Griff Rhys Jones is the star of Not the Nine o'Clock News, Smith & Jones and Three Men In a Boat and a legend in the comedy world. His face to face sketches with Mel Smith were exceptional examples of pure comedy, just two heads on screen chatting and defying expectations with surprising moments of irresistible hilarity. For many years they were the dominant force in alternative British humour along with Rowan Atkinson, Lenny Henry, Billy Connolly and French and Saunders.
Griff is also a prolific talker and raconteur, able to monologue across multiple topics with great humour and insight. Not to mention his chuckle is pure gold, a laugh that resonates with Welsh baritone and a shared appreciation for the funny side of life.
I interviewed him for his upcoming one man show “Griff Rhys Jones: Where Was I” which celebrates the nature of travel, the difference between travel and tourism and his extensive experience making travel programs where the main aim of the producers appeared to be engendering his death in novel and eye catching ways.
The show comes to Glive on the 12th of July and is an exceptional opportunity to see this comedy legend live.
Griff Rhys Jones in conversation with Yves de Contades:
Yves: When did you and Mel stop working together and when did you start going solo?
Griff: Mel and I stopped working together in nineteen ninety-seven, over 20 years. We did still occasionally do things together after that. Just yesterday I was hosting a comedy benefit at the Hexagon in Reading and it was great, I feel like I have done everything as a performer in my life except as a stand up comedian, which suddenly came along late in the day. But I really enjoy it. It's terrific. And I was doing you stand up with Henning Wehn, me and Phill Jupitus and holding my own, it was terrific.
Yves: When you're on your own on stage, do you get nervous?
Griff: I like to bounce off the audience, so I spent a lotta time in communication with them. That's what I’ve always done. I was in the Miser at The Garrick last year and at The Royal Opera House, so I’ve done quite a lot of front of cloth, I’ve spent the last 40 years talking to the audience and involving them, which is what I enjoy doing. Funnily enough if you’re a double act you have to rehearse, Mel never liked rehearsing much, but if you have to redeem a sketch, it’s like going through the valley of death, you have no way of changing the subject, you have to keep on with it. I remember one night when Mel and I were playing and we were going “no, they don’t like this do they? We thought it was good, nut they don’t think this is funny” but we had to keep going, we had to grit our teeth for five minutes as we could not go off in another direction. The great thing about being o your own is you can feel how the audience are responding and go off in another direction.
Yves: You mention Mel Smith fondly, do you have a favourite moment of his you remember?
Griff: Wow, Well we were together for 30 years so I don’t think of favourite moments as it was more like a relationship or like a marriage, only the sex was better. We were in harness for quite a long time. We had a business and spent a lot of time together, though we often spoke of getting back and touring, but it never happened. Though I always imagine him looking down now and saying “you bastard”. He never really bothered my subconscious much when we were together, but soon as I started touring I started having these terrible dreams, and he would visit me in these dreams, isn’t that incredible?
Yves: And did he speak like the ghost from Christmas past?
Griff: Yes it was quite Shakespearean, but usually it was the Actors Nightmare, a bit like the exam dream where you are unprepared, but in the actors nightmare you are just about to go on stage with 2000 people waiting and you don’t know your lines, but in this I’m about to go on stage with Mel and I can’t find him backstage and we don’t know what we are going to say. But the truth is that was not so much a fantasy nightmare, it was sometimes real which is what it could be like with Mel. I did sometimes find myself backstage at the Palladium trying to get him out of someones dressing room having a vodka, making friends with everybody, and I would be saying “Mel, Mel get in here, we have to get on and work on what we are going to do”.
Now I’m on my own, but what you lack and miss is it was always him and me against everybody else. It was very funny, you would be doing a show and the director who would tell you what you were going to do and Mel would turn to me and say “I don’t think we’re going to do that” and I would turn around and say “No, I don’t think so”. It was the same with Rick and Ade, and French and Saunders, you are quite the powerful animal as a double act and you miss that a bit, but it doesn’t matter, because the other thing I love, adore, about being on stage, is being on stage with some big draws, in front of over a thousand people, I do stand up, but I tell stories more, so I do wonder if I will I get away with it against other stand up comedians.
When you make factual television, you have eight people supposedly in charge of you, the director, producer, commissioning editor, controller for the arts, head of arts, then the controller of BBC1. They all want to tell you what to say. You have so many people telling you what to do, they all have an opinion about your show and script. In the end what is fantastic is that I can go out on stage and say what the fuck I like, and actually I do, and that’s what makes it so entertaining, people enjoy it.
Yves: So its total freedom.
Griff: Total freedom, it’s really terrific. I arrived in the Sherman Theatre in Wales, I’ve only done one show in Wales, but I did a book on Wales, so I’m trying out a bit of Welsh on the audience and I see my stage manager standing in the wings looking totally alarmed, as I had been talking for most of the evening and not touched on the show I was supposed to do, so we had to do a truncated version of the actual show, as both I and the audience had such a good time chatting and being in a Welsh vein for half an hour. (Griff is chuckling loudly while telling this).
One time I was in Bridgewater, and I realised “oh we are on the Severn”, so I had to tell them the story of surfing the Severn Bore, there are great stories I need to tell and wonderful jokes I need to share and experiences. A lot is about the universal things we all experience when we travel.
Yves: What’s harder stand up or travel programs?
Griff: It’s not hard at all, I really enjoy both, it’s good fun, which is why I do it and audiences have really enjoyed it so far. I’ve done about ten shows to warm up, talking about travel experiences in Suffolk. I wanted to do it there as I live in Suffolk so I could get around and see some of the wonderful places I love, there’s a wonderful little theatre called the Kinney theatre, it only holds a 100 people, but its just the most marvellous place to go and I was testing out new material.
The reason I travel is I did a show about Mel last year and about ageing, being in your sixties, we’re just not expecting this, it just comes upon you, I have not wound up the clock yet, I’m not ready to stop yet, I’ve not done what I intended to do, I’ve just done whats come along. So I did that show but I realised as I talked about Mel that a large proportion of the show was going well, but that was 20 years ago, that’s like before the first world war for some people, so I better talk about things that people have seen me doing, so I ought to do a little bit about all the travel I had done.
I had intended with the show to do the first half about the Galapagos and the second half about Africa and actually I have never got further than the first travel series I did. So that’s the reason I came out and did another show. People might think here’s a fantastic opportunity to travel the world for no money with every privilege going, travel freebies etc and they would be absolutely right, it is exactly like that. The only downside is that you have to work, the other downside is that effectively the people I was working with needed an angle and decided to try and kill me. So a lot of the stories I tell are the crazy things we did, The buzzword of the noughties was “jeopardy” and so I found myself abseiling over waterfalls and being lowered over the sides of skyscrapers at the age of 50.
Yves: So what was the most dangerous thing in your travels?
Griff: The most dangerous thing I ever did funnily enough was inline skating in Paris. My Director came to me and said they have the most incredible thing in Paris, they close the streets in the centre every Wednesday to allow the inline skaters to skate around Paris during rush hour and hundreds come and do it. He asked if I had ever inline skated, and I said no but I have skated and it can’t be that different. He said you’ll get the hang of it, so we are going to do it tomorrow which is Friday, as unfortunately we are going to do it without closing the roads to traffic, but don’t worry it will be fine. The drivers were not concerned about the bloke who did not know what he was doing on his inline skates. All I had to do was get a skate caught in a drain and it would have been the end of me, but we got through it, I’d go back and do it on a Wednesday any day.
Yves: What do you prefer boats, cars, trains or planes?
Griff: Boats, it goes like this, boats, cars, trains then planes. Boats are absolutely preferable, if you ever want to see a place looking its best arrive by boat. The sea gate into St Petersburg is the only way to arrive there. If you come round the corner of Ischia and you see Naples in front of you or you make your way into Copenhagen, it is the most incredible way to approach, I’ve done all of these by boat sailing under on my own steam. The worst way, as we know, is to arrive in London via Stansted.
Yves: Are you still sailing competitively?
Griff: Yes, I’m off tomorrow to Porquerolles in the south of France. I was supposed to be there now actually, but I’ve just become a grandparent, which is a double edged sword, I’m not yet ready to become a grandpa or grand pops. I had to be here, he’s just the most adorable baby, I’m not a baby person, though he is lovely, but now I can go back out sailing.
Yves: What do you love about travelling the most?
Griff: As I get older I realise that the world is full of extraordinary places, that I would love to see . If you go a little off the beaten track, you find such unexpected treats, let’s start with Britain, as I say in the show, it’s more likely these days that kids have been to Ayers Rock than Swaffham (Norfolk), but actually Britain is like a continent in miniature, we have some of the most extraordinary landscapes in the world, you have to get around, like Wales, what an amazing place. I have been so lucky to have been forced to travel around. I have been to all the beautiful places. Two weeks ago I went to Rome. I came up through the North and I wanted to explore the deep south, between Tuscany and Rome, where there are no guidebooks, it seems off the map, yet it is the Etruscan area, with amazing places like the Piazza Farnese in Viterbo. If you push yourself you will discover some extraordinary treasure. It’s good to have a goal in mind, I’d just read a book by Iris Origo, War in the Val D’Orcia, so I really wanted to go on a pilgrimage there, which was great having read the book.
There’s wonderful book called Christ Stopped At Eboli by Carlo Levi who was sent into exile by Mussolini and he wrote a really interesting book about the instep of Italy which had a profound affect on me, it was so brilliant, so just being there, in the area the book had been written about was extraordinary
Yves: Is Italy one of your favourite countries in the world?
Griff: Italy is almost inexhaustible, there is another book by Barzini which is called The Italians in which she laments, as many Italians do, that Italy is the rest of Europe’s dream holiday destination. In fact you could spend a year in Rome and find a new thing to look at every day, it’s amazing. I do adore Italy and keep going back there, I should go other places more.
Yves: What’s the next destination on your list?
Griff: I’m taking the boat out to Corfu, people say the Mediterranean is over used, but there are still many unspoiled places, so I want to explore there and in the Autumn I want to go Northern Portugal.
Yves: How about further afield?
Griff: I want to go to Japan, I have not been, but I am nervous of long haul. My daughter said to me recently that she was not coming to Suffolk at Christmas as it was too far, she’s going to Thailand instead. And of course if you’re in your 30’s, you jump on a plane and listen to music and watch films and drink vodka then you get off and you’re on a beach in Thailand.
The show is about how all this has changed. My generation did not travel, travelling in my day was going to Cornwall and that took two days because of the traffic lights… It’s sort of brand new, this ease of planes. I was transported to Australia to do a cornflake commercial and I flew out for three days, did the commercial and flew back, but that is not travel and that’s what the show is about. Travel is actually walking through East London, or driving a car across the Atlas Mountains. Trains too, I’ve become addicted to a website, The Man in Seat 61. He runs it as a hobby website, describing ways of taking trains throughout Europe, linking them all together. So I tried it to go to Vienna, we took morning trains that deposited us in Cologne by lunchtime, we started very early in the morning, we had a terrific time in Cologne, then we took a sleep train overnight to Vienna, like a Graham Green or Agatha Christie novel, it was just fantastic.
This is what I say in my show, if you go to an airport you find crusty’s like me trying to work out the self check in system. If you have time there are better ways to travel. I keep saying to Joan we don’t have much longer to do this, my mother used to be a cruise fanatic, but now she has a heart problem, and I know that at some point I’ll be ordered off my boat, so you have to travel while you can and this is the best time to do it.
Yves: Are you a serene and patient traveller or a grumpy one?
Griff: I’m not a good traveller, the second half of the show is about the indignity of travel, I love travel, I love being there, and walking, but the actual getting there by Easyjet causes me to have apoplexy. If people still die of that.
Yves: So this is a like a travel advice show.
Griff: Guffaws (he really can do that, not everyone can) A certain number of people come hoping to pick up some tips, I’m not exactly like the travel show at Earls Court, but there is advice on getting around and a sort of travel forum.
Yves: So what travel advice would you give your younger self?
Griff: Get out more, go while you can, see the world, actually I did not travel a lot at University, but then later I did all the third world tourism, backpacking, poverty tourism, that looking at poor people living in Africa. I have been very lucky as when you have kids they just want to be with other kids on a beach, so you will have to suffer with your children for about 15 years, they will limit you, but when you get through it you have to get out there and do all the things you wanted to do. Though funnily enough working in television I’ve done all the things like going down a zip wire, bungee jumping, all the things I probably would not have done when I was younger.
So my big advice would be to get a list of the top ten attractions anywhere and miss those out and go to the bottom ten, the ones that stop after the must sees, as they will be so full of people. I am full of advice, the whole show is full of prejudicial advice.
Yves: So is there a travel book in the offing, as there are so many stories still to tell?
Griff: I tried to flog the last travel book which is “Insufficiently Welsh”, but yes I would like to do another on being a a bad tourist, but a good traveller. How to be a bad tourist?
Yves: What next after Porquerolles?
Griff: I’m off to Australia, we’re working on a play and a new TV program to be revealed later.
Griff Rhys Jones new show “Where Was I” is at Glive on the 12th July: