Zombies, zimmer frames.... and the Good Life
Richard Briers talks to The Lady about starring in a horror film (yes, really), studying with Peter O’Toole and the day Albert Finney had to play him
As one of Britain’s best-loved comedy actors, Richard Briers has been prudent to select age-appropriate roles. In his 40s he played the frustrated Tom Good in The Good Life, who quits his job on his 40th birthday in order to take up sustainable living. In his 60s, Briars played Hector MacDonald in Monarch Of The Glen, struggling to manage the family estate. So when he approached Julian Fellowes (with whom he acted in Monarch Of The Glen) for a role in Downton Abbey, he thought Fellowes would jump at the chance. ‘I asked if I could play a drunken old gardener with not very much to say, but he said “Oh you, pee off!”’ He laughs. ‘I thought he used to be my friend!’
But despite not getting his ideal Downton role, at 78 Briers is now starring in a new film, playing an elderly gent in a retirement home. But this is no ordinary gent. The film is British horror comedy Cockneys vs Zombies and it follows a group of bank robbers who go to the aid of a retirement home when zombies invade London’s East End. With plenty of guns, blood and gore, it is not a genre one would usually associate with Briers. But the scenes where he’s on a Zimmer frame being chased by a zombie, or firing a machine gun in his dressing gown, require the sort of comic timing that only Briers can deliver. ‘I hadn’t had the chance to do any films for a bit, so I thought I’d better jump in and see what all the young people were doing. It was great fun,’ he says. Starring alongside Alan Ford and Honor Blackman, Briers joins an impressive line-up. But then he has worked with acting greats since his career started.
In 1954, when he was 20, he attended RADA, where his classmates included Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney. ‘They were two very natural actors, but it took me rather a long time,’ he says modestly. They remained in touch and supported each other as their careers took off. ‘We did one show which was opening a brand new theatre. Albie [Finney] and I were asked by the principal of the academy to be the same kind of actors. I was about 9st and Albie was pretty tough, so we were quite funny ‘My favourite episode of The Good Life was the one when the pigs arrived. It was very funny’ together because we were totally different. I was about to do the opening when I got mumps. So the great Mr Finney played me for a few days!’
From theatre came various television parts, such as a role in Marriage Lines alongside Prunella Scales. But it was The Good Life that really launched his career. ‘I’m so damn grateful to it, quite frankly,’ he says, when I ask if perhaps he gets tired of talking about it. ‘My favourite episode was the one when the pigs arrived. It was very funny as the four of us were able to act together. I still talk to Penelope [Keith] quite a lot because she does the Actors’ Benevolent Fund and she’s the boss – no nonsense. Felicity’s [Kendal] a dolly bird!’ Paul Eddington made up the leading cast of four, starring as Briers’ neighbour, Jerry Leadbetter. They remained close until Eddington’s death in 1995.
From The Good Life sprang a lifetime of roles. Not that Briers would ever take credit for his own success. ‘I got so lucky,’ he insists. Indeed, the acclaim he won for playing Malvolio in Kenneth Branagh’s Twelfth Night wasn’t down to him, he says, but to Branagh. ‘He found me “a funny man”. Ken is marvellous. He gets you going, makes you a better actor than you’d be without him.’
Having lived in the same house in Chiswick for 44 years with his actress wife Annie, Briers really does seem to have enjoyed a good life. ‘I’m very happy here… I’m not great abroad. I went to Scotland to film Monarch Of The Glen but I’ve never done proper touring. They were going to do seven years of it and I said “I can’t do that, I’m getting old and I have grandchildren, so I think I’ll just do three years and bugger off”.’
It’s clear he is very proud of his family. He has two daughters, Lucy and Kate, and two grandchildren, Harry and Rachael. He describes his wife as ‘marvellous’ and says he has no plans to retire. For someone who has dedicated his life to entertaining the nation, it is fitting he was awarded both an OBE and CBE. I ask him where he keeps them. ‘In my bedroom,’ he says. ‘Someone gave me a sort of candle thing and I stuck them there. Rather than shove them in a drawer, I thought I’d flaunt it.’ And quite right, too, for while he has much to boast about, the honours appear all he is prepared to take credit for. As life imitates art, it seems fair to say that both on and off screen, Richard Briers is indeed Mr Good.
Cockneys vs Zombies opens in UK cinemas on 31 August.
Daily tip from the lady archive
“PEOPLE cannot help being influenced by their surroundings and their environment; therefore how all important it is that both of these should be healthy and cheery, for health and happiness both go hand-in-hand.”The Lady. The Blessing of Old Health, 18th November 1920