Trevor Griffiths, socialist playwright who embraced television to ‘break the classes’ – obituary

Griffiths: felt his plays were preaching to the converts, and was ‘not interested in talking to 38 university graduates in a basement in Soho’ – Jimmy James/ANL/Shutterstock

Trevor Griffiths, the stage and television playwright, who has died aged 88, was one of the most original, intelligent and controversial exponents of socialism in post-war British theatre.

A key figure in the debate over how to make left-wing ideals work within a capitalist society, Griffiths was an unrepentant Marxist who also became one of the most important writers on class in television plays, its powers of analysis, linguistic humor and the winning of comic ambiguity. him great respect.

Griffiths had two main stage successes. In The Party (1973), left-wing intellectuals and non-intellectuals who sympathize with the student revolutionaries of the 1968 événements in France gather in a drawing room in Kensington to discuss why British sympathizers did nothing to help.

The play gave Laurence Olivier his last stage role at the National Theatre. He had expected it to be Shakespearean, but his wife, actress Joan Plowright, had said: ‘If you do something as predictable as King Lear, I will kill you. Do something modern, for heaven’s sake. Give one of your younger contemporaries a show.”

Olivier played a Glasgow Trotskyist with a twenty-minute speech that took four months to learn; but he was drawn to the play by its lack of political bias, and nothing fell more stumbling off the 66-year-old actor’s tongue than a line about British socialists biting the hand that fed them while taking care not to to bite off.

Jonathan Pryce in Comedians by Trevor Griffiths (1975)Jonathan Pryce in Comedians by Trevor Griffiths (1975)

Jonathan Pryce in Comedians by Trevor Griffiths (1975) – Alamy

Comedians (1975) received the most general acclaim. This fierce and funny play, disguised as a comedy about provincial evening classes for aspiring stand-up comics, was at heart a study of revolutionary political action. It is set in a Manchester schoolroom where builders, dockers, milkmen and laborers learn that humor is a deadly serious matter, involving anger, pain and truth. It showed ways to create laughter out of sex, racial prejudice and physical disabilities.

The original staging at Nottingham and the Old Vic, when it housed the National Theater, produced two excellent performances, one from Jonathan Pryce as the most sinister and threatening (and least comic) of the students, the other from a true veteran from the variety halls, Jimmy Jewel, from the former double act Jewel and Warriss.

But it didn’t take long for Griffiths to realize that his theater appeal was only to the middle class or the politically converted. So he turned to television because it “cuts across class.” Thus began what he called his “strategic penetration of the central communications channel.”

Jack Shepherd as the lead in Griffiths' 13-part drama Bill Brand, about a Labor MPJack Shepherd as the lead in Griffiths' 13-part drama Bill Brand, about a Labor MP

Jack Shepherd to star in Griffiths’ 13-part drama Bill Brand, about a Labor MP – Fremantle Media/Shutterstock

The BBC commissioned him to write Such Impossibilities as part of the 1972-73 series The Edwardians, but it was never filmed, ostensibly for cost reasons, but more likely because of its Marxist view of the violence during a 1911 transport strike in Liverpool. 1974 Play for Today, All Good Men, about a retiring renegade MP, Griffiths wore his political beliefs more lightly. His best performance on the small screen was the 1976 thirteen-part socialist soap opera Bill Brand, with its account of the career of a Labor MP who questioned the parliamentary path to socialism and the role of the Labor Party.

He also wrote part of the 1974 BBC series Falls of Eagles, a thirteen-part drama telling the history of Europe from 1848 to 1914. Griffiths’ episode, Absolute Beginners, was set in 1903 and depicted Lenin (played by Patrick Stewart), Trotsky (Michael Kitchen) and the rise of the Bolshevik Party.

However, the television piece that Griffiths described as “without doubt… my best known” was his 1975 Play for Today, Through the Night, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring Alison Steadman as a young working-class woman who enters. hospital for a routine cancer test and wakes up to discover that a breast has been removed. It attracted an audience of about 11 million people and sparked a national debate about the treatment of mastectomy patients.

Alison Steadman in Through the Night, a BBC One Play for Today by Griffiths, broadcast in 1975 to an audience of 11 million viewersAlison Steadman in Through the Night, a BBC One Play for Today by Griffiths, broadcast in 1975 to an audience of 11 million viewers

Alison Steadman in Through the Night, a BBC One Play for Today by Griffiths, broadcast in 1975 to an audience of 11 million viewers – Dave Pickthorn

His other television work ranged from single plays, including Oi for England for Central Television (1982), about urban youth unemployment, and The Last Place on Earth (also Central, 1985), about Scott of Antarctica and the construction of national myths. , to adaptations of books such as Sons and Lovers (BBC, 1981) and contributions to series such as Adam Smith and Dr Finlay’s Casebook.

One of his feature screenplays was Reds (1981), co-written with Warren Beatty, who also directed and starred as American journalist John Reed, who becomes entangled in Russia’s October Revolution. The film won three Oscars and was nominated for nine others, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Griffiths also wrote Fatherland (1987), directed by Ken Loach, about the division of post-war Germany, in which a son searches for his father who left the German Democratic Republic thirty years earlier.

Although Griffiths never wrote without political purpose, at least his sense of psychological nuance and characterization kept his writing dramatically digestible. “I have to work with the popular imagination,” he said. “I’m not interested in talking to 38 university graduates in a basement in Soho. My way of writing is not about ego massage. It’s about impact and penetration.”

Griffiths in 2005Griffiths in 2005

Griffiths in 2005 – Alamy

Trevor Griffiths, of Welsh and Irish descent, was born in Manchester on April 4, 1935, the son of a chemical process worker and a bus conductor. One of the first generation of working-class children to benefit from the 1944 Education Act, he attended St Bede’s College and Manchester University, where he read English.

After two years of detested National Service in the army, he became an English and games teacher at a private school in Oldham. He also taught liberal studies at Stockport Technical College, was co-editor of Labour’s Northern Voice and was serial editor for the Workers’ Northern Publishing Society before joining the BBC in Leeds as a further education officer for seven years in 1965.

After his one-act play, The Wages of Sin, was performed in Manchester in 1969, his first full-length work, Occupations, caused such a stir on Granada’s small stage for new writers that the Royal Shakespeare Company produced it in 1971. his experimental base in London, The Place, Euston.

Considered by some critics to be dramatically finer than The Party, Occupations evoked the conflict in 1920s Italy between capital and labor, and between two types of communists, personified by the Italian labor leader Gramsci (played in the RSC production by Ben Kingsley ), and Kabak (played by Patrick Stewart), a Soviet agent who tried to lead a Fiat workers’ strike into a full-scale revolution.

Two one-act plays, Apricots and Thermidor (Edinburgh Festival, 1971), were followed by a collaboration with David Hare, Stephen Poliakoff, Snoo Wilson and others on the play Lay-By (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 1971). The partly autobiographical one-act play Sam, Sam (Open Space, 1972) contrasted the behavior of two brothers, one loyal to his working-class background, the other rising above it by getting married, wondering who was the happiest.

Martin Shaw in The Last Place on Earth, Griffiths' television play about Scott of the Antarctic (1985)Martin Shaw in The Last Place on Earth, Griffiths' television play about Scott of the Antarctic (1985)

Martin Shaw in The Last Place on Earth, Griffiths’ television play about Scott of the Antarctic (1985) – Shutterstock

Then came his two major stage successes The Party (Old Vic, 1973) and Comedians (Nottingham Playhouse and Old Vic, 1975; Wyndham’s, 1976; and New York). An all-female version of Comedians was successfully performed in Liverpool in 1987.

Griffiths worked with Howard Brenton, Ken Campbell and David Hare on Deeds (Nottingham Playhouse, 1978) and in 1982 adapted his television play Oi for England for the Royal Court Upstairs.

In 1984 the British Film Institute devoted a season to his television plays, including another Play for Today, Country (1981), directed by Richard Eyre and starring Edward Fox. Shot entirely on location, Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 was viewed from the perspective of an upper-class family living in a country house in Kent.

Brian Cox as Aneurin Bevan in Food for Ravens, Griffiths' 1997 television film, commissioned for the politician's centenaryBrian Cox as Aneurin Bevan in Food for Ravens, Griffiths' 1997 television film, commissioned for the politician's centenary

Brian Cox as Aneurin Bevan in Food for Ravens, Griffiths’ 1997 television film, commissioned to mark the politician’s centenary – BBC

His later plays included Real Dreams (1986), first performed in the US (with a young Kevin Spacey), about a commune of middle-class American students in the late 1960s and their warring alliance with Puerto Rican workers; The Gulf Between Us (West Yorkshire Playhouse, 1992), about the conflict in the Middle East; Thatcher’s Children (Bristol Old Vic, 1993); and A New World (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2009), about Thomas Paine, adapted from a never-used screenplay originally commissioned by David Attenborough for the BBC.

In 1997 he was commissioned by the BBC to write Food for Ravens, a TV film starring Brian Cox and Sinéad Cusack, to mark the centenary of Aneurin Bevan’s birth, but the BBC tried to restrict its broadcast – the only film he ever directed. his most personal project – to Wales, eventually broadcast nationally on BBC Two just before midnight. “No trailer, no mention in Radio Times. No DVD,” he told The Independent. Yet it won a Bafta.

Trevor Griffiths married Janice Elaine Stansfield in 1960, who died in 1977. They had a son and two daughters.

Trevor Griffiths, born April 4, 1935, died March 29, 2024

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