By Phil Turner
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Marxist writer Trevor Griffiths, 1935-2024

Griffiths made drama to quicken your heart and sharpen your ideas
Issue 2900
Trevor Griffiths on the set of Reds (Trevor Griffiths Obituary)

Trevor Griffiths (left) on the set of Food For Ravens

Trevor Griffiths, co-writer of the film Reds that brought the Russian Revolution to glorious life, was one of the greatest dramatist of his generation. Griffiths has died aged 88. He was a Marxist writer, part of the BBC’s “Class of ‘68” along with the likes of Ken Loach.

Shamefully, the right wing TV and drama establishment ignored and virtually abandoned him in later years. Born in Manchester in 1935, Griffiths might be a forgotten figure but his work remains a towering force.

Reds, made in 1981, was a huge box office hit, but not without a fight with Hollywood legend Warren Beatty with whom he shared writing credits. Griffiths wanted to focus more on class struggle during the Russian Revolution whereas Beatty wanted to focus on the romance between the two main lead actors. “I can honestly say I’m proud of about 50 percent of Reds and that’s pretty good for a Hollywood film,” he told Socialist Review in an interview.

But television was his favoured arena, creating brilliant drama in Comedians, The Party, Oi for England and many others. He wrote Bill Brand during his prime in the 1970s—an 11-part series on the failings of parliamentary democracy. And his stage work included The Gulf Between Us, which was about the Middle East, and Thatcher’s Children, which exposed the Tory leader’s attacks on young lives.  

He was politically committed, giving everything to his work and—as he once said—living inside his texts. Argument and debate as well as the battle between reform and revolution were his strong points.

Occupations, a theatre play later adapted to TV, was set in Turin in 1920—the Red Years when every factory in northern Italy had been taken over by its workers. We see communist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci take on the Stalinist representative Christo Kabak. Griffiths, taking license with history, brings out the key debate facing the working class movement in 1968.

He spent years trying to make a film on 18th century radical Thomas Paine, who argued for US independence from Britain.  His screenplay These Are The Times: A Life Of Thomas Paine reads as eloquently as a novel. Griffiths recognised Paine as a revolutionary for his time. The Rights of Man outsold the Bible and he was an inspiration and legend for political agitation, but he was written out of history. Griffiths said, “They are trying to remove people like him from the history books, people who could be speaking for us and to us today.”

Griffiths also talked about his interest in how revolutions impacted ideas and culture. For him, the 1917 Russian Revolution was a beacon. “I think the explosion in the ideas of art was amazing. The work going on in the theatre and architecture and sculpture and in painting with the constructivists,” he said. 

“All of that matters still and betokens what can be done by men and women working together for a different idea of the world than the world of capital.” Griffiths saw television as part of a process of education. But changes at the BBC, particularly under New Labour, saw him marginalised.

So his beautifully written 1997 television play Food For Ravens—about the birth of the NHS and Labour health secretary at the time, Aneurin Bevan—was restricted to Wales before grudgingly getting a late night slot on BBC Two.

Griffiths made drama to quicken your heart and sharpen your ideas—a political dramatist whose work deserves to be revived and revered. As he said, “I work on the long term not the short term. I hope that in 50 years’ time my plays will be around and people will be doing them and considering what they are about. That’s a decent outcome, I think.”

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