Richard Wilson talks about his career to date, with archive footage and testimony from friends and colleagues. Includes clips from programmes such as One Foot in the Grave.
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He became a national icon playing one of the most loved
but put-upon characters in British comedy.
Well, it was amazing to see Richard become so successful.
When I met him, I'm pretty sure he was living in one room.
Bloody hell! I do not believe it!
Before this startling elevation, he'd enjoyed a near faultless 30-year career as a character actor,
a regular face in film, theatre and television.
I intend to preserve and protect those values I hold most dear - the simple values of human dignity...
I immediately was struck by him and immediately found him a very funny actor.
But he's not just an actor.
He's a distinguished and inspiring director of gritty and challenging productions.
He is probably the busiest person I know.
He's extraordinary. He literally goes from one project to the next, to the next, to the next.
Today he continues to be one of the most bankable names in British television,
and his huge success hasn't diminished his relentless desire to work.
A lot of people say to me, "Why are you still acting?"
I say, "Because I enjoy it, (a), and (b) I'm still learning.
These are the many faces of Richard Wilson.
Thank you very much.
By the age of 54, Richard Wilson had
built a significant body of work, both as an actor and as a director.
But in 1990, cast in a major new BBC sitcom, he was about to experience a profound change in his life.
I think it's an inspirational story for actors.
He was very well established, very happy, had a good career, and then suddenly he went off into...
I've never in all my life known such shoddy bloody...
Oi, you - Superman's grandad!
One Foot In The Grave had a huge impact in Britain and beyond,
and the character of Victor Meldrew became an unlikely cultural icon.
Richard Wilson was catapulted into the cauldron of British public life.
And the winner is... Oh, good.
Richard Wilson, One Foot In The Grave.
I mean, I love the fact that Richard was taken to the national bosom in that way. That was brilliant.
I was hugely pleased when he picked up a couple of BAFTAs.
The winner is... Richard Wilson.
It was certainly life-changing for me insomuch that
one became a bit of a celebrity -
certainly recognised much more.
But it allowed me into areas of society that I'd never been in.
For example, I was Rector of Glasgow University
for three years, which was a job that I absolutely loved, because I'm very passionate about education.
And it opened all these doors - and also, for the first time, gave me financial security.
Well, it was amazing to see Richard become so successful.
When I met him,
even though he was an associate at
the Oxford Playhouse, I'm pretty sure he was living in one room.
He worked all the time.
In many ways because he lived so simply, he could travel easily and toured a great deal as well.
So when the success happened, it was fantastic.
CRICKET COMMENTARY It's caught at slip by Gooch!
One comedy role transformed Richard Wilson's life at a time when even
the most successful actors were being forced into the wings.
But after finding his true calling in his late twenties, his passion for acting has never waned.
He still considers it a privilege to have been able to be an actor.
He will still talk about
the fact that he has had a life
at one point in his life he never thought would happen, and it has.
Becoming one of Britain's biggest stars was a major change in Richard Wilson's life.
But it was the culmination of a dream that started in Greenock,
on the west coast of Scotland, in the 1940s.
When this young boy took to the stage in the Lady Alice Primary School,
little did he know how it would shape his future.
Our school had a stage, which...
in the gymnasium, which was turned into a theatre by putting seats in.
We had a proper stage, and I played in the Princess And The Pea, and I was the king.
The king was quite a small part.
I remember that I got one laugh.
and I thought, "This is interesting.
"I quite like this."
As time went on, I began to think
maybe being an actor was quite good idea.
Bitten by the bug to perform, Richard Wilson kept his lofty ambitions strictly to himself.
In post-war Greenock, a town dominated by heavy industry, acting was not an option.
I kept it pretty secret, as I remember.
I wasn't going to tell anyone for fear they would laugh.
Going into the theatre was strange.
On the west coast of Scotland, you'd be called a big sissy.
On leaving school, Richard Wilson mothballed any thoughts of acting
and chose a respectable path into the National Health Service.
Training as a lab technician, he became part of a crusade to fight the scourge of tuberculosis.
I was quite good at science and I quite liked the idea of working in medical work and
doing good for people and all the rest of it.
When he was called up for national service, Richard swapped
the hospital labs of Glasgow for the field hospitals of war-torn Malaya.
Demobbed after his two years in the Royal Army Medical Corps,
Richard Wilson was keen to swap bloody conflict for culture and headed to London.
I came to London to see more theatre and to see cinema.
I'd become very interested in cinema.
When I came down, I, sort of, lived in the National Film Theatre -
then I caught up with will the classics and it was just a wonderful time.
Now in his late twenties, Richard was content performing in am-dram
as well as holding down his day job in Paddington Hospital.
However, a chance meeting reignited his dream of becoming a professional actor.
I met a girl at a party, a student at RADA, and she said
you only have to have lived in London for a year to get a grant.
I didn't know that.
By the time I was 27, I thought if I don't try now, I'll never try, so I applied to RADA.
I applied to the London County Council, as it was then,
and they paid all my fees and I had a living grant.
Otherwise, I couldn't have done it.
I was absolutely thrilled, of course, when I got in.
The thing about RADA was that there was a sort of mixture of ideas being thrown at you.
It was pretty open, which I thought was very good.
A lot of concentration on voice and technical work, movement, restoration movement, dance, everything.
When he graduated in 1965, Richard Wilson could now called himself an actor.
A new life beckoned and within days of leaving RADA,
he headed north to make his TV debut on one of Britain's biggest shows.
-Does that hurt?
-Aye, it does.
Will you be in court tomorrow
to hear Moorcroft shoot done the schoolteacher?
-I will not.
-Aye, young Finlay will.
Oh, I bet he feels pretty sick now.
-Well, nobody likes the teacher, do they?
It was the Andrew Cruikshank version of Dr Finlay and they were
always looking for fresh Scottish faces and one of my teachers at RADA had a friend who was directing one,
so that's how I managed to get the part.
But it was in the radical theatre of the late '60s that Richard Wilson really began to develop as an actor.
It all started at the end of one of Edinburgh's long, dark lanes.
The Traverse, as it suggests, was a traverse, it was 30 seats on one side and 30 seats on the other.
It was a tiny, tiny little theatre.
It was run by Gordon McDougall at the time and it was a really exciting place to be.
I loved it.
It was very intimate as well and that was great for Richard because he's an actor, um...
who likes to be very close to the audience and he works very well in close up.
It was during productions of Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot and Uncle Vanya by Chekhov
that Richard's talent for drawing comedy from the tragic and the absurd emerged.
That quality, that the whole thing is tragic but also absurd, was something that I think
he responded to very quickly and in a sense, it's a gift to have somebody that has that ability
to make you laugh and feel very deeply for the character at the same time.
Whilst at the Traverse, Richard Wilson was amongst
a number of performers who caught the attention of Sidney Bernstein, the impresario behind Granada TV.
It was his vision to form a company of actors and writers
whose creativity would energise British TV drama. It was called The Stables.
It was the first company in the country that was going to do television and theatre.
We were a repertory company that did television, which was absolutely unheard of and very exciting.
So we had money to commission plays, for example, which repertory companies didn't have.
We were able to develop new writers and new plays in the theatre and some of them went on
into television and Richard was part of that company from '68 to 1971.
The collaborative nature of the company saw Richard flourish on and off stage.
In 1969, he was confident enough to direct his first play and so began another successful career path.
It was about a ventriloquist, an ageing ventriloquist,
who had a great sex drive.
-Who is it?
I don't want you.
They asked me to get your groceries.
Did you say groceries?
All the helpers who were sent round to deal with him he attacked, basically, as I remember.
Maybe a tin of apricot jam.
Before you go, make sure there's none down behind the bed there at the back. I hide it there sometimes.
Just have a look, there's a good lass.
Oh, God Almighty!
When Granada ran into financial difficulties in the early '70s, The Stables Company was disbanded.
But for Richard, the association with Granada continued when he has offered his first notable TV role
as a flamboyant barrister in a memorable and long-running courtroom drama.
The idea was that on Wednesday, you had the prosecution,
on Thursday the defence and on Friday, the summing-up
and the verdict
and the special thing about it was that you had real people in the jury.
Richard played Jeremy Parsons, QC.
-Philip da Costa?
You're not just a rancher, are you?
I don't know what you mean, sir.
I should have thought the question was quite simple.
Shall I put it another way?
Is ranching your only business interest?
Oh, no, no.
-You have other interests?
Jeremy Parsons was very sarcastic, as I remember.
He could be quite nasty, in his, er...
Well, of course barristers are.
What is cryptorchidism, Senor Da Costa?
Oh well... I...
-I don't know.
-You're quite sure?
-Sure I'm sure.
Well, paraphimosis? What about paraphemosis?
Well, I trust you do, Mr Parsons.
Yes, my Lord.
What he brought to it,
which a lot of the other counsels didn't, was quite a strong sense of comedy,
that writers were able to give him material that was more probing and
more...slightly more absurd and way out.
Cryptorchidism is a condition which either one or both testicles are
retained in the body and have not descended into the scrotum.
The resulting body heat usually destroys the viability of the sperm.
-Yes, I take your point.
-Paraphimosis, on the other hand, is a disease of the penis and...
Spare us the details.
Richard became very popular with audiences, but also with directors,
because generally speaking, as it was such a fast turn around,
the actors wouldn't bother, the actors playing the counsel wouldn't bother to learn the script.
They would just have it in front of them and refer back to it.
But Richard would always learn the script.
You could always get a reaction shot on him.
He wouldn't be buried back in the script looking at the next question.
Because you had your lines, your questions in your note book, which is absolutely
legitimate, I realised if you had your head down too much of the time, you weren't going to get into shots.
At a stroke, Richard Wilson became a well known face for
the role of Jeremy Parsons and his TV career took off.
His comic touch led to regular supporting roles, particularly in sitcoms,
working alongside Leslie Crowther and Sylvia Syms in My Good Woman,
and opposite David Jason in A Sharp Intake of Breath.
But his next comedy role moved him a little closer to centre stage.
After years spent working in hospital labs, he was well suited
to play Dr Gordon Thorpe In Only When I Laugh.
I had a lot of doctors to go on, because I had watched them in hospital work.
But of course a lot of my patients thought I was a doctor.
They used to call me "doctor"
when I was taking blood from them and things like that.
And I used to explain that I wasn't.
But then I got fed up,
because it took too long. So I used to strut around in my white coat.
Oh dear, oh dear.
-Not for me to comment, of course.
-Of course not.
-Not a pretty sight.
-I've seen Christmas turkeys in better shape.
Not to worry, old chap, you're in good hands now.
-Who did this to you?
Despite the show being a huge hit for ITV, Richard found his role less than taxing,
a point he brought up with the writer.
I remember, I used to say to Eric Chappell, because I was playing
a doctor in a series about patients, and I remember saying to Eric, look, just write me another scene,
we don't have to broadcast it, but just do it in rehearsal. Because I got so bored.
I shouldn't really accept. Thank you, Norman.
You know, there are days in medicine, not very many, but from time to time,
everything seems worthwhile.
-Now, Mr Binns, we need a few details. We don't appear to have your sample.
-Your urine sample.
-I've just given it to the doctor.
But there were more substantial roles for Richard to play and each brought its own benefits.
It was while appearing in a BBC drama in 1978 that Richard first
worked with actor Anthony Sher, who had become a lifelong friend and regular collaborator.
It was a series for the BBC called Pickersgill People, written by the late Mike Stott.
And it was different stories set in this imaginary place, Pickersgill,
and the one we were in was called the Sheik of Pickersgill, about a very rich, young Arab sheik,
which I played, coming to an English language school, which Richard was running.
Welcome, your highness.
Mackenzie Tooth, sir,
pronounced Tyooth, spelt tooth, as in mouth.
Ah, fuck me.
He had no English at all, this sheik, but he really came to watch football and it was an extremely funny play.
I remember he used to spit quite a lot.
I mean, you've already done a year's study at Cowper College,
I understood, so you will have mastered...
-Cowper College, yes, nice place. Rubbish.
Every now and again he would go pffut!, which Mackenzie Tooth didn't take to much.
His father, king Fakmed - socialist!
So speak English, my son, he said.
We just hit it off immediately.
So well that we ruined take after take with laughing.
Oh, well - aye, there is the rub.
Well, yes. Yes.
Richard was carving out a niche for playing authority figures, often with a comic edge.
But he played it straight when he was cast as a condescending colonial governor
in the film A Passage to India,
working under the great director, David Lean.
Working with David was very exciting. Really exciting.
It was wonderful to see his sort of visual eye and
how keen he was on the visuals and his eye for detail was extraordinary.
He used to regale us with stories of his early days. et cetera,
which was wonderful. It was wonderful to be working with him.
# A wop bop a loo mop a lop bam bam Tutti Frutti.. #
Regular work followed A Passage to India.
But it was in 1987 that Richard would redeploy his comic talents
in a BBC comedy drama that launched the talents of Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson.
# A wop bop a loo mop a lop bam bam... #
Tutti Frutti followed the troubles of old-time rockers, The Majestics,
as they struggled to keep body and soul together, as well as their chaotic tour on the road.
Fink, scummy rat fink!
That's what Danny Boy saint is.
Get off that stage, careful, you two timing, scummy rat fink!
I'm a two-timing rat fink?
What about you? Where are you?
Where I should be and you shouldnae - on stage at The Pavilion for The Majestics' sound check.
Get that stupid guitar off and get back to your knitting.
It was after a chance TV viewing that Tutti Frutti's writer, John Byrne, became convinced
there was only one man to play the hapless and shifty band manager.
Richard Wilson, I had seen years before in a play and I thought, God, he's wonderful, that guy.
And when we came to the part of Eddie Clockerty,
Tony Smith and I were talking about it and he said to me,
there is only one guy can play this part.
And I looked at him and I said - and we both said it -
Richard, we both said it simultaneously, Richard Wilson.
So we both had the same idea.
Listen, we might be able to salvage The Majestics' Silver Jubilee junket after all.
I remember reading this man Eddie Clockerty and thinking,
I have got to research this character - I don't know anyone like this.
But then the more I read - John's writing was so explicit and
then we had the great Katy Murphy came along very late in the casting.
He never signed that, did he?
That's yours with the lumpy milk.
Of course he signed it - he just didn't sign all of it.
You could go to the Bar-L for that, Mr Clockerty.
What, for making up for an incompetent PA, Miss Toner? Look at this.
He forgot to staple the bottom 12 pages to the top sheet.
I'm just trying to rectify a clerical blunder, that's all.
I was Janice Toner, who
was the secretary to Richard Wilson's character, Mr Clockerty.
Katy was wonderful to work with. She had
never played anything that big before, I don't think.
And she just grasped it.
Vincent Diver. He doesn't sound too pleased about something.
Tell him I'm away home.
You've just told him.
You're on a verbal warning, Janice.
Aye, that'll be right.
Richard's incredibly supportive
of me and incredibly kind and when I did actually learn a lot about
acting, speaking to him, because he is a wonderful director as well, so he is very knowledgeable.
You had a pleasant enough journey through?
Nice bunch of lads. Nice bunch.
No, keep that arm up.
Do you mind, sweetheart?
Do I mind what? Standing here like an idiot,
holding on to the slack of your bum, when I could be downstairs in the bar having a last gin and tonic?
-What do you think?
-Pay no attention to Miss Toner, Danny. She's going to get her jotters when we get back.
Just try it.
The writing was exceptional and John wrote in the Scottish vernacular. We didn't water it down.
I remember Anthony Howard, I think it was, on some review programme saying,
I don't understand a word of it. Just dismissed it.
-Is that what you're wearing, Miss Toner?
-What's up with it?
-No, no, it's...
-Is that us, then?
-Do you not want to take a coat, just in case it rains?
If it's your pals in the miner's welfare in Methil you're bothered about, don't.
I'll be tucked up nice and cosy in my bed with a good book.
John Byrne's Tutti Frutti walked away with six BAFTAs
and Richard Wilson's reputation for a distinctive comedy touch was significantly enhanced.
The winner is Peter Hayes for Tutti Frutti.
Lora Blair for Tutti Frutti.
and John Byrne for Tutti Frutti.
I think it just
hit the spot.
In terms of
the fact that people
talked about it the following day.
It went out on a Tuesday night, it was on the graveyard slot on the BBC at that time. BBC1.
And people were talking about it the following day.
But there was another writer who had played by far the most significant role in Richard's career.
His scripts sparked Richard's rise from solid second billing to the pantheon of British comedy greats,
where only a handful of performers exist.
However, back in the 1980s, writer David Renwick looked to Richard to play the foil to Peter Cook,
in the movie Whoops Apocalypse,
a satirical swipe at the deeply divisive Conservative policies of the 1980s.
The entire country has gone stark staring raving...
-Morning Prime Minister.
I first became aware of Richard's work generally, I think, watching him in Only When I Laugh.
He played those kind of
sort of authority figures with, I don't know,
a kind of ineffectual pomposity to them.
I immediately was struck by him and found him a very funny actor.
What we need now is a radical job-creation programme.
Now I have devised one here that will create half a million new jobs in its first year of operation.
Basically, the scheme works like this.
Every week, 10,000 working people jump off a cliff,
thus creating 10,000 new jobs.
We knew he was of the left, so he was kind of politically sound and he seemed ideal material for that role.
Now some people argue this crisis is as a result of Government mismanagement and under-spending.
Well, they could not be more wrong.
-Because we all know what really causes unemployment in this country, don't we gentlemen?
Unemployment in this country is caused by pixies.
Anything that was trying to do down Margaret Thatcher, I accepted
with open arms.
Because by this time I was a member of the Labour Party and hated Margaret Thatcher and her government.
I think that kind of anarchic comedy, which was very wild, very surreal in a lot of cases, works
better the straighter the performances are within it.
And people like Richard are just gold dust
in that respect, because they do give it such a kind of weight.
It wasn't a very successful film, unfortunately.
But it was great to do.
And of course started my relationship with David.
The following year, writers David Renwick and Andrew Marshall looked to Richard Wilson again
for their sitcom that satirised the charging juggernaut that was '80s tabloid journalism.
# Paper, paper, give us your daily news... #
We really just want to get the knives into the
scurrilous activities of the press at that time
and prior to that time and since that time. Nothing has changed. Nothing whatsoever.
Hello, good morning, Dicky. How are you today?
I just ran into Greg Kettle in the lift, who said he was on his way to
investigate a story that tennis player Boris Becker was a lesbian.
Based on the somewhat flimsy evidence that he's been seen going out with women.
Now this is just the kind of pernicious pap that Mr Rathbone brought me into stamp out.
David Renwick had been a journalist
and he said everything was true that happened in Hot Metal.
It was. It was having a real swipe at press barons and tabloid papers.
As well as taking broad swipes at the barely-legal excesses of the press, the series also served as
a perfect showcase for Richard Wilson's comic timing.
No, I do not propose to bring back topless girls in the Crucible.
To be frank, I find naked bosoms quite distasteful...
Well, stop tasting them then!
..quite distasteful and an insult to women
and I intend to preserve and protect these values I hold most dear.
The simple values of human dignity.
Humphrey Barclay, who produced the show, said, "Who is it funny to cut to?"
Answer, not very many people, not many actors.
Richard obviously is one of those.
This is a job for the experts.
Ah, come in, come in.
'He put Richard entrapped inside a magic box'
from which he's being removed by Ali Bongo.
It's just very funny to see Richard's face poking out of that hole.
We'll have the skewers out of you in no time.
Right, Mr Bongo!
I can't make it funny unless it's well written.
David would always say that yes, the writing was there,
but he needed an actor who had that extra whatever.
Hot Metal only ran for two series but it strengthened a bond between David Renwick and Richard Wilson
that would reach a whole new level on their next project.
As well as the continuing on-screen success,
Richard was also prospering as a director,
regularly taking the helm in theatre and television plays.
It's enormously nourishing to him,
the directing career.
He takes great pride in it
and has great love for it.
It's really from Richard that I've learnt the way I work as an actor.
I think he's incredible.
He's by far and away the best director
that I've worked with in my 30-year career.
He doesn't try to control you. He allows you to blossom.
He just gives you complete confidence in yourself and your abilities.
In 1990, Richard Wilson faced one of his biggest creative challenges
when he devised and directed a feature-length drama for the BBC.
It dealt with the emotional toil of soldiers sent home to convalesce
in country houses after losing limbs in the slaughter of World War I.
It was a subject very close to Richard's heart.
My father had fought in the First World War and had told me a little bit about it.
A lot of the grand houses were turned into hospitals
because there was a flood of wounded and not enough space.
Good morning. Don't get up.
And also because of my experience in Singapore,
where I was dealing with battle casualties,
I always felt that it hadn't been dealt with properly before.
All right now, you tell me if it hurts.
Relax. Lie back.
Were you in the line long?
Just a year, sir.
'I felt that the people who were playing the wounded should be'
played by disabled people, not by actors who were just pretending.
Hurts everywhere, sir.
Yes, I know, try and relax.
'This was so much his project from the start'
and his fascination as well with those well-bred young ladies
who became VAD nurses
and these shattered young men,
often physically and mentally shattered,
who were coming back from the Front.
There's the most astonishing scene,
which is right at the beginning of the film when I,
as this young nurse, arrive to be interviewed
and I'm standing in the hallway, waiting,
and I look out of the window and there is the parade ground.
One! One! One!
One! One! One! One! One!
But of course, they all have their crutches,
and the sergeant major is shouting, "One! One! One!
One! One! One! One!
And a bigger anti-war statement I don't think I've ever seen on the screen in fiction.
It won the first prize at the Banff Film Festival.
I had been invited to go to Banff to accept a prize and I was working
and I couldn't go and I was so frustrated.
It was the first time I'd won a prize for any television work.
I was really upset that I couldn't get to Banff.
During the production of Changing Step, Richard Wilson received a comedy script in the post.
It was from David Renwick, who had co-written Whoops Apocalypse and Hot Metal.
The script was for a new BBC sitcom with the unpromising title One Foot In The Grave.
It may have been well before at the soaring success and the countless awards,
but even at this early stage, David Renwick knew success lay in the comedic talents of one man.
I wrote One Foot In The Grave very much with Richard in mind,
having worked with him on those two other projects
and knowing how strong he was,
how great he was to work with, just on a personal level.
That counts for a huge amount.
And he wasn't such a star name,
such a commodity that he was likely to be unavailable.
Famously, he turned it down, so that set us back considerably.
Well, it was partly vanity, I suppose.
I think the part of Victor, he was 60 and I was, I think, 55 at the time,
and I just hadn't seen myself playing older people yet.
After reading more scripts, Richard's reservations disappeared,
but the BBC were also voicing their doubts.
There were some dissenting voices within the BBC -
I won't name them, quite high up -
who felt that Richard was really only destined
to be a "second banana", as they would have called it,
in the same way that they said that about David Jason.
Fortunately, in those days, you could actually
have arguments about it and, on occasion, win those arguments.
I doubt that would happen today. And so good sense did prevail.
Fortunately, the producer assigned to it, Susie Belbin,
was a huge fan of Richard's work to start with,
so she was championing him from the start.
# They say I might as well face the truth
# That I am just too long in the tooth... #
The sitcom revolved around Victor Meldrew, a man who felt the pain of life's daily grind very keenly.
This made all the worse by being cast aside into the purgatory of early retirement.
Of course, the biggest problem of all was,
how do you ever replace a man like Victor Meldrew?
Well, basically, with this box.
-I know! Isn't it amazing what they can come up with these days?
It does everything you used to do,
except complain about the air conditioning.
The omens weren't particularly, erm,
auspicious at the beginning there.
There were the traditional kind of press responses.
"It should be One Script In The Bin,"
"I'd like to kick the other foot in the grave,"
and all this kind of stuff.
You know, there were people who said that Richard was wasted,
who basically loved him in Tutti Frutti and that's where it should stop.
I remember being a little bit disappointed, I suppose.
But it was doing well enough to do another series
and then another series.
Susie Belbin, the producer and director, she always said,
"Just wait, it will click."
And, of course, she was right.
A lot of people did come late to it.
Although the viewing figures for the first two series were modest,
One Foot In The Grave did eventually establish itself with the British public.
They grew to love a character who fought manfully
to live a life of dignity and free of idiotic interference.
Let's face it, if you've got your health, what else is there possibly to worry about?
I mean, you just don't know how well off you are...
What in the name of bloody hell?!
I do not believe it!
He was just a wonderful mixture of standing up for the common man
and fighting against society,
fighting against authority.
Absolutely bloody hideous!
It's much more sensible wearing a loaf of bread on top of your head!
How anyone could... Hello, yes!
I'd like to speak to the manager, please, and quick about it.
No, he doesn't, but he bloody well will shortly!
I never really tried to analyse too much why One Foot was so successful,
because I just obeyed David's scripts.
He wrote it, and he wrote it extremely well.
You never know...
whether to drink this stuff or clean the windows with it.
"Caution - this medication can lead to darkening of the stool."
'I remember, I think it was'
Mark Lawson that said that
David Renwick was the Beckett of the sitcom.
Which is a wonderful compliment.
And I think he was right.
"Colon tumour -
"often no symptoms in the early stages."
Exactly what I've got!
'I'm not sure it was ever written'
as a particularly mainstream kind of show.
It looked like it. You know, it had the sofa and the chairs and the sort of comfortable setting.
But actually it had a very dark, macabre side.
This is the end to a perfect week, isn't it?
To come home and find your husband has taken up necrophilia!
Do you mind if I ask what you're doing here?
I think there are some that still think of it
as a rather comfy, sofa-based show.
But if you actually analyse what's going on,
there's quite a lot of unpleasantness and bleakness to the whole thing.
It was just great to get a David Renwick script in the post
and see what he was up to, what he had planned.
A lot of it, for Victor,
"Dear Mrs Meldrew, have filled in the hole now, hope it is to your satisfaction.
"It certainly is to mine."
What are you doing?
What am I doing?
I'm wallpapering the spare bedroom!
What the bloody hell does it look as if I'm doing?
I never shied away from being as vicious as I possibly could
against Victor. I'm not sure Richard resisted that either.
I think the comic imperative would always dictate
that you want to be as nasty to him as possible,
because therein lie the greatest laughs, and hopefully that way,
you'll engender the audience's sympathy.
As One Foot In The Grave became enormously successful,
Richard Wilson became inseparable from his character.
Where's that glass?
'In terms of his performance, he compared favourably with the finest around.'
They're talking about us.
I just caught the words "arsehole think he's playing at".
It's gone quiet. I wonder what's happening.
The other actor that I had worked with most closely before Richard
was Rowan Atkinson.
I did his stage show with him for several years.
And Richard and Rowan both had a slightly similar approach
to comedy acting, which was really to sort of regard it
as the same as any other kind of acting.
I'll tell you exactly what the problem is, Mr Sturgeon!
I was working in the garden when he arrived, so I asked him if,
for the time being, he'd put it in the downstairs toilet for me.
And do you know what he's done? He's only planted it in the pan!
Victor Meldrew quickly entered popular culture as a byword
for any joyless outburst or act of ineffectual rage.
And as the public and Her Majesty's press blurred fact with fiction,
one recurring line stuck fast.
I don't believe it!
I do not believe it!
I don't believe it!
It was never meant to be a catch phrase.
It was just that he used to say it quite a lot.
And eventually it was picked up by the press.
It was only when it appeared in print, "I don't believe it,"
with the seven E's, that I became aware that I was using it quite a lot.
And when we discovered that "I don't believe it"
was being picked up on quite the way it was, I started to ration it.
So he wouldn't say it very often, or he would say a half one.
"I don't be..." or "I d..."
The public love a catch phrase, and they can plague actors for years.
And Richard Wilson suffered like the rest of them.
But on one notable occasion, he played along to brilliant comic effect
in another sitcom, of all places.
God almighty! Look who it is - it's that actor.
-You know, your man from One Foot In The Grave, the "I don't believe it" man.
I was a greater admirer of Father Ted,
and they were great admirers of One Foot.
So when they asked, I was only too pleased.
-Do you know what he'd love?
-He'd love it if somebody came up to him and said his catch phrase.
Oh yeah, Ted, he'd love that. You should definitely do that.
And, of course, a lot of people remember that
much more than they remember One Foot In The Grave,
'because they were Father Ted fans.'
I don't believe it!
After ten years and six dazzling series,
in which Victor Meldrew's daily routine
took every wrong turn possible,
the character would suffer one last cruel twist of fate.
None of which perturbed the star himself.
'I don't think a main character in a sitcom had ever died before'
and David thought that was a very suitable way to go.
But also it meant he wouldn't be pestered into writing more,
because I remember I was doing Waiting For Godot
for the second time in Manchester and David came to see it.
He said, "I'm thinking of killing off Victor,"
and I said, "Yeah, kill him."
'It was just becoming'
a little bit of a routine
in a sense of trying to find new ways of being angry
and keeping it fresh.
To have a sympathetic, realistic character like that killed off,
I felt was probably a first,
and that would be one reason I thought it was a good idea.
But mainly just to make it unequivocally final.
Throughout the elevation to national stardom, Richard's workload increased.
The parts flooded in and Richard was most fulfilled when he was working flat out.
Most actors worth their salt want to do different parts
and play different roles.
That's what they train for and that's what they want to do.
They're happier when they're working.
And because of long spells out of work, you grab any chance you can get
because you want to meet new directors and all the rest of it.
But as one of the most successful and recognisable faces in Britain,
he now had to bear an unfamiliar burden of expectation,
to deliver instant success.
It was worrying, in a sense, that that pressure was on your shoulders
and I suppose also that
I was most suited to Eddie Clockerty and Victor Meldrew
and some of the other characters I was attempting,
maybe I didn't quite have the scope to deal with them.
Away from the screen and back in theatre,
Richard continued to seek out challenging material to direct.
In 2004, when he worked yet again with Antony Sher,
he'd be tested to the extreme,
attempting the near-impossible task
of dramatising the horrors of the Holocaust.
It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944.
That is, after the German government decided,
owing to the growing scarcity of labour,
to lengthen the average lifespan
of the prisoners destined for elimination.
Well, I had done an adaptation
of Primo Levi's great book
If This Is A Man, which is his account of
having been in Auschwitz.
And I'd written it as a one-man piece.
I'd always thought of Richard as directing it.
When Tony asked me to direct this,
I was extremely flattered that he'd asked me.
Straightaway, I realised it was such a simple, lean script
that it should be done in an empty space.
with your shoes,
your wooden-soled shoes.
At first, they're like instruments of torture.
After a few hours' marching, you already have painful sores.
These quickly become infected.
And then you're forced to walk with a kind of shuffle
as if dragging a convict's chain.
This is the strange gait of the army
which returns each evening on parade.
If the sores get worse, you start arriving last everywhere
and everywhere, you'll get hit
and you can't run away when they chase you.
It's beyond ordinary emotions, isn't it,
because the experience is beyond ordinary experience.
And because Primo Levi the was a chemist by profession,
he had this scientific observation of these incredibly inhumane things
that were happening, even when they're happening to him.
Each of us, as he comes out naked, must run the few steps
between the two doorways,
hand his card to the SS man and return to the dormitory.
In a fraction of a second, with a glance at your front and your back,
the SS man will judge your fate
and pass your card to one side or the other
and this will mean life or death.
It was wonderful to watch when it started off at the National
and people came in.
It took about four or five minutes for them to realise
that Tony wasn't going to do anything other than this
and then he just managed to suck them in, and the stillness.
The stillness in New York, which has a very huge Jewish population
of course, the stillness in New York was extraordinary. Extraordinary.
The audience were absolutely with him.
Richard Wilson's ability to balance challenging theatre work
and popular mainstream television exhibits a versatility
that's a result of his continuing passion for the craft.
If you begin acting late
and if you train late and if you start late,
I think you always think to yourself,
"How wonderful, I'm doing this,"
and I think he has a real sense of that,
that he's privileged to be able to do it.
He's probably the busiest person I know. He's extraordinary.
He literally goes from one project to the next, to the next, to the next.
It can be performing or producing or directing or writing or whatever.
He has many, many talents and he never seems to allow himself any break in between,
which is extraordinary, and all at the age of 145, I think he is now.
A lot of people say to me, "Why are you still acting?"
And I say, "Because I enjoy it, A, and B, I'm still learning."
And I think a lot of people think that's a sort of false humility.
"How can you still be learning?"
But acting is such a complex and complicated creature.
In 2007, at the tender age of 70,
Richard Wilson continued his education
when he accepted a part in a magical family drama,
a genre that forced him to work outside of his comfort zone.
Doing something like Merlin
was quite testing.
HE CLEARS HIS THROAT
It was a bit of a shock that I was being offered a part
in a long-running drama and the fact that it was science-fiction-based fantasy.
And it just seemed too good to turn down.
I got your water. You didn't wash last night.
-Help yourself to breakfast.
'Merlin is a young Merlin.'
I play his mentor and I was very fortunate in the actor they cast
as Merlin, Colin Morgan, was quite new to television, but just a brilliant actor.
-Are you using magic again?
What's all this, then?
Richard is the one person I enjoy doing scenes with
the most in the show.
The whole cast, we get on so well together
but I always look forward to a day when I'm doing scenes with Richard.
What did your mother say to you about your gifts?
That I was special.
You are special,
the likes of which I've never seen before.
What do you mean?
Well, magic requires incantations, spells, it takes years to study.
What I saw you do was elemental, instinctive.
-What's the point if it can't be used?
-That, I do not know.
'When you're working with him was an actor,'
he'll offer advice sometimes
but it's never what you'd feel a director doing it.
It's always in a way which inspires you and makes you go...
He'll say, "Try the line that way," or if you did it a certain way,
he'll go, "That was really good, the way you did that,"
and as a young actor,
you'd be foolish to ignore advice from someone like Richard.
I always feel with younger actors,
they're much more open to listening to new ideas
and I think that we have several young actors in Merlin
and they are all, considering they've not done a series before,
they are all up there and ready for it and well-trained.
I thick the training of young actors, by and large,
is very healthy in this country.
After more than 40 years of uninterrupted work,
Richard Wilson has no plans to retire or fade away.
Perhaps, in recognition of the significant role
that a school play had
in introducing him to the wonders of a life on stage,
his workload may be about to increase.
I haven't done a lot of teaching,
but maybe the time has come that I should.
But I still think of myself as a working actor,
a director, actor/director.
I don't have any plans to retire.
I don't think I'd be any good at retiring as such,
as long as my health stands me in good stead.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Richard Wilson talks about his impressive career to date, with archive footage and testimony from friends and colleagues. The programme contains footage and stills from programmes such as One Foot in the Grave, Crown Court, Only When I Laugh and Richard's first TV appearance on Dr Finlay's Casebook.
The show progresses from his earliest appearances on screen, to what drove his choices, for good or ill, and their consequences. Like all good biography it paints a true picture that will not only uplift but also unveil our subject and reveal exactly what has defined him.