Griff Rhys Jones on the child within
GRIFF Rhys Jones has, as ever, been busy, busy, busy. We've had another instalment of the buildings-in-peril show Restoration. He pops up on BBC 1 in the middle of November with a profile of Rudyard Kipling - more to him than meets the eye - and is working on an epic series about mountains.
GRIFF Rhys Jones has, as ever, been busy, busy, busy. We've had another instalment of the buildings-in-peril show Restoration. He pops up on BBC 1 in the middle of November with a profile of Rudyard Kipling - more to him than meets the eye - and is working on an epic series about mountains. But, having firmly entered the second half of his life, he's also taken time to reflect, Janus-like, on what's gone before as well as what might come to pass.
One of the happy results of this reflection is Semi-Detached: an intriguing and as-expected witty and whimsical volume of autobiography that charts his childhood (largely in Essex), his university days at Cambridge (among such luminaries as Douglas “Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” Adams), and to the verge, more or less, of Making It Big.
He also wallows in nostalgia by making return visits to key childhood haunts: there's an autumnal, middle-of-the-afternoon bus ride through the countryside near his former Essex school, for instance, and a dip at the swimming pool in Harlow.
Short of sifting through the dustbins of his country retreat near Ipswich - which complements a home in the heart of the West End - it's the closest we're going to get towards satisfying a prurient interest in what makes him tick: everything from how he lost his virginity (down the back of a bunk on a 29-ft yacht) to working as a security guard-cum-bodyguard for the Sheika of Qatar.
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Lifting the lid on matters personal isn't something that would come easily to most of us.
“Well, I didn't see the point of writing a book like this unless there was an element of candour,” says Griff. “I've read a few biographies - I absolutely love reading them - but I didn't feel I was capable of writing about my career: you know, my 'rags to riches story' and how I did this and all that. It didn't have enough colour, my life.”
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He quips: “Instead of trashing my friends, I ended up trashing my dad and mum, and family!”
Trashing overblows it, but there is a strong sense that his socially ill at ease father, Elwyn, set the pace and tone of family life. However, Griff is at pains to point out that his dad had his own way of showing love, even if it didn't involved showering his offspring with hugs and kisses. He did give them that crucial gift: he shared his time with them.
Mr Rhys Jones, a Fellow of The Royal College of Physicians, was an eminent chest specialist. But, shy and retiring, he ran a mile from social situations. He'd been rather spoiled as a child, his younger son suggests, and effectively relied on his wife to feed him the “nursery food” he adored and clothe him with the help of Marks & Spencer's.
He cocooned himself with hobbies such as woodwork and sailing - saving up his holiday so he could take the family on month-long yachting trips. Essex and Suffolk featured heavily: Goldhanger, Tollesbury, Brightlingsea, Osea Island and Bradwell; and the rivers Stour, Alde, Deben and Orwell.
Griff writes wistfully of wanting to experience the colour and fun of Butlins at Clacton-on-Sea, instead of being outside on the stony beach. There were also rare days when, the weather at its worst, the family would take a bus to Ipswich and seek refuge in the shops: dad hankering to get back to his boat, and his three children hanging back.
At one point, Griff likens him to Arthur Lowe - Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army. “I can never catch a glimpse of prickly, slightly fat, shy, silvery-haired men, men like Edward Heath, without being reminded of him. They are a type: sexless, defensive, often intelligent in a boffinish manner, self-important, and I always rather love them.”
Griff's parents moved to the Woodbridge area after his father retired. Mr Rhys Jones sadly died of prostate cancer in 1989, aged 72. The family scattered his ashes on the Deben.
Griff admits his mother Gwynneth, now 82, thought he wasn't very nice about his father in print, “although I thought I was; I thought I was being affectionate. But then my brother said 'That's what he was like', so . . .”
His mother probably views Elwyn through rose-tinted spectacles at times, he suggests, while Griff himself accepts he is likely guilty of exaggeration “for effect“.
Griff's first memory is of lying in bed alongside his father and observing his breathing. The book ends with Elwyn's death. It's hard not to think their relationship is the key theme.
“I suppose. I didn't really set out to do that. What I set out to do was write about the fact that I'm in my 50s now. You do find yourself taking stock, because you rush through life and it's quite bizarre finding you're 50. I don't feel 54, or whatever I will be on the 16th of November.” (I think it's actually 53.)
He realized “You don't know your father as a gad-about bloke with pals. You get to know your father later on, when he's become a family man - by definition. Then you start finding yourself thinking 'Well, there are so many parallels between me and my father.'
“I suppose he was quite a strong father, and so you find yourself continually working out if you've lived up to that. I suppose they're the ones that set the standards . . . I don't know . . .”
Griff insists his father did make emotional attachments. “But it wasn't expressed. We were a very loving family; we always spent an enormous amount of time together, and the way we went about our business was possibly to talk loudly and shout at each other! But he did everything with us. The most important thing you can give your children is time. “He did dozens and dozens of things with us when we were kids.
“I think he was very socially shy. He had no ambition to be part of any social club. I'm much more of a dandy, more flamboyant, although at heart I don't find it comfortable - and that just shows how parents inculcate their values into you.
“If I find myself at a lazy social occasion, with everybody rattling the ice in their gin and tonics, I find myself standing aside from it, being puritanically sneery about it,” he laughs.
The last half-page of the book is heart-rendingly poignant, as the dying man drifts in and out of consciousness. The Macmillan nurses urges Griff to talk to his father.
“She wasn't to know that we never really chatted, this father and son . . . I probably talked about jobs I was doing . . . And then I took his hand in mine. He was barely conscious but he withdrew it. I saw it as a last refusal to accept intimacy between us. My wife (Jo) was rather more straightforward. 'You exaggerate all these things,' she told me. 'He was probably just in pain.'”
Asked about it, he points to his dad's dislike of scenes. “A sort of 'don't fuss' reaction would have been part of his approach. I think my wife was probably right, and that I was reading something into it that wasn't there.”
He and his father might not have been touchy-feely, but Griff was bereft when his dad died. He points out that effusive gestures don't necessarily mean what they suggest: “The sheer ease with which people do things like say 'I love you, darling' at the end of every phonecall . . . Often, actually, that sort of thing can be a facile expression of love. There's a straightforwardness I've inherited from my father.”
He adds: “Also, it's about how there's no sense of truth - there's only memory: and all of that is selective. I wasn't trying to write a definitive 'I did it my way', or 'This is what it tells us about families.' I was really writing about how the things that you do do spur memories.”
How has his upbringing influenced his own role as a father?
“I think what you do is think 'Oh, I'm not going to do that, because my parents do,' but in fact you're following the same values, unbeknownst to yourself. We're all victims of our genes.” He feels he was more touchy-feely with his children, Catherine and George - now young adults - “probably because I was conscious of that”.
Writing the book was in many ways purgative.
“The most cathartic element was, funnily enough, going to a school reunion and making a minor assessment of what we thought we were, and to look closely at my university days. The memory you have is of these things being terrific and brilliant, and in fact they're just perfectly ordinary.”
A “strange atmosphere” hung over Brentwood School when he was there. He describes it as a bit of an Oxbridge factory. Seven students from his year went on to Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
“I sort of associated at university with similar 'sixth-form boys'. I've always been in the sixth-form of life! I enjoyed the sixth-form and I enjoyed Cambridge a great deal. There are sections of my life in between that I haven't enjoyed as much, but I am enjoying life enormously at this time.”
The range of projects is more varied “and I don't have the single-mindedness I had when I was trying to write a sketch series every year” - such as Alas Smith and Jones - “which becomes very debilitating after a while. It's like trying to see the end of an endless piece of string.”
Griff Rhys Jones will be signing copies of Semi-Detached at Browsers bookshop in Woodbridge on Saturday, from 1pm-2pm. His mother still lives in the town, in a cottage not far from the Deben, and, he quips, “will be urging people in Woodbridge to get out and buy a copy. They have a three-line whip in operation there!”
The writer admits he's a Mummy's boy. Gwynneth has followed his life with pride: compiling scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings, including some from the EADT. Her son gently takes the mickey out of us for repeatedly labelling him “a Suffolk comedian” . . .
EAST Anglia, and particularly its waterways, winds through the Griff Rhys Jones story like a meandering creek.
There are tales of the time, during sixth-form days, when his father let Griff take the boat out on his own. The teenager and a couple of friends spent a summer week drifting up the coast to Brightlingsea, and on to Clacton - where, fuelled by youthful lust, they could watch bathing beauties.
Later, his dad bought a new boat, the Windsong, that was in mud dock at Woodbridge. It had been refitted, following a fire, by Frank Knight. Griff stayed on board in the early spring of his gap year, painting bits and bobs and drinking in the Captain's Table and the Olde Bell and Steelyard. “I remember admiring Woodbridge the first time we ever went there.”
There are, too, examples of how we inherit both positive and negative characteristics from our parents.
Griff cites a relatively recent speaking engagement at West Mersea Yacht Club. He experienced “the usual 'What the hell am I doing here?' gloom that accompanies every after-dinner speech and makes me curt and unsociable when I arrive”.
His father had found social demands perplexing. “If he was doing something else, he couldn't cope with them at all. I have that trait too. I had arrived at the club trying to work out where I would be talking from, fiddling with the computer that I'd brought but which wouldn't show my photographs through their screen projector, utterly preoccupied with what I had to say and unable to let that ride and concentrate on chat, small talk and the basic demands of humanity. God damn it. Yes. This is exactly how he would have behaved. I am behaving exactly like my father.”
On the plus side, he writes about a family sailing trip from his teenage years. After they anchored on the Butley River, he rowed to the shore. He knew the remains of a priory were near, but couldn't see them.
“It was dusk. What I could see were miles of fading, almost medieval landscape. I waited there as it got dark under the blackening trees, an oil lamp on the boat reflecting on the water like a connecting thread. I can hardly think of any other moment in my life which has encompassed such perfection: the solitude, the beauty, the sense of the journey made and the simplicity of the place. I got back in the dinghy, pulled the thread in and rowed back to the intimacy of the little cabin. It was what my father wanted from it all. He gave that to me.”
Semi-Detached is published at £20 by Michael Joseph. ISBN 978-0-718-14626-9