Not-so grumpy Wilson a man with one foot in the future

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Sometimes when there is a very obvious way to start a story, everything says avoid the cliche.

When it comes to Richard Wilson, it’s almost impossible. ‘I don’t believe it” and no doubt many others won’t either, but Wilson has been dubbed one of the hottest directors of new plays in British theatre.

Yes, the man who famously played the grumpiest of grumpy old men, Victor Meldrew, is at the vanguard of new writing.

“Ah, well, yes, I couldn’t possibly comment,” says Richard Wilson, all smiles and jokes over lunch at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre when the title is laid at his feet. He is self-deprecating, modest and really quite jovial.

Since One Foot in the Grave last aired in 2000, Wilson has successfully avoided being typecast by the iconic role. In the BBC drama Merlin he plays the court physician Gaius, he’s had a part in Doctor Who and lent his voice to the big screen animation Gnomeo and Juliet.

However, while his versatility as an actor is undeniable, what’s less well known is his standing as a director.

A couple of years ago Wilson was appointed associate director at Sheffield Theatres. The venue’s artistic director Daniel Evans knew of the work Wilson had been doing in London theatres and wanted to bring some of that vision north.

Since arriving in the city, Wilson has directed the regional premiere of the multi-award winning play That Face, The Pride and the world premiere of Lungs.

All were deemed an enormous success – and the three productions further cemented the reputation of Wilson as a director, and might be why he has recently been described, on a number of occasions, as the best director of new plays in the country.

So much so that his name and the work he has done in the last few years is spoken of in hushed tones in new theatre circles. How, at the age of 76, is he managing to stay at the top of a game that is generally where thrusting, bright young things flourish?

“Really, it’s... I have heard it said that I am one of the better directors of new plays, which I have to tell you, absolutely thrills me,” he says.

It transpires that the man who played Britain’s most famous pensioner, a role which kept him busy for 10 years, is anything but old-fashioned.

“I think it comes from the belief that theatre should be about new writing.

“It should be about the society that we live in and I absolutely believe we should be employing new writers.

“Theatre shouldn’t be about trying to make one of Shakespeare’s plays relevant to Northern Ireland.

“There might also be something of an inferiority complex – with new plays no-one else has done them so whatever I do is the first time. I don’t know – I just love working with a group of actors on a new play when the writer is available.”

The reason there’s a disconnect between what we think we know of Richard Wilson and the fact that he is actually one of the best directors around of new writing is because he played such an iconic role.

He played the miserablist Victor Meldrew with such conviction that it’s very odd to think of him mixing it up with the youngsters. During lunch he often makes reference to the fact that he is feeling his age – saying that it’s hard for older actors to get work, that practice is paramount when you get older.

He also references the fact that working with younger people is another plus.

“Some older people can be fuddy-duddy and old fashioned, I much prefer to be working with younger people,” he says. “I am definitely not old fashioned or fuddy-duddy.”

The latest play Wilson is working on is Straight, another world premiere and continues his run of work that have plenty of dark and light in them. Straight, written by DC Moore, is based on a movie called Humpday and is about two straight friends who make a gay porn film together for a bet. It’s the kind of work which would have had Meldrew choking on his tea. Wilson, who has publicly supported gay rights charity Stonewall, says he is not interested in the play because it deals with sexuality, but just because it is a good play.

“I’m not really a spokesman for the gay community, I have always been a ‘quiet gay’,” he says. “For me this is nothing to do with the politics of it – it’s just about the play.”

Which is probably another reason he’s one of the best in the country when it comes to it.

Straight, Sheffield Studio, November 1 to 24. 0114 249 6000.