Kenneth Reginald Griffith (October 12, 1921 – June 25, 2006) was a Welsh actor and documentary film-maker.
Early life & acting career
Born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, Wales, he served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. Griffith gained stage experience with the Old Vic and in repertory. In 1941, he made his debut in the first of more than 80 films in which he principally played character roles.
He can be spotted in many British films between the 1940s and 1980s, notably as the wireless operator Jack Phillips on board the Titanic in A Night to Remember, in the crime caper Track the Man Down, and especially in the comedies of the Boulting brothers, including Private’s Progress (1956) and I’m All Right Jack (1959). He also portrayed the homosexual medic Witty in The Wild Geese (1978) and a whimsical mechanic in The Sea Wolves: The Last Charge of the Calcutta Light Horse (1980).
His work on sixties TV programme The Prisoner is much appreciated by its fans, because of his appearances in the episodes The Girl Who Was Death and Fall Out. He has appeared in episodes of Minder. More recent cinemagoers may have seen him as a “mad old man” in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), as Reverend Jones in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (1995), and as the Minister in Very Annie Mary (2001).
Documentaries and political activity
In 1973 Griffith made a documentary film about the life and death of Irish military/political leader Michael Collins entitled Hang Up Your Brightest Colours (which is a line taken from a letter from George Bernard Shaw to one of Collins’ sisters after his death) for ATV, but the Independent Broadcasting Authority did not permit it to be screened; it was eventually shown on the BBC in 1993.
He also contributed to a documentary interviewing then-surviving (now all deceased) IRA guerrillas from the 1920s: Maire Comerford, Joseph Sweeney, Sean Kavanagh, John O’Sullivan, Brigid Thornton, Sean Harling, Martin Walton, David Nelligan (or Neligan) and Tom Barry, titled Curious Journey.
Griffith’s very sympathetic portrayal caused some concern given the state of tension in Northern Ireland and ATV boss Sir Lew Grade decided to withdraw the film, which was not released publicly until 1994. The story on Griffith and his Irish republican sympathies was published in the 15 November 1997 edition of the British-based weekly, The Irish Post, as Beating the censor, written by Martin Doyle.
The political troubles left Griffith “a frustrated and bemused figure”. Screenonline described Griffith as “a world-class documentary film-maker” who knew that “refusing to compromise his views has damaged his career”.
A renowned Boer War historian, Griffith was also a supporter of the Afrikaners in South Africa. Although the traditional left-wing view was that Afrikaners were more tied into apartheid than South Africans of British descent, his take on it in a South African television-funded documentary was “provokingly sympathetic” towards the Afrikaners, implying that the sympathetic attitude of English-speakers “hypocritical”; South African television eventually withdrew its funding. He also made a BBC2 documentary on runner Zola Budd, which purported to reveal injustices done to her by left-wing demonstrators and organisations during a tour of England in 1988.
Thrice-married Protestant Griffith named his home in Islington, London, “Michael Collins House”. He “proudly” displayed on his wall a death threat from the Ulster Volunteer Force (Northern Irish loyalists) “flanked on one side by a friendlier letter from Gerry Adams”. However, he also had a bust of Clive of India on display in the living room.
Griffith died in Islington, London June 25, 2006 at the age of 84 and was buried in the churchyard at Penally, within sight of his grandparents’ home where he grew up.
Will Scally, producer/director and old friend of Kenneth, conducted an in-depth interview with Kenneth at his home, discussing his life, work, acting career, films, documentaries, and collections. The interview was over a two-week period and has not yet been broadcast.