Trevor Griffiths obituary

<span>Trevor Griffiths in 1973. He insisted that his writing should not be ‘mucked about with’ or ‘diluted’ for commercial reasons and refused to accept that cinema is a director’s medium.</span><span>Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images</span>
Trevor Griffiths in 1973. He insisted that his writing should not be ‘mucked about with’ or ‘diluted’ for commercial reasons and refused to accept that cinema is a director’s medium.Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Trevor Griffiths, who has died aged 88, was the most politically literate working-class dramatist and screenwriter of our times, a scholar of Marx, Gramsci and Trotsky, who translated his passion into a series of plays and television dramas without equal.

Although his early success came in the theatre – at the Stables in Manchester, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the National Theatre where, in 1973, his bracing analysis of factionalism on the left, The Party, provided Laurence Olivier with his last stage role, as an ageing Glaswegian Trotskyite, John Tagg – he much preferred to write for television.

Despite being bracketed with younger playwrights in the early 1970s such as David Edgar, David Hare and Howard Brenton, he believed, unlike them, that you could make more impact on the small screen, merely because you reached millions of viewers, rather than thousands in the theatre. In that sense, his populist instincts were more aligned with those of, say, Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, Jim Allen and John McGrath.

Still, his best theatre plays invariably found their way to the more popular medium. Comedians (1975) moved on to BBC TV in 1979 after its premiere at the Nottingham Playhouse under Richard Eyre and transfers to the National, the West End and Broadway. Jonathan Pryce – who won a Tony award for his performance in New York – made his name as an unforgettably volcanic skinhead, Gethin Price, in an evening class for comics whose seriously unfunny act climaxed in a savage attack on a pair of inanimate theatre-going dummies.

Griffiths had earlier laid his cards on the table with an impressive 1972 Granada TV series, Adam Smith, based on the distinguished career of Denis Forman, the TV executive, not the Scottish political economist; All Good Men (1974), in which an elderly, compromised former Labour minister played by Bill Fraser contended with a stellar cast of Jack Shepherd (the most crucial actor in Griffiths’ career), Frances de la Tour and Ronald Pickup; and a chapter in the BBC series Fall of Eagles, Absolute Beginners (1974), which charted the uneasy emergence of the Bolshevik movement with Patrick Stewart as Lenin and Michael Kitchen as Trotsky.

His pre-eminence was assured with two successive and notable triumphs: the BBC television play Through the Night (1975), in which the story of Griffiths’ wife, Jan, was told in the character played by Alison Steadman, who goes into hospital with a cancerous lump and comes round after a mastectomy no one had told her was going to happen; and the riveting Thames Television 11-part series Bill Brand (1976) in which Shepherd played a leftwing Labour MP sliding and slithering along the Westminster corridors of power.

Griffiths was born in Ancoats, Manchester, the cradle of the industrial revolution. He was the second son of Ernest Griffiths, a nonconformist Welsh chemical process worker and his wife, Anne (nee Connor), an Irish Catholic. Unlike his elder brother and sister, Trevor was raised, until the age of five, by his Catholic grandmother. He was educated at St Bede’s college, Manchester, and Manchester University (1952-55), where he took a degree in English language and literature. He spent his national service (1955-57) in the Manchester Regiment.

A lifelong fan of Manchester City, and a talented footballer, he was offered terms by both Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers, but chose instead to be a teacher and lecturer for eight years, working in Oldham and at Stockport technical college. He married Janice Stansfield in 1960 and joined the BBC as an education officer from 1965 to 1972.

He was an early member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, chairman of the Manchester Left club and a disillusioned member of the Labour party, from which he resigned in 1965, unhappy with the Harold Wilson government.

So, by the time he had his first play, The Wages of Thin, produced in 1969 at the Stables in Manchester, he had enough background and “life experience” to fuel an armoury of scripts, and a knack of articulating dialectical sides of any political argument. As the television and film producer Peter Ansorge once observed: “Griffiths is a strong political writer because he is able to reveal the pressures against which political idealism can crumble.”

His breakthrough theatre play was Occupations (1970), also at the Stables, in which Richard Wilson as the Soviet agent Kabak and Richard Kane as the Marxist theoretician Gramsci (at the RSC the roles were taken by Stewart and Ben Kingsley; and on television, in 1974, by Donald Pleasence and Shepherd) locked horns during the 1920 Fiat motor factory strike. This play brought him to the attention of Kenneth Tynan, Olivier’s literary manager at the National, and led to the commission of The Party.

The Party received productions even better than John Dexter’s with Olivier – who said he was mesmerised and enchanted by Griffiths as a man – when revived by Hare for a National touring production and again by Howard Davies and Edgar for the RSC in 1984.

Like David Mercer, another working-class playwright, from the other side of the Pennines, Griffiths elaborated creatively on the split between his background and the world of theatre and television, notably in Sam Sam (1971), in which two brothers played by the same actor are seen trapped in, and escaping from, their underprivileged background (Trevor’s brother was a shirt-cutter and cab driver); the key point is that the escape is by no means necessarily a better fate.

Similar ground was covered in his marvellous BBC adaptation in seven episodes of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1981), starring Karl Johnson as Paul Morel, coming tentatively into sexual and intellectual awakening, and Eileen Atkins, brilliant as his mother, Gertrude.

Griffiths had a lucrative career writing screenplays that were never made, as he insisted on not being “mucked about with” or “diluted” for commercial reasons. He refused to accept that cinema is a director’s medium. His two best known films remain disappointing. After a long struggle, Warren Beatty made (and co-wrote and starred in) Reds (1981), about the American communist John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World. Loach’s Fatherland (1986) about a German singer-songwriter was, Loach himself said, “a mess”.

After Comedians at Nottingham Playhouse, Griffiths found resonant notes on the same stage in 1977 in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, arguably the greatest play of the early 20th century, in a version later filmed for the BBC by Eyre with Judi Dench, Bill Paterson, Harriet Walter and Timothy Spall. Also with Eyre directing for the BBC, Country, transmitted a week after the Chekhov in 1981, transposed the “changing society” upheaval in Russia to Britain in 1945; the cast included Leo McKern, Wendy Hiller, Penelope Wilton and James Fox.

There were other plays in the theatre that never really hit home. Another flinty, nagging meditation on Chekhov, for instance, Piano (1990) at the National (the NT’s second rewrite of Platonov, following Michael Frayn’s in Wild Honey in 1984) was slightly hidebound in its awkwardly executed derivation from a 1977 Soviet film, Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano.

But Oi for England! (1982), a 50-minute skinhead rant, which started on television, and Real Dreams (1984), at the RSC with Gary Oldman and Adrian Dunbar, about a 60s American student collective failing to find revolutionary favour, or indeed fervour, with local Puerto Ricans, reinvented the temper of Comedians and The Party.

His last stage play, A New World (2009) at Shakespeare’s Globe, was the result of several draft screenplays for a Richard Attenborough movie that was never made. It told the story of Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man and “a great forgotten Englishman” according to the play’s director, Dominic Dromgoole, with passion, energy and an impressive, informative epic sweep.

Griffiths was never reconciled to the Labour party and was “sickened” by Tony Blair’s intervention in the war in Iraq, which he described as “Star Wars II”.

Home was a handsome grey brick Victorian house in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire, where he and Jan raised three children, Sian, Emma and Joss. Jan died in an air crash in Cuba in 1977. Griffiths later married Gill Cliff, a former teacher, who survives him, along with his children and his grandchildren, Lia, Jacob, Heloise and Jake.

Trevor Griffiths, playwright and screenwriter, born 4 April 1935; died 29 March 2024