Kenneth Griffith

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Not to be confused with Ken Griffiths.
Kenneth Griffith
Kenneth griffith 1976.jpeg
Griffith in the 1976 BBC production, Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.
Born Kenneth Reginald Griffiths
(1921-10-12)12 October 1921
Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales
Died 25 June 2006(2006-06-25) (aged 84)
London, England
Occupation Actor, Producer, Presenter
Years active 1937–2003
Spouse(s) Joan Stock (?–?) (divorced) 1boy
Doria Noar(?–?) (divorced) 1 girl
Carol Hagar (?–?) (divorced) 2 boys and 1 girl.

Kenneth Reginald Griffith (born Griffiths; 12 October 1921 – 25 June 2006) was a Welsh actor and documentary filmmaker.

Early life[edit]

He was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales. Six months after his birth his parents split up and left Tenby, leaving Griffith with his paternal grandparents, Emily and Ernest, who adopted him. A lively rugby union scrum-half,[1] he attended the local Wesleyan Methodist chapel three times every Sunday.[2]

Griffiths passed the 11-plus and attended Greenhill Grammar School, where he met English literature teacher Evelyn Ward, who recognised his writing and acting talent. Before Kenneth left school, his headmaster J. T. Griffith suggested that he drop the English "s" from his name (an anglicisation).[3]


In 1937 he left school and moved to Cambridge, taking a job at an ironmonger's weighing nails. This lasted only a day and proved to be the only job he ever had outside the acting world. He approached the Cambridge Festival Theatre for work, and at the age of 16 was cast by Peter Hoare as Cinna the Poet in a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar.[3] He became a regular jobbing repertory actor, making his West End theatre debut in 1938 with a small part in Thomas Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday.[2]

Griffith volunteered for service with the Royal Air Force in 1939 before the outbreak of World War II. Before training in Canada, he returned to see his grandparents in Tenby, who, at his request, gave him a leather-bound copy of Hitler's book, Mein Kampf; he later explained in an interview that he wanted to understand what he was fighting against. While training in Canada, he caught scarlet fever, which resulted in his taking up stamp collecting. The first stamp he collected was the Siege of Ladysmith, South Africa.

In 1941, he made his debut in the first of more than 100 films in which he principally played character roles. Released from the air arm of the Royal Air Force, Griffith returned to London, from where he was invalided out of the RAF in 1942.[3]

He joined the Liverpool, Lancashire-relocated Old Vic,[2] and in repertory. On return from a tour of South Africa (during which he visited Ladysmith), he met his great friend and fellow Celt Peter O'Toole.

He appeared in many British films between the 1940s and 1980s, notably as Archie Fellows in The Shop at Sly Corner, Jenkins in Only Two Can Play (1962), the wireless operator Jack Phillips on board the Titanic in A Night to Remember (1958), in the crime caper Track the Man Down (1955), and especially in the comedies of the Boulting brothers, including Private's Progress (1956) and I'm All Right Jack (1959). He also portrayed the gay medic Witty in The Wild Geese (1978) and a whimsical mechanic in The Sea Wolves (1980).

He appeared in the episodes "The Girl Who Was Death" and "Fall Out" of the 1967–8 TV programme, The Prisoner. Subsequent TV appearances included episodes of Minder and Lovejoy, and critically acclaimed performances in "War and Peace" (1963), "The Perils of Pendragon", Clochemerle and "The Bus to Bosworth", where his personification of a Welsh schoolteacher out on a field trip won him many accolades back in his homeland of Wales.[citation needed] Later film roles included the "mad old man" in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Reverend Jones in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (1995), and the Minister in Very Annie Mary (2001)

Documentaries and political activity[edit]

In 1965 Huw Weldon and the then director of BBC2 David Attenborough asked Griffith if he would like to make a film for the BBC on any subject that he chose. This resulted in a series of films on subjects as diverse as the Boer War in Soldiers of the Widow (BBC tx. 27/5/1967), A Touch of Churchill, A Touch of Hitler (BBC tx. 30/7/1971), the controversial story of Thomas Paine in The Most Valuable Englishman Ever (BBC, tx. 16/1/1982), David Ben-Gurion (The Light), Napoleon Bonaparte (The Man on the Rock), Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Roger Casement (Heart of Darkness 1992), and on one occasion a film commissioned by Thames Television on the story of the Three Wise Men of the New Testament, A Famous Journey (ITV tx. 20/12/1979). Griffith was ordered out of Iran by the country's Foreign Minister.

In 1973 Griffith made a documentary film about the life and death of Irish military/political leader Michael Collins titled Hang Up Your Brightest Colours (which is a line taken from a letter from George Bernard Shaw to one of Collins' sisters after his death) for ATV, but the Independent Broadcasting Authority did not permit it to be screened (it was shown—by the BBC— only in 1993). This was seen by Griffith as blatant censorship, as there was nothing factually inaccurate in the film.

In 1974 Griffith took an opportunity to interview surviving IRA members from the 1916 Easter Rebellion: Maire Comerford, Joseph Sweeney, Sean Kavanagh, John O'Sullivan, Brigid Thornton, Sean Harling, Martin Walton, David Nelligan (or Neligan) and Tom Barry are all interviewed at the ends of their lives in a programme titled Curious Journey. Griffith's approach to television and re-creating the past is that of the enthusiastic storyteller who acts out all the parts himself. By doing so, he created a fascinating new way of making documentaries. His special contribution is that he is able to conjure up the emotional spirit of events in history; he treats the viewer in the manner of a confidant, dramatising his point of view.

Griffith's sympathetic portrayal caused some concern given the state of tension in Northern Ireland and ATV boss Sir Lew Grade decided to withdraw the film, which was not shown publicly until 1994. At the time Griffith furiously retaliated by making the film for Thames titled The Public's Right to Know, which gave him, or rather the powers that be, a chance to explain themselves. He took no prisoners. The story on Griffith and his Irish republican sympathies was published in the 15 November 1997 edition of the British-based weekly, The Irish Post, as Beating the Censor, written by Martin Doyle.

Griffith's autobiography was published in 1994 titled The Fool's Pardon by Little, Brown. Until the very end of his life Griffith was angered and deeply frustrated by what he saw as the "degeneration" of British television filmmaking and was widely known within the industry as the most banned filmmaker in the country. His references to the various commissioning directors were well documented referring to "those priggish cuckoos" within the BBC. His final estimations on those 'Television people' were their high regard for two things "Hard cash and statistics".

In 1993 BBC Wales presented a retrospective season of five of his documentaries, including the suppressed Michael Collins work, opening the season with a biographical study of Griffith called The Tenby Poisoner (BBC Wales, tx. 1/3/1993) in which talents as diverse as Peter O'Toole, Martin McGuinness and Jeremy Isaacs paid tribute to the quixotic documentarist. In addition to this BBC Wales screened a film on Griffith's life in the "Welsh Greats" Series Two, shown in 2008. In 2001 Griffith was finally recognised for his work by being awarded a lifetime achievement award by BAFTA.

The political troubles left Griffith "a frustrated and bemused figure". Screenonline described Griffith as "a world-class documentary film-maker" who knew that "refusing to compromise his views has damaged his career".[4]

A renowned Boer War historian, Griffith was also a supporter of the Afrikaners in South Africa. Although the traditional left-wing view was that Afrikaners were more tied into apartheid than South Africans of British descent, his opinion on it in a South African television-funded documentary was "provokingly sympathetic" towards the Afrikaners, implying that the sympathetic attitude of English-speakers "hypocritical"; South African television eventually withdrew its funding.[1] He also made a BBC2 documentary on runner Zola Budd,[5] which purported to reveal injustices done to her by left-wing demonstrators and organisations during a tour of England in 1988.[6]

Personal life[edit]

Griffith, a Protestant, named his home (No. 110 Englefield Road, Islington, London), "Michael Collins' House". Against advice, he defiantly kept himself listed in the telephone directory and his phone number was also to be found in Who's Who. All his life, Griffith relished an argument. He "proudly" displayed, on his wall, death threats from the Ulster Volunteer Force "flanked on one side by a cordial letter from Gerry Adams".[citation needed] A year or two before Griffith's death, he attended a meeting where Gerry Adams praised and thanked him for his documentaries as they had contributed to the peace process. He also cherished Mrs Thatcher's opinion of him as a "dangerous Marxist", although Griffith was not an adherent of that ideology. However, he also had a huge plaster medallion of Clive of India fixed to his living room wall. Indeed, his entire house was crammed, like an overly stocked antique shop, with a collection of predominantly Boer War memorabilia, He also housed thousands of Boer War covers in his philatelic collection housed in filing cabinets on the top floor, all catalogued and researched personally and recorded in beautifully handwritten volumes.

Griffith was married three times and had five children: Joan Stock (David), Doria Noar (the actress and theatre historian Eva Griffith) and Carole Haggar (Polly, Huw and Jonathan).

Death and burial[edit]

Griffith suffered from complications associated with Alzheimer's disease in his later years, resulting in an enforced retirement from acting and his documentaries. He died peacefully at home on 25 June 2006 aged 84. He was buried on 4 July 2006; by his request his coffin was decorated with the flags of Wales, the Untouchables of India (of whom he was president for many years), Israel, and the Irish tricolour. The coffin was borne by his family, devoted friend Bryan Hewitt, and his old friend Peter O'Toole. He is buried beside his beloved grandparents (Emily and Ernest) in the churchyard adjoining Saint Nicholas and Saint Teilo's church in Penally, where he grew up. Both Griffith's and his grandparents' gravestones are the work of the Welsh-born Master Craftsman and calligrapher and sculptor Ieuan Rees, whose work includes the memorial to Laurence Olivier in Westminster Abbey.


The Tenby Museum and Art Gallery in Pembrokeshire houses an archive of "national importance" of Griffith's papers and documentaries, and a cabinet containing a collection of personal memorabilia from his house in Islington.



  1. ^ a b Barker, Dennis (27 June 2006). "Kenneth Griffith". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2009-07-14. 
  2. ^ a b c "Kenneth Griffith". The Telegraph. 27 June 2006. Retrieved 2009-07-14. 
  3. ^ a b c "Kenneth Griffith". The Independent. 27 June 2006. Retrieved 14 July 2009. 
  4. ^ BBC
  5. ^ BFI
  6. ^ True to his beliefs, WalesOnline, 28 June 2006

Additional notes Bryan Hewitt

External links[edit]