1 February 2013
The wondrously self-effacing Richard Briers takes a full 30 minutes to catch his breath after climbing the short flight of steps to Prunella Scales’s terrace home to join her for this interview — and a further half-an-hour to lob his hand grenade of a confession into the conversation.
‘I’ve got emphysema, you see, so I’m b*****d.’ This is said with such cheeriness it takes a moment for the penny to drop: this is a very serious lung disease.
‘I haven’t even got the strength to garden any more,’ he says, with a wry grin that’s so familiar from his days as the ebullient Tom Good in the BBC comedy classic The Good Life you can’t help but feel for him.
‘Oh darling,’ Prunella reaches for his hand.
‘Five hundred thousand cigarettes, darling — that’s the trouble,’ he says.
‘It’s totally my fault. So, I get very breathless, which is a pain in the backside. Trying to get upstairs, oh God, it’s ridiculous. Of course, when you’re bloody nearly 80 it’s depressing because you’ve had it anyway.’
Richard is, in fact, 79 and from a generation that prefers not to make a fuss. He’s been bringing laughter into our lives for more than half a century in a host of TV classic comedies. Has his Good Life co-star Felicity Kendal been supportive during his illness?
‘Not much,’ he says. ‘She seems to have disappeared in a strange way. She’s an extraordinary girl. I don’t really know who she is. Never did. She was always an attractive girl and she’s still pretty young, but you know she’s very strange. Enchanting, but very strange.
‘She became enamoured with [playwright Tom] Stoppard. They were very much in love and I think she’d had enough of The Good Life. She quite liked the idea of very good acting — clever acting rather than just sitcom. Now she’s got this very nice American chap who’s been with her many years.
‘I got a very nice card from her, but we’ve never really…’
Been friends? ‘No, it’s ridiculous. Strange.’ Which it is given that they are one of the best-loved telly couples in British comedy.
It turns out, though, that Richard never really had much time for his on-screen character Tom Good either.
‘I thought he was terribly selfish. It was about him all the time and he was terrible with the wife,’ he says.
‘There were no clothes for her, no babies — nothing at all. He was just sort of: “This is my patch.” I never particularly liked him at all. There are very few people I liked that I played. Most of them were irritating people.’
We’re in Prunella’s much-loved family home in South-West London to talk about the Sixties sitcom Marriage Lines in which they starred as newlyweds George and Kate Starling. The hugely popular comedy, which propelled both of their careers, is being released on DVD and remains enduringly funny.
It survives the test of time with a natural easiness that knocks many of today’s crass comedies into a cocked hat — an easiness that’s part of their friendship today.
But Richard’s revelation about his horrible illness has diverted us.
‘Yes,’ he tuts. ‘The ciggies got me. I stopped ten years ago, but too late. If you do it in your 30s, you’re OK, but after 30 it gets you. I was diagnosed five years ago and didn’t think it would go quite as badly as it has. It’s a b****r, but there it is. I used to love smoking.’
Prunella pats his arm. ‘Oh, I never really liked the actual thing,’ she says. ‘I don’t think I inhaled when I smoked tobacco because if someone gives me a joint I have to work at it.’
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