Charlie Swinbourne: The day Richard Griffiths told us about being brought up by Deaf parents

Posted on March 30, 2013

It was announced yesterday that the actor Richard Griffiths has died at the age of 65 following heart surgery.

My earliest memory of seeing Griffiths in action was as a child when I used to watch his series Pie in the Sky, where, if recollection serves me right, he played a chef who was also a detective.

Fast forward ten years, and I was watching Withnail and I for the first time, while playing drinking games in a scruffy student house at university. The film blew me away, and he was amazing in it.

The fact that the video I first watched it on had no subtitles didn’t really matter. I may have only understood one out of three of his lines, but he was hilarious in his role as the sexually frustrated Uncle Monty.

I followed his work from then on – but it was only later that I found out that he had been brought up by Deaf parents.

I was working on Channel 4’s series for young Deaf people, Vee-TV by then, and we often interviewed celebrities for each episode. The series was aimed at young people, so the stars we usually met were singers or young actors, such as (off the top of my head) Ronan Keating, Ashley Walters and Alison Goldfrapp.

So it was a surprise when we found out that Griffiths had agreed to be interviewed by the show. More than that, it was an honour. At that time, Griffiths rarely agreed to be interviewed, and he was also happy to be interviewed about his upbringing.

A few weeks later, on a Monday morning backstage at the National Theatre, our small crew got together to interview him.

I remember the director, Sam Dore setting up his shots using the mirrors that covered each wall in the rehearsal room, and Griffiths sipping mineral water when he arrived, then sitting down in a standard plastic chair.

I was a researcher at the time, tasked with getting him to sign the release form, checking we weren’t filming our own camera in one of the mirrors, that kind of thing.

He may have been a huge star (it was almost certainly History Boys he was working on at the time, which became a worldwide smash) but I was impressed with how humble and friendly he was. There were no airs and graces, and he was patient as he waited for the interview to begin.

In the interview, he told us about his childhood, and one thing he said has stayed in my memory ever since.

He said that as a child, he thought everyone’s parents were deaf until he went to school. It was only there that he realised other children’s parents were hearing, and that there was anything different about his own family. Until then, deafness, and communicating in sign language had been the norm to him.

The other thing I remember from the interview was the way he playfully tried out signs he’d spotted our interpreter signing. He had a big smile on his face as he worked with her to get his hand shapes right in between questions. This was something that seemed very natural to him.

As is the way when you’ve met someone of his level of talent and fame, I remembered the interview, and the fact that his childhood wasn’t so different from my own, every time I saw him on screen from then on.

This obituary by James Corden sums it up better than I ever can, but all I can say is that when I found out he’d passed away yesterday, I felt incredibly sad because you could tell in just the period of time we were with him – less than an hour – what a genuine man he was.

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