Anyone with a cursory knowledge of this blog will know how much we love Richard Briers, and how upset we all are by his death at the age of 79. As far as I’m concerned, Richard Briers is the greatest comic actor this country has ever produced, by which I mean he was an actor who could do comedy, rather than a comedian who could act.
He had the gift in his life and career of being intensely likeable, which limited his opportunities as a dramatic actor at first, but made him perfect for comedy, where audience empathy is absolutely paramount. That makes him sound rather anodyne but, although he rarely got to kill anyone or burn anything down, his performances can be surprisingly complex and tough.
Take Tom Good: the cheerful whistling idealist who turns his back on society in favour of a self-sufficiency in ‘The Good Life’: everybody likes Tom but, as Barbara would tell you, he could be a right bastard. When playing more obviously brasher or more difficult characters, Briers’ likeability and humanity ensures that they don’t become grotesque or one dimensional. John Cleese could probably have played the aggressively conservative (small ‘c’), manipulative suburban nutcase Martin from ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ to a tee, for instance, but he couldn’t have brought Briers’ vulnerability to the role, the quiet, hemmed in small town psychosis of an on-going nervous breakdown. As another example, Ralph Tanner from the under-rated ‘The Other One’ is an awful braggart, but a desperately lonely and insecure one. In less intuitive hands, he would merely be pathetic; Briers makes him sympathetic and, ultimately, someone you want to come good.
I haven’t got around to posting about ‘If You See God Tell Him’ yet, but I will. From 1993, the show was written by Andrew Marshall and David Renwick, and is pitch black comedy of the highest order. Richard Briers plays a man who, after a load of rubble falls on him, absolutely believes everything that he sees on television, with both ridiculous and tragic results. Although Briers’ subsequent actions range from the ill-advised to the positively criminal, and his character is placid to the point of amorality, he radiates innocence and benevolence, immensely sympathetic and human to the end – and, yes, hugely likeable.
R.I.P Richard: you were excellent company, and I miss you already.