Trevor Griffiths, playwright who foresaw alternative comedy, dies at 88 | Comedians depicted clash of old comics and new sensibilities © ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Trevor Griffiths, playwright who foresaw alternative comedy, dies at 88

Comedians depicted clash of old comics and new sensibilities

Trevor Griffiths, the dramatist who foresaw the rise of the alternative comedy scene with his groundbreaking play Comedians, has died at the age of 88.

A veteran socialist, he was editor of the Labour Party's Northern Voice newspaper before he tired of political journalism and began writing plays in the lates 1960s. But he was not afraid of criticising the revolutionary left, as he did in his breakthrough play, The Party which featured Laurence Olivier in his last stage role, as the Glaswegian Trotskyist John Tagg.

Originally commissioned by the Nottingham Playhouse, Comedians debuted in 1975, directed by Richard Eyre. Playing out in real time, it is set in a Manchester night school, where a group of budding comics on a comedy course gather for a final briefing before performing to an agent from London.

It was written in reaction to the ITV show The Comedians and its formulaic jokes about women, ethnic minorities and gay people. Griffiths once said that every such joke was ‘a lead pellet aimed at somebody in… my society’.

His play – which premiered four years before the opening of the Comedy Store in London – revolves around Gethin Price,an aspiring comedian full of political rage who wants his stand-up to have passion and purpose. However the agent wants familiar jokes and familiar stereotypes.

Griffiths once argued that Comedians may have been partly ‘instrumental’ in the rise of alternative comedy, which ‘sought not to rubbish victim targets, but rather to question and criticise the traditional […] basis of British standup comedy’.

Pryce in Comedians
Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo

The original cast included Jonathan Pryce as Price, above in the role, winning him a Tony award when the show transferred to New York. Stephen Rea played a young comic peddling racist, sexist gags, and the music hall performer Jimmy Jewel was the teacher  It was later adapted for television, and is regularly revived. Here is a review of a 2009 production at the Lyric, Hammersmith, with Matthew Kelly, Keith Allen and Reece Shearsmith.

The Manchester-born playwright’s other works included the BBC TV play Through the Night, based on his wife’s story of going into hospital with a cancerous lump and comes round after a mastectomy no one had told her was going to happen;  the 11-part  ITV series Bill Brand about a  Labour MP; and The Last Place On Earth, about Scott of the Antarctic.

Griffiths died on March 29, but his passing has only just been reported.

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Published: 2 Apr 2024

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