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Derek Griffiths interview

Philip Hamer hails the return of the erstwhile Play School presenter (and comic genius) to the Royal Exchange

Published on August 20th 2009.


Derek Griffiths interview

I’ve known actors to be awkward, often dull interviewees with a diffidence masking huge insecurity. This has often served to confirm Olivier’s opinion that there’s no point in asking an actor anything because his performance should suffice.

The Miser is always topical in that it’s about money but perhaps it’s more prescient than ever with the dire state of the economy these days. There’s a bit of Harpagon in all of us. Who's to say that being a little miserly is a failing?”

A glorious exception to this is Derek Griffiths. Interviewing him is as rewarding as watching one of his theatrical performances; he almost unconsciously parades his numerous comedic skills, he hurls his voice and morphs into character with ease, he spins around and stands on chairs. You feel he loves the whole process.

Most of us will know him from the kids TV programme Play School which he co-presented from 1972 until 1980. His flair for playing a range of musical instruments, and his ability to speak a language his audience immediately understood, gained him a horde of young fans.

“We paved the way for them to love Sesame Street,” he says with pride.

Little did they know though that Griffiths is a classically trained actor who makes memorable forays into theatre. Now a frenetically active 62-year-old (who looks ten years younger) he returns to the stage as the penny pinching Harpagon in Moliere’s classic farce The Miserp>“Acting found me rather than the other way around,” he says. “My background was really musical, playing several instruments which I took to with zeal from an early age. At 13 I was appearing in festivals and the like around my home in Tufnell Park, North London.”

Griffiths, who is of mixed race, dismisses that as having any effect on the unusual, circuitous route he took into the profession:

“If anything, being a council estate kid who went to a secondary modern was a much bigger barrier. All the drama school entrants at that time seemed to have eased their way in from rather elite grammar school backgrounds.”

Griffiths says that his first “drama school” was an upstairs room in a pub called The Green Man in Blackheath.

“It became the place where my performance skills were honed. It was an extension of the music hall which was then in its death throes and I saw several of the great acts in the twilight of their careers. They certainly knew how to play an audience, and none more so than the great comedian Max Wall.’’ Griffiths then becomes Wall and recalls that his routines would often reduce him to tears of laughter.

I get the feeling that Griffiths’ uniquely physical approach to theatre was gleaned from watching Wall, who performed with Trevor Peacock in a hugely memorable Waiting for Godot at the Royal Exchange almost 30 years ago.

“The pub also acted as a fundraiser for actor Ewan Hooper’s pet project which was the building of the Greenwich Theatre,” says Griffiths. “It was eventually realised and opened in 1969 and I started performing there. Audiences were often made up from the nearby London docklands community.

“The kids who came to matinées and special kids shows were really tough, often throwing coins and stuff at the performers. I developed a rapport with those kids though and it was there that the Beeb came calling to recruit me for Play School. They were memorable days on the show and I was given much freedom to play my instruments and compose.”

In 1975 he became the voice of the cartoon characters Bod and Super Ted. He also composed the music for their shows. Currently he can be heard on the CBeebies programme Little Red Tractor.

Voiceovers are also Griffiths' specialty but he relishes returning to the theatre where often, quoting the actor Bob Hoskins, you work for as little as “two bob and a lollipop.”

In May 2001 Griffiths played a memorable Inspector Truscott in Joe Orton’s Loot in his last appearance at the Exchange. He loves the space this theatre affords: “It’s so unique and wonderful a space. Actors want to appear here.”

The Miser is always topical in that it’s about money but perhaps it’s more prescient than ever with the dire state of the economy these days. There’s a bit of Harpagon in all of us. Who's to say that being a little miserly is a failing? Money truly dominates him though and he becomes obsessive and it takes him close to madness. His behaviour takes his family close to the edge with him. Moliere serves it up with humour all right.”

Griffiths singles out one speech that seems to underline Harpagon’s character: “I will interrogate everyone. I will even interrogate myself.”

There's little danger that Griffiths will be taking the miserly spirit into his own life though: “As soon as the show is over, the process ends for me. I see myself as a joiner or a plumber does. I don’t take my work home with me. The performance comes off with the greasepaint.”

The Miser, Royal Exchange Theatre, 2 September until 3 October, 0161 833 9833, royalexchangetheatre.org.uk

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TivvyAugust 20th 2009.

Ah! I remember him in 'Don't Drink the Water!'

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