HE is best known for the grumpy character he played in One Foot in the Grave, but Nick Ahad finds Richard Wilson in a very good mood.
The first time I interviewed Richard Wilson, a couple of years ago, we met in the Crucible theatre foyer where schoolchildren were being led around by adults in fancy dress. I shouted “how are you enjoying your time in Sheffield?” as the kids and a giant bunny started singing. It felt like an episode of One Foot in the Grave.
The Crucible was staging Alice in Wonderland and our interview had coincided with an exercise the kids were doing with the workshop leaders. It was the sort of classic misunderstanding that would prompt Victor Meldrew, to utter his famous catchphrase of disbelief.
What will our second meeting bring? First a very friendly hello from the man once recognised as the nation’s most famous miserablist. The man who was Meldrew is exceedingly friendly, chirpy and altogether upbeat. Of course, actors who are lumbered with iconic roles aren’t actually like them in real life – but just as David Jason’s cut-glass accent throws most people who meet him, expecting to hear Del Boy, so Wilson’s cheerful disposition requires a little recalibration of the brain.
Handshakes and smiles exchanged, Wilson sits himself down – we have found a quiet corner of the Crucible bar this time with no sign of giant bunnies – and starts to consume with relish the first of two slices of cake he will enjoy during the interview. He looks very content – and it doesn’t appear to be just the cake.
Wilson is back in Sheffield thanks to his commitments as an associate director at the theatre. Appointed by Daniel Evans, when the Welshman took on the role of artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, it has always been something of a surprise that Wilson was appointed. Associates are normally young, up and comers, not 73-year-olds with established careers behind them, as Wilson was at the time.
Perhaps a little mischievously, wondering if I can find that grumpy character inside Wilson (it would make for colourful copy), I put this to him – he can hardly, with the greatest of respect, be considered young, or up and coming, surely?
Wilson laughs along at my mischief.
“I was made an associate for the first time at the Royal Court, when I was 65. I’m 75 now and being made an associate suits me down to the ground. It gives me a connection to a building – which is an important thing for a director – but I would never want to be in Dan’s (Evans) position where you have to actually run the building.
“This,” he says with a flourish, holding more cake up to his mouth, “seems tickety boo to me.”
That’s right. Victor Meldrew just said “tickety boo” and the world shifted on its axis and, no matter how colourful it would make the copy, there is clearly going to be no stories of Wilson’s grumpy demeanour.
Once appointed associate, Wilson had the job of choosing what he would direct. Perhaps surprisingly for someone who seems so established, Wilson’s big passion is for new writing.
Last year his debut for the theatre was to direct That Face, a first play by Polly Stenham that enjoyed reviews beyond anything expected. A violent, nasty, but utterly compelling play, I thought Wilson’s production was like being punched in the face for two hours.
This summer he is directing The Pride, another play that debuted in London, but is playing outside the capital for the first time in Yorkshire.
“Daniel has this policy of bringing plays that have premiered in London, to the provinces,” he says, almost managing to make “the provinces” not sound patronising.
“I personally like to direct new plays, but there wasn’t a new one for me to direct, so we settled on this one. When Daniel said he was going to be in the cast as well, I was very keen. I think we understand each other as actor and director.”
Although he has been directing since the Sixties, it is, for obvious reasons, in front of the camera or on stage that Wilson has really captured the attention of audiences. While shows like One Foot in the Grave and Merlin are mainstream and win him fans in volume, Wilson prefers to tread a less well-worn path when it comes to directing in the theatre. Edgy new work appears to be his forte.
“First of all, I believe in new writing. I’m directing a new play later this year – I believe theatre should be written by practising writers, performing plays by living writers. Sometimes I choose to do certain projects because it’s a writer I know. Sometimes it’s a play that gives me access to a world that I don’t know anything about.
“A couple of years ago, I directed Under the Whaleback (by Hull writer Richard Bean) which is set in the world of trawler fishermen. I knew nothing about that world, so it was fascinating to explore it.” The thing, however, that more than anything else attracts Wilson to a play is its social relevance – if it is a play with something to say about an issue.
In The Pride, which Wilson is directing for the Studio Theatre where his production of That Face was staged, the social relevance is clear. It’s a first play from Alexi Kaye Campbell which spans five decades, from 1958 to 2008 and explores gay relationships, homophobia and gay issues.
It is something that Wilson, if not pre-occupied with, certainly takes an active interest in. He is a supporter of gay rights and has appeared at events hosted by the gay rights charity Stonewall.
However, Wilson has never, from what I can garner from previous press interviews, discussed his own sexuality.
While being a little grumpy might be fun and make for interesting copy, I don’t want Wilson to be outright offended by asking about something he doesn’t wish to discuss.
“It’s not necessarily a gay play,” he says. “It’s by a gay writer and is about a gay man, living in the 1950s and therefore unable to declare his love because it’s illegal. We’re talking about a period when people were still having aversion therapy to ‘cure’ them of being gay. It compares that time with the 2000s when some gay men live promiscuous lives, and it asks all sorts of questions.”
So, was that the specific issue that attracted him to the play? And why does he choose to support gay charities?
“I support Stonewall and the Terrence Higgins Trust (the AIDS charity), but one doesn’t talk about one’s charitable deeds very much,” says Wilson, elongating the word “deeds” and bearing his big smile.
“I don’t stand on platforms; I’m not a gay campaigner in that sense. I haven’t come out as gay – although Wikipedia says I am – I don’t know who told them that.”
And that is the issue dealt with as far as he’s concerned. At his age and with his career behind him, he has a right to discuss what he wants and he appears to feel he has the right to do what he wants as well.
He left Victor Meldrew behind in 2000. The character’s death made the news headlines. Then came the role of Merlin’s mentor Gaius in the BBC series.
“These days my mailbag is a lot more international – Merlin is sold in 183 countries – and people get much more excited when they recognise me from Merlin than they used to from One Foot. It’s lovely to appeal to kids.”
Clearly, he is still enjoying acting, yet is also very happy in the rehearsal room directing – does he have any difficulty switching from one to the other?
“I wouldn’t like to direct all the time – it’s much more stressful than just acting, you’re responsible for too many things. When you’re acting you can have a couple of scenes off, or even a whole day. That doesn’t happen for a director.
“Also, directing doesn’t pay very much. So by doing a bit of telly – I’m going back to film Merlin after this – I can keep my quality of Chablis up.”
Victor Meldrew likes kids, is loving his cake, and likes to keep the quality of his Chablis up. I’m waiting for a man in a giant bunny costume to turn up and pull the rug out, but none comes.
“You really are the opposite of grumpy,” I point out, with a smile.
Wilson stretches out the words, his smile becoming bigger with each syllable until he is beaming by the end of the sentence.
“I seldom lose my temper.”
* The Pride, Sheffield Studio, to July 16. Tickets 0114 2496000.