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Griffith, Kenneth (1921-2006)

Actor, Director, Writer

Main image of Griffith, Kenneth (1921-2006)

A popular character actor and a passionate historian who transformed the possibilities of the television documentary, Kenneth Griffith (b. Tenby, Pembrokeshire, 1921) has aroused a good deal of anger and controversy with his outspoken views on the Boer War, British Empire builders and Northern Ireland.

Following stage experience in repertory and with the Old Vic, and after service with the RAF (1940-1945), he made his first notable film appearance in George King's The Shop at Sly Corner (1947) as blackmailer Archie Fellowes - repeating his role from the previous year's television presentation of the Percy Edward play (BBC, tx. 21/7/1946).

His film work, where he played largely unsympathetic, weaselly characters, ranged from the intense drama of The Prisoner (d. Peter Glenville, 1955), 1984 (d. Michael Anderson, 1955), A Night to Remember (d. Roy Baker, 1958) and Circus of Horrors (d. Sidney Hayers, 1960) to producer Euan Lloyd's action spectaculars The Wild Geese (d. Andrew V. McLaglen, 1978), The Sea Wolves (d. McLaglen, 1980) and Who Dares Wins (d. Ian Sharp, 1982). In more recent years he was the mad old man in Four Weddings and a Funeral (d. Mike Newell, 1994) and Reverend Jones in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (d. Chris Monger, 1995).

Griffith's comedy roles have been in the Boulting Brothers' Private's Progress (1956) and Lucky Jim (1957), as well as support to Peter Sellers in Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (d. Jeffery Dell/Roy Boulting, 1958), I'm All Right Jack (d. John Boulting, 1959), Only Two Can Play (d. Sidney Gilliat, 1961) and Heavens Above! (d. John Boulting, 1963).

As a television actor he made appearances in the crime series Fabian of the Yard (BBC, 1954-56) and Martin Kane, Private Investigator (ITV, 1958-59); Patrick McGoohan's Danger Man (ITV, 1960-61; 1964-67) and The Prisoner (ITV, 1967-68); and the French settings of the limited serials Paris 1900 (ITV, 1964) and Clochmerle (BBC, 1972).

In 1967, Griffith's long-time interest in the Boer War (a subject on which he is regarded as a world authority) prompted him to suggest an idea to David Attenborough, then Controller of BBC2, for an accurate film about the siege and relief of Ladysmith. Aware of Griffith's private fascination with history and the Boer War, Attenborough commissioned the work; a surprising decision given that Griffith had no experience of documentary filmmaking.

For this first documentary, Soldiers of the Widow (BBC tx. 27/5/1967), Griffith researched and wrote the script, with the idea of having broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge present it. Fortunately for television history, he did it himself. 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.

Since Griffith is a Socialist and an internationalist, Soldiers of the Widow delivered something of a propaganda film for the humanity of the common man: savagely critical of Imperialism and sympathetic towards the Boers, as well as the British private soldiers who were slaughtered there in their hundreds.

Five years later he returned to the subject with the four-part Sons of the Blood (subtitled The Great Boer War, 1899-1902) (BBC, 1972) with the added ingredient of presenting a procession of surviving Boer War veterans whose recollections of the events provided the flesh to his narrative. His rage at British Imperialism, however, continued with the two-part The Boer War (BBC, 1999), marking the anniversary of the conflict (or, as Griffith saw it, "virtually the beginning of the end of the British Empire").

By extension of his love-hate interest in events relating to Africa, Griffith wrote, narrated and acted out A Touch of Churchill, A Touch of Hitler (BBC tx. 30/7/1971), the controversial story of Cecil Rhodes' influence in South Africa, Black as Hell and Thick as Grass (BBC tx. 27/1/1979), a bitter lament for the futility of the 1879 British-Zulu War, and Zola Budd - The Girl Who Didn't Run (BBC tx. 24/4/1989), in which he described the young Afrikaner athlete as the victim of liberal hypocrisy.

American history was also on Griffith's list of love-hate passions. In the build-up to the bicentennial celebrations in 1976, Griffith was commissioned by America's ABC News to prepare an hour-long documentary on the events leading up to the start of the Revolutionary War.

The American network, unsurprisingly, found Griffith's documentary take on the celebratory subject 'unacceptable' (he had pictured the great American revolutionary heroes as bloodthirsty, ranting demagogues), reworking the piece with their own people and creating a more diluted version of events in Suddenly An Eagle (ABC-TV, tx. 7/1/1976). The ABC version employed an interesting double-narrator format, with actor Lee J. Cobb representing the American colonists' viewpoint and Griffith essaying his English counterpart. Griffith's original version, however, was taken up by British producer-director Julia Cave and became an edition of the BBC's Omnibus arts documentary strand (tx. 1/7/1976), now retitled 'Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death'.

His last passionate polemic on a reading of American history was an assessment on the 18th century life of Thomas Paine, The Most Valuable Englishman Ever (BBC, tx. 16/1/1982). Griffith's tribute to the Norfolk-born Paine, the author of Rights of Man and a zealous pamphleteer who had helped stir up the American Revolution, was expressed with as much dynamism as the revolutionary writings of his subject.

Griffith's range of biographical subjects have included Napoleon: The Man on the Rock (ITV tx. 25/3/1975), in which he portrayed Bonaparte as a victim of British Imperialism; the 18th century Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean - The Sun's Bright Child (ITV tx. 16/12/1975); British soldier and statesman Clive of India (C4 tx. 20/8/1983); The Light - The Life of David Ben-Gurion (C4 tx. 3/9/1986), presenting the case for the state of Israel using the story of its first Prime Minister; the story of Dr Am Bedkar, The Untouchable (BBC tx. 12/10/1996), a member of the untouchable caste in India who wrote the Indian constitution; and The Legend of George Rex (C4 tx. 5/7/1997), in which he investigated claims that descendants of a wealthy 18th century man may be the legitimate heirs to the British throne.

But perhaps his most famous, and contentious, work was the 1972 ATV documentary profile of the Irish soldier and IRA leader who was assassinated in 1922, Hang Out Your Brightest Colours: The Life and Death of Michael Collins.

In presenting the life of Michael Collins as a catalyst to give viewers the truth about the setting up of the Border in Ireland, Griffith's film was banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) on the grounds that it was 'an incitement to disorder' (during the current situation in Northern Ireland) .

Incensed by what he saw as an act of television censorship, he made a documentary about the banning of the Collins film, The Public's Right to Know (ITV tx. 5/3/1974), which dealt also with the prevention of his 1973 documentary about Baden-Powell when the ACTT (now BECTU), in line with their South Africa boycott policy of the time, blacked Griffith's plan to shoot on the crucial Boer War sites in South Africa.

Baden-Powell in the Siege of Mafeking was never completed, while Hang Out Your Brightest Colours was shown finally on 13 August 1994 (as part of ITV's 25 Bloody Years season). Having made one documentary film that had been suppressed by the Right and then, having started his next film, having that banned by the Left, left Griffith a frustrated and bemused figure.

Curious Journey was produced for television in 1976, but became the second Griffith documentary on Ireland not to receive a public showing (until its presentation at the 24th London Film Festival in November 1980). The documentary, showing Griffith interviewing old, highly respectable Irish people who had fought in the uprising of Easter 1916, was withdrawn by the commissioning company, Harlech Television, until Griffith bought back the rights from the company (on the condition that he did not reveal HTV's involvement) .

Griffith's third documentary about modern Irish history, 'Roger Casement - Heart of Darkness' (for Timewatch, BBC tx. 28/10/1992), was transmitted. It told of the rise and fall of the Irish Protestant and British consul who espoused the Irish Republican movement and was tried and executed for treason in 1916.

A world-class documentary filmmaker for the last 30 years, Griffith is aware that his refusing to compromise his views has damaged his career.

Commissioned by Thames TV to produce a film on the story of the Three Wise Men of the New Testament, A Famous Journey (ITV tx. 20/12/1979), he was ordered out of Iran by the country's Foreign Minister.

His 1988 documentary (called But I Have Promises) on the first prime minister of independent India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, to mark the centenary of his birth, was shelved by the Indian state broadcaster Doordarshan.

His most recent documentary project, the life of the 18th century Irish revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone, although offered to BBC TV, has yet to find a producer.

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.

Tise Vahimagi

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