Griffith Rhys Jones (born 16 November 1953), better known as Griff Rhys Jones, is a British comedian, writer and actor. He came to national attention in the 1980s when he starred with Mel Smith in a number of comedy sketch shows on British TV.
Early life and education
Rhys Jones was born in Cardiff, Wales, the son of a doctor. Moving with his father’s work, he attended Primary School in Midhurst, Sussex, junior school in Harlow, Essex and Secondary School at Brentwood School, in Brentwood, Essex. While the family was resident in Essex, his father had a boat in West Mersea, which they would sail around the coast of Suffolk and into The Broads.
While at Brentwood School he met Charlie Bean (later Executive Director of the Bank of England) and Douglas Adams (who would later write The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). He was part of a group whose antics led to them being referred to as “The Clique” by the school’s headmaster. After a short spell working as a petrol-pump attendant, he gained a gap-year job on the P&O ship Uganda, working for a company organising school trips. In his autobiography, Semi-Detached (see below), he describes how he was charged with helping to look after 600 Canadian schoolgirls, followed by a similar number of younger Scottish schoolchildren, and refers to the experience as being like “St Trinians at sea”. He wrote to eight of the Canadians afterwards, and lost his virginity to one of them.
Rhys Jones followed Bean and Adams to Cambridge, reading History and English at Emmanuel College. While at University, Jones joined the prestigious Cambridge Footlights Club (of which he became Vice-President in 1976). He was also president of the ADC (Amateur Dramatic Club) during his time at Cambridge. At this time, his ambitions were focused on the theatre, particularly directing.
After University, he worked briefly as a bodyguard to Arab visitors to London.
He then joined BBC Radio Light Entertainment as a trainee producer, with his output including the satirical show Week Ending and Brain of Britain. An evening planned to spend watching his hero Frankie Howerd at the invitation of friends Clive Anderson and Rory McGrath who were writing the show at the time, resulted in Griff replacing the show’s producer who had suffered from a stress related illness from dealing with the comedian. He later prduced Rowan Atkinson’s show Atkinson’s People for the BBC.
Rhys Jones filled in several minor roles in the first series of Not the Nine O’Clock News, and was brought in as a regular cast member from the second series onwards, replacing Chris Langham. Rhys Jones says that the reason he got the part was not due to his appearance in the initial shows, or his talent, but because producer John Lloyd was dating his sister at the time. Rhys Jones became a regular from the commissioned second series, alongside Atkinson, Mel Smith and Pamela Stephenson.
Partnership with Mel Smith
After Not the Nine O’Clock News, Smith and Rhys Jones thought they would be unemployed. They decided to take action in two areas: firstly by creating and writing more material together, and secondly by starting a management company to produce their own shows as well as those of other performers.
In 1981, Smith and Rhys Jones founded TalkBack Productions, a company which has produced many of the most significant British comedy shows of the past two decades, including Smack the Pony, Da Ali G Show, I’m Alan Partridge and Big Train. From 1984, Smith and Rhys Jones appeared in the comedy sketch series Alas Smith and Jones (the show’s title being a pun on the American TV series Alias Smith and Jones). After the first series of Alas Smith and Jones, the pair appeared on the big screen in Mike Hodges’ sci-fi comedy movie Morons from Outer Space. They also developed TalkBack to manage other acts, including Matt Lucas and David Walliams of Little Britain fame. In 2000, they sold the company to Pearson for £62 million.
Smith and Jones were reunited in 2005 for a review/revival of their previous TV series in The Alas Smith and Jones Sketchbook. The BBC was criticised for using it to repeat a series of programmes without resorting to unpopular re-runs. Smith joked: “Obviously, Griff’s got more money than me so he came to work in a Rolls-Royce and I came on a bicycle. But it was great fun to do and we are firmly committed to doing something new together, because you don’t chuck that sort of chemistry away. Of course, I’ll have to pretend I like Restoration.”
Rhys Jones was awarded the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1984 (1983 season) for Best Comedy Performance in Charley’s Aunt and in 1994 (1993 season) for Best Comedy Performance for his performance in An Absolute Turkey. He also played Toad in The Wind in the Willows at the National Theatre in 1990, as well as a number of other theatre roles.
Rhys Jones has developed a career as a TV presenter, beginning as the co-host on several Comic Relief shows. He presented Bookworm from 1994 to 2000, and is the presenter of the BBC’s Restoration programme (he began filming its third series at Lincoln Cathedral on 3 June 2006), and has done a considerable amount of fundraising work for the Hackney Empire theatre conservation project. In 2004 he led a demonstration at the Senate House in Cambridge University for the purpose of saving architecture as a degree in Cambridge.
He provided the voices on the series of short cartoons Funnybones, for which he also sang the theme tune. Other notable television work includes two BBC documentaries re-creating the British comic novel Three Men in a Boat, in which he rowed down the Thames from London to Oxford with fellow comedians Dara O’Briain and Rory McGrath. He has recently created and presented programmes about Arthur Ransome, John Betjeman and Rudyard Kipling.
Rhys Jones has also continued his acting career, having roles in Casualty and Marple as well as starring in Russell T. Davies‘ drama series Mine All Mine on ITV1. His documentary series Mountain, for which he climbed fifteen British peaks during 2006, was broadcast on BBC One 29 July–26 August 2007.
A resident of East Anglia, in 2002 he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of East Anglia. He also has honorary degrees from the University of Glamorgan and APU, and is a Fellow of the Welsh College of Music and Drama, the Royal Society of Arts and Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
Griff also recently returned to his mother’s roots in the village of Ferndale, Wales, for the purposes of a documentary, where he detailed early memories and stories of his grandparents’ fruit and vegetable shop on the high street, and his mother’s childhood concert performances at Trerhondda Chapel.
Rhys Jones has written or co-written many of the TV programmes he has appeared in, and a number of spin-off books. In 2002, he started writing a book called To the Baltic with Bob, describing his adventures on the high seas with his sailing friend Bob, as they make their way to St Petersburg, port by port. Rhys Jones released the book in 2003, saying of the experience: “As a child you go out and play and you lose all track of time and space. It’s harder and harder to attain that blissful state of absorption as you get older. I did a six-month sailing trip to St Petersburg with some mates just to get it back.”
His early life has been captured in his autobiography, Semi-Detached, published in 2006 by Penguin Books. His book to accompany the BBC1 series Mountain was published in July 2007.
Rhys Jones met his wife, Jo, a graphic designer, while working at the BBC. He has described their first meeting by saying “The day we met, I was semi-naked and she was throwing water over me.” The couple have two children, and live between homes in London (previously in Islington, now in a Grade I listed former office block in London’s West End) and Holbrook, Suffolk. The family have a chocolate coloured Labrador called “Cadbury”.
Rhys Jones started running as a leisure pursuit in his early forties, and is a teetotaler: “I don’t drink so going to a party can become very tedious. By about 11 o’clock everybody goes to another planet and you’re not there with them, so I tend to avoid that sort of thing.”