Griff Rhys Jones caught making hay in a loud shirt in a rural area
Though he recently turned up in a field in Stapleford for a reasoned discussion on the merits and demerits of concreting over England, Griff Rhys Jones’ day job was once as an anarchic comedian who shot to prominence with Not The Nine O’Clock News, a satirical news round-up with Mel Smith, Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson broadcast between 1979 and 1982.
He had studied English at Emmanuel College in the 1970s, becoming a member of the then-prestigious Cambridge University Footlights Club.
He went on to become one half of one of the nation’s most treasured comedic duos – in the mould of The Morecambe & Wise Show, or The Two Ronnies – with Mel Smith in Alas Smith and Jones between 1984 and 1988 (he probably leaned more into the Ernie Wise/Ronnie Corbett side of the format). The show was intermittently reprised as Smith and Jones until 1998.
He was given a Lawrence Olivier Theatre award (in 1984 and 1994) for his comic theatrical performances, and became an OBE (officer of the order of the British empire) in the 2019 Queen’s birthday honours list for his services to the national civic society movement, to charity and to entertainment.
His recent leading role in a two-hander with Janie Dee in An Hour and A Half Late at Cambridge Arts Theatre, inset, which ended on April 9, has been noted and praised. His turn as president of civic campaign organisation Civic Voice, which began in 2009, saw him standing in a field outside Stapleford earlier this month, filming a piece – soon to be broadcast – about the futility of the CSET busway plan.
During a break in filming I ask him if he’s having fun back in Cambridge.
“It’s been fantastic, yes,” he says, standing in the vast Cambridgeshire field and an epic cloudy blue sky.
“Yesterday was the matinee for An Hour and A Half Late, it was just the loudest, the noisiest… it’s just joyous.
“It is a funny play in a way, it’s an old-fashioned bourgeois comedy but it was written by a 30-year-old who’s saying ‘This is how older people behave’, and a lot of people have been saying to me ‘This is just like being at home’.”
And has he had time to wander around Cambridge?
“I went to see the Hockney exhibition at the Fitzwilliam,” he replies. “It’s a great example of positive change – it was a fusty old place and now it’s an amazing place. There’s so many great places in Cambridge – museums, concerts, plays, exhibitions.”
How did he get involved with Civic Voice?
“I was invited by the Civic Trust to be the president and then it went bust – it needed a complete reconfiguration. So I put in a bit of cash and we started again, first as a government-type thing with lots of bureaucracy.”
And now there’s a quarter of a million members?
“It’s an association of various groups. When the busway came along I met James [CEO of Cambridge Past, Present & Future] and I did a thing about housing, involving a garden house extension.
“People say ‘what’s it got to do with you?’ but I’m an honorary fellow of Emmanuel [College] and I have to see Rory McGrath… as I said to him yesterday, I think they’ve torn your statue down. But I’m not being prescriptive, I just want to ensure everyone gets to exercise their freedoms.”
Long-time fan and Waterbeach resident Jane Downes was delighted to meet the man who made her laugh so much 40 years ago.
“What a great guy,” she said of the encounter. “He was very charming and chatty. I loved hearing his take on the Hockney exhibition.
“I used to go to the Footlights revue when I was living in Cambridge in the 1960s and loved Not The Nine O’Clock News. His loud shirt today reminded me of the ‘Constable Savage’ sketch where the copper keeps arresting a black man on the most spurious of charges, like a ‘wearing a loud shirt in a built-up area’.”
Perhaps Griff was ahead of his time, I suggest, since there was a recent story about a black man searched by police on two separate occasions for wearing a coat on a sunny day.
Jane agreed, and also agreed that it would have been a story that Raymond Brown, the legendary Cambridge journalist who died recently, would have loved to break.
“Yes he would,” she said. “Bless him.”