Richard Wilson: One foot on the stage

Richard Wilson has left Victor Meldrew behind and is directing a bleak new Russian comedy at the Royal Court. Sam Marlowe finds him happy to talk about post-Communist drama, his own leftist politics, indeed anything but that catchphrase
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Richard Wilson - best known as the terminally grumpy misanthropist Victor Meldrew in the BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave - is sitting on the toilet. This might sound an unusually intimate set-up for an interview. But the toilet in question is, in fact, in a rehearsal room. It's part of the set for Playing the Victim, a new play by the Russian duo the Presnyakov Brothers. Wilson, 67, is directing, and is very amiably complying with the photographer's request for a quirky shot.

His twinkly-eyed warmth is tempered by sharp professionalism - not a second of the lunch hour he has agreed to share with us is to be wasted. So after two quick snaps he is up on his feet, proclaiming in tones that intimate that he will brook no argument: "Right, that's your lot." And he settles in front of me to attack a bowl of soup and mountain of bread and butter, with the ease of a man for whom, after 40 years as an actor and director, interviews can hold very few surprises.

Toilets are an integral part of Playing the Victim. The play, which won good reviews on the Edinburgh Fringe, arrives at the Royal Court in London next week. It is the follow-up to the Presnyakovs' Terrorism, which was a hit at the Court earlier this year. A bleak and startlingly funny piece, Playing the Victim concerns Valya, a cynical university dropout who makes easy money by taking part in police reconstructions of murder cases.

It is Valya's avowed belief that the only way to avoid the unpleasant things in life is to do something else - generally something absurd. This philosophy extends to the murder reconstructions themselves, as if by "dying" time and again he can somehow defy his own mortality. Being the black comedy that it is, Playing the Victim makes lavatories - which, in their way, reduce all human beings to the same base level, just as death does - pivotal in more than one grisly demise.

According to Wilson, the Presnyakov Brothers have invented a new term to describe the play - "farcical-philosophical". Its obsession with death and its queasy dark humour are reminiscent of the work of Joe Orton, but Wilson says Playing the Victim is essentially very Russian. "The brothers like to feel that it's universal, which of course it is, in a way. But it seems to me to be very much about post-communism, and the new entrepreneurial Russia, and the old systems fading away." The production is a joint effort by the physical theatre company Told by an Idiot and the Royal Court, for whom Wilson is an associate director.

He says he was "absolutely thrilled" when he was offered the associate's post, not least because he is a huge fan of new writing. "You get to work with the writer, which is tremendously exciting, and you get to work on plays that are relevant to the society we live in, and that's what really interests me."

The classics hold a very limited appeal for Wilson, as actor and director and as punter. "I would prefer not to see A Midsummer Night's Dream again, ever," he says emphatically. "I just don't have the intellectual capacity for Shakespeare, I'm afraid. No, it's true," he protests, when I say that this seems unlikely, judging by his obvious intelligence. "And some of it I just don't like. I find King Lear, for example, completely unbelievable, and I feel Shakespeare's cheating a bit. So I would rather not bother."

He did once direct Ibsen's A Doll's House, but says he found it very difficult. "I couldn't make the mores of that society really fit, I just found it extraordinary and unbelievable. I mean," he adds, "it's terrible that I've got this awful catchphrase, 'I don't believe it' hanging around my neck, because the thing I talk about most to actors is believability. I say, 'Do what you want, as long as I believe it.' So I end up with people screeching, 'I don't believe it!' at me all the time." I'd have thought that joke would have worn a bit thin by now, especially since Victor Meldrew ended up with both feet in the grave when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Does the catchphrase really still haunt Wilson? "Yes," he says a touch ruefully. "I keep hoping Victor will go away, but of course he doesn't. But then, he does subsidise all my directing work."

The enormous success of One Foot in the Grave didn't only bring financial rewards - it made Wilson a celebrity, which was, he says, "very strange and quite hard to get used to". It's certainly a far cry from his upbringing in Greenock, Clydeside. There was nothing in his working-class family background to suggest that Wilson would go on to make a lucrative living in showbusiness. At school, he says: "I wasn't particularly good at sport, so it was the classic thing - I knew I could make people laugh. But it took me a very long time to become an actor because I just didn't think I would ever make it. There weren't many role models in Greenock."

He moved to London, worked as a hospital lab technician and became involved in amateur dramatics. "Then I met a girl at a party who was at Rada, and she told me all about grants. I had no idea such things were available." So, at the age of 27, despite feeling desperately unsure about the whole enterprise, he wrestled with his "great fear" of drama schools, applied to Rada - and got in. "I was really quite ill with the tension of it all," he says, wrinkling his brow at the memory. "But once I got over the trauma of the first term I loved it."

Despite those initial fears, his career has been hugely successful. He got his first acting job - in TV's Dr Finlay's Casebook - just three days after leaving Rada, and has since rarely been out work, either as actor or director. He still cringes at his own onscreen performances, though. His most recent television work has been King of Fridges, a one-off drama by Tim Firth about an ambitious electrical-store manager saddled with an elderly employee, due to air on ITV some time next year. Firth describes it as "Beckett set in Currys".

The night before we meet, Wilson has been to the screening. "I hate watching myself, I just find it so difficult," he winces. What about reviews - does he read those? "I do. I find them fascinating, and I can't resist them. Although it can be a very unpleasant experience at times. But very often I'm lying in bed on a Sunday morning, knowing the papers are at the door, and I think, 'Should I go down and submit myself, or should I have another hour's pleasure?'" He gives a throaty chuckle.

Wilson's attention to newspapers is not confined to the arts pages. He is politically astute, and a long-standing member of the Labour Party. He made his opposition to the Iraq war very public by taking part in a demonstration outside Parliament in which he wore a gag, in protest at the way in which he felt the opinion of the British people was being disregarded by the Government.

He admits that, as a loyal party member, his position is a tricky one. "It is very difficult," he sighs. "I feel we've lost the sense of truth in the Labour Party, and I don't trust the Government very much. But I still believe in the party, and party members at grassroots level are the same as ever. A lot of people like me are facing a real dilemma at the moment. What do we do? I don't know the answer."

With his leftist politics and anti-establishment stance, it perhaps comes as some surprise that he is Richard Wilson OBE. Did he have any qualms about accepting? "I did. I thought about it for a long time. I didn't go to the palace, though; the Lord Lieutenant had to come to the National Theatre to see me. Accepting may have been partly ego, but I'm on the board of various charities" - he is Rector of Glasgow University, a governor of Sadler's Wells and a spokesman for pensioners' rights and for Landmine Action - "and I'm always trying to raise money for them, so I thought it might give me a bit of extra clout."

Wilson seems comfortable both with himself and with the choices he has made in his life and career. He enjoys his work, but when I ask if there's anything he still badly wants to do, he replies, "No, not really," although on reflection he quite fancies dabbling in the movies. He's a big film buff - Pedro Almodovar is a favourite. "I would like to direct a film - 35mm, with a big budget. But only one. I don't have the patience for the post-production," he says, grinning.

'Playing the Victim' opens at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020-7565 5000) on Monday