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The dissident drama

Author: Gabriel Hershman Date: Fri, Oct 28 2011 2491 Views
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To most movie fans, the name Kenneth Griffith will forever be associated with the part of medical orderly Arthur Witty, the brave, gay mercenary in that all-star 1970s blood and guts romp The Wild Geese.

In his death scene Witty draws his knife after running out of ammo and being confronted by several hulking black opponents. "What a pity we can't be friends," says Witty before the camera pans away to piercing screams.

Griffith did not mind when people shouted "Witty!" at him in the street. (Even I was sorely tempted to mock-congratulate him on surviving the barbarity of the bush when I saw him striding along near Angel underground station in 2001. Sadly – and I regret this now – I desisted.)

Yet the truth was that for Griffith, a character actor with more than 100 films to his credit, his later roles were merely a way to subsidise his documentaries. It was as a pioneering filmmaker, a perennial impish thorn in the side of the establishment, that Griffith really wanted to be remembered. Modern audiences, however, may also well recall his humorous turns as clerics in two Hugh Grant comedies, Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, both in the mid 1990s.

His documentaries were low budget affairs, essentially one-man tour de forces, in which Griffith, wisps of hair bobbing to and fro on his bald head, harangued his opponents and gave long, lugubrious stares into the camera. His delivery was impassioned and venomous, doubtless aided by his theatrical background.

Griffith's 1972 documentary (made for Lew Grade's ATV) Hang Out Your Brightest Colours: The Life And Death Of Michael Collins (essentially a tribute to his hero) is still perhaps his most famous work. Testament to his lifelong, trenchant support for Irish republicanism (most photos of Griffith have him wearing a green ribbon in his lapel) the film about the legendary Irish soldier and IRA leader who was assassinated in 1922 was banned and eventually broadcast two decades later later by BBC Wales. Griffith castigated Grade for trying to suppress the film and capitulating to what he called the "cowardly bastards" of the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

The Collins documentary had Griffith running between various venues – an Irish Republican friends' meeting house in London and the scene of the Easter Rising in Dublin – as he chastised the British military for its cruelty.

Michael Collins House
Griffth was later labelled by Margaret Thatcher as "a dangerous Marxist". Griffith rejected the label, although he undoubtedly sympathised with the IRA's aims. His home in London's Islington was even called Michael Collins house; threats from Ulster loyalists adorned his wall alongside a more flattering letter from Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams.

Revisiting the Collins documentary almost 40 years later, it's perhaps surprising that it caused such a brouhaha. Most of the documentary was a matter of historical accuracy. When critics railed at him for his "bias" Griffith replied that he could no more be "objective" about the Irish question than he could about Auschwitz.  Never one to sit on the fence, he once told Huw Wheldon: "I would never stoop so low as to be objective about anything."

Nevertheless, at a time when the IRA campaign was reaching its zenith and beginning to reach the "mainland" – later, in 1984, it attempted to murder the entire Conservative government at Brighton's Grand Hotel – Griffith's views made him a pariah at the BBC and earned the BBC Griffith's wholehearted contempt.

Support for Irish Republicanism was a cause associated with the Left, hence many people assumed, erroneously, that Griffith was a socialist. In fact he was a political and religious agnostic who defied labels, someone who examined issues on their own merit, made his conclusions and then fought his corner pugnaciously. That perhaps made him a rare bird in an era when you only have to know someone's view of fox hunting to divine their views on capital punishment, abortion and gay rights.

Defending Zola
As if to prove his point Griffith championed the cause of Zola Budd, the South African athlete who became a British citizen (on the basis that her grandfather was British) in order to run in the 1984 Olympics, only to face a gauntlet of anti-apartheid protesters. In a 1989 documentary entitled The Girl Who Didn't Run, Griffith alleged that she had become the convenient victim of a rent-a-mob ragbag mix of anarchists, leftists and thugs. (Griffith, a self-proclaimed expert on the Boer War, was also known for his support for the Afrikaner cause).

Yet Griffith's support for Budd should not seen as his support for apartheid but rather as his natural inclination to support the individual against the baying mob. In truth, there WAS indeed something unsettling about the barefooted Budd – a shy, quietly spoken teenager – becoming the convenient "peg" on which to hang all Pretoria's evils.

Griffith was also known for his strong support for Israel; among his heroes were Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion, another cause associated with those of conservative persuasion.

Described by his son as "a bit of a hellraiser" (not in the drinking sense but for his strong opinions) Griffith seemed to delight in taking on vested interests and challenging generally held opinions. Perhaps he deliberately courted controversy; there is undoubtedly a thrill to be had in sabre-rattling and defying the conventional view. Yet Griffith's "causes" were no passing fancy; they were carefully thought through and deeply held.

Griffith's death, aged 84, in 2006, was mourned by many friends across the political spectrum as well as show-business friends. His funeral was attended by, among others, Labour politician Tony Benn and actor Peter O'Toole. Griffith had ordered that his coffin be decorated with the flags of Wales, the Untouchables of India (of whom he was president for many years), Israel, and the Irish tricolour.

Yet, perhaps if Griffith had lived a few years more, the Bulgarian flag might have been added to that list. For a little known part of Griffith's story is that he had developed a keen interest in all matters Bulgarian, stoked by a chance meeting with a Bulgarian lady who would become one of his closest friends.

Hospitality
Our Bulgarian odyssey begins in India in March 1987 when Ekaterina Dimitrova, now an English teacher in Sofia, was posted as a visitor/lecturer at the department of modern languages in Delhi.

Ekaterina's children were taking part in an art class when Griffith suddenly walked in, dressed, she said, "rather like Jawaharlal Nehru", India's first prime minister, in traditional Indian robes, wearing a kind of white pyjama shirt with a red ribbon. Ekaterina was wearing a martenitsa, the Bulgarian adornment associated with the onset of spring.

Griffith, who had an insatiable curiosity about people – "ordinary" people – immediately approached Ekaterina and probed her about her Bulgarian background.

When she found out that Ekaterina intended to go to London to continue her sanskrit studies, he invited her to stay in his home while he was away until she got herself settled. So it was that, in 1989, Ekaterina found herself as a kind of housekeeper at the "Michael Collins" house with its vast collection of stamps, show-business memorabilia and books. She loved the house with its vast library on the top floor, its dining room and kitchen in the basement (a quaint touch, she thought) and large aquarium. She found herself answering the phone to Ken's illustrious friends, including film star Peter O'Toole.

When Griffith returned she actually continued living with him for another month. It was then that she got to know "Ken" well. She was struck by his humanity and his compassion for the underdog. "He would always defend the weaker side, the side that wasn't given a say in a conflict," says Ekaterina. "For example, he was also a supporter of the Untouchables in India. The Untouchables had meetings in London which Ken would attend," she says.

Christmas Eve on the floor?
Griffith showed immense kindness to Ekaterina throughout her stay in London.

"You can always rely to have a tear on my shoulder," he would tell her.

Her friendship with Griffith continued after she found a job as an assistant librarian at The Linnean Society at London's Burlington House and as a part-time producer and art contributor at the Bulgarian section of the BBC World Service. She remembers inviting Griffith, who had become very curious about Bulgaria and the democratic movement (this was the time of the transition to democracy) to a Christmas Eve meal at her home in Piccadilly where she lived above Burlington House.

Before the meal, Ekaterina explained to Ken that the meal would be partaken with the guests sitting on the floor. This was a ritual indicating humility, derived from Ekaterina's Macedonian heritage. On that first Christmas Eve, however, 1990, her daughter developed the flu, triggering a change of heart.

"I decided to have dinner on the table instead because as a mother I didn't want to put my child through unnecessary problems. Ken arrived and opened the door and saw the table laid for dinner.  'But E-K-A-T-E-R-I-N-A, what is going on?' he asked."  

(Here she mimics Griffith's emphatic way of speaking. She notes that however many years passed by, he refused to call her Katia, the more informal abbreviation used by her friends. He seemed to relish enunciating her full name.)

Griffith refused to enter until she had re-arranged the dinner on the floor.

"'You told me I'd have dinner on the floor. I can have dinner on the table every day. I've been dreaming of having dinner on the floor for several days now!'" said Griffith as recalled to me by Ekaterina.

For the next 12 years of Ekaterina's stay in London, Griffith would always spend Christmas Eve with her and her family. (Later she was joined in London by her entire family). She recalls that he particularly enjoyed having tea in the library at Burlington House.

Visiting Rila
It was only natural that Griffith would visit Bulgaria but, ironically, when he undertook the trip (around 1995) it was not with Ekaterina, who had other commitments in London, but to visit her brother. He showed Griffith all the sites, Sofia and Rila Monastery.

"He was greatly impressed by the natural beauty of Bulgaria," Ekaterina recalls. "And he'd stop and speak to people on the street wherever he went."

Griffith's trip to Bulgaria stoked his interest in James Bourchier, the distinguished Irish journalist and Balkan correspondent on The Times. Bourchier always championed Bulgaria's cause both at the time of the Ottoman empire and later, at the post World War 1 peace conference in which Bulgaria was forced to cede territory.

Perhaps Griffith was instinctively drawn to Bourchier because he was Irish; more likely, the filmmaker saw a kind of kindred spirit in Bourchier. Just as Griffith championed the cause of Irish independence against what he saw as British subjugation, so Bourchier was Bulgaria's ally against Ottoman rule.

Griffith's interest in Bourchier was nurtured by Ekaterina, a teacher and academic who was very knowledgable about that period of Bulgaria's history. So much so that Ekaterina persuaded Griffith to appear in a one-off historical play about Bourchier and the so-called Eastern Question.

Griffith would play Bourchier as an old man as well as an assortment of British politicians - including prime minister Herbert Asquith and foreign minister Sir Herbert Grey.

The play, partially based on a biography of Bourchier by Lady Brogan, was staged at London's Bulgarian embassy on March 19 2001. Billed as a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Bourchier's birth and the 80th anniversary of his death, it begins with the fall of the Turkish city of Adrianople in 1913 during the first Balkan war, an event which led to the liberation of almost all European territories of the Ottoman Empire.

Griffith greatly enjoyed appearing in the play. Fortunately, somebody recorded the play for posterity.

* In next week's The Sofia Echo we look at the play and its historical significance, analyse Griffith's performance and resume our story of his friendship with Ekaterina.

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