Richard Wilson explores the joys of shunning retirement for the theatre and why he’s not haunted by the ghost of One Foot in the Grave‘s Victor Meldrew
When an actor spends their career associated with one character, they’re generally not too thrilled when you bring them up. Tim Curry famously refuses to discuss his role as the fishnetted Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Sean Connery suffered from Bond fatigue, and Father Ted’s Pauline McGlynn has been sprinting away from the ‘go-on, go-on’ memory of Mrs Doyle ever since the sitcom came to an end. So it comes as a surprise to meet One Foot in the Grave’s Richard Wilson, and hear him speak about his former life as Victor Meldrew unfazed, and with great affection.
Far from haunted by the spectre of his BBC1 past, Wilson recently went as far as resurrecting Meldrew for a fundraiser at Sheffield Theatres, where he is associate director. Wearing a disgruntled expression and trademark flatcap, he performed a ‘One Foot’ (as he calls it) episode live for the audience, ‘I was extremely nervous…it was strange,’ he says, taking time with his words in his soft Scottish burr, ‘when I said I would revisit Victor, I thought it would be a doddle, but of course that was 15 years ago when we did that episode so I didn’t remember a word of it… I went for a snooze before the show. This calm went over me, and then I went on and had a ball.’ He even – cautiously – suggests there’s a chance he might consider taking the show out on the road.
One Foot in the Grave seems heavily dated today, but it was a great leveller – a mix of broad comedy and tragedy. It looked as though it was being shot through a rain-condensed window, framing Victor’s Eeyore outlook on life. But one thing people always get wrong about Victor, says Wilson, is that he was a grumpy old pensioner, ‘he was made redundant! He wanted to work, and kept trying to get work – I could understand some of his frustrations.’
He doesn’t seem irked when I bring up ‘the catchphrase’ – his 90s equivalent of going viral. Do people still shout it at him? ‘oh gosh, yeah! A lot of people say it as though nobody ever has before, and they seem rather chuffed at the idea. I just wave and walk on.’ Along with its mix of visual gags and exhaustive rants, One Foot had intentional nods to Beckett – the absurdity and loneliness of old age, the gnawing repetition of everyday life and loss. And so it’s fitting that Wilson slipped seamlessly from tabloid-friendly TV star to theatre director – with Beckett making a regular appearance in his work both on and off the stage.
Richard was previously associate director at the Royal Court, a role that served his insatiable appetite for new writing. And this December he’ll return to Chelsea to read at The Cadogan Tate Kids for Kids Candlelit Christmas Concert, fundraising for Kids for Kids, a charity that offers support to children that are living in poverty in Darfur. ‘I’ve been doing it for 6 years now. There’s terrible trauma happening [in Darfur] – and indeed wherever you look at the world. I see these pictures of refugees, and think “I should have my house thrown open”.’ Home is Hampstead, just a short walk from where he pitched up at his first London address back in 1959, ‘which was pretty ghastly’ he says, ‘I looked at a map of London and I didn’t realise Hampstead was the posh part!’. Back in those days, he was working as a lab technician in a Paddington hospital, but gave into the niggling urge to pursue acting at the late age of 27, when he went to RADA.
He once considered leaving the North West and buying a house with long-time friend Sir Ian McKellen, ‘I didn’t know that was public knowledge!’ he says in mock-horror when I bring this up, ‘we did think of it at one time, as we were getting towards our dotage.’ It never materialised, but he assures me ‘it’s not that we’ve fallen out or anything.’
Though he delves into occasional TV acting roles – directing at Sheffield Theatres takes up a great deal of his time. Right now, he’s preparing a stage thriller about snooker called The Nap, essentially ‘written to order’ by playwright Richard Bean, with Starred Up’s Jack O’Connell in the lead role. Though he couldn’t be further removed from the lugubrious Meldrew, there’s something poignant in the notion that Wilson, now 79, has achieved what Meldrew never could – working, tirelessly, into his golden years. As he tells me, ‘I think if I went up to Scotland and retired I would just sort of become a vegetable… I’ve no plans to retire when I’m still enjoying myself so much.’
Richard Wilson will be reading at The Cadogan Tate Kids for Kids Candlelit Christmas Concert on 3 December at St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square. Tickets, £25 for adults. Doors open 6.30pm; kidsforkids.org.uk