July 2005 Sunday Times

"I'm Richard," says the tall, 69-year-old greeting me at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre. Of course he's Richard. There's no mistaking him. Even if you didn't recognise that sexy growl of a Greenock accent, you couldn't fail to spot the figure of Victor Meldrew standing before you.

But for all his small screen fame, Richard Wilson is altogether too modest to play the star. Besides, he's here in his behind-the-scenes capacity as a fringe theatre director, a career he has sustained even while mainstream audiences have been lapping him up in One Foot in the Grave, Life as we Know It and a particularly scary recent episode of Dr Who.

"I like to do both – to act and direct," he says. "I’ve got more control over my life now because I can choose to direct and I don’t have to worry about money, which directing doesn’t give you. As long as I can do a bit of acting which helps to keep my lifestyle up – I’m slightly flamboyant and extravagant."

The two images you have of Richard Wilson couldn't be further apart. On the one hand there is Wilson as Meldrew, the grumpy old man in cloth cap railing at what the world is coming to, moaning to his long-suffering wife and squabbling with the neighbours.

On the other hand there is Wilson as sharp-thinking theatrical animal, one of the foremost directors of new writing in the UK with a career that has taken him to the Manchester Royal Exchange, London's Royal Court and, most recently, all the way to the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. His production of Primo starring Anthony Sher opened this month on Broadway where it was acclaimed for its "grandeur" and "expressly theatrical language" by the New York Times.

As an actor in the 1960s, he played Vladimir in Waiting for Godot and the title role in Uncle Vanya at the original 60-seat Traverse ("It had a reputation for being so avant garde and rather risqué – I liked all that"). Today, he's a visiting professor of drama at the University of Glasgow, where he was also rector from 1996–99. This is a man with one foot in the theatre, not one foot in the grave.

By keeping engaged in the most vigorous areas of live performance, he believes he can stave off the Meldrew-like tendencies that afflict us all as we grow older.

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"I’m very aware of that," says Wilson who started his professional life as a research scientist and switched course only at the age of 27 when he went to RADA. "Doing new writing I keep in touch with what’s going on. I suppose it’s me trying to stay young. I’m 69 and the idea that some people retire at 60 just seems crazy. The danger is that if you stop, you ossify. My brain is not as agile as it used to be -– I get forgetful and things like that – but I love the challenge of a new text and you’re always going into new areas that you maybe don’t know anything about, having to research them."

One such new area is the Fife drug-running world. That's the backdrop to East Coast Chicken Supper, the hilarious debut of 34-year-old Kirkcaldy writer Martin J Taylor. Following in the footsteps of Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way, another Fife underworld comedy that was a big hit for the Traverse in 2001, Taylor's play is about two small-town drug dealers who are perplexed by the year-long absence of their partner in crime. When he returns, they have a lot of catching up to do.

"Philip Howard, the Traverse's artistic director, kept sending me plays and I kept saying, 'No thank you, very nice play but not really for me.' Then he sent me this one and I thought, 'I don’t really want anyone else to get their hands on it.'

"What’s fascinating is that these are three drug dealers who are clearly very bright men. Having been dealt a different sent of cards they could have been physicists or writers. Their language is extraordinary."

As a director, new plays are all that interests him and he'll consider anything as long as it fulfils his criterion of being "good writing". "I do new plays because I think theatre should be about the society we live in," he says. "It’s a reflection of that society. I don’t have the intellectual nous to direct classics. By and large, I understand the people that new plays are talking to me about – not that I know any drug dealers!"

One reason he was drawn to East Coast Chicken Supper was the vibrancy of Taylor's Scottish dialogue. "Martin’s rhythms are very important. I just relish reading those Scottish voices. I’m not an east coaster but I felt an empathy there immediately I read it. It’s a working-class language as well, which I come from. Their language is enriched by the fact that they’re working class and that they use swearing a lot. It’s intrinsic in his writing which would horrify a lot of people but I just find it very rich."

The kind of people it would horrify are, of course, part of his television audience. Wilson continues to pull off the feat of being both a credible director of sometimes uncomfortable theatre and that nice man off the telly. He recalls with some glee the debut production of Iain Heggie’s A Wholly Healthy Glasgow which he directed in Manchester in 1987. "It was very brave of the Royal Exchange to do it because it was a Scottish patois," he chuckles. "The language was horrific and, despite the warning sign, something like 40 people walked out at the first preview in the first five minutes. The c-word was particularly vibrant."

He defends the use of such language because "that’s the way these people speak" and says audiences have rarely had their illusions shattered about him. "I don’t know that anyone’s ever come up to me and said, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself, a man of your age.’ A few have complained about language. Maybe some people come with the expectation of a nice cosy production but usually when I’m dealing with theatre I have a different audience than when I’m dealing with television. I’m sure a lot of the television audience would be surprised and shocked."

Tellingly, it was an argument over ripe language that brought an end to his most famous television incarnation. "With One Foot in the Grave the BBC said, ‘We want to do more but we want to cut out the swearing.’ I said, ‘If we cut out the swearing, I’m not doing it.’ That seemed to me to be very real, it was part of Victor’s character."

His experience playing in such a well-written comedy series is something he still draws on in the rehearsal room. He has learned that, however funny the finished product, making people laugh is both a serious business and an unpredictable one.

"David Renwick, who wrote One Foot in the Grave, is such a brilliant writer but the only time we laughed was when we read the script for the first time," he recalls. "We didn’t laugh in rehearsal too much because the pressure was too great. But you get a line and you think, ‘My gosh, that’s a beauty,’ and very often the audience doesn’t find it funny at all. Lines you thought moderately funny, they howl. It’s the mystery of the context, of the chemistry of the actors, and it always surprises you."

It's a lesson he's passing on to Garry Collins, Paul Blair, Paul Rattray and Malcolm Shields, the stars of East Coast Chicken Supper. "The thing I say to my actors is if the play is working you get different laughs in different places. If you listen to each other carefully and you are spontaneous and you never try to go for a laugh – that’s death – it’s the reality of the line that creates something that’s funny. If a play is working really well they should laugh in different places. There are some big laughs that are belters but some nights audiences will just surprise you by laughing somewhere else and that gives you a new fresh look at the next line.

"I don’t talk about laughs when I’m directing. I don’t think that’s my job. My job is to get the actors into a pace where the audience feels free enough to laugh. I don’t say, this will be a big laugh here. As an actor, I have been directed by directors who told me where the laughs went. I remember being in a Brian Rix play with a director called Wallace Douglas. He would say, ‘There’s a laugh there – now you speak.’ I said to him that I did a bit of directing and that I realised we worked in totally opposite ways. I was being light hearted. He said, ‘Well, yes, probably, Richard, but then, I’ve got a swimming pool in my garden.’ Touché.”

East Coast Chicken Supper, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 7–28

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