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'One of a kind' Welshman and friend of Ireland

Peter Berresford Ellis offers a personal memory of Kenneth Griffith, actor, documentary filmaker and socialist idealist who died earlier this year

KENNETH GRIFFITH, Welsh actor and documentary film-maker, a staunch advocate of Irish national democracy and reunification, died at his home, 'Michael Collins House', in Islington, on 25 June. He was 84 years old.

Kenneth Griffith & PBE

On my bookshelves is a copy of Ken's autobiography - The Fool's Pardon (1994) - which he presented me with on my birthday many years ago and signed it 'to Peter Berresford Ellis - who keeps me in line…'

I admit that over the years I gave some historical advice to Ken but, of course, his presentation and interpretations were all own. How could it be otherwise? And not that I agreed with all his views and interpretations.

Ken was one of a kind. He had a social idealism that brought him into conflict with the 'powers that be' and caused his Irish documentaries to be banned. In fact, of the 18 or so documentary films Ken made, only the two Irish films, made in 1973 and 1980, were ever prohibited from screening; a fact that must be found telling.

When challenged by the right wing media about his 'bias', I remember that Ken replied: "I could no more be detached about Ireland than I could about Auschwitz and Buchenwald."

Ken was no pushover for the media powers. He did not go quietly away to bemoan his fate. In fact, he even made a documentary on censorship entitled The Public Right to Know. During the period 1960-90, some 131- television programmes on Ireland had been banned in the UK. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous these included Songs of Praise (1985) and an episode of Star Trek (1990).

The end of blatant censorship ended in the early 1990s and when Ken produced his documentary on Roger Casement: Heart of Darkness, for BBC2, in 1992, it was actually screened.

When I first met Ken, it was the 1980s. He had already had a distinguished career in theatre and had appeared in about 80 movies, and thus I stood a little in awe of him. After all, as a boy, I had gone to the cinema and seen him on the silver screen in such movies as Lucky Jim, I'm All Right Jack, Circus of Horrors, Only Two Can Play and many others. He'd even appeared in that classic televisions series The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan who was a friend of his.

He had started to make documentaries and it will be these by which I think we will be remembered.

I found Ken an easy person to get along with once one became used to this 'over the top' thespian dramatics. I think this was his way of testing people and if you stood up to him and returned the humour then he was a highly entertaining and knowledgeable person.

When I became the organising chairman of the London Association for Celtic Education (LACE) and it decided to launch the movement with a conference at the University of London Union in November, 1989, I immediately thought of asking Ken to come along as officially open the conference with, what I knew, would be one of his controversial speeches. He did not fail me. Controversial it undoubtedly was. Ken was born and educated in Tenby in Dyfed, Wales, on 12 October 1921. I recall that he said he was first alerted to the situation in Ireland at the age of nine. He overheard his grandfather say that one of their neighbours, an Irishman named Flynn, had to leave Ireland because he had the roof of his house burnt over his head. Intrigued, the young Ken later found out that Flynn had been a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary and why, therefore, the burning had taken place. He also found that his father, in the British army during the 1914-18 War, had been transferred to Ireland but thankfully was demobilised at the end of the war.

Ken went into the theatre at the age of sixteen. He was successful in an audience at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge, and his first role was in Julius Caesar. He secured various parts and even appeared in several films of which the first that he had a significant part in was Love on the Dole (1941).

Ken volunteered to join the Royal Air Force during the 1939-45 War. He was sent to Canada where, learning to be a pilot, he promptly crashed his aircraft and wound up in hospital for a while.

He survived the war without further physical mishap and return to acting. As well as his stage work, he was making his way in the film world with an appearance in The Shop at Sly Corner (1945) which has been called a classic and featured Diana Dors in her very first film role.

It was soon after this that he went on a tour of South Africa with the Old Vic company, including Joan Plowright (who was to become Lady Olivier). They were playing Shakespeare as their repertoire. Ken began to show his social idealism and spoke up against the Apartheid regime. It won for him the distinction of being the first foreigner to be ordered out of South Africa for anti-Apartheid activities.

He returned to England and now entered the period for which he is best remember in films - the appearance from Lucky Jim to his classic role as the Welsh librarian in Only Two Can Play, with Peter Sellers and Mai Zettlering.

His film career continued until late in life in adventure movies such as The Wild Geese and Who Dares Wins. He had a cameo role in Four Weddings And a Funeral in which he played a madman who accosts Hugh Grant. Even as late as 2003 he was in an episode of Holby City - his last appearance.

He and Peter O'Toole became best friends. In the late '50s went O'Toole went to live with Ken and his second wife Doria. Ken said that it was at this time his Irish acquaintances and friends multiplied and his knowledge of Irish history and personal feelings increased. "Of course,'"he added, "between the Welsh and the Irish there is also the Celtic bond."

In the 1970s Ken had turned to making documentaries, delivered with his inimitable way. He did a series for BBC and then ATV asked Ken to work for them and even asked him what he would like to make a documentary about. His reply was immediate: "A life of the Irish patriot, Michael Collins." It was agreed and Ken said he went into the project in happy innocence not realising the trouble that was in store.

He went to Ireland and involved himself in the research, meeting Sean Kavanagh, a surviving friend of Collins. The film was delivered and a transmission date agreed. Then Ken was informed it was delayed.

Ken was to write in his memoir:

"I believe that the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority) officer in charge of the operation of suppression was a Mr Bernard Sendel. I have often wondered who might have been the influences above him; but I don't know. And I presume that Mr Sendel had given Sir Lew Grade a telephone call and had asked him not to offer the Collins film to the IBA for viewing and thereby save the IBA from being seen to be guilty of political censorship. But later I learnt that Mr Sendel didn't telephone Sir Lew Grade about the matter: he visited him personally."

Sometime later Lew Grade offered to pay Ken costs and expenses and compensation, money that Ken invested in his own film company Tempest Film Productions.

Ken went on with his controversial film making but on other subjects and these were approved for screening, obviously, because Ireland did not feature in them. Harlech Television approached him to see if he would do something for them. Ken was open in what he wanted. He wanted to explain the historical Irish republican viewpoint through the means of interviewing those survivors of the War of Independence. There were still several such as Márie Comerford, Dr Brighid Thornton, Martin Walton, Sean Kanavagh, Tom Barry and others.

He was given the go-ahead to film the interviews and put in a linking commentary. Ken even edited it and the film was ready.

Then came an invitation to HTVs headquarters in Baker Street, London.

It was déjà vu. HTV were not going to offer it to the IBA for transmission. But this time it was more subtle form of censorship. HTV asked Ken if he would like to buy the rights and film for a 'small token payment' - one penny provided that the HTV logo and name were completely removed from the film in any future showing. Well, with HTV not offering it to the IBA - it was certain no other ITV company would.

It was years later that Ken's banned Irish documentaries were finally released and shown. Hang Up Your Brightest Colours was shown in 1994 by The British Academy of Film and Television Arts. BBC Wales had actually shown it in 1993. And BAFTA later presented Ken with a lifetime achievement award at which he took the courageous stand of using his speech to try to educate people about the Irish situation.

One thing that Ken was good at was speaking without a script. But he liked to stick to what he wanted to say and not what other people wanted.

At the time he made his film about Roger Casement, he was invited to the Roger Casement Centre in north Islington - closed down when the Liberal Democrats won power in Islington and withdrew the funding support which allowed the centre to function, providing necessary services for pensioners, running luncheon clubs, health care advice and educational facilities and so on.

There was a large crowd and posters announcing the subject of the talk with a display of Casement photographs. It was clear what the talk was to be about.

The chairman, the late Pádraig Ó Conchúir, after a few words of introduction, handed the floor to Ken and away he went. It was only half an hour into the talk that Pádraig intervened to whisper (loudly) to Ken that he was talking about Collins and the subject was Casement. "Oh,' Ken replied unabashed, "was that the subject?" And he then pressed on to finish his talk about Collins.

One of the last times I spent any length of time with Ken was when he invited my wife and I around to his house for tea. "I want to pick your brains," he threatened. The tea involved my wife having to go to the kitchen and prepare it while Ken was launching into what he hoped was his next television documentary project - a film on Wolfe Tone.

He grilled me for awhile about the facts, recommended reading and so on.

It became clear to us that Ken was not a well person and was hardly able to write with a pen or pencil. It was not surprising when a mutual friend told me that the script was never really completed.

The world is a sadder place without the likes of Kenneth Griffith. He came to understand the nature of imperialism and find it obnoxious. He saw how the British empire was not the civilising harbinger of progress but the very reverse. It saw it as an evil and destructive force and the men who created it, men like Cecil Rhodes, who he did a film biography of, were little more the state sponsored thieves and robbers. He was a man whose passionate caring for social justice and historical truth has led to his vilification in many establishment quarters.

But, in Ireland, he will be remembered by the progressive elements for trying to break through the self-censorious `conspiracy of silence' that, a decade or so after the cessation of blatant censorship, we have seen raise its ugly head again over the recent Ken Loach film The Wind That Shakes the Barley. In spite of winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes, only 30 cinemas in Britain have had to courage to announce that they will show it.

Ken Griffith's fight against political censorship must be passed to new generations of film makers.

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2006-09-08 14:06:56.
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Copyright © 2006 Peter Berresford Ellis