Sunday 31 March 2013

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" to that large, loved and irreplacable old actor, Richard Griffiths

Immortalised as 'Uncle Vernon Dursley' in the Harry Potter films and hailed as one of the greatest and most-loved British actors by co-stars and colleagues, Richard died on Friday at the age of 65 after complications arising from heart surgery.

If a film was made about his life it would tell of a small boy :

* was born a Yorkshire lad, after the Second World War in 1947, in Thornaby-on-Tees in the North Riding.

* with a Mum and Dad who were both deaf, had to point to food he wanted and otherwise would have starved and learned sign language to communicate with them.

* gradually learned to speak and by the time he was four, was taken everywhere by his parents as their ‘voice’, translating their sign language in shops.

* had a father who was a steel-fitter, drank, could not always earn enough to feed his family and, to make ends meet, fought all-comers in pubs for cash. 
of a boy who :

* saw family debts with moneylenders mount and was left with a determination never to borrow money. 

* was painfully thin and, on the recommendation of the family doctor, had  radiation therapy to alter his metabolism and help him gain weight only to have his pituitary gland permanently damaged and his weight balloon.

* witnessed the violence between his mother and father with her lashing out with fists and feet and ran away from, what he would call his 'loathsome' home on a number of occasions.
of a teenager who :
*  left his Catholic school, Our Lady and St Bede in Stockton-On -Tees at 15 and was offered, through his father, a job as a steelworker, which he snubbed, much to the old man's fury.

* worked as a porter in a Littlewoods store and was convinced by the manager to go back to his studies, attended a drama class at Stockton and Billingham College and continued at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Drama (right).
of a young actor in his twenties who :

* settled for a time in Manchester, did the rounds of local theatres and got an early break in films, with a small role as a character called 'Sam' in 'It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet'. 

* found work at the Royal Shakespeare Company, starting in minor comic roles: an officer in Trevor Nunn's musicalised ,'The Comedy of Errors' in 1976 and bespectacled in the background on the right and Pompey in 'Measure for Measure' at the age of 21 in 1978. 
a coming actor in his thirties who :

* played the flustered King of Navarre in John Barton's 'Love's Labour's Lost' at the age of 31 in 1978 and a year later played the dimwitted hero who becomes a studio bigwig in Nunn's buoyant revival of George Kaufman and Moss Hart's satire on Hollywood, 'Once in a Lifetime'.
* in 1982 at 35, played the lead in a BBC drama serial about a computer conspiracy, 'Birds of Prey' (right and half way through clip) :
 and then a succession of noted film roles, in 'Chariots of Fire' in '81, 'Gandhi' in '82, 'Britannia Hospital' in '82, 'A Private Function' in '84 and 'Greystoke' in '84, 
As drunken sex pest Uncle Monty in Withnail And I, he chased a young Paul McGann, right, round a bedroom, growling: ¿I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!¿
* made, in 1986, his unforgettable appearance in 'Withnail and I' as the life-loving, genially promiscuous 'Uncle Monty' bursts into the friend's bedroom to announce his desire to have him "even if it must be burglary" and on hearing his death, Richard E Grant (Withnail) has said :
"Chin-Chin my dear friend. I feel too gutted to talk without falling apart. Suffice to say I feel I’ve lost my adored Uncle Monty".

* joked that Monty was "one of the stately homos of England" and found the role put him in demand as a spokesperson and figurehead for gay causes, whereas he was happily married to an Irish actress called Heather Gibson.
* in the tv sitcom, 'A Kind Of Living', from1988 -90, was a father who couldn’t even be bothered to give his baby son a name and who at six months old, was just called "Og".
a mature actor in his forties and fifties :

* went on to appear as Henry Crabbe, the gourmand and disillusioned cop, in the tv series, 'Pie in the Sky' from 1994-97
and from 2001 on, was a fixture in the Harry Potter films as Uncle Vernon Dursley who forced the boy-wizard to live in a cupboard under the stairs.
an old actor :

The History Boys, later made into a film, was Griffiths's biggest stage success*  in 2004,  originated the role of Hector, the teacher, in Alan Bennet's play 'The History Boys' directed by Nicholas Hytner and won the 2005 'Laurence Olivier Award' for 'Best Actor', took the play to the USA and reprised the role in the 2006 film version.

* mastered the tricky role of Hector who was both a brilliant teacher and a habitual boy-groper and showed him both as a convincing life-enhancer, getting the boys to improve their French by impersonating the inhabitants of a bordello and at the same time a deeply flawed human being.

*  returned to the London stage in 2007 to play the role of the desiccated psychiatrist who envies a damaged young boy's capacity for ecstasy, in Peter Shaffer's 'Equus' with Daniel Radcliffe playing the boy
and took it to the USA :

* in 2008, was back at the National Theatre playing WH Auden in Alan Bennett's 'The Habit of Art' in a complex play-within-a-play structure which allowed him to portray both Auden, the apostle of freedom and intellectual bully and a tetchy actor worried about his lines and missing a lucrative voiceover engagement. 

* used his capacity for grumpiness to great comic effect in his final appearance on the London stage, last summer, in Neil Simon's, 'The Sunshine Boys' as one half of a vaudevillian double act with Danny DeVito, briefly united and bound together by mutual loathing'

* said when interviewed :  "However long you live in your heart you will always feel emotionally as you did when you were 17 or 18. You burn the same way you burned. You lust the same way you lusted. You despair the same way you despaired. You feel guilt. You feel aggression. The emotions are permanently on fire."
an actor who was remembered by :
Daniel Ratcliffe, actor :
"Seven years later we embarked on Equus together. It was my first time doing a play but, terrified as I was, his encouragement, tutelage and humour made it a joy. In fact, any room he walked into was made twice as funny and twice as clever just by his presence. I am proud to say I knew him."

Nicholas Hytner, director :
"His currency as an actor was truth; as a colleague it was hilarity. His anecdotes were legendary. They were, literally, endless. They would go on for hours, apparently without destination, constantly side-splitting. The only way to stop them was to tell him you were walking away, though there were always others in the audience so, as far as I know, he never stopped. He was the life of every party."

Thea Sharrock, director :

"I worked with Richard more times than any other actor. Everybody knew he was my favourite. He was the most tender, gentle, kind, generous, loving man. His curiosity was unending, as was his striving for perfection. I cannot imagine a world without all those stories. I will miss him so very, very much."

* Simon Beresford, agent :
"Richard brightened my days and enriched the life of anyone he came into contact with. On stage he allowed us to share in our own humanity and constantly question our differences.Richard gave acting a good name. He was a remarkable man and one of our greatest and best-loved actors".

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Britain will always be a country for and says "Happy Birthday" to that old, quitessentially English film actor, Michael York"

Michael, who is now a American citizen and lives in California, is 71 today and apparently has multiple myeloma, a type of cancer of the blood the treatment for which includes large doses of steroids, the side effects of which include hair thinning and generalized swelling. I refrain from publishing a photo of Michael as he is now and prefer to reflect on all those performances we enjoyed in which his looks, manner and voice added an elegant and quintessentially English persona to our screens.

I remember seeing him in 'Cabaret' in 1972, when I was 25 and he was 30, playing the bisexual Brian Roberts opposite Liza Minnelli, in a character who was a fictionalised version of the writer Christopher Isherwood whose novel, 'Goodbye the Berlin'  provided much source material for the film.

What you possible didn't know about Michael, that he :

* was  born in Fulmer, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, his mother a musician and father a Welsh ex Royal Artillery Army Officer who became an executive for Marks and Spencer department stores.

* was brought up in Burgess Hill, Sussex and as a teenager, educated at Bromley Grammar School for Boys, started his stage career at the age of 14 in 'The Yellow Jacket' and had a small part in 'Hamlet' in the West End at the age of 17 and studied at Hurstpierpoint College, Sussex and at University College Oxford.
* prior to graduating with a degree in English in 1964, toured with the National Youth Theatre also performing with the Oxford University Dramtic Society and the University College Players and then joined the National Theatre under Laurence Olvier where he worked with Franco Zeffirelli at the age of 23 in 1965.

* followed his role on British TV as 'Jolyon' in 'The Forsyte Saga' in 1967, then made his film debut as Lucentio in Zeffielli's 'Taming of the Shrew' and Tybalt (right) in Zeffirelli's 1968 film adaptation of 'Romeo and Juliet'.

* starred in an early Merchant Ivory Productions film, 'The Guru' in 1969
and then an amoral bisexual drifter in Harold Prince's film 'Something for Everyone' in 1970 opposite Angela Lansbury as the Countess who hires him as her footman.

* reunited with Zeffirelli as a fiery John the Baptist in 'Jesus of Nazareth' and D'Artagnan in the in the 1973 adaptation of 'The Three Musketeers'
and made his Broadway debut in the original production of Tennessee Williams, 'Out Cry', then appeared in the 'The Four Musketeers' .
and in 1976 at the age of 34 the title character in 'Logan's Run'
and then starred with Burt Lancaster in 'The Island of Dr. Moreau'.

* starred on Broadway with 'Bent' in 1980, 'The Crucible'  in 1992 and 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me' in 1993 and the ill-fated musical 'The Little Price anf the Aviator' in 1982 which closed during previews.

So Michael, old men of Britain say : "Thanks for brightening our lives with you bright smile over so many years".

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Britain is still a country for and says "Happy Birthday" to an old evolutionary biologist and father of the selfish gene, Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of the 1976 book, 'The Selfish Gene' is 72 years old today.

What you possibly didn't know about Richard , that he :

* was born in Nairobi, Kenya during The Second World War in 1941, his father, a civil servant in the British Colonial Service, in what is now Malawi, served in the King's African Rifles and returned and brought Richard to England when he was 8 in 1949.

* lived on the inherited 400-acre family estate, 'Over Norton Park' near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, believed to have been bought with money made by his father's descendant,  Henry Dawkins who owned 1,013 slaves in Jamaica until he died in 1744.
Dawkins family tree
* had what he called 'a normal Anglican upbringing', and embraced Christianity until his mid-teens, then found the theory of evolution as a better explanation for life's complexity and ceased believing in a God saying later : 'the main residual reason why I was religious was from being so impressed with the complexity of life and feeling that it had to have a designer and I think it was when I realised that Darwinism was a far superior explanation that pulled the rug out from under the argument of design. And that left me with nothing.'

* attended Oundle Church of England School, in the 1950's then studied zoology at Oxford University and from 1967 to 1969, went on to become an 'assistant professor of zoology' at the University of California, where at Berkeley he became heavily involved in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and activities before returning to lecture at Oxford in 1970.

* became known for his popularisation of the gene-centred view of evolution set out in his books 'The Selfish Gene' in 1976, where he notes that : 'all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities', and 'The Extended Phenotype' in 1982, in which he advocated the idea that the gene is the principal unit of selection in evolution.
* shares the view generally held by scientists that natural selection is sufficient to explain the apparent functionality and non-random complexity of the biological world and can be said to play the role of 'watchmaker' in nature, albeit as an automatic, non intelligent, 'blind watchmaker'.

* in his 2006 book, 'The God Delusion', contended that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that religious faith is a delusion, a fixed false belief and saw it sell more than two million copies and translation into 31 languages.

*said to critics of his directorship of the family estate that it was "now a very small farm, struggling to make its way and is worth peanuts" and "do you realise that probably only about one in 512 of my genes come from Henry Dawkins?"


Monday 25 March 2013

Britain, in the grip this bad winter, is no country for those cold, old men for whom it will be their last

It's cold in Britain as it is in Northern and Eastern Europe with cold air drawn down from the Arctic by high pressure over Scandinavia and this month in Britain is on track to be the coldest March for 50 years. In fact, this is the fifth cold spell we've had this winter and I have no doubt that the number of old men and women who have and will die as a result will exceed the additional 24,000 who died last winter. Most of them will be over the age of 75, with underlying medical problems exacerbated by living in homes, cold through poor insulation with high energy bills causing them to cut back on energy consumption.

A report by 'Age UK' last year estimated that cold homes are costing the National Health Service in England £1.36billion a year in treatments, mostly for cardiovascular diseases such as strokes and heart attacks. Many more old men die in Britain than countries in Scandinavia which have much colder winters but where there has been huge investment in insulating homes.

Maria Wardrobe, of fuel poverty charity, 'National Energy Action', said: 
"The figures demonstrate that if you are a vulnerable person living in England or Wales then even a comparatively mild winter can still be deadly. The fact that our Scandinavian neighbours experience much harsher winters and have nowhere near the same level of winter deaths means that we should not accept this as inevitable."

Excess deaths among old men and women last winter 2011/12, which was relatively mild, were down by 8% compared with the previous year, but Michelle Mitchell, Charity Director General of 'Age UK' said :
"Every single excess winter death is preventable. The only way to make a sustained and long-term impact on excess winter deaths is by investing in making Britain’s homes more energy-efficient.Those living in the coldest homes are three times more likely to die a preventable death than those living in warmer ones. The Government must also invest in a major energy-efficiency programme to help insulate older people against the cold weather and the high cost of energy."

Dave Timms, of Friends of the Earth’s 'Warm Homes Campaign' said :
"The Government must take action to tackle this homemade humanitarian disaster by ensuring we all have warm and energy-efficient homes."

As the bitter Arctic conditions caused blackouts and traffic chaos yesterday, experts warned of an 'horrendous' death toll among old men and women this winter.

Earlier posts where I considered winter as the enemy to old men :

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Britain is no country for the cold, old men who will die this week

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Britain, no country for poor old men who can't afford to heat their homes in what might be their last winter... fear not !

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Britain in a harsh winter is no place for old men

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Britain in the grip of severe winter weather is not just no country for old men but for anyone

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Britain this winter has been no place for old men but one with plenty of advice from the Government

Saturday 23 March 2013

Britain is still a country for and says "Happy Birthday" to an old Liverpudlian, tv dramatist called Alan Bleasdale

Alan, a scriptwriter whose work has been firmly rooted in Liverpool, the city of his birth and whose plays and tv series have been a blend of social realism and humour which at times border on black comedy and farce, is 67 years old today. Like millions of others I have seen Alan's best work on tv in the 1980's, where in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, it had a particular resonance.
What you possibly didn't know about Alan, that he  :

* an only child whose father worked in a food factory and his mother in a grocery shop, educated at first in a Roman Catholic junior school and then a grammar school and wanting to become a professional footballer, was taken on by Liverpool Football Club as an amateur and later said : " In the end they told me that, basically, I would never be quite quick enough over the first five yards, It was one of the worst days of my life."

* had his first success came as a writer of radio drama for the BBC based on a young man from Liverpool called 'Scully', broadcast in 1971, followed by a stage play and 2 novels based on the character.

* left school and had a variety of jobs, including bus conductor, before training to be a physical education teacher in Warrington and after graduating in 1967, worked in a school in Huyton, another for 3 years in the 'Gilbert and Ellis Islands' in the Pacific (left), writing more stories about Scully under a mosquito net. 

* returned to Britain to teach  before working as a playwright at the Liverpool Playhouse from 1975 to 86 and wrote a play for the BBC entitled 'The Black Stuff', which involved a group of Liverpudlian tarmac or 'blackstuff' layers, who did a 'foreigner', a job for a farmer 'on the sly' behind their supervisor's back, which turned into a disaster after they were swindled out of their life savings.

*  was commissioned to write a series 'Boys from the Blackstuff' with Bernard Hill in the role of 'Yosser Hughes' (left), whose catch-phrase "Gissa job" came to represent the unemployment of the Thatcher years with their 3 million out of work., the highest figure for over 50 years.

*  was now one of Britain's most important tv writers and social commentators. and scripted the film 'No Surrender' in 1985, a black comedy in which a group of elderly Protestant hardliners booked into a party in a Liverpool pub on the same night as a group of Catholic old-timers.

* turned to historical drama with 'The Monocled Mutineer' , in 1986, a serial for BBC1 about Percy Toplis, a soldier in the First World War who led a mutiny and then took on the persona of an upper-class officer before being killed by an MI5 assassin.

* witnessed his serial court controversy, partly because it was promoted in a BBC press release as being 'historically accurate', but  had included scenes, such as an officer being shot for cowardice, which were subsequently questioned for their veracity prompting right-wing critics and the 'Daily Mail' to smear the series as a whole.

* wrote 'GBH' in 1991, as a response to events in Liverpool in the 1980's, when members of the left-wing 'Militant Tendency' gained control of the City Council with the megalomaniacal council leader as a thinly-disguised version of Derek Hatton, the outspoken deputy-leader of the council and, as Alan's alter ego, the moderate headmaster, Jim Nelson.

 * saw his 'Jake's Pogress' with its story of a couple struggling to cope with a 'difficult' child in 1995 and his adaption of 'Oliver Twist' in 1999 achieve less success lacking the social and political aspects of his earlier work.

* after 11 years of absence from the tv screens, returned in 2011 on with a two-part TV film, 'The Sinking of the Laconia' about aSecond World War ocean liner sunk by a German u boat captain, who then tried to rescue as many passengers as possible, to the amazemen of his crew and Admiral Donitz.

* is sometimes confused with fellow Liverpudlian dramatist, Willy Russell and has said :  "I was at Euston once. This couple came up to me and said, as so many people do, 'Hallo Willy!' I said, 'I am not Willy. I am the other one.' The woman looked at me, and said: 'What other one?'"

* has said : "If the obituaries only commemorate Alan 'Boys from the Blackstuff' Bleasdale' I'd be happy with that. I won't care anyway, because I'll be dead."

Friday 22 March 2013

Britain is no country for old men with respiratory diseases living in cities with diesel polluted air

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is the name for a collection of lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airway disease. Typical symptoms include increasing breathlessness when active, persistent cough with phlegm and frequent chest infections.
It was partly instrumental in the premature death of my old Dad at the age of 68, thirty five years ago. In his case it was brought on by the tobacco smoke he inhaled from a young age, the emery dust at his workplace, sharpening saws in a timber mill and no doubt, the heavily polluted London air he breathed in for many before the Clean Air Act of 1956, passed as a response to the Great Smog in 1952.

I was 5 years old, living in Deptford, South London when the smog descended over the City in December. Caused by a toxic combination of soot particles and sulphur dioxide from coal burnt on domestic fires and water doplets, it was so thick  that it stopped trains, cars, and public events.
What I didn't know, as a small boy, was that, as a result of the smog, 4,000 more people than usual at that time of year at that time of year, died in the immediate aftermath and a further 8,000 in following weeks and months, most of whom had pre-existing respiratory problems and also a large number of old men and women. It remains the world's most lethal pollution disaster.

Fast forward 60 years to 2012, when : researchers from Newcastle University investigated the current 'burden of respiratory conditions' in old men and women as part of the 'Newcastle 85+ Study' into the health and vitality of the old timers over this age and revealed that :

* overall, 20% of the old men and 21% of the women had either asthma or COPD - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

* 59% of the old men and 50% of women showed airflow obstruction when they undertook a spirometry test to measure lung function.

Professor Andrew Fisher, who led the respiratory theme of the study, said: 

“Our results confirm a significant prevalence of obstructive spirometry in the 85+ population, further evaluation of this unique dataset will allow us to examine how much of this is attributable to healthy ageing of the lungs and how much to the airways disease in this population of very old people.”

Now, 60 years on, air pollution caused by diesel fumes is now the invisible smog, killing old men and women by acerbating respiratory problems.
·         Most of last week, London's air was heavily pollutedwith many pollution monitors recording 'high' nitrogen dioxide levels as an acute photochemical smog of fumes and microscopic particles of acids, chemicals, metals and dust drifted in from the Continent, mixed with London diesel exhaust which then became trapped in the still, dry air.
Since Christmas, there have been four major air pollution episodes, stretching from London to Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Dundee and Glasgow. On 3 March, the Department of the Environment advised people to 'reduce or avoid strenuous activity'. 
The latest figures suggest 29,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year in Britain, twice as many as from road traffic, obesity and alcohol combined, with air pollution now second only to smoking as a cause of death.
Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee despairs:
"It's a scandal that the same number of people are dying of air pollution in London now as back in the 1950s. The Government needs to step in."
Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner, Jenny Bates said :
"It's a disgrace the UK is failing so badly on air pollution – tens of thousands of people die every year. Action by the government to clean up our dirty air is too little too late – and road-building plans will simply make the situation worse," 
One reason that the Government  has been able to dodge the law is that modern air pollution is mostly invisible, colourless, odourless, and tasteless, or comes in particles so small they can pass through masks. Sixty years ago you could practically cut the coal smoke belching from chimneys. It turned buildings and clothes black, damaged crops and gave people lasting diseases. However, when coal declined, the problem was assumed to have gone.