As every article that has ever been written about Richard Griffiths mentions his weight, I thought it might be highly original and possibly even witty to see if I could write one without mentioning it.
Alas, as soon as he enters the room – a white, high-ceilinged rehearsal studio near Waterloo station – he mentions it. A stage manager has set up two chairs for us, but he is not happy with them. ‘I want one without arms,’ he says, ‘arms make life very difficult for me.’ As if explanation were needed, he adds: ‘Because of my size, you see.’ Not just chairs with arms but seats generally, he explains, in cabs, on planes… He settles himself down, in a chair without arms, at a right-angle to me; a black scarf draped over his stomach like a modesty veil.
Without prompting, he tells me that what he hates most about his size is being photographed, a strange admission for an actor, you might suppose. But acting on stage and screen involves movement. Photography is all about being still. ‘And I hate that,’ he says, with a still recognisable trace of Teesside in his flattened vowels. ‘Some actors don’t mind it. Those who are pretty. They think it’s nice to be looked at because they are nice to look at. I appreciate that. I’m very happy to salute that aspiration. But I don’t like the way I look so I don’t like being photographed. I become defensive.’
When I ask if that is a form of vanity, he regards me with sleepy, bespectacled eyes, and his bearded face softens into a chipmunk grin. ‘My vanity is not remotely physical, it is cerebral. I suppose feeling self-conscious might be a form of vanity, though. Dickie Attenborough used to say…’ He launches into a long-winded account of his appearance in the film Gandhi. Most of his anecdotes take about 10 minutes, partly because he has a ponderous delivery, partly because he digresses constantly, even from his digressions. The upshot of this one is that the actors in Gandhi were allowed to see the rushes but not the stills, in case it made them self-conscious. ‘Actors do have good and bad sides. It’s because the passage down the birth canal distorts the face. People born by caesarean section are more symmetrical.’
Does he have a better side? ‘Yes, but I can’t remember which it is. Dirk Bogart had to be three-quarters left; they built sets to accommodate that side of his face.’
Talking of being self-conscious, Griffiths is about to star opposite Daniel Radcliffe, he of Harry Potter fame, in the first major production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus since 1973. Griffiths plays the psychiatrist, Radcliffe his patient, a young man who has a pathological sexual fascination with horses. There is much nudity in the play. ‘Yes, but thank goodness it’s not me being naked,’ Griffiths says. ‘I wouldn’t inflict my naked body on any paying audience.
‘I think it was difficult for Daniel at first, especially as this is his stage debut, but they have done it brilliantly. Initially there were just four of us in the room, then eight, then 40 – and they [Radcliffe and Joanna Christie, the two young actors who appear naked] became confident about it. Obviously what you worry about when you take your clothes off is the prurient response.’
And the temperature. ‘That’s true. I hadn’t thought about that. Knowing David Pugh [the producer] he will probably drop the temperature by three degrees to make everyone’s nipples perkier. I don’t think it is too bad for these two actors because they have lovely bodies, so they are admirable rather than mockable.’
We talk about his research for the role. Has he ever seen a psychiatrist himself? ‘Not formally no. I know a couple and I’ve talked around various things with them but I haven’t sought treatment.’ I only ask because his childhood was… well, a Freudian analyst would have a field day with it. ‘I’ve never thought about it, but I suppose they would. What can I say? I deal with it. I think I have come to terms with my absolutely hateful and vile childhood.’
‘No, I have, really. But I did hate it at the time. I resented it. There were elements of it that were positively Dickensian.’
Much of the misery was to do with his parents’ handicap. ‘They were both profoundly deaf and dumb. My Dad had lost his hearing at the age of five through some infection. It was genetic in my mother’s case. They could make noises when they were emotionally aroused, but they couldn’t form it into speech.’ As a consequence Richard was brought up in a world of silence. There was no television. He got his first radio aged 15 and was listening to a Proms concert when his father nudged him and asked what it sounded like. ‘I couldn’t explain music to him, and I felt monstrous; totally inadequate.’
The family lived in a council flat in Stockton-upon-Tees. Richard attempted to run away many times. ‘The trouble was I was sort of responsible for them. From the age of four I would help with the shopping. That is why I have a life-long loathing of shopping. They would sign and I would translate to the shopkeeper.’
Walking out of school one day, he was amazed to see children chattering to their parents. ‘I remember thinking, I suppose when they go home and have their tea, it will be like in our house – nobody will talk.’
Is that what he means by Dickensian, the pathos? ‘No, that was more to do with poverty. My Dad came in when I was 13 with various bags of comestibles – fruit and vegetables – and communicated that we would be having Christmas lunch this year but there would be no presents. ‘I could not believe it. It was just awful not having a new six-gun or bike or anything.’
He is still haunted by his father’s bitter struggle to pay off £50, borrowed at usurious interest rates when he fell ill and could not feed his family. Griffiths has never been in debt as a consequence, other than to have a mortgage. Even then he nearly sold his house when interest rates rose. He won’t use credit cards, if he can help it. But, in a spirit of contrariness, he does like a flutter on the horses.
His father was a steel-fixer. A question about this leads to a 10-minute explanation of what it is a steel-fixer does – he lays foundations for buildings. The point is, it was manly work. How did he feel about his son going off to study drama at the Northern College of Music in Manchester? ‘Pretty annoyed. It was major warfare. I had wanted to be a painter before that, which was fine. It was the one art of which he approved. In Teesside at the time it was the one thing you could do connected to the arts that didn’t prove you were a homosexual who had to die. If you said you wanted to be an actor it meant you had to be put to death. I had to keep the acting secret from my Dad. He raged at its pooffery when he found out.’
To this day, Griffiths has no love for the ‘ignorant, rough’ North and hasn’t returned to his hometown since his parents died in 1976. That was the year he was spotted by Trevor Nunn. Ten years at the RSC followed (he still lives near Stratford-upon-Avon).
Griffiths is known for being forthright, especially with members of the audience who forget to switch off their mobile phones before a performance. He has twice stepped out of character to berate offenders. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself,’ he bellowed at one. It may be to do with his childhood fear of extraneous noise, but you sense it is also to do with his latent anger. For all the joviality of the characters he plays, he is an angry man, is he not?
‘Oh yes. I think I get it from my father. He was a very aggressive man. He used to fight for money in pubs. People would put money into a pint pot behind the bar and he would put on a pair of leather gloves and go out the back to fight anyone who would challenge him.’ The young Richard was in fights constantly, too. ‘I would never start them. But I would have to go and thump people at school for taking the piss or doing something upsetting to me. I would be the one who got into trouble for it because I was the biggest. I once attacked two kids because they threw an apple core at me and it hit me in the face and everyone laughed – and that was what really made me angry, being laughed at. So I pursued them round the school and beat them up. I was so angry. It was the best fight I ever had. Two of them. I do still get angry, especially over mobile phones. I wish there was some civil legislation based on the principle of disrespect…’ This leads to a 10-minute digression about Sixties hedonism and the scorn for good manners that it led to.
His sudden weight-gain as a child was not to do with unhappiness; it was glandular. He was so thin as an eight-year-old he was given radiation treatment on his pituitary gland. After that his metabolism slowed down and, within months, he began to balloon. His classmates called him Billy Bunter. Given the low self-esteem that came with this, wasn’t it masochistic of him to put himself on stage for all to stare at? ‘It’s perverse isn’t it? It intrigues me. I don’t know why it is. I was unhappy as a child, but that was not surprising because my parents were deeply dysfunctional and very unhappy, too. Us kids had no means of understanding what it was like for them.’
‘Us kids’ as in he and his younger brother? ‘Ah,’ he grins. ‘I’ve run into a buffer now: I’ve agreed with my family never to talk about them in the press. That includes my wife.’
He met his wife, Heather Gibson, in 1973 when they were both appearing in Lady Windermere’s Fan. They married in 1980; according to his Who’s Who entry, they have no children. In passing he mentions that Heather is Irish, that she is an excellent cook and that: ‘The thing that drives my wife nuts is this constant record I play about how shabbily actors are treated.’ But that is all. More generally, he tells me his taste in women is for the fuller figure. ‘I could never understand the attraction of Bette Davis. I always preferred Jane Russell.’ This may come as a surprise to some people as it is often assumed that, because he is best known for playing gay men, Richard Griffiths is gay.
He won an Olivier Award and, in America, a coveted Tony Award for his performance in The History Boys, the Alan Bennett play recently turned into a film (both directed by Nicholas Hytner). In it, Griffiths plays the motorbike-riding polymath Hector, a grammar school teacher who is enthusiastic, shambolic, subversive and vulnerable. He is also a groper of young men, one whose victims seem to pity rather than fear him. ‘They’re over 18, they’re adults,’ notes Griffiths, who says references to Hector as a paedophile make him furious. ‘I’d feed all paedophiles into a tree-shredder, if it were left to me. One minute with a tree shredder. Anything left the police can have.’
He is also famous for playing the predatory homosexual and aesthete Uncle Monty in Withnail and I. People still stop him in the street to quote Uncle Monty’s most memorable line at him: ‘As a youth I used to weep in butchers’ shops.’ Perhaps the best-known line in that film is said about him. Withnail, played by Richard E. Grant, shouts: ‘Monty, you terrible c—!’ People often shout this at him.
‘I have to explain that I am not Monty,’ he sighs. ‘But I have to accept that Monty has become one of the stately homos of England, along with Quentin Crisp.’
Griffiths is not known for his indulgence of members of the public. ‘I’m not interested in the casual interest of strangers,’ he says. Children, especially, he finds irritating. ‘I like playing Vernon Dudley 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. I hate it.’
The stage manager reappears to say that the people-carrier she ordered for Griffiths has arrived. The actor rises from his armless chair and smiles toothily as he says goodbye. The smile is at odds with all that anger, all that fear – fear of debt, of shopping, of being laughed at, of noise, of life.