British character actor Richard Griffiths came from radio and the classical stage where he built up an early reputation as a Shakespearean clown, with larger-than-life portrayals of Henry VIII, Falstaff in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the Royal Shakespeare Company being just a few of his standout credits. He was brought up in a council flat in less than prosperous conditions, the son of deaf and volatile parents in a dysfunctional family setting. He had to learn sign language at an early age. His world did not include television and he had to explain to his father what music sounded like. Despite these obstacles, Griffiths developed a talent for dialects which later allowed him to shine in a number of ethnic portrayals. In films from 1975 on both sides of the Atlantic, his better roles have been in both contemporary and period pieces, such a Gorky Park (1983), Withnail & I (1987), King Ralph (1991), Guarding Tess (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1999) and recently the ‘Harry Potter’ series as Uncle Vernon Dursley. In a 2007 interview Griffiths declared “I like playing Vernon Dursley in Harry Potter because that gives me a licence to be horrible to kids. I hate the odious business of sucking up to the public.” In fact, unlike those jovial characters he so often portrayed on screen, Griffiths did not tolerate fools gladly. On occasion, he would get stroppy with members of an audience, notably those failing to switch off their mobile phones during a performance (then again, who could blame him ?). He was also highly thought of as a raconteur and wit.
The ever-versatile, often bespectacled and bearded Griffiths did his best work for the small screen, particularly excelling as the inquisitive and resourceful civil servant Henry Jay in Bird of Prey (1982) and as the lovable ‘cooking policeman’ Henry Crabbe in Pie in the Sky (1994), a role specially created for him. As comic relief he made many a hilarious guest appearance, in, among other popular series, The Vicar of Dibley (1994) (as the Bishop of Mulberry) and as Dr. Bayham Badger in the superb BBC adaption of Bleak House (2005). He could also play evil and sinister, none more so than Swelter in Gormenghast (2000), a character Griffiths described being at once “laughably comic” and “a monster like Idi Amin”. One of Britain’s best-loved character actors, Griffiths received an OBE in 2008. He died on March 28 2013 as a result of complications from heart surgery.
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