Still the good life for an irascible old character

By Frances Grant

By FRANCES GRANT

Twenty-five years have passed since British actor Richard Briers played the genial Tom, a man pursuing self-sufficiency in suburbia, in the popular sitcom The Good Life.

Things have changed. These days, says Briers by phone from Sydney where he is holidaying with his wife, he revels in playing much more irascible characters.

"Not at all difficult to play," he says of his role as the grumpy, eccentric Scottish laird Hector in Monarch of the Glen (TV One, 8.30 pm).

"I think when you get on in years you get impatient with anything modern. I suppose you'd call me a reactionary. But then most people of 66 are reactionary. That's how it is, I'm afraid. You can be cantankerous when you're old and say what you feel."

Hector is well behind the times and that's where Briers claims he is too. "Like me, he lives his life in the 1890s."

Does he believe in any mod cons at all? "I'm absolutely not capable of understanding the Internet or anything like that ... I have an answerphone and a fax machine but that's as far as I go."

What about a television, isn't that a bit too 20th century? No, says Briers, but he certainly doesn't believe in surfing across hundreds of channels. He has a few favourite shows and occasionally he'll catch a rerun of The Good Life.

"That was a great hit and they're still repeating it which is wonderful. It's almost sad watching it - I don't watch it much now, but what happened to those 25 years? They just rolled along."

The London-based actor (born in Wimbledon, lives in Chiswick) says he never feels dogged by The Good Life. "I love talking about it because it was the greatest success we [the cast] ever had. Strange little vehicle we had, suddenly took off and we were flavour of the month, flavour of the year.

"It was just a wonderful thing you look back on with enormous gratitude that it put us all on the map. We're still cashing in on it and still people have affectionate thoughts about it - which is the greatest thing about the show, it created affection."

Yes, says Briers, he still keeps in contact with the "two girls" (fourth cast member Paul Eddington has died). "I had lunch with Penny [Penelope Keith] about three months ago, Felicity [Kendall] and I drop Christmas cards and things but she's so busy we never seem to get a chance to get together."

Along with The Good Life, Briers counts another sitcom, Ever Decreasing Circles, as a career highlight. "And I did a lot of plays in the West End for about 20 years - the most enjoyable part was doing the Alan Ayckbourn plays, I did three or four of them."

But the biggest piece of luck he had in his career, Briers says, was meeting actor and director Kenneth Branagh. "He took a shine to me. We did a world tour of Shakespeare and I played King Lear for six months all around the world.

Briers, now a grandfather, is a "home bird," whose life has been very much centred on his work in the West End and television. No, he doesn't have many interests outside acting. "I collect books and I walk and I like gardening. But apart from that I'm a person of pretty narrow interests quite frankly."

So why, after working with Branagh and with two highly successful sitcoms behind him, was Briers tempted back to telly comedy and the role as Monarch of the Glen?

"Well movies are great and Shakespeare is the greatest thing you can do as an actor, but you need to get back to where family viewing is - where you kind of started."

The show struck a chord in England, he says, where it regularly attracts 8.5 million viewers. "I think it's escapism and Scotland is, like New Zealand, absolutely beautiful. It's a good story with a lot of talented young people [in the cast]."

And some things, indeed, do change. "Susan Hampshire [Hector's wife Molly] and I play the oldies now."

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