in film comedy Cockneys and Zombies, where he was a resident in a home under threat from a zombie apocalypse.

He was appointed OBE in 1989 and CBE in 2003.

As he got older he seemed to relish his new persona as a grumpy old man, particularly when it came to comedy.

"They simply don't write funny stuff anymore," he once said. "A lot of it is very depressing. Or violent. Or both."

Earlier this year, the actor revealed his struggle with the lung disease emphysema - caused, he said, by a 50-year smoking habit.

"I get very breathless, which is a pain in the backside," he told the Daily Mail.

"I haven't even got the strength to garden any more. Trying to get upstairs - oh God, it's ridiculous.

"The ciggies got me. I didn't think it would go quite as badly as it has. It's a bugger, but there it is. I used to love smoking."