Griff Rhys Jones: You can take the boy out of Wales . . .
PUBLISHED: 12:54 03 June 2014
Catherine Larner talks to Suffolk residents Griff Rhys Jones and his mum, Gwynneth, about what it means to be Welsh and why they live on the opposite side of the country
Despite living in the east of England for as long as he can remember, TV presenter, actor and comedian Griff Rhys Jones has never been able to ignore his Welsh heritage. The name gives it away.
“My parents branded me before I left Cardiff,” he says. “Griffith Rhys Jones. You can’t get more Welsh than that. The name meant I could never forget. My parents decided to sew it on my name tag so I would never be anything but Welsh.”
Griff left Wales as a toddler when the family moved first to Scotland and then to Essex as his father took up hospital consultancy positions. The Rhys Joneses retired to Woodbridge 30 years ago and Griff moved this way shortly after.
“All our lives, the whole family, has been based around boats,” he says. The area holds long memories.
“We used to sail into Woodbridge quite often,” explains his mother, Gwynneth. “We bought our boat in Woodbridge. It was the first place that we went to that had a marina where you could get off the boat and walk into town without having to be rowed somewhere.”
“As a child I used to think that Woodbridge was very exciting because it had pubs and people walking around,” says Griff of these sailing holidays. But regular trips back to visit relatives in South Wales also left a deep impression.
“The journeys gave me a rather jaundiced view of Wales,” he says. Along with his brother and sister he was, he says, carted in the back of a Morris Traveller all the way from Midhurst in Sussex to Cardiff.
“The process seemed to take nine hours of driving. When we got there it was always hard boiled eggs, cold ham and lettuce because they said they didn’t know what time we were arriving so couldn’t cook.”
“The journey did seem to go on forever,” admits Gwynneth. “And your sister was always sick.”
“There were large numbers of my grandmother’s friends and relatives spread across South Wales who were all identified by where they came from,” Griff recalls. “I was introduced to all these strange women with too much powder and bright red lipstick. And grandparents are all alike – ‘let’s sit in this room for a couple of hours listening to the clocks ticking, and you can do some colouring’.”
Griff says he has only discovered the stunning scenery and distinctiveness of Wales through his various TV commissions. The BBC sent him roaming the countryside for programmes like Bookworm, Restoration, Mountain and Rivers, as well as exploring his family tree in Who Do You Think You Are?
“We seemed to be forever going up and down the country – and suddenly I’ve seen all of Wales,” he says. “But I’ve been rushing around for television programmes and I’ve never really explored what is meant by Welshness.
“Identity is important to people in Scotland and Wales. I remember when I was a boy, watching telly, and my mother would say ‘oh’ and then pause, ‘they’re Welsh, you know’, meaning they’re good. If they were Welsh, that was a matter of approbation.”
Gwynneth still thinks of herself as being Welsh. “If I have to fill in anything that says ‘nationality’ I want to put down ‘Welsh’.”
She will be 90 this year and still has a distinctive lilt in her voice. She remains very active in Woodbridge meeting friends and working with her chosen charities.
She is always eager to get Griff to speak for a good cause and she will lend a hand where she can.
For Griff, Welshness has been more complicated. Despite all the television programmes celebrating the country and his increasing personal ties – he has renovated a property in Pembrokeshire and has based his TV production company in Cardiff – he found he was considered ‘insufficiently Welsh’ when he pitched an idea to a Welsh production company recently. A book, investigating why this might be so, resulted.
“There are things that make me feel like I’m not a proper Welshman, because I’ve never fretted over them,” he says. “I haven’t been brought up to believe in them, I don’t have any of those concerns.
“I got a nice review about the book, which said, ‘The point about this book is that Griff Rhys Jones wasn’t brought up in Wales so he doesn’t take it for granted’.”
And Griff’s perspective is encouraging more people to look afresh on a country of staggering beauty and distinctiveness. When Griff’s TV programme A Great Welsh Adventure was broadcast earlier this year, the tourist board recorded an explosion of activity through its website. “We had the most wonderful weather, so it was a very good advertisement for Wales,” he says.
Griff has said that he would like to explore East Anglia in the same way, but has little time to do so in the near future as another TV commission beckons.
“I’m off to Africa to do the same there . . . ”