Tenby Museum Curator Mark Lewis tells the story of the local actor, documentary maker and preacher of sermons about history, Kenneth Griffith
2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the actor and documentary filmmaker Kenneth Griffith, who features in the Tenby Museum cinema exhibition Forged In Wales, which was officially opened by Kenneth’s daughter, Dr Eva Griffith.
Griffith was born in Tenby on 12 October 1921 as Kenneth Griffiths. He was to drop the s from his surname as his school headmaster advised it was an Anglicization. He was brought up by his paternal grandparents, his parents having separated when Kenneth was about six months old. Kenneth recalled, “My grandparents were Victorians with Victorian values, and anything decent about me I owe to my non-conformist Protestant upbringing.”
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His interest in acting was stirred whilst he was at Greenhill Grammar School in the town. When he left school at 16, he approached the Festival Theatre in Cambridge where he was cast as Cinna the Poet in a modern dress version of Julius Caesar and made his west end debut with a small role in Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday in 1938. This was followed by a period in the RAF, where he was often in trouble for minor misdemeanours – he recalled his time in cadet training at Stratford: “I was already marked in our flight as a troublemaker…I held the record for charges at that time.” He was invalided out in the early 1940s.
He returned to acting, preferring the medium of the cinema to the stage, and made his film debut in 1941 in The Farmer’s Wife. This was followed by a series of uncredited roles in movies until what can be regarded as a breakthrough in 1947 with The Shop At Sly Corner opposite a young Diana Dors; it was to be the first of many villainous roles Kenneth was to play throughout his long career.
Between 1947 and his final television role in 2003 Kenneth was to appear in over 100 film and TV roles. Among his most famous works are Lucky Jim in 1957, I’m Alright Jack opposite Peter Sellers in 1959, Only Two Can Play, again with Sellers, in 1962, The Lion In Winter opposite his old friend from The Od Vic, Peter O’Toole in 1968, Revenge with Joan Collins in 1971, The Wild Geese with Richard Burton in 1978, The Sea Wolves with Gregory Peck in 1982 and a notably cantankerous cameo in Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994. Apart from Patrick McGoohan, who was also a friend, Kenneth was the only other actor to appear in the finales of Danger Man and The Prisoner, both in 1968.
In the 1960s Kenneth started to turn his attention to often controversial, deeply opinionated and frequently brilliant no-punches-pulled historical documentaries. In 1965 the BBC gave Kenneth free rein on his choice of documentary subject. Kenneth’s first documentary, Soldiers of The Widow, aired on the BBC on Saturday 27 May 1967.
Kenneth had a fascination with Britain’s imperialist past, in particular the wars in South Africa, and he chose the protracted siege of Ladysmith for his topic, presenting a personal view of the siege and the men who fought there. The documentary told of the hardships, heroics and blunders of this campaign, using personal letters and diaries to record the simple courage of the ordinary soldiers. In an interview shown as part of documentary A Tenby Poisoner: the life of actor Kenneth Griffith (1993), Kenneth recalled, “[They said to me] would you make a film for us, meaning the BBC, on your enthusiasm. I said no, I’m an actor I am not a filmmaker.’ They said, ‘Look, we’ll pay you to try, we won’t interfere, you can do what you like’. I thought, they’re mad!”
In the book Remembering The South African War, author Peter Donaldson wrote in a chapter dedicated to Kenneth, “Fiercely passionate about the South African war, with a deeply held sense of right and wrong, he saw it as his duty to uncover the injustices of Britain’s imperial past and to ‘reveal the truths which even our political leaders…. preferred not to know’. Central to this crusade were the ordinary soldiers, Boer and British. Committed to providing a voice for the ‘exploited against the exploiters’ Griffith felt a deep empathy for, and responsibility to, the rank and file troops of both sides. He was, he argued, ‘commissioned to be their advocate’.”
In his autobiography The Fool’s Pardon, Kenneth recalls “After Soldiers of the Widow had been displayed, Huw Wheldon spoke to me in his deep-carpeted office somewhere on the top of the British Broadcasting Corporations Television Centre. He asked me to stay with the BBC and also asked me what I wanted to do next. Now, full of the confidence which he had pushed me into, I replied, ‘A series of, say, twelve films about the rise and fall of the British Empire’. Huw eyed me with that beloved mixture of humour and truth: ‘Don’t you find that a shade portentous, Kenneth’. ‘No’ I replied’.”
And here is the attitude that led Peter O’Toole to state about his friend, “Griffith exemplifies the quixotic. There isn’t a windmill he won’t tilt at.” And how Kenneth described himself: “I am an actor but what I am now is a Welsh Puritan preacher – I preach sermons about history through my documentaries.” This was a perspective he retained throughout his life.
Some reviewers felt Soldiers of the Widow to be anti- British, with the Daily Telegraph stating Griffith was “too obviously pro-Boer and unnecessarily sarcastic towards the British cause,” concluding that the piece was nothing more than anti British propaganda. Stanley Reynolds, writing in The Guardian (whom Kenneth describes in his autobiography as the television critic he admired most at the time) claimed it was propaganda but “propaganda for the humanity of the common man, in this case, the Liverpool, Manchester and Dublin private soldiers who fought in the Boer War” and argued that Kenneth’s film acted as a corrective to “the stone statues, bronze plaques and civilised place names” that celebrated the makers of the war.
The success of the film altered the trajectory of Kenneth’s career. In the 1970s he moved further into documentary filmmaking. More South African centred films followed, including A Touch of Churchill, A Touch of Hitler on Cecil Rhodes; Sons of the Blood (comprising four films on the story of the Anglo-Boer war) and Keep Pretoria Clean! concerning the Black South African rubbish collectors. In a slight variation, The Man on The Rock detailed Napoleon’s final years on the island of St Helena.
Another area of fascination for Kenneth was Britain’s involvement in Ireland. In 1974 he gathered together a group of veterans of the Easter Rebellion of 1916, allowing those men and women the chance to recollect their lives during these turbulent times. This resulted in the documentary Curious Journey. Griffith had made a previous film on Ireland’s history with Britain, Hang Out Your Brightest Colours that had proved problematic.
In his autobiography Griffith recalls Curious Journey: “The point that I intended to make in the film was to present these pillars of contemporary respectability and responsibility to the laws and customs of their Irish state, but who had all been what some people please to call terrorists in their youth. But, at the time of filming, they would happily adorn any quiet tea party. Their behaviour would be gentle and exemplary their great National work was well nigh over.”
Due to the Irish troubles at the time the film was banned, and, despite being shown at the 24th London Film Festival in November 1980, not shown publicly until 1994. Which leads us back to 1973 and Hang Out Your Brightest Colours.
This documentary explored the life of Irish Republican leader Michael Collins. The title is taken from a letter written by George Bernard Shaw to Collins’s sister Hannie after Collins’s assassination in 1922.
The film, once again written by Kenneth, was an appraisal of the Irish fight for independence, its criticism of the British government and behaviour of the notoriously brutal Black and Tans at the time and his presentation of the life of Collins as a catalyst to give viewers a truth about setting up the Border of Northern Ireland. This saw the film banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority on the grounds that it was “an incitement to disorder”.
Somewhat ironically Associated Televisions mogul, Lew Grade, had offered the opportunity to Kenneth to make a film on any subject that he wished. And Kenneth chose the story of Collins. Upon viewing the finished film Grade refused to broadcast it. Undeterred at the risk of being blacklisted Kenneth decided to fight back. He took legal action, resulting in an out of court settlement. Kenneth built a house in Islington from the proceeds, and in typically defiant manner, called it Michael Collins House.
The Public’s Right To Know, from 1974, grew out of what he saw as television censorship of his Collins film and also of the shutting down of a film he was making on Baden Powell during this time. This later documentary was shut down by the then ACTT in line with their South African boycott policy of the time. They prevented Kenneth from filming at crucial Boer War sites in South Africa during the time of apartheid. With the filming of this later documentary closed off and the refusal to show the Collins film, Kenneth set about making a documentary on censorship and the perceived reasons behind it. The film was made for Thames Television and reveals Kenneth’s stubbornness in what he believed in, his creativity and his intelligence. The documentary attempted to put across all points of view, tackled both the right and the left, and remains a pertinent observation on the worrying ideology of censorship.
Kenneth persisted with making fascinating and challenging documentaries. In 1975 he examined the life of actor Edmund Kean in The Suns Bright Child. In his autobiography Griffith wrote, “Peter O’Toole has been naughty, but (and this is going to sadden him) he has never been quite as naughty as Edmund Kean.” Black As Hell, Thick As Grass (1979) explored the South Wales Borderers in the British Zulu War of 1878.
A Famous Journey (1979) explored the biblical Magi which saw Kenneth being ordered out of Iran by the country’s foreign minister; The Most Valuable Englishmen Ever was an examination of political activist and theorist Thomas Paine; Clive of India (1983) explored the life of Robert Clive; But I have Promises To Keep looked at the life of Jawaharlal Nehru and was made in 1988 in preparation to mark the centenary of the Nehru’s birth the following year. The film was once again shelved, this time by the Indian state broadcaster Doordarshan. The Light (1986) looked at the life of the first Prime Minster of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. In 1989 he returned to South Africa with his documentary on Zola Budd, The Girl Who Didn’t Run,
His last broadcast documentary was Roger Casement – Heart of Darkness in 1992 and marked his third documentary about modern Irish history.
Tenby Museum has a large collection of Kenneth Griffith memorabilia, all of which was donated to the museum. This collection includes scripts, handwritten letters, copious notes and journals, photographs, a book signed to Griffith by his friend Peter O’Toole, pairs of glasses and other personal items.
It’s a fascinating collection and shows the dedication and determination of this filmmaker that The Independent described in his obituary as “one of the most distinguished trouble makers of his time” and even if you did not wholly agree with his point of view – in The Tenby Poisoner, he states, “I wrote to Huw (Wheldon), would you please make it public within the BBC that I hope that I will never ever stoop so low in my life as to be objective about anything” – he at least had the courage to stand up and say what he believed in.
Kenneth Griffith died on 25 June 2006.
Perhaps we should leave the final words to the man himself: “When I think deeply about this, I end up feeling that my life has not been in vain. I’ve done something that I believe is right, even though in trying so hard I have encountered some very rough weather.”
Tenby Museum and Art Gallery
Tenby Museum was founded in 1878 by a group of interested gentlemen; it is now the oldest independent museum in Wales. The building is Grade II listed and situated in part of the old town castle. There is a small coffee bar in the entrance hall overlooking Carmarthen Bay. The…