A seductive swine, that Ian Richardson

Jasper Rees talks to everybody's favourite politician
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The Independent Culture
The temptation, on meeting Ian Richardson, is to bow, scrape and give him a knighthood. "Honoured, Sir Ian," you want to say as you pump his paw. Instead, he's the one doing the obsequious flunkey's bow. Perhaps he is trying in his manner to put clear blue water between himself and the disdainful old sticks he plays on television. What with the double- breasted pinstripes he's wearing and the fedora in his clutch, the water could be clearer and bluer. But if he looks like an inscrutable mandarin, he doesn't sound like one. He professes to be nervous of interviews, yet turns out to be an animated, unstinting talker, quite unlike Francis Urquhart, whose sentences, we will be reminded again this Sunday, are devilishly gnomic and opaque.

He is already Ian Richardson, CBE. Can the K be far behind? Perhaps Mr Major will send his name to the Palace in the New Year's Honours list, once the dust has settled on The Final Cut, the last part of the House of Cards trilogy. He would then become the first person to get a knighthood for the double whammy of bringing the office of Prime Minister into disrepute and ousting a reigning monarch.

Richardson already gets letters addressed to Sir Ian, but humbly ascribes the mistake to people muddling him with Ian McKellen. Actually his face is far better known than McKellen's. For five years now he has had to train himself to be gracious when recognised. He was guided by the example of another fictional PM, Paul Eddington, who "is so damned nice and so easy and so unaffected. It was through watching how he dealt with people that I realised I'd got it all wrong. I was much too abrupt and snooty and 'how dare you interrupt me whilst walking in the street or whilst urinating in this public lavatory?'. That happened. 'It is, isn't it?' said this person as I was standing with my everything hanging out. And I said, 'yes it is', and completely dried up, literally. Now I say, 'I'm very flattered that you took the time to watch.' And I like to sound as though I mean it." As a precaution, he and his wife, Maroussia Frank, will retreat to their second home in the south of France this Saturday, and stay put until Urquhart is dead.

Apart from the fact that he always wanted to be Guy of Gisborne when he and his short-trousered schoolpals played Robin Hood, there were few signs in Richardson's childhood that he would come to embody a certain discreet English duplicity. For a start, he is Scottish, from Dalry, "not a very posh part of Edinburgh". He was also brought up a Presbyterian, that most disapproving of creeds, and remembers how whole Sundays were given over to God.

His father opposed his choice of profession, if only partly because he thought it disreputable. He also thought it unsafe. Others, though, saw the actor in him quite early on, as did Richardson himself when "at the armistice service it was my turn to say, 'They shall not grow old as we that were left grow old': I did it without looking at the paper and in front of the altar, not at the lectern."

At 14, on his first visit to the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, he chewed his tie in half during some "awful melodrama". (Nearly 50 years on, there's a nice echo of this story in Urquhart's bloody end - "I wanted it to be as messy as possible" - in which he is shot through the chest and his tie is blown clean away.) With an aunt he went to the theatre on Mondays and for one glorious week made his stage debut as an aristocratic boy in an am-dram production of A Tale of Two Cities.

The director told him that progress would depend on modifying his accent, so his mother paid for elocution lessons. During National Service in Libya - "the longest play I've been in and quite the dullest role I've ever played", is his practised recollection - he was an announcer for BFBS, and started to sound like Montgomery. At drama training in Glasgow, which, at his father's insistence, he did in tandem with a teaching degree, they ironed that out, and at 25 he became a classical actor, first at Birmingham Rep, then onwards and upwards to Stratford.

Long before the nation had heard of Urquhart, the man who played him was regarded as the most intelligent and wittiest stage actor of his generation. "He's a master of the verse," says Judi Dench, who was Titania to his Oberon at Stratford in 1962. "He spoke the verse absolutely superbly. And I think people probably don't know that he's got a great sense of humour. I've never forgotten him in The Comedy of Errors. His comedy timing is amazing. He just has a complete instinctive feel. I would give a lot to act with him again."

That hope looks forlorn. Fifteen years away from the boards have allowed his reputation to grow as the memory of famous performances fades. The wedding last year of his younger son Miles (who plays an army commander in The Final Cut) seems to have caused a volte-face. "A lot of young actors were his guests. They were all saying, we've heard stories about when you were Berowne in Love's Labours Lost and what you did in Richard II and I said, 'Of course, I keep forgetting, you couldn't possibly have seen it.' Oh God! Ten whole years of my life, and it's passed into the area of rumour.

"One young man who had had quite enough to drink to embolden him said to me, 'You know you have no bloody right to deny young actors like us the opportunity to see you at work on the stage.' I'd had one or two drinks myself and said, 'All right, damn you, I will.' He returned as Moliere's miser in Chichester this summer, shaved his head "to make a complete visual as well as mental break with the past", got excellent notices and would have taken the show into the West End if he hadn't damaged his Achilles tendon on a staircase during the first preview.

His orthopaedic surgeon came backstage straight after a performance. "I said to my wife, 'Go and stop him at the stage door,' because I was sitting in my dressing-gown, bollock naked, the sweat pouring off. She opened the door and there he was. He said, 'Don't move? I want to see exactly what I've got to deal with.' He wanted to get to me as soon as I'd come off. Dear man. He told me that I'd have to be very, very careful."

Richardson has promised to return to Chichester the summer after next, affording West Sussex's well-to-do another brief glimpse of his fabled stagecraft. For the rest of us, though, it's a case of imagining the Shakespearian in him. In the case of his Richard III, the last performance he gave for the RSC, this shouldn't be too taxing. What does he remember of his humpbacked king? "He was quite good, actually," he confides sotto voce, offering rare eyeball contact before sniggering at the venality of his boast. "It was very close to the thing that you may want to talk about: talking to the audience and saying, I'm going to do this bit of devilry and you're going to enjoy it while I'm doing it." In other words, and rather neatly, Richardson's Urquhart is Richard's son.

His final departure from the RSC in his 40th year was prompted by a brief nervous breakdown. A previous attempt to cut Stratford's apron strings in 1970 brought a year of unemployment, when a BBC play that he hoped would announce his availability was delayed. His wife had long given up acting and they were penniless. "The bank refused to advance me any more and it just got very scary." They resorted to joining the nuns at Covent Garden at the crack of dawn, scouring for discarded crates of wholesale fruit and veg.

Television, and the role of Henry Higgins on Broadway, came to their rescue. He has been giving versions of his seductive swine ever since. Although he never goes back to Stratford because he is "appalled - appalled!" by the deterioration in verse speaking, he does want to see Julius Caesar. "I have a soft spot for Cassius." Aha! Another swine. "But a nice swine. I remember someone saying to me, 'What is the secret of playing Cassius?' And I said, 'He smiles once, and that's when he says goodbye to Brutus at the end. The rest of the time, stony-faced. It used to get a [and here he does a sharp, shocked intake of breath] from the audience. I love things like that."

Which brings us back to Francis Urquhart. It makes sense that FU is modelled less on any current politician - maybe there's a sliver of Heseltine in there - than on an ineffably English diplomat, now dead, of Richardson's acquaintance. "It was something to do with the way his head sat on his neck. He had an extraordinary ability, almost like a tortoise's head coming out of its shell, to look down. And when he said something, he would make a statement that would invite you to propose a question, but he had already made up his mind what your reply was going to be and he knew what his response was going to be. And I thought this terribly clever. Just his sheer physical sophistication was something to envy and emulate. And I did."

The diplomat sent a note saying how much he enjoyed House of Cards but, keeping his own cards close to his chest, didn't let on that he recognised the portrait. Perhaps a letter from Number 10 will soon show its hand more plainly.

n 'The Final Cut' starts this Sunday, BBC1 at 9pm