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Griffiths, Trevor (1935- )


Main image of Griffiths, Trevor (1935- )

Trevor Griffiths was born on April 4th 1935 in Ancoats, Manchester. Raised as a Catholic (although his brother was not), he attended the local Catholic school before being accepted into Manchester University in 1952 to read English. These early years were frequently returned to in his plays, particularly the figures of his chemical process worker father and his elder brother, who was born too early to benefit, like Griffiths, from the 1944 Butler Education Bill. There followed a flirtation with professional football, and a year in National Service, before he became a teacher. He was then introduced to a network of academics by his future wife, and that experience made him "begin to get some cultural humility, and... see that I had a lot to learn." Learning fast, he became chairman of the Manchester Left Club, and the editor of Labour's Northern Voice newspaper. Gradually he tired of political journalism and began writing plays, and was eventually commissioned by Tony Garnett to provide a script for The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70). The play, 'The Love Maniac', was about a teacher, but even though Garnett took the commission with him when he moved to London Weekend Television and formed Kestrel Productions, it was never produced.

However, buoyed up by Garnett's enthusiasm and influenced by the Paris evenements of May 1968, he wrote Occupations, a stage play about Gramsci and the Fiat factory occupations of 1920s Italy. The play soon brought him to the attention of Kenneth Tynan, the artistic director of the National Theatre, who promptly commissioned Griffiths to write the play that became The Party. This critique of the British revolutionary left (featuring Laurence Olivier in his last role at the National as the Glaswegian Trotskyite John Tagg) was a critical failure, and was also disparaged by fellow left-wing playwrights as a doomed attempt to launch a radical play from such a deeply conservative establishment as the National Theatre. But Griffiths profoundly believed in attempting to use popular forms as a vehicle for radical political ideas (known as 'strategic penetration'), and this naturally led him to consider television as the best medium for communicating with a wider audience.

There followed a series of brilliant television plays such as 'All Good Men' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 31/01/1974) and 'Absolute Beginners' (BBC, tx. 19/04/1974, in the series Fall of Eagles), which rapidly established Griffiths' ability to dramatise ideological conflicts, and to provide devastating critiques of political power structures. He developed this further with his epic series about parliamentary democracy, Bill Brand (ITV, 1976), which was probably the summation of his dialectic technique, and had in the meantime returned triumphantly to the theatre with the 1975 production of Comedians, which later transferred to Broadway. His reputation at the time was such that Warren Beatty asked him to write a screenplay for his long cherished project about the US revolutionary John Reed, which eventually became the Oscar-winning film Reds (US, 1981).

His experience on Reds seemed to produce a more cinematic sensibility in subsequent work. Although he continued to work in the theatre, gaining a notable success with his translation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and the touring version of Oi for England (ITV, tx. 17/04/1982), his next television play, 'Country' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 20/10/1981), was a departure: a period piece made entirely on film, with a portrayal of the aristocracy that contained none of the political rhetoric familiar from his earlier plays. But the political analysis was just as acute, if not more so, and subtly examined the nature of Conservatism through the prism of the 1945 General Election. The unrealised series of six films, of which 'Country' was intended to be the first, has to be one of the great 'what ifs' of television drama. He then went on to write the serial Last Place on Earth (ITV, 1985), which attempted to use the heroic myth of Robert Falcon Scott to look afresh at the then recent echoes of empire evinced by the Falklands War.

These works represented the end of Griffiths' rich period of television drama; the advent of Thatcher, and the reduced opportunities for a writer of the single play, let alone such a political writer as Griffiths, led him back to the theatre, where he has produced a number of plays over the last fifteen years to varying degrees of commercial and critical success.

Griffiths' preoccupation with left-wing ideas, his engagement with the various forms of Marxism, and his stringent class analysis have caused many critics to see him as outmoded and somewhat arid. But Griffiths at his best (which was most of the time) has a powerful dramatic sense, and an ability to craft dialogue that makes the most complex ideas seem clear and vital. An index of his quality is the fact that virtually every one of his works, either on television or in the theatre, has been highly controversial, providing sure evidence that even when being dismissed by critics, his plays prick against the body politic. His most recent television play, Food for Ravens (BBC, tx. 15/11/1997), was commissioned to mark the 100th anniversary of Aneurin Bevan's birth, but at one point the BBC decided not to network the play, and instead restrict it to Wales. Only a newspaper campaign led by Griffiths and the star Brian Cox caused the BBC to relent, and it was finally shown in a late-night slot on BBC2. Griffiths cannot have been surprised by this treatment, or the critical brickbats that were used to argue against the showing, but the script was of an extremely high quality and a worthy addition to his oeuvre.

The eclipse of Griffiths' work and reputation has been predictable because of cultural and political changes, but he stands out as a great force in television drama. Despite his considerable success in the theatre, he was and remains a television dramatist, no different to when he said in 1976 that "I simply cannot understand socialist playwrights who do not devote most of their time to television". Griffiths believed "that if for every Sweeney that went out, a Bill Brand went out, there would be a real struggle for the popular imagination... and people would be free to make liberating choices about where reality lies." It is a shame for us, and for him, that we now see his work so rarely on our screens.

John Williams

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Absolute Beginners (1974)Absolute Beginners (1974)

Dramatisation of the birth of the Russian Communist Party in 1903

Thumbnail image of All Good Men (1974)All Good Men (1974)

Strident drama about socialism and the 'sell out' of the Labour movement

Thumbnail image of Bill Brand (1976)Bill Brand (1976)

Ambitious series exploring the turmoil of the 1970s Labour Party

Thumbnail image of Comedians (1979)Comedians (1979)

Jonathan Pryce dazzles in Trevor Griffiths' intense Play for Today

Thumbnail image of Country (1981)Country (1981)

Politically incisive drama of the postwar upper-classes

Thumbnail image of Oi For England (1982)Oi For England (1982)

Compelling TV play about fascism and disaffected youth

Thumbnail image of Through the Night (1975)Through the Night (1975)

Harrowing drama about the treatment of a post-mastectomy patient

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Play for Today (1970-84)Play for Today (1970-84)

Single drama slot known for its provocative political work

Thumbnail image of Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)

Long-running, often provocative BBC drama strand

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