Ian Richardson

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The Independent Online

In a just world, writes Paul Bailey, Ian Richardson [obituary by Anthony Hayward and Alan Strachan, 10 February] would have been acclaimed 20 years ago as a Shakespearean actor on a par with Gielgud, Olivier and his namesake Ralph.

It never quite happened, just as it hasn't quite happened for John Wood, his equal in brilliance. I was a discontented menial in the company at Stratford in 1961, and I count among my happiest memories of that year the many conversations I had with Richardson, not least for the pleasure of his acerbic wit, which was always aimed at deserving targets. He was a perfectionist, and perfectionists by their very nature often have a difficult time of it.

During that season, the immensely likeable Ian Bannen played Hamlet inadequately in what was, arguably, the worst production ever. Bannen, stunned by his bad notices, fled to London and was replaced by his understudy for six excruciating performances. Richardson and the late David Buck were playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and I noticed that Ian never looked the Prince of Denmark in the eye when he was speaking to him. I asked him why. "He offends me," he replied. "He is slaughtering the verse."

I learned, later, the reason for his justified contempt. He had already given his Hamlet in Birmingham, at the age of 24, for which he was praised by the veteran critic and theatrical historian J.C. Trewin.

In 1973, I reviewed John Barton's production of Richard II for the BBC radio arts programme Kaleidoscope. The roles of Richard and Bolingbroke were alternately performed by Richardson and Richard Pasco. Both actors were wonderful, as I pronounced by telephone to the studio in London. Pasco has always been a dab hand at melancholy and it was fascinating to compare his poetic Richard with Richardson's slightly steely and camper interpretation. I cherish their performances, but Richardson's Bolingbroke remains unforgettable. Even as the usurper to the throne rides high, Richardson luminously suggested, his impending moral downfall is ensured. The anguished Henry IV was already in evidence.

I sense, maybe wrongly, that Ian Richardson felt a certain bitterness about his career at the highest level. He was extraordinarily versatile, immersing himself in every role he undertook, and he was unfailingly intelligent when true intelligence was required of him. He knew how to "do" evil and how to "do" goodness, and in each extremity of the human condition he was invariably convincing.