- A feature from the November 2018 issue of Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine
Stephanie Mackentyre talks to Welsh comedian, writer, actor and television presenter Griff Rhys Jones
Born Griffith Rhys Jones, in Cardiff in November in 1953, he’s made his career out of comedy and been hugely successful at it. Most of his childhood was spent in Essex during which he would sail many times to Suffolk with his father. The reason for casting aside Essex and making Suffolk his home? “Cowardice! We didn’t have a big enough boat to go much further. It was a big adventure to sail in our boat, from West Mersea. We would set off, out of the mouth of the Blackwater, past Frinton pier and past Clacton pier and then past Frinton pier again once the tide had changed and gradually work our way Northwards to Suffolk. Father was a very nervous sailor so he wouldn’t allow our mother to sail with us. We were very small children; I was only about eight years old. My dad wasn’t a very experienced sailor so mother was dispatched to wave at us from the end of each of the piers as we sailed past. Suffolk was always very beautiful. Essex is also lovely, but it’s very flat so you spend a lot of time in a wide range of water but as I came up to Pin Mill I just loved it. I would dream of buying a little house by the side of the river in Suffolk one day, and that’s exactly what I did. Now I have a boat and sail on the rivers around the County when I can.”
With his own children, I wondered if Griff was very different from his own father? “I think you’d have to ask my children that question. I will say I think fatherhood passes by so quickly. I’m now a grandfather, as my son has just had a child. All these stages pass, just like that. My new grandson ‘Elwin’ who is named after my father lives in South London – Elwin Rhys Jones. I think I’d better start teaching him Welsh! I do find it bizarre to think how it’s all gone charging by.”
His own childhood over, he found himself studying at Cambridge University and soon found he was in the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, commonly referred to simply as the Footlights, the amateur theatrical club which many other comic careers including Clive James, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry have spawned from.
Graduation saw him working as a producer having been producing a show for Radio 4 whilst still at Uni. “To be honest I was more of a director I thought at the time. I worked initially with Clive Anderson and Rory McGrath and quite by chance I ended up producing Frankie Howerd. He was one of my all-time heroes and so I just went along to see his show on the BBC. A producer who was working with Frankie was ill that night and the BBC said, ‘You’ll have to take it over,’ and I went on to work with him for two years. Frankie at that stage was quite a handful, but I loved working with him; it was a joy. We were in our early 20s and he’d been on his 4th major comeback, so it was a steep learning curve for us all.”
It was at the end of the 70s that Griff started to work with funny-man, whom we sadly lost at just 60 years old, Mel Smith. It began with Not the Nine O’Clock News, appearing with Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson from 1979-82. “We were only the ‘other two’. It was like the Beatles, the show had 18million viewers on BBC1, so it was incredible. It was such a tremendous hit. I remember the focus of the newspapers was Pamela Stevenson on the front page almost every day of the Daily Mirror and Rowan too, the papers found them absolutely extraordinary. So we used to sit on a bench together and gaze in gobsmacked awe at what was happening. As a result we got to do a lot of sketches together.” Smith and Jones made their two-handed television debut with Alas Smith and Jones (1984-87). It was a sketch show performed in front of a studio audience.
Read the full interview in the November 2018 issue of Suffolk Norfolk Life Magazine