Trevor Griffith’s obituary

<span>Trevor Griffiths in 1973. He insisted that his writing should not be ‘botched’ or ‘watered down’ for commercial reasons and refused to accept that film is a director’s medium.</span><span>Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 6db38b18b3b7″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 8b18b3b7″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Trevor Griffiths in 1973. He insisted that his writing should not be ‘botched’ or ‘watered down’ for commercial reasons and refused to accept that cinema is a director’s medium.Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Trevor Griffiths, who has died aged 88, was the most politically literate working-class playwright and screenwriter of our time, a scholar of Marx, Gramsci and Trotsky who translated his passion into an unprecedented series of plays and television dramas.

Although his early success came in the theater – at the Stables in Manchester, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the National Theatre, where in 1973 his bracing analysis of factionalism on the left, The Party, gave Laurence Olivier his final stage role, as an aging Trotskyist from Glasgow, John Tagg, he much preferred writing for television.

Despite being placed among younger playwrights such as David Edgar, David Hare and Howard Brenton in the early 1970s, he believed, unlike them, that you could make more of an impact on the small screen just because you reached millions of viewers, rather than of thousands on the silver screen. the theater. In this sense his populist instincts were more in line with those of, for example, Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, Jim Allen and John McGrath.

Yet his best plays invariably found their way to the more popular medium. Comedians (1975) moved to BBC TV in 1979 after premiering at the Nottingham Playhouse under Richard Eyre and transfers to the National, West End and Broadway. Jonathan Pryce – who won a Tony Award for his performance in New York – made his name as an unforgettable volcanic skinhead, Gethin Price, in an evening comics class whose seriously unfunny act culminated in a savage attack on a few lifeless theatergoers. dolls.

Griffiths had previously laid his cards on the table with an impressive 1972 TV series in Granada, Adam Smith, based on the impressive career of Denis Forman, the TV executive, rather than the Scottish political economist; All Good Men (1974), which pitted an elderly, compromised former Labor Secretary played by Bill Fraser against a stellar cast of Jack Shepherd (the most pivotal actor in Griffiths’ career), Frances de la Tour and Ronald Pickup; and a chapter in the BBC series Fall of Eagles, Absolute Beginners (1974), which charted the uneasy rise of the Bolshevik movement with Patrick Stewart as Lenin and Michael Kitchen as Trotsky.

His preeminence was secured with two successive and notable triumphs: the BBC television play Through the Night (1975), which told the story of Griffiths’ wife Jan in the role of Alison Steadman, who recovers with a cancerous tumor after a mastectomy that no one knows. told her it would happen; and Thames Television’s riveting 11-part series Bill Brand (1976), in which Shepherd played a left-wing Labor MP sliding and sliding through the corridors of power at Westminster.

Griffiths was born in Ancoats, Manchester, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. He was the second son of Ernest Griffiths, a nonconformist chemical process worker from Wales, and his wife Anne (née Connor), an Irish Catholic. Unlike his older brother and sister, Trevor was raised by his Catholic grandmother until he was five. He was educated at St Bede’s College, Manchester, and Manchester University (1952-55), where he obtained a degree in English Language and Literature. He spent his national service (1955-57) in the Manchester Regiment.

A lifelong fan of Manchester City and a talented footballer, he was offered terms by both Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers, but opted to become a teacher and lecturer for eight years, working in Oldham and at Stockport Technical University. He married Janice Stansfield in 1960 and joined the BBC as an education officer from 1965 to 1972.

He was an early member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, chairman of the Manchester Left club and a disillusioned member of the Labor Party, from which he resigned in 1965, unhappy with Harold Wilson’s government.

So by the time he had his first play, The Wages of Thin, produced in 1969 at the Stables in Manchester, he had enough background and ‘life experience’ to fuel an arsenal of scripts, and a talent for drawing dialectical edges of each play. political argumentation. As the television and film producer Peter Ansorge once noted, “Griffiths is a strong political writer because he is able to expose the pressures against which political idealism can crumble.”

His groundbreaking play was Occupations (1970), also at the Stables, starring Richard Wilson as the Soviet agent Kabak and Richard Kane as the Marxist theorist Gramsci (at the RSC the roles were played by Stewart and Ben Kingsley; and on television, in 1974, by Donald Pleasence and Shepherd) sounded the horn during the Fiat engine factory strike in 1920. This piece brought him to the attention of Kenneth Tynan, Olivier’s literary manager at the National, and led to the commission for The Party.

The party received productions that were even better than those of John Dexter with Olivier – who said he was mesmerized and enchanted by Griffiths as a man – when he was revived by Hare for a national touring production and again by Howard Davies and Edgar for the RSC in 1984.

Like David Mercer, another working-class playwright from the other side of the Pennines, Griffiths creatively explored the divide between his background and the world of theater and television, most notably in Sam Sam (1971), in which two brothers played by the same actor are seen as trapped in and escaped from their deprived backgrounds (Trevor’s brother was a shirt cutter and taxi driver); the main point is that the escape is certainly not necessarily a better fate.

Similar topics were explored in his wonderful seven-episode BBC adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1981), starring Karl Johnson as Paul Morel, who was gently awakening sexually and intellectually, and Eileen Atkins, brilliant as his mother, Gertrude.

Griffiths had a lucrative career writing screenplays that were never made, as he insisted on not being ‘meddling’ or ‘watered down’ for commercial reasons. He refused to accept that cinema is a director’s medium. His two best-known films remain disappointing. After a long struggle, Warren Beatty made (and co-wrote and co-starred) Reds (1981), about the American communist John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World. Loach’s Fatherland (1986) about a German singer-songwriter was, Loach himself said, “a mess”.

After Comedians at Nottingham Playhouse, Griffiths found resonant notes on the same stage in 1977 in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, perhaps the greatest play of the early 20th century, in a version later filmed for the BBC by Eyre with Judi Dench, Bill Paterson, Harriet Walter and Timothy Spall. Also with Eyre directing for the BBC, Country, broadcast a week after Chekhov in 1981, transferred the ‘changing society’ upheaval in Russia to Britain in 1945; the cast included Leo McKern, Wendy Hiller, Penelope Wilton and James Fox.

There were other plays in the theater that never really caught on. Another sharp, whiny meditation on Chekhov, for example, Piano (1990) at the National (the NT’s second rewriting of Platonov, after Michael Frayn’s in 1984’s Wild Honey) was somewhat hidden in its clumsily executed derivative of a Soviet film from 1977, Unfinished Piece for mechanical piano.

But Oi for England! (1982), a 50-minute skinhead rant, which started on television, and Real Dreams (1984), at the RSC with Gary Oldman and Adrian Dunbar, about a 1960s American student collective that failed to gain revolutionary favor, or even passion, found with local Puerto Ricans, reinvented the mood of Comedians and The Party.

His last play, A New World (2009) at Shakespeare’s Globe, was the result of several draft screenplays for a Richard Attenborough film that was never made. It told the story of Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man and “a great forgotten Englishman” according to the play’s director, Dominic Dromgoole, with passion, energy and an impressive, informative epic story.

Griffiths never reconciled with the Labor Party and was “sickened” by Tony Blair’s intervention in the Iraq war, which he described as “Star Wars II”.

The house was a beautiful gray brick Victorian house in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire, where he and Jan raised three children, Sian, Emma and Joss. Jan died in a plane crash in Cuba in 1977. Griffiths later married Gill Cliff, a former teacher, who survives him, along with his children and his grandchildren, Lia, Jacob, Heloise and Jake.

Trevor Griffiths, playwright and screenwriter, born April 4, 1935; died March 29, 2024

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