R.I.P. Richard Briers, British actor of The Good Life

Richard Briers—the British comic actor best known for the sitcom The Good Life and appearances in eight Kenneth Branagh films—died Sunday at age 79, after years of smoking-related ailments.

Born in London, Briers was interested in acting from childhood, an ambition fostered by his pianist mother as well as his father’s cousin, the successful comedian Terry-Thomas. After menial jobs as a filing clerk and a stint in the RAF, he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in the mid-1950s alongside classmates Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole, winning early praise for his performance in the title role in Hamlet. He enjoyed a busy career ever afterwards on stage, TV and film, earning fame for his good-natured and genial comic roles, but also proving himself adept at darker, dramatic characters like King Lear and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Briers’ first TV starring roles came in the mid-1960s with Brothers In Law and Marriage Lines; by far his biggest success was the 1975-78 sitcom The Good Life, also known in America as Good Neighbors. Briers starred as the boyish, doggedly optimistic Tom Good, a bored graphic designer who, following an epiphany on his 40th birthday, convinces his wife Barbara (the charming Felicity Kendal) to embrace a self-sufficient, back-to-the-earth lifestyle by turning their suburban homestead into a working farm, much to the chagrin of his more conventional best friends and neighbors (played by Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington). The show was a huge hit in England and a mainstay of PBS stations in the U.S., becoming such a British institution that its final episode was recorded in front of Queen Elizabeth.

Briers’ career also included a plethora of productions by Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company, both on stage and in eight of the director’s films made between 1989 and 2006, including Frankenstein (as the blind hermit who befriends Robert De Niro’s monster) and the Shakespeare adaptations Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. In 1978, he voiced the role of the nervous but prophetic rabbit Fiver in Watership Down.

Other TV work included starring roles in Ever Decreasing Circles—another suburban comedy by the Good Life writers that cast Briers in a more curmudgeonly role—and the darkly satiric If You See God, Tell Him, in which Briers played a pathologically optimistic man who unwittingly wreaks disaster everywhere he goes. He also had noteworthy smaller roles in many other shows, including the sitcom Monarch Of The Glen, Mr. Bean (as a man irritated by Rowan Atkinson’s attempts to stay awake in church), the Nazi-like Chief Caretaker in the 1987 Doctor Who serial “Paradise Towers,” and as himself in Ricky Gervais’ Extras, a cameo that allowed him to act out his frustration on a symbol of the dumb, catchphrase-based comedy he disliked.

Briers was honored twice by the United Kingdom, becoming an Officer of the British Empire in 1989 and a Commander of the British Empire in 2003. His final film role is the forthcoming Cockneys Vs. Zombies.

Originally published on avclub.com. Read the original article.

TV Club, Doctor Who, Shada

“Shada” (season 17, episodes 21-26. Filmed in 1979; never aired.)

In 1979, Douglas Adams, then script editor for Doctor Who, wrote a story for the show in which the villain disastrously shatters into half a dozen fragments of himself that scatter throughout time. That was “City Of Death,” one of the best serials Doctor Who ever did. Later that year, he wrote another one. This time, the story itself exploded, shattered into half a dozen fragments of itself, and scattered throughout time. That was “Shada,” the great lost story of season 17, a half-filmed serial from Tom Baker’s second-to-last season as the Fourth Doctor. And for a long time, people wondered if it too wouldn’t have been one of the greats. But that was back when it was still lost.

It’s oddly appropriate that the last scene of “Shada” begins with the Doctor reading from Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, because despite the persistent efforts over the years to give it life again, “Shada” remains, in all its various and contradictory manifestations, just an old curiosity. It’s not awful, mind you. It’s not anywhere near the toxicity level of something like “The Twin Dilemma,” in which the stupidity is actually painful to watch. No, this is just a thinly written, overly formulaic story, with some clever ideas and a smattering of good Adamsian jokes and Bakerian Doctoring stretched out over a lot of boring filler. “Shada” would never have engendered so much interest if Douglas Adams’ name hadn’t been attached to it.

Still, even if it’s mediocre, it’s worth a look. If nothing else, “Shada” is interesting as a bit of complex pop-culture archaeology. There are at least seven versions of “Shada” floating around out there, ranging from complete adaptations to fragmentary scraps.

Originally published Feb. 17, 2013 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

TV Club, Doctor Who, The Caves Of Androzani

“The Caves Of Androzani” (season 21, episodes 17-20. Originally aired March 8-16, 1984.)

Across all his incarnations, the Doctor’s character has always stayed true to a few core traits, perhaps none more so than his restless, insatiable curiosity and wanderlust. He’s a traveler, winding his way around the universe on a flightplan drawn up with no grand scheme in mind other than to see the next new thing. He rarely knows where he’s going, and rarely plans ahead. He just steps out of the ship and looks around. And from the beginning, that has always gotten him into trouble. Which is only to be expected. That’s the basic setup of the whole show: He arrives somewhere, he gets into trouble, he gets out of trouble, and he leaves. It’d be a pretty boring show without the middle bit. But still: It’s a dangerous universe out there. You’d have to be foolish to go out there without a plan, armed with nothing but your wits. And you’d have to be criminally reckless to take people with you. One of the things that makes “The Caves Of Androzani” great is that it cuts to the heart of this problem and brutally critiques it. Here, the Doctor gets himself and his companion Peri into a deadly mess that rapidly shows itself to be much worse than he bargained for, and against which the best he can reasonably hope for is base survival and escape. In the end, he can’t even manage that. He saves Peri but sacrifices himself to do so, as Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor collapses, and essentially dies, regenerating into Colin Baker’s Sixth.

“The Caves Of Androzani” enjoys a very high reputation in Doctor Who fandom; in fact, Doctor Who Magazine’s 2009 readers’ poll named it the best story in series history. I can’t go quite that far, though it would certainly make my top 10 or 15. For one thing, though this is admittedly minor, you’ve gotta take some points off for the the magma beast, just a sad, sad, weak attempt at the obligatory monster-of-the-week. But what really bothers me about this one is how corrosively cynical and dark it is. And I say this as a fan of corrosively cynical and dark stories in general, and of the cynical and dark mind of Robert Holmes, who wrote this one, in particular. It’s the whole point of the story, of course, so in essence I’m objecting to Holmes hitting the bullseye. But in the final analysis I just can’t buy into the notion that a story this pessimistic is what Doctor Who is about, on a grand scale.

Still, I can see why it won that poll. It’s a terrifically propulsive, twisty thriller, well-directed by Graeme Harper—tense, raw and very dark. It vividly creates a world that has been corrupted, perhaps irreversibly, by the toxic effects of greed, violence, and unchecked corporate power, and which has poisoned the souls of every character we meet—especially the revenge-crazed maniac Sharaz Jek, a creepy and intense but ultimately pitiable Phantom Of The Opera-like figure vividly played by Christopher Gable. And it made excellent use of the extra dramatic weight that all regeneration stories get as the closing chapters of their eras, really putting the increasingly desperate Doctor through the wringer and making him fight with his every last breath. Davison makes the most of it, giving one of his best performances in a script that gives him a lot to work with.

Originally published Feb. 3, 2013 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

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