Goodbye Urquhart

Interview: Ian Richardson tells John Walsh why he is going back to the stage after 18 years

It is the face of a hanging judge, an implacable headmaster, a hostile father-in-law, an appalled maitre sommelier at the Ritz when confronted by a diner ordering Lambrusco; it's the look of an irritated llama, the beaky stare of a pissed-off cormorant, the murderous glare of a puff-adder deprived of its lunch. Ian Richardson, it must be said at the outset, has a most unsettling physiognomy. Everything about it is sharp, especially the mouth which appears to have been slashed into his face with a Stanley knife. Then the mouth opens and from it there issues a weird music - an eldritch fluting that takes a word like "homosexual" or "vernacular" and re-casts it in a sequence of brand-new phonemes, never heard before.

"To tell you about the voice, I must take you back to when I was a student," said Richardson, now 63. "I was seeing the principal of my drama college for the last time, a wonderful man called Colin Chandler. He said, `Now look, Richardson, by no stretch of the imagination will you ever be a matinee idol. You're not muscular, you're not particularly tall and you're not particularly handsome. But you do have a remarkably fine voice. And if you have a fine voice, you can always persuade people that you are tall, muscular and handsome.' So the voice I have now is the result of a conscious effort to make my vocal sounds as impressive as possible". The word "sounds" came out as a reverberating bassoon solo, taking in half a dozen sharps and flats: "ssouwwndzzz..." The floor of the breakfast bar in Newcastle's Forte Post House hotel briefly shook.

Richardson has been deploying the voice and the look to great effect, since he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960. It was only after 30 years of classical Shakespeariana and serious appreciation by broadsheet critics that he suddenly sprang fully-formed into the nation's consciousness, playing Francis Urquhart - MP, chief whip, schemer, fixer and murderer - in BBC1's dramatisation of Michael Dobbs's House of Cards and its sequels To Play the King and The Final Cut between 1991 and 1995. Richardson strode through the part as if he'd been lurking in the corridors of the House of Commons all his life. His asides to the camera, his raised eyebrow, his whispery confidences as his face filled the TV screen - they left the audience feeling delightfully conspiratorial and simultaneously appalled to have acquired such a repellent new friend. Any wit-challenged member of the House (Tony Blair did it once) could get a laugh by intoning Urquhart's sleek mantra: "You may very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment".

Now here he is in Newcastle, having spent two years sloughing off the Urquhart snakeskin. After touring the provinces for two months, he will appear on the London stage for the first time in 18 years, when he and the Chichester Theatre company open at the Savoy on 9 December. The vehicle for his return is The Magistrate by Arthur Wing Pinero, a creaking old carthorse of late-Victorian farce, like Wilde without the wit or Charley's Aunt without the transvestism (or the nuts). Richardson plays Aeneas Posket, a pillar of the community, a police court magistrate of unshakeable rectitude and decency, who is led astray one evening by his wayward young stepson and ends up sentencing his own wife to seven days in the nick. "Pinero is a wonderful craftsman," said Richardson in the tone you'd use to describe a plain woman as having wonderful skin, "in the same vein as Feydeau. Sometimes it's hard to establish a reality for his characters because they're very thinly sketched. There's not a lot of depth, but you have to admire his craftmanship. And I like that I can invite my grandchildren to come and see his play with no qualms whatsoever, and there aren't many plays where you can do that nowadays."

This stern moralising note is by no means untypical, as we shall see. But what might upset Richardson's relatives, or indeed his fans, is the way he is abused on stage. Posket the magistrate is pushed around, prodded in the ribs, yanked this way and that and, in a nice coup de theatre in Act III, appears before us wild-haired, sodden-trousered, bloody-nosed and minus the sleeve of his jacket. It's a performance that's full of stage business and physicality, to make up for the paucity of good lines, and Richardson's subverted dignity makes a marvellous foil for Graham Crowden's choleric eccentricity.

Why was he doing it? "Two years ago, when I was doing the Miser [the Moliere play, at Chichester], I damaged my Achilles tendon quite badly, and had to disappoint the cast, and particularly the producer Duncan Weldon, by limping away from a West End transfer. They said if I went ahead and did the play in London, I might be limping for the rest of my life. So, to ease the pain for Duncan, I said, Give me two years to get really fit and I'll come back and do something else. He reminded me of this a few months ago and said, What are you going to do for us? And I said, I've just been reading The Magistrate...". He regarded me with a look at which stout men would quake. "You wouldn't think it from the stuff you've seen me do on television, but comedy, and farce in particular used to be my metier. Broad Shakespeare farce in particular. But I really wanted to get away from the Urquhart image and show that I'm capable of something quite different."

He can tell how many Urquhart fans are in the house, he says, by the volume of knowing laughs he gets on the line, "I really ought to get a Member of Parliament to ask a question about me in the House". "In Bath, I got a round of applause for it," he says, not displeased by this hommage.

Since the end of Urquhart, and the abortive season with The Miser, he has been making movies. Richardson, not a man who'd be easily at home with the folly and corporatism of Hollywood, is nicely scathing about his first foray to Los Angeles. "I wasn't so much directed as tolerated. I was in a film, a total disaster, called Black American Princess, in which I played Martin Landau's English butler. There was one scene in the butler's pantry. I said, Look, I really think I should be doing something butler-ish. They said, `Such as?'. I said, well, this could be the day for polishing the silver - and do you know, they didn't know what I was talking about?. Eventually, they found some knives and forks and a duster..." He chuckles at such transatlantic folly. "I foresaw there might be problems with costume, so I took the morning suit that I'd worn to Buckingham Palace for my gong [he was awarded the CBE in 1989] and I'm glad I did because the stuff they produced was totally inaccurate. And the trouble I had persuading them to starch my shirts, well...."

A distinct air of high camp hangs over Ian Richardson. It's that delivery of his, which lends a terrible gravitas to the simplest observation. Since he turned it into an instrument of theatricality, his voice is no longer equipped to deal with ordinary forms of demotic speech. You simply cannot imagine anyone saying "What's on the telly tonight?..." or "Fancy a shag?" or "So this guy goes into a bar..." in that voice that could give Donald Sinden and Brian Sewell a run for their money. Mr Richardson is stuck in the patrician stratosphere. He always finishes his sentences.

As well as the fictional Urquhart, he has also played Sir Anthony Blunt and Viscount Montgomery. Did he observe establishment figures to use their mannerisms? "I knew someone who must remain nameless, who was very big in ambassadorial circles. He was extremely elegant and tall, quietly spoken, exceptionally polite, with beautiful manners. Then he and I had too much to drink one evening and the mask fell a little, and the odd four-letter word came out. It was fascinating to find that these establishment people are playing a long-running role for most of their professional lives. You look into their eyes while they're speaking and what you see there is very different from what they're saying." Apart from Blunt, of course, he also played Haydon, the Circus mole, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. "I badgered le Carre to tell me on whom he based Bill Haydon, but he wouldn't. He was a most enigmatic man, extremely cultured, beautifully behaved, and his secret service background, again, made him talk one way and look another."

This spying thing... "Something very int-er-est-ing occurred to me when preparing Blunt," said Richardson in his most judicial, explanatory mode. "That, in the days before homosexuality became decriminalised, homosexuals would have made ideal spies because they spent their entire lives, from the moment of sexual awareness, concealing what they were doing. So the treason they were committing was similar to the concealment of their sexuality. It suddenly hit me". He blinked, momentarily, as if concerned that this blinding apercu might be unworthy of him. "I'm sure it's not an original thought".

He has, perforce, become a connoisseur of facial tics, social leakage, the falseness of a too-upright stance, the insecurity of an unbuttoned jacket. He distrusts politicians. "Douglas Hurd is probably the best of that bunch, but of course he's an actor too. He always sounds as if he's on the verge of being irritated about something". There's a charming story about the night Betty Boothroyd invited Richardson to dinner and introduced him to Michael Howard. The real and the pretend politician regarded each other. Howard was visibly quaking. "Do call me Michael," he suggested. "If you don't mind," replied Richardson/Urquhart coldly, "I'll continue to call you Home Secretary".

Richardson is 100-per cent Scots, even though (he says) he can't do the accent any more. His Lowlands father and Highlands mother met in Edinburgh and married, raising Ian and his two sisters in the city's rural outskirts. Both his father (who was general manager of McVitie and Price, the biscuit people) and his uncle invested in a rocky speculation and lost all their money, and Ian's parents' plans to find him a posh school fell through. "My education was nothing to write to Who's Who about," he observes ruefully. "I was rather a hopeless student. My mother and schoolteacher friend used to wonder what I was going to do with myself. Then, at an Armistice Day service in church, I was asked to do that four-line stanza, `They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old' - and quite instinctively, as a boy, I decided it would be better to memorise it, rather than stand behind a lectern. It was my first experience of holding an audience, metaphorically speaking, in the palm of my hand...".

What had his Presbyterian background left him with? "Oh, a tremendous sense of honour and propriety, trying to do things in an honourable way. A belief in the Almighty. And a horror of untruths - I've never been a good liar. It also left me with a few things that are not so nice - for instance, I'm not demonstratively affectionate. My wife tells me I have to guard against a certain coldness that hovers over my stage persona. She says to me, you're not a cold person, you're warm and generous. But on stage, there's a cold aloofness." Was he also a teensy bit fastidious about sex scenes? Richardson's voice grew steely with distaste. If it's essential to the development of the plot, OK, he said with withering scorn, "but just gratuitously baring all for sensationalism, I find cheap and exceptionally distasteful. There are very few women who can stand in front of you with nothing on and look wonderful. There are practically no men, because the genitalia are not attractive objects. I think male nudity is laughable because any movement makes those [his voice grew momentarily strangled]... things ... mooove in a laughable way." Goodness. A touch of the kirk preacher had suddenly flashed from behind his unflappable facade.

He went to drama school in Glasgow, combining it (to be on the safe side) with a drama degree at Glasgow University, and after brief years in rep, joined the RSC at 25, becoming one of its stars. He met his wife, Maroussia Frank, during a read-through of The Merchant of Venice, in which he was playing the Prince of Aragon; the director told him to take Ms Frank out on a rowing boat so that she could teach him to speak more regally. An old-school, classically-trained thespian, taught the speaking of verse by John Barton, Richardson was unimpressed by the arrival of the new-style drama director in the 1970s, when Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands reigned supreme at the RSC. "I'd become used to working with directors who welcomed the actor's input of ideas. When I found that an iron curtain had descended, and actors were now treated the way a stud of racehorses might be treated - with a whack on the rump when things went wrong, and a lump of sugar when they were all right - well, I resented it." He tells a good story about his attempts to put on Richard III as a "chamber piece", and how Barry Kyle, its director, elected to do it first as a lunatic asylum and second, as a prison. Leaving in 1975 to seek his fortune in the commercial world, Richardson found no work and nearly starved; he has described elsewhere how his family lived on soup made from the scraps that fell from Covent Garden barrows. Twenty-two years later, he is looking for another RSC-style family or brotherhood to join. "Peter Hall wrote to me, before the awful business of the Old Vic folding, and asked if there was any play I would like to do with his company. I would have liked enormously to be part of that. But you see, what we're working to achieve with The Magistrate is to forge, out of the company we have, the sort of ensemble that forms my background. And we've almost entirely succeeded."

He is a settled man these days, having sold his wife's French house, and bought an idyllic rural home in Devon, to supplement his town pad beside Clapham Common. How did he relax? "Every three years or so, I re-read all of Dickens. I don't know why. I just enjoy it. I don't really like television. I like music, but I can't listen to it while I'm reading. So I like to read in silence. Fortunately my wife agrees. When she sees me deep in my book, she gets her laptop computer and plays Scrabble with a character in the computer she's christened `Boris'. A-haaagh." And Ian Richardson, an impersonator of chilly people with a considerable chill-factor of his own, produced a laugh that could turn your blood to ice-cubes.

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