The better life – Interview with Richard Briers

Richard Briers sits on the sofa in his lovely house on the leafy edge of London. ‘That darn suburb, I said, when we bought it, couldn’t afford Notting Hill – been here 32 years’. Pictures of Henry Irving adorn the walls in the Brier household, along with an imitation Turner. I admire a painting of sparrows in snow, done, I am told, by the wife of Stanley Kubrik. I sit next to Richard on the sofa. He has a kind of effervescence, bouncing between ideas, words, worlds, from Brannagh in Hamlet to multinational corporations to the song of the blackbird. And he laughs a lot, mainly at himself. Annie, Richard’s wife flits in and out from the conservatory during our chat. Lucy their daughter is an actress (Pride and Prejudice) and her sister Kate has given them two grandchildren, Henry 6 and a half, Rachael 4 and a half. Richard Briers, the original environmentalist when he played Tom Good in ‘The Good Life’ struggling with Felicity Kendall to be self-sufficient in their suburban garden, is supporting the RSPB renewable energy scheme. So I have the honour of meeting him.

Sustainability is a modern buzz word in conservation. It basically means living within our means so that the planet we hand onto the next generation is not impoverished. Books are published, hypotheses proposed and lectures expounded on the subject, but the Good Life encompassed the principle of sustainability in a sweet TV serial that everyone liked. Every thing we buy takes energy and resources to produce it. Food, keyrings, toys, – you name it – and production processes generate pollution. So much so, that if everyone lived as we in the UK do, some environmentalists argue that we would need several planets to provide all that stuff.

The Goods tried to live only within the means of their small backyard. I ask Richard whether ‘The Good Life’ has influenced the way he lives. ‘I once grew radishes, veg and beans, in the garden. The digging started to strain my back and the osteopath cost 70 pounds a go. You can buy a hell of a lot of veg for that. Now, we mow the lawn, do the edges, have a pond with fish and the wife’s about to do composting. And for a while I couldn’t eat bacon after having those sweet little piglets. I liked the hens too, but didn’t much like picking them up.’ ‘We recycle everything’ Annie chips in ‘and would like a place with hens, geese, dogs’. But for now, like most of us, they are too busy. Richard and Annie also support charities in aid of Parkinson’s disease, the NSPCC, Prisoner’s Abroad. I am served tea in a mug from the Redwing Horse Sanctuary. Richard and Annie chatter over each other, telling me about the horses which had to be rescued, Annie in a blue sweater and slacks, proclaiming with her hands, and then the phone rings – ‘leave it’ they say in unison.

Not only is Richard combating global warming by heading up the RSPB energy scheme, he’s acting in a play about a mean car dealer and the problems of pollution. Written by Simon Eagen, “Spike’ says Richard is ‘sayable, and not depressing, unlike most modern writing’. In the play, conveniently, Annie plays his wife, and Lucy his daughter. Its being performed at the Nuffield in Southampton and if the critics like it, they will bring it to Leicester Square. Richard is uneasy about the environment: ‘its more alarming every day. To go right back to when Annie was born – her father said – ‘what a world to bring children into’ Hitler and the 2nd World War. But the world feels like a more and more dangerous place now.’ As a granddad, Richard is particularly conscious of this. Certainly, though, working to reduce the risk of global warming will help.

When Richard turns on a light switch in his house, or perhaps sits down to ‘The Monarch of the Glen’, he, unlike almost everyone else in Britain is not adding to the problem of global warming. Most domestic electricity is derived from the burning of fossil fuels, which adds carbon gases to the atmosphere. These generate global warming, leading to melting of polar ice caps, loss of homes for penguins, die off of coral reefs, and flooding of coastal wetland habitats. By contrast, thanks to the RSPB, the electricity fed into the grid to fuel Richard’s house is coming from ‘renewable sources’. Energy is sourced from water, wind, sewage gas, and landfill gas (these gases otherwise enter the atmosphere without being used) rather than coal and oil. The RSPB decided against burning rubbish to make energy, as this leaves a toxic residue. Anyone can join and every time one of us does, the RSPB receives 20 quid and ten per year afterwards. The money raised buys reserves which might ultimately compensate for the losses of habitat which will occur due to global warming. John Lanchbery, a physicist by training, has been responsible for setting up the scheme at the RSPB. ‘Has the RSPB’, I asked him, ‘had to open a new department in order to supply green energy – I mean its not the sort of thing birders normally do is it?’ ‘No’ he said ‘its just been absorbed as part of our workload.’ What will they think of next.

Richard has been a member of the RSPB for years. ‘Everyone likes birdlife don’t they’ he says – ‘they are like an early warning system, sparrows are virtually gone’. ‘Yes, you never see any’ says Annie…’we used to have loads here’. ‘I’m not too soft though’, says Richard, ‘the cry of a jay goes right thru my head, but we don’t want to lose our national bird. The blackbird, that’s a fine bird, its tune, in the evening, when you get one going off- it’s beautiful. They are the nightingale’s understudy’. He likes birds, because he says, they are ‘simple and lovely’. They save spiders and ‘try not to tread on too many; spiders are very difficult to love’.

Richard is about to head up to the highlands to film series three of ‘The Monarch of the Glen’. Five and a half months in Scotland, far from home is a bit troubling, but he says it is the most beautiful landscape in the world: “I love the highlands – they have four climates a day…we performed ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in Tuscany and there was rarely a wind change – but you never bore of Scotland. Its dramatic, it appeals to me as an actor. Did Macbeth there – played the old king with Kenneth Brannagh. Mist and smoke and atmosphere and great heights’. Irving, his hero, he confides, went there to get atmosphere.

Its been a long time since Richard Briers played Tom Good in ‘The Good life. Its never ever changed’ he says – ‘people still remember it, but now I’m an old chap. I think it was John Mortimer who said ‘over 50 its as though you’re having breakfast every half an hour.’ But Richard has never been busier and has to be very ruthless about commitments if he’s to get through the day. The RSPB then is honoured that Richard has agreed to head up this scheme. Coming full circle, Richard is promoting sustainable living once again. They have, he says, led charmed lives. ‘Why not give something back to the world?’

According to Richard, changing to RSPB energy is simple – just took a phone call – the wife did it. But sometimes, wives do things which appear simple, but which are in fact very complicated, so I bite the bullet. Being the ever-intrepid reporter to the RSPB congregation (that’s you) and, because I haven’t got round to doing it before, I phone up about changing my own energy suppliers to RSPB. The nice lady on switchboard at The Lodge tells me to phone 0800 0288 552. A kindly sounding Scot called Alister answers and is very patient when first, I can’t find the bill and when I do, I’ve only got pages 2 and 3 which means I don’t know my customer number. He puts me on hold while he locates this, and the music is listenable (a major consideration when calling a business in this day and age). Then, pretty quickly he’s back, asks me a couple of other questions about my meter and that’s it, I’m doing my bit for the planet – without doing anything. ‘Will it cost me any more’ I ask – ‘no it’ll cost you slightly less actually’. All the guilt of switching on a light gone – well almost.