Richard Wilson: Retire? He doesn't believe in it

At 74, the actor who became a household face as Victor Meldrew is as busy as ever. Now starring in TV hit 'Merlin', he also keeps one foot on the stage. Emily Dugan meets Richard Wilson
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The Independent Online

Richard Wilson doesn't believe it. He is examining – in mock horror – a 2in model of himself. The actor, who became a household name playing the cantankerous pensioner Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave, is not the most likely candidate for an action figure. Yet after three series playing the sorcerer's mentor Gaius in the BBC fantasy series Merlin he has been rendered in poseable plastic.

More death mask than Action Man, the toy's face is even more corrugated than the actor's own, which is why I've shown it to him. "I suppose there is a likeness," he says, peering worriedly at it. "That's the awful thing about having to watch yourself nowadays: you see this face that you never realise..." He trails off and hands it back to me, looking slightly aghast.

He need not worry. Having convincingly portrayed a pensioner at 53 when he took the role of Meldrew, Wilson – now 74 – looks pretty good for his age. Arriving for the interview in the lobby of a hotel in Soho, central London, he walks in at the brisk pace of a man half his years. His clothes – an expensive-looking pink cashmere jumper, chinos and brand new shiny black trainers – also suggest a younger man.

He is a rarity: an actor whose workload has increased as his years have advanced. Tonight he will appear in one of a series of 24-hour plays at London's Old Vic – a play written, rehearsed and performed in just one night and day. "I don't know why I've said yes to that; it will be terrifying," he says ruefully.

Turning down work is not something Wilson makes a habit of. So far this year he has been in France and Wales filming Merlin; played Malvolio in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Twelfth Night; run workshops at the National Theatre; worked on the council of Rada; and directed plays in Sheffield.

Born in Greenock, Renfrewshire, Wilson came to acting late. After national service in Singapore in the Royal Medical Corps, he worked as a research scientist in Glasgow until he was 27. It was only then that he plucked up the courage to train at Rada. It was another decade, after working in repertory theatre in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester, before his first television breakthrough in the series Crown Court.

This gulf between his early years and his life now as a London-based thespian may explain some of the apparent contradictions in his character. "I spent a lot of time in Paris in five-star hotels cosseting myself after the poor accommodation when we were filming Merlin," he says, moments before bemoaning his disappointment at Labour's record on closing the gap between rich and poor. He is an avid supporter of the party: this year he recorded a reading of the party's manifesto this year and backed Ed Miliband's attempt to lead the party back to the left.

He says he is "Proud to Be Scottish", but years of living in England and drama school elocution lessons have diluted his accent, once so strong that his tutors at Rada despaired of his ever being understood. He has also abandoned his home football team, Greenock Morton FC, shifting his allegiance to the markedly more successful – and English – Manchester United. "I'm afraid the joys of seeing Manchester United in the directors' box after a nice lunch are much more enticing," he confesses.

It is all a long way from Cappielow, Greenock Morton's historic ground, yet for a man perilously close to national treasure status, he does not appear to have the ego to match. Asked which acting role he is most proud of he pauses for a long time. "I'm never satisfied," he says. Eventually he suggests the Scottish rock'n'roll manager he played in the 1987 series Tutti Frutti. But he soon qualifies his choice: "I suppose that's because it's so far in the distance."

He insists on rewatching his work to improve it. "I record Merlin and I watch each episode. I think you've got to rewatch your shows. I don't enjoy it at all, but ever since I did Crown Court, I used to watch myself and think there's far too much gesturing going on, so I tried to keep it down. I watched to see if it had got any better and it usually hadn't."

Right now he is relieved to have a stretch of time at home in London again. "Since I've stopped doing Merlin I've got my social life back," he says, before adding with a twinkle in his eye: "It's nice to be back in the pool, as it were."

Wilson lives alone and famously refuses to discuss his private life. He quickly shuts down a follow-up question about his "pool" remark with a well-rehearsed: "I'm not seeing anyone special."

The question swatted away, he returns to being charming. In truth, I expected him to be hard work: cast to type in the role of the irascible Meldrew, whose catchphrase "I don't be-lieve it" came to typify dissatisfied pensioners everywhere. If anything he is the reverse: modest, intent on not offending and running in the opposite direction from old age.

Retirement is still a distant concept. "I think I'd be bored. And also, I'm still learning. Acting is such a multi-faceted, wondrous thing. And if you're still learning, why give it up?"

Unlike some in his trade, Wilson makes a point of replying to fan mail, even when it is bizarre. "I try to reply to everyone. I've got a secretary who gets everything in order. The strangest letter was someone asking for a photo of me in the nude and said, if not in the nude could I be stripped to the waist, and if not that, could she just have a photograph anyway. I know some actors – I won't mention their names – who won't send a photograph unless people send a stamped envelope. That's a bit sad."

Much of his mail is now from child fans of his Merlin character, Gaius. They may soon be disappointed. With a busy year of directing ahead, he is not sure how much of a role he will have in the next – fourth – series of the drama, which has just been commissioned. "I'm having lunch with the producers. I'm just not sure how much time I've got for it. I'm an associate director at the Sheffield Playhouse and I like that. I'll be doing something [in Merlin] but I'm not sure how much yet." But playing the long-haired sorcerer has its advantages. For a start, he wears a wig to play Gaius, making him look nothing like his real (entirely bald) self. So now, after decades of avoiding public transport because of that catchphrase, Wilson finally feels able to travel on the Tube again.

"I venture on the underground a bit now. I stopped going on it at one time when Victor was at his height. I don't get recognised from Merlin much because of the wig. The thing I found most annoying was that people were talking about you and pointing and giggling. I would have been much happier if they'd come over and have a chat."

His next screen role certainly won't lead to such problems. He has spent the last two years recording a voice part in a new animated feature film of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The film, called Gnomeo and Juliet, is a reimagining of the play, but with feuding families of garden gnomes. Its starry cast includes James McAvoy, Emily Blunt and Michael Caine, and it will be in cinemas in February. But Wilson is struggling to remember the project at all.

"Ah yes, I play a human that keeps lots of gnomes," he says. "Have I got Gnomeo or have I got Juliet? I'm not sure. Ooh dear, I can't remember." He is in fact playing Juliet's father, Capulet, or at least a feuding suburban gardener version of him. Perhaps, despite eschewing retirement, there are signs that old age is finally catching up with him.

The full Merlin series three can be pre-ordered here. It is released on January 24.

Curriculum vitae

1936 Born Ian Colquhoun Wilson in Greenock, Renfrewshire, to Euphemia Colquhoun and John Wilson. His father worked as a timekeeper at the shipyards. Richard shared one of two bedrooms in the family's flat with his older sister, Moira

1953 Leaves school at 17 and lands a job as a lab technician

1957 Does national service with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Singapore; his mother dies of a brain tumour

1963 After 10 years as a lab technician he wins a place at Rada. On graduating he takes parts in repertory theatre

1973 First major television role as Jeremy Parsons QC in the television series Crown Court, which runs for another five years

1987 Plays Eddie Clockery in the TV series Tutti Frutti, which also launches the careers of Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson

1990 Takes the part of grumpy pensioner Victor Meldrew in the comedy One Foot in the Grave. The series runs for 10 years and makes him a household name

1994 Made an OBE for services to drama as an actor and director

1996 Made Rector of Glasgow University

2008 Begins playing Gaius in the BBC drama Merlin

2009 Plays his first major Shakespeare role as Malvolio in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Twelfth Night

2010 Appears in the Old Vic's 24-hour plays

Emily Dugan