We don't believe it

James Rampton meets Richard Wilson, aka lovable, long-suffering Victor Meldrew
Why is it that whenever you do the washing-up, there is always one teaspoon left in the bottom of the bowl? Why is it that delivery-boys continue to put free newspapers through the letter-boxes of obviously derelict houses? These are just two among many, many moments over the past five years when Victor Meldrew, the main character in David Renwick's sitcom, One Foot in the Grave, has struck a chord with a nation baffled by the vicissitudes of life.

Tabloids have run phone-ins along the lines of "Do you know a Victor Meldrew?", and Victor's exasperated cry of "I don't believe it!" has become a catchphrase of almost "loadsamoney" proportions. Fans have set up a Counters' Club to monitor the number of times per episode it's uttered ("I don't b..." counts as a half). Richard Wilson, who plays Victor, has even recently released a book of absurd facts called I Don't Believe It. The 1993 Christmas special, One Foot in the Algarve, netted more than 20 million viewers, and the series has been battered by a hail-storm of awards.

But what is it that has so captured the public imagination about this ageing, unemployed curmudgeon who lives in a suburban box and for whom feeding the goldfish can be the day's most exciting activity? In October, I trekked out to the BBC Rehearsal Rooms in North Acton - where they were putting the finishing touches to this year's Christmas special - to try to find out.

In a break between scenes, the cast sat in the green room, lounging underneath a still from You Rang, M'Lud, a rather inferior sitcom, and pondered the question of Victor's popularity. Wilson, nattily dressed in black loafers, dark grey trousers, a tweed jacket and stripy red shirt with matching handkerchief, was at a loss to explain it. "I'm asked this question quite a lot," he mused, "but I don't like to think about it. If you start to analyse, you disappear up your own bottom. Could I play him from there?"

Angus Deayton, who plays Victor's neighbour Patrick on screen and acts like Wilson's double-act partner off it, went further. "He's so popular because the things he rails against are the minutiae of life that irk us all. As a writer, David Renwick's great skill is to pick out details which make viewers say, 'Oh yes, I've been annoyed by that.' I wouldn't be surprised if that was why the programme had such a universal appeal. Junk mail, not being able to get through to Directory Enquiries - those things irritate all of us."

Annette Crosbie, Victor's wife Margaret, piped up: "People stop Richard and me in the street and say 'That's my dad', or 'my brother', or 'my sister'. We get it all the time. Small children love it and old people love it."

Later, Renwick had a confession to make about the plausibility of Victor. "His attitudes are invariably mine, which makes him very easy to write. I know instantly how he's going to react, which gives the writing a certain integrity. A lot of comedy that doesn't work is arrived at intellectually rather than intuitively. The people in the story shouldn't find the things happening to them funny. The predicaments should be hideously real to them. You don't want them sitting around a table wise-cracking - that's too self-conscious."

Renwick has the uncanny knack of mingling tragedy with the comedy. "People now expect that black edge with David," Crosbie averred. "A lot of people stop me to tell me their favourite bits, and quite a few will mention the one where Victor was buried up to his neck in the garden and Margaret came out to say her mother's died. People relish that juxtaposition."

The writer, who cut his teeth on The Two Ronnies, takes great pains buffing and polishing his scripts. Crosbie revealed: "You cannot substitute a word, you can't paraphrase even a preposition." His characters are finely- drawn, and Renwick experiences Meldrew-esque exasperation at the easy press labelling of Victor as "TV's Mr Misery". "That's not the way I see him at all," Renwick said." That just suits the purposes of the popular press. To me, he's a victim. I chose the name Victor with great irony because he's a loser. Ninety per cent of his outbursts are with great cause. He's the one that's long-suffering."

One Foot is now stepping on to a global stage. It plays in France and Australia, and the Germans make their own version. The German Victor once came to watch Wilson rehearsing. "He's about 4ft 10," Wilson recalled, "and ugly as sin." "So almost identical," Deayton chipped in, now well into double-act mode.

Bill Cosby is rumoured to be attempting to buy the format for the American market, and Deayton fears the worst. "Americans basically take the jokes out. With the exception of Benny Hill and Monty Python, almost no British shows have ever been shown on an American network. They rarely get further than cable. They bought the format of Fawlty Towers and said, 'Let's get rid of the irritating man with the moustache and centre it on the blonde girl. Get in Shelley Long.' "

Victor's future in this country is a much more closely-guarded secret. Despite my relentless questioning, no one in the cast would give away any details about the plot of the Christmas special, beyond revealing that there's a supernatural element. That hasn't stopped certain newspapers speculating that Victor ends up with two feet in the grave. His death would be an occasion for national mourning. All Wilson would say was: "David Renwick did once suggest an episode with just the neighbours, Angus and Janine [Duvitski]. My presence would be merely felt through the wall." "But you took out an injunction against it," Deayton interrupted. "Yes, I just let my lawyers deal with it," concluded Wilson, whose eyes twinkle with humour rather than irritation off-screen.

As Wilson rose to return to the rehearsals - "Annette's got to get back," he said, "she's got a fireplace arriving" - it was suggested that Renwick might now be writing something for David Jason. Before our very eyes, Wilson metamorphosed into Victor: "How dare he?" he exploded in mock fury. "The turncoat. Who's David Jason, anyway?"

'One Foot in the Grave Christmas Special', Christmas Day 9pm BBC1