Richard Briers: From sitcoms to Shakespeare

Royal honour: Richard Briers received a CBE in 2003 (Credit: PA)Richard Briers, who has died at the age of 79, was one of the most popular television sitcom actors of his generation.

But he was no less acclaimed as a distinguished Shakespearean actor, a major development in his career, at a point when he said "I realised I had gone as far as I could doing sitcoms".

He will be best remembered as a bumbling, fussy and occasionally downtrodden figure in some of the most successful TV comedies of his era.

He was the lynchpin of three of the most notable sitcoms ever made in Britain - 'Marriage Lines', 'The Good Life' (shown in the United States as 'Good Neighbours') and 'Ever Decreasing Circles'.

But after a long career in popular television, Briers joined Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987, and his already very successful professional life took a new turn as he moved on to major classical roles.

Briers was born on January 14 1934 and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he won the silver medal and a scholarship to Liverpool Playhouse in 1956. Two years later he made his first West End appearance in 'Gilt And Gingerbread'. He barely stopped working from that day onwards.

[Related story: Richard Briers dies at 79]

His big screen career began with the British features 'Bottoms Up' (1960), 'Murder She Said' (1961), 'The Girl On The Boat' and 'A Matter of Who' (both 1962) and the multi-national 'The VIPs' (1963), followed by Raquel Welch's spy spoof 'Fathom' (1967).

Over the next 36 years, he alternated his TV and film work with such plays as 'Present Laughter' (1965), 'The Real Inspector Hound' (1968), 'Butley' (1972), 'Run For Your Wif'e (1983), 'Twelfth Night' (1987-88) and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (as Bottom, 1990).

Throughout these years, he was regularly and prominently on TV including such shows as 'Brothers In Law' (1962), 'Bird On A Wing' (1971), and starring with Michael Gambon in the series 'The Other One' (1977).

Briers also provided the voice for the character of Fiver in the animated feature 'Watership Down' (1978).

It was in 1987 that he joined Branagh's company, saying at the time: "Ken offered me Malvolio in his production of 'Twelfth Night' at the very time I had decided to expand my career when I realised I had gone as far as I could doing sitcoms. As soon as I worked with him, I thought he was truly exceptional."

After his Malvolio, Briers took on 'King Lear' at Branagh's insistence, followed by the title role in 'Uncle Vanya' and Menenius in 'Coriolanus'.

However, Briers still considered himself a sitcom clown, and on film Branagh cast him as Bardolph in 'Henry V' (1989), as Stephen Fry's father in the comedy 'Peter's Friends' (1992), Don Leonato in 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1993), the blind grandfather in the controversial 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' (1994) and as a cranky old trouper in 'A Midwinter's Tale' (1996), the same year in which he filmed the role of Polonius in 'Hamlet'.

He also co-starred with Sir John Gielgud in Branagh's Academy Award-nominated short film 'Swan Song'.

It was his film-making with Branagh's company which made his name in the United States.

Other film credits included Michael Warner's 'A Chorus Of Disapproval' (1989) and the big-screen version of the hit TV series 'Minder'.
He also appeared in the harrowing period drama 'Skallagrigg' (1994) and the PG Wodehouse comedy 'Heavy Weather' (1996), with Peter O'Toole and Judy Parfitt.

Briers also often appeared in the works of the prolific playwright Alan Ayckbourn, playing leading roles in 'Relatively Speaking', 'Absurd Person Singular' and 'Absent Friends' on the stage and 'The Norman Conquests' and 'Just Between Ourselves' on television.

He was awarded the OBE in 1989 for services to the arts.

Richard Briers was a highly respected stage, film and television actorActor Richard Briers - known to millions for his role in TV's The Good Life - has died at the age of 79.