Words Kirk Truman
Photography Paul Vickery
“I want all the doors open, every shop doing something. I want everybody doing something, everybody together,”
he says on the topic of the upcoming Dylan Thomas Festival whilst wandering about the kitchen.
“Is it ‘The’ Fitzrovia Journal, or Fitzrovia Journal?” he said to me, quite simply, at an art opening on Charlotte Street. I told him the latter. The ensuing conversation made me realise that, really, I know so little about Fitzrovia, past Charlotte Street and a few buried cobblestones. I had met more than a funny man. I had met a true Fitzrovian. Griff Rhys Jones seems to have undertaken so many ventures, it seems impossible to call him anything other than a rarity. From the days of Not the Nine O’Clock News (espousing his comedy partnership with the late Mel Smith), to Alas Smith and Jones, Talkback, to television presenter, Jones is witty, equally sharp and to the point; a business man one minute, an intellectual, actor or comedian the next. I talk to my neighbour about Fitzrovia, his Dylan Thomas venture and the changing of our inner city scene.
Born in Cardiff, 1953, Griff grew up in Epping with parents Gwyneth and Elwyn. In his youth he spent time sailing around the coast of Suffolk with his father: “my Dad was a doctor so he had a little boat, so that was my holidays when I was a kid. They were spent examining pieces of mud in the wet, in Suffolk.” He attended Brentwood School with a gap year on the P&O ship Uganda, where he worked for a company which organised school trips. Having studied at Cambridge, he began working at BBC Comedy Central, Grafton House, in the 1970s (now, again, the current BBC Comedy Central). “My first job, after I left university, was working for the BBC and the first place I went to was Grafton house in 1975, in comedy, and then, within months. we moved into Langham Street, which is now being demolished! It’s extraordinary to discover that now, after nearly 40 years, they’ve moved their comedy department back into Grafton House – it’s like it goes around in circles!” He worked in radio whilst at Grafton House, before moving on to television.
As well as living in Fitzrovia, the Jones family also have a house in Suffolk: “I brought my first house in the country and intended to become sort of hippie and live in the country. Then I discovered that the work was here, and that’s sort of how it went.” Griff and his wife lived in a factory conversion in Clerkenwell. They then lived in Islington, before eventually deciding to relocate to Fitzrovia in the late 1990s. I ask Griff what really drew him to the area: “I wasn’t! I wasn’t particularly attracted! What exactly drew me was that I worked for a lot of my life in the BBC. Then I set up Talkback, we had offices, originally, in Brewer Street. Then Carnaby Street, then we really based ourselves down here in Percy Street. It’s an amazing thing for people who work down Charlotte Street, and to walk up toward the square and go ‘wow’ look at this square. People don’t know Fitzrovia is here. Nobody knows it’s here, nobody knows about this area.” His Fitzroy Square home has changed much through the years: “When we moved here, a lot of buildings were taken over after the war by institutions. When we moved here Fitzroy Square was a sort of slum. The house has been an architect’s office; I think it was a hospital at one point too.” Some years ago, the square itself, before it’s renovation in recent years, had gone downhill and become a peculiar centre of the used-car trade. Day by day, around the centre of the square garden, car transporters were parked, full of second-hand cars. When asked about his own first impression of the Fitzrovia area, Griff’s answer seems an all too distant image of the area we know and love today: “you came out of great Portland Street Station and you thought: ‘oh this is the middle of town.’ It seemed to be a really sort of grimy, noisy place. It was identity-less for me at the time; a sort of inner-city London, near Regents Park type place. It’s ironic that I’ve ended up living here!” Today he is an active member of the local community, having lived in the area for 15 years. He is well involved with the local affairs and is sociable with many people in the local area, from art promoters to property developers.
The same passion that Griff has applied to his home, family and work over years has led him into a new venture that he is passionately injecting direct into our local community; the spirit of a bohemian poet, Dylan Thomas. In the form of a two-day weekend festival this coming October (25th & 26th), there will be a series of events commemorating the 100th birthday of the infamous Welsh poet. Thomas thrived in the Bohemia of 1930s and 1940s Fitzrovia. He wrote various poems as a regular (renowned excessive) punter in the local area and made contacts that led to his eventual employment within the British Film Industry.
“Ever since the 18th century these streets have been the streets of the artists and writers, and so, for that reason, that sort of aspect of Fitzrovia needs celebrating and highlighting. I have run businesses in the area myself and I fully support that mix of workspace, retail and residential. But we all need to recognise the quirky and individual nature of the small shops and galleries, the craft suppliers and grocers, the restaurants and tiny cafés and their history, and ensure that there is room for them to prosper as the region changes: it’s like an audit. We need to know what we have got that’s good to make sure we hang on to it. The festival wants to celebrate that,” he says. Griff wants for all local businesses to partake in every possible way that they can; galleries featuring Dylan Thomas, selling Thomas t-shirts, flying the flag for the spirit of Bohemia with which we pride ourselves, and our history, on as a community.
Though I believe it is common practice to him, Griff is very much the funny-man I remember from my youth, and better so a neighbour. Inspiring, confident and knowledgeable, he is proud to walk the area as a devoted Fitzrovian. He crosses passion with wit in almost every sentence, from his days in Epping to his days at Grafton House, forward to the local area which he has carefully adopted as his suited home. He takes pride in living in the area that launched his career, and I feel strongly that our local funny man will remain sharp and witty by our village green indefinitely. As I remember him clearly saying some time ago, in a gallery on Charlotte Street: “if there ever were a village in London, it would be Fitzrovia”.
25th & 26th of October 2014. Save the date, the Dylan Thomas festival is coming.