RICHARD Briers, the veteran actor whose genial, reassuring presence endeared him to generations of television viewers, has died. He was 79.
Best known for his iconic turn as Tom Good in the seminal 1970s BBC comedy series The Good Life, he passed away “peacefully” at his London home on Sunday, his agent said.
From sitcoms and Shakespeare to a stint lending his familiar, comforting voice to the children’s programme Roobarb and Custard, his diverse, decades-long career afforded him the status of national treasure, and his death drew a flurry of warm tributes from across the world of entertainment.
A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Briers excelled in the most challenging roles of his trade, playing King Lear and Polonius, and he complemented his lengthy theatre and television credits with extensive film and radio work.
It is, though, the immeasurable contribution he made to the BBC’s comedy output throughout the 1970 and 1980s for which he will be most fondly remembered. Millions tuned in weekly to watch The Good Life, in which Briers and screen wife Felicity Kendal eschewed the rat race to pursue a life of self-sufficiency.
Clad in chunky knitwear, his portrayal of the cheerful yet obstinate Tom secured his place in the hearts of the British public. Although it ran for a mere four series, the programme is to this day regarded as one of the nation’s best ever sitcoms.
Briers, a father of two, won further plaudits as Martin Bryce in the nuanced comedy drama series Ever Decreasing Circles, and as Hector McDonald in Monarch of the Glen, which was another staple in the BBC’s schedules.
His final credit came last year, courtesy of a cameo role in the British horror comedy film, Cockneys vs Zombies, some 57 years after his first screen appearance.
Once a heavy smoker, Briers endured failing health after being diagnosed with emphysema five years ago. In an interview last month, he bemoaned the fact illness had robbed him of the opportunity to enjoy the simple things so beloved of his most enduring character. “I haven’t even got the strength to garden any more,” he said.
His agent, Christopher Farrar, paid tribute yesterday. He said: “Richard was a wonderful man, a consummate professional and an absolute joy to work alongside.
“Following his recent discussion of his battle with emphysema, I know he was incredibly touched by the strength of support expressed by friends and the public.
“He has a unique and special place in the hearts of so many. He will be greatly missed.”
Broadcaster, actor and comedian Stephen Fry described Briers’ death as “sad”, adding that he was “the most adorable and funny man imaginable”.
Sir Kenneth Branagh, who cast Briers in numerous Shakespearean film and theatre roles, said: “He was a national treasure, a great actor and a wonderful man. He was greatly loved and he will be deeply missed.”
Greenock-born actor Martin Compston, who starred alongside Briers in Monarch of the Glen, remembered a “legend of our game,” and said he would mourn a “complete gentleman”.
Michael Grade, a former BBC chairman, spoke for many when he acknowledged Briers’ widespread popularity. “I think the nation has lost one of its most favourite, favourite, favourite actors of all time,” he said. “He’s sort of up there with Ronnie Barker and Alan Bennett, you know, the people you’re always pleased to see doing anything on television or in the theatre.”
He added: “If you treated him like a star, I think he got embarrassed. He was one of those wonderful, genuine, professional actors with real star quality but humility to go along with it.
“There was nothing he couldn’t do, and he always had a twinkle. You were always pleased to see him. It’s just a shock and really, really sad.”