Ian Richardson, the PM who couldn't possibly comment, dies aged 72

He was one of the leading Shakespearean actors of his generation, as well as a much-loved star of television and cinema. But Ian Richardson, who died yesterday aged at the age of 72, will always be most remembered for one particular line, delivered so perfectly that it has become part of the national lexicon.

"You might think that; I couldn't possibly comment," the signature phrase of the scheming politician Francis Urquhart, played by Richardson in the 1990 television thriller House of Cards. The series was a massive hit, catching the nation's mood at a time of growing disillusionment with politicians.

Richardson's portrayal of the murderous Urquhart won him a Bafta. Together with two sequels, To Play The King and The Final Cut, it was shown against the backdrop of the overthrow of Margaret Thatcher, the sleaze of the Major years and the rise of spin. He based the character on Richard III, the last role he played with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Richardson said in 2005: "I have done 15 years of Shakespeare but without doubt Francis Urquhart has been the best opportunity for my reputation. The only trouble is getting rid of it. So many people seem to think that I am like him. I'm grateful for the part as it put me on the map."

Michael Dobbs, author of House of Cards, said: "I am desperately sad. He is a man I admired immensely. He changed my life. He made a dream of mine a reality. And he did it in a way which transfixed millions of viewers. House of Cards was Ian Richardson. He made the character and brought the whole series to life. Even John Major's leadership campaign in 1990 came to a halt at 9pm on a Sunday night so that the whole campaign team could sit down and see what was happening."

Born into a working class family, Richardson studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and worked in repertory theatre before becoming a founder member of the RSC in 1960. He played in many RSC productions, including the title roles in Hamlet and Corialanus and Richard II, working under directors such as Sir Trevor Nunn and Sir Peter Hall.

He also appeared in Peter Brooks's acclaimed Marat/Sade on Broadway in 1965 and in the subsequent film version. But he was also known for his versatility: he won a Tony nomination for his role as Professor Henry Higgins in the 1976 revival of My Fair Lady on Broadway.

In the mid 1970s he moved into television and was highly praised for his portrayal of the traitor Bill Haydon in the television adaptation of John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Richardson often played figures of authority, making full use of his rich, sonorous voice, which he credited to his time as an announcer on Forces radio during his National Service. His films included Terry Gilliam's Brazil and the Jane Austen biopic Becoming Jane, out next month.

Richardson, who is believed to have died in his sleep, had not been ill and was due to begin filming an episode of ITV's Midsomer Murders next week, according to his agent. Awarded the CBE in 1989, he is survived by his wife, Maroussia, also an actor, and two sons, one of whom, Miles, is an actor with the RSC.

'You may say that': His greatest roles

* Henry Higgins, in My Fair Lady, 1976

Richardson's aquiline features and cut-glass diction made him perfect for this 1976 revival in London and Broadway. It must have come as light relief after years in Shakespeare, and it led to a Tony nomination.

* Bill Haydon, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1979

It was his first major television role. Sir Alec Guiness's George Smiley unfortunately overshadowed Richardson's equally perfectly cast depiction of his smooth but duplicitous nemesis, who seduces Smiley's wife and betrays his country.

* Francis Urquhart, in House of Cards, 1990

The role of the Tory chief whip, complete with asides to camera, was based on Richard III. It won Richardson a Bafta award. The line "You might think that; I couldn't possibly comment" passed into common usage.

* Sir Rex Hunt, in An Ungentlemanly Act, 1992

Unlike some authority figures played to great comic effect by Richardson, this portrayal for a BBC film of the Governor of the Falklands during the Argentine invasion was a straightforward portrayal of the British stiff upper lip. It earned him a Bafta nomination.

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