Younger movie goers may remember him as the irascible elderly wedding guest (‘ Don’t you think I know my own brother ?’ ) in Four Weddings and a Funeral but cineastes would prefer to see him as the enfant terrible of the British film industry, if you can call a man in his seventies, a child. Perhaps maverick is a better word. He wanted to make films of deeply controversial figures in history but often ran up against the usual stuffed shirts. He asked awkward questions about Britain’s imperial past, and about the British in Ireland. I had been invited to talk to him about his Boer War collection, but we ended up chatting about the time when the IRA came to tea.
He lived in a four story stuccoed Victorian house in Barnsbury called ‘Michael Collins House’. Griffith’s Boer War archive was huuuuuge. Said to be the largest of its kind in private hands, it occupied all four floors. Apparently Griffith’s interest had started when he worked in a stamp shop for a while and became interested in Boer War postmarks. It developed apace in 1952 when he went to South Africa to act with the Old Vic company and was taken around the battle sites by a friend.
In amongst the Boer War material were hundreds of books, pamphlets, prints and letters relating to the British radical tradition. Although a Protestant, the history of Irish nationalism was an abiding passion, which led to death threats from the UVF. He showed me the receipt he received for the postcard he sent to Bobby Sands before he died. In his 'Gladstone Corner' I saw a piece of one of trees that the great man used to cut down. When some IRA leaders came to tea one of them noticed a photo of Queen Victoria and remarked that she was 'a very interesting old lady'. However, the visitor 'was very uneasy with me from then on...' said Griffiths. [RMH]