Griff Rhys Jones

Lately, Griff Rhys Jones has been having a recurring dream about his late friend and comedy partner Mel Smith.

‘I’m feeling neurotically anxious about going on stage, and I’m rushing round trying to find him, to get him ready to go on,’ reveals 63-year-old. ‘Which is actually exactly what it used to be like! It must be something to do with going on stage, I guess.’

If Jones’s subconscious is suffering a touch of stage fright, he isn’t letting it hold him back. On the contrary, he’s just returned to the West End for the first time in five years to play the title role in Moliere’s The Miser, in a new adaptation by Sean Foley (The Play What I Wrote) and Phil Porter.

‘I’ve seen lots of different ways of doing Moliere, but I think Sean’s approach is that it’s just a very funny play,’ says Jones who, as the penny-pinching Harpagon, leads an impressive cast of comic talent including Lee Mack, Mathew Horne and Katy Wix. ‘Often, people treat Moliere as a sort of highfalutin thing, but it was funny, broad comedy entertainment, and there’s something to be said for going back and doing what’s funny.

‘I don’t really put myself forward as an actor to do anything except comedy,’ adds the two-time Olivier Award winner. ‘I love being out there, hearing an audience laughing.’

Jones has been making audiences laugh for most of his life. Born in Cardiff in 1953, he moved to the English Home Counties when he was just six months old – a fact addressed in his 2014 book, Insufficiently Welsh.

‘There’s not a drop of English blood in me – I’m totally Welsh,’ he tells Weekend. ‘When I did Who Do You Think You Are?, it all ended, not very distantly, in a churchyard in North Wales. But I was brought up in Epping, as part of the Epping Welsh. There were only five of us, and we all lived in the same house.

‘I didn’t really get to see Wales, beyond Cardiff and Newport, until around 15 years ago, when I suddenly started being carted around it for various TV programmes. I hadn’t appreciated how wonderful it was. Now I’ve been to more corners of Wales than many a Welshman – thanks to television.’

As a young man, Jones followed the well-trod path from the Cambridge Footlights to the BBC, initially as a trainee radio producer. His TV break came when, having played a few minor roles in the first series, he was chosen by his Cambridge friend John Lloyd to replace Chris Langham as one of the leads in the seminal comedy sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News, alongside Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson and Mel Smith.

Jones owes two of the great relationships of his life to that show. He met his wife Jo, a graphic designer with whom he has a grown-up son and daughter, on the day she was hired to throw a bucket of water over him for the tie-in book, while he and Mel Smith went on to forge one of Britain’s most popular comedy partnerships (they even performed at Live Aid). They were friends off-stage, too, with little of the tension that habitually plagues successful double acts.

‘We were close enough,’ says Jones, not wishing to overplay it. ‘It was a professional working relationship. Mel was extremely loyal. Of his many virtues, the one people remember is that he was a fantastic mate to people – if you were part of Mel’s gang, then he loved you, and was always there for you.

‘Every double act will tell you there comes a point where you’re standing in front of a large group of people trying to make you do something, and that’s the point where, if you’re on your own, you feel very lonely. But if you’re a double act, you have a united front. There’s a sort of secrecy to a double act, which other people have to be respectful of. That’s a great protection, and we had that. So I loved Mel, and I miss him.’

Smith, who died in 2013, wasn’t just Jones’ comedy oppo but his business partner. In 1981, they launched the independent production company Talkback, the sale of which two decades later earned them more than £20 million each.

‘We were always quite grown-up about work,’ says Jones. ‘Because we were both producers, and Mel was a director. We used to joke that we always had the acting to fall back on.

‘The whole business of Talkback becoming this big thing, with offices all over London, was extraordinary,’ he reflects. ‘People still think I’m some multi-billionaire, but it’s 16 years since we sold the company. And I’ve spent it!’

The subject of Jones’ fortune became a talking point a couple of years ago when the Daily Telegraph reported he was contemplating moving abroad if Labour won the election and slapped a mansion tax on his sizeable Grade I listed Fitzrovia home.

‘I never said that, at all, in any shape or form!’ he protests. ‘I was simply saying that if you wanted to restore a big house, you’d probably have to start in France, because they’re difficult to buy here. And the Telegraph managed to conflate that with a question I’d been asked about an hour earlier about the mansion tax, put it all together and said ‘Griff Rhys Jones says he’d leave the country’. If you read the interview, you’ll see I didn’t say that at all. I would never have left the country. It was quite stressful for a while,’ he adds. ‘We had a demonstration outside the house!’

The fact he was talking about restoring houses says a lot about Jones’ unusual career trajectory in which, these days, he’s most likely to be seen presenting television documentaries about mountains, art treasures or John Betjeman, or fronting a campaign to save listed buildings. It’s quite a journey: from young buck of alternative comedy to vice-president of the Victorian Society, with honorary degrees and fellowships from seven universities.

‘I’m an opportunist,’ he says. ‘I do whatever comes along, then trudge on to what’s next. I never did what I intended to do when I left Cambridge, which was become a theatre director. For about 20 years, I kept thinking, I need to stop doing this, I’m going to be a theatre director…

‘I still feel, at the age of 63, I’ve got to focus, I’ve got to concentrate – that my big moment, whatever it may be, is still to come,’ he adds. ‘The mirror is a shocking thing to find yourself standing in front of – thinking, wait a minute, I’m still in my twenties… aren’t I?’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, March 2, 2017

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