POPULAR comedy actor Richard Briers, who has a special relationship with North East theatre audiences, has announced he is suffering from the lung disease emphysema.
Less of an announcement than a rueful admission in an interview with a national newspaper, he cheerfully laid the blame firmly on himself “and five hundred thousand cigarettes”.
“The ciggies got me,” said the star of BBC sitcom The Good Life. “I stopped 10 years ago, but too late.
“If you do it in your 30s, you’re OK, but after 30 it gets you. I was diagnosed five years ago and didn’t think it would go quite as badly as it has. It’s a b****r, but there it is. I used to love smoking.”
Briers, who was 79 in January, is patron of the Friends of the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, where he has appeared many times on stage and in his official capacity with the Friends.
In his foreword to the recently-published A New Short History of the Theatre Royal, he called it “the finest in the country” and recalled how he took an immediate shine to it when he first appeared there in a play called Gilt and Gingerbread.
“The theatre itself and the magnificent street on which it stands made a great impression on me and I have always found the audience to be spirited and generous too,” he wrote.
Although he is best known and loved for his comedy roles on television, also including Ever Decreasing Circles and Monarch of the Glen, Briers has also successfully tackled serious roles.
In the 1980s Kenneth Branagh set up Renaissance Theatre Company with Sunderland-born David Parfitt and they persuaded him to take on the challenge of King Lear and the title role in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Interviewed at the Theatre Royal in 1991 before going on stage as Vanya – and while smoking a roll-up – he said: “I am a comedy man but I got this chance, at a good age, to try heavier roles like Lear. It’s been nice to go back to where one started, as a character actor.”
Branagh also made him a late flowering film star, casting him in acclaimed big-screen versions of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing . The admission that he is suffering from a chronic lung disease came in an interview with The Daily Mail to mark the launch on DVD of Marriage Lines, the 1960s BBC sitcom he starred in with Prunella Scales.
After taking about 30 minutes to get his breath back after climbing a short flight of stairs, he said he had had to give up gardening and in any case had had enough of acting.
His revelation, made in passing rather than to solicit sympathy, nevertheless brought messages of support from fans.
Philip Bernays, chief executive of the Theatre Royal, said: “Richard is a loyal friend and supporter of the Theatre Royal and has been for many years, and we hope will be for many more – and we wish him all the best.”