A victor, in spite of everything

John Walsh meets... Richard Wilson
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The Independent Online
Resplendent in Beaujolais-hued tweed jacket, purple-pink shirt, chinos and a pair of head-turning shoes with black leather uppers and thick white rubber soles, Richard Wilson is putting the girls in the local coffee shop at their ease. "D'you do nice coffee in here?" he enquires in his unmistakable stentorian Scots. The girls stand rooted to their tills, eyes flickering in silent dialogue: It's him, the one who plays the crabby old git, what's his name, One Foot in the Grave, and he's asking me a question, Oh God, what do I say, I don't know my lines... "Cap-puc- cheen-o?" asks Wilson, his voice fastidiously sorting the syllables into neat piles. The girls look mortified, as if they know that any response will somehow be wrong, will lead to their being withered by scorn, incinerated by Victor Meldrew distaste. "Oh, we'll try next door," says Wilson unforgivingly, breaking the nervy silence, and we stride out, as if concluding a visit from the Gestapo.

You feel for the girls, but you've got to sympathise with Richard Wilson as well. Despite being perhaps the most famous actor in the UK, having played Victor the irascible scourge of modern life since 1991, he has never quite managed to ironise the correspondences the world feels between himself and his alter ego. So many tabloid stories, so many people calling him Victor when asking for his autograph or shouting "I don't beleeeve it!"at him in the street, has left him with a short fuse about the Richard / Victor interface. How can people be so stupid as to mistake impersonation for self-expression? How can they confuse him with a 65-year-old early-retired curmudgeon when he is in fact a 61-year-old actor-director of equilibrial temper and a love of hard work? He just hasn't managed to find a benignly smiling public persona, a Yes-it's-me-but-I'm-not-like- him face that would explain it all in a second. Hence the squirming of the coffee-shop girls.

And he keeps on doing it. "I was in the Post Office the other day, buying stamps and I bought a Lottery card. This woman came up and said, [adopts horrible elderly screech] 'What d'you want a Lottery card for? You don't need a Lottery card.' I said to her, 'Yes I do, I'm going to buy my own film company if I win.' And she said, [screech reprise] 'Oh - can I have a part in it?' I said, 'No you bloody well can't, talking to me like that...' "

He make himself sound rather mean and hostile when it is clear that he is neither. He is warm and funny company. He laughs easily. He talks with reckless frankness about his views. Just don't even think of asking him about his private life. Richard Wilson discourages enquiries about his family, his love life, his relationships, home and personal feelings the way, say, Queen Victoria must have discouraged questions about the colour of her underwear.

He will, however, talk about his new venture in the heart of the West End: Monday is the first night of Tom and Clem, a new play by Stephen Churchett, which Wilson is directing at the Aldwych Theatre. It stars Michael Gambon and Alec McCowen as, respectively, Tom Driberg MP and Clement Attlee, who became British prime minister in 1945 after a wholly unexpected Labour landslide. The play is set at the Potsdam conference in the summer of that year, when Attlee joined Stalin and Truman in the task of deciding the post-war fate of Europe. Despite the presence of Daniel de la Falaise and Sarah Woodward, it's virtually a two-hander with the leading men representing revolutionary passion and the compromises of realpolitik.

So what attracted Wilson, with his shrewd commercial instincts, to direct a play guaranteed to appeal (on the face of it) only to readers of the old-style New Statesman? "It's extraordinary how apposite the play is for the time we're going through," he said. "I didn't know when the General Election was going to be but it seemed a good play to be putting on, about the passion of politics. 'Where's the passion?' Driberg says at one point, 'Where are the songs?' And at the core of the play is this huge political argument, with Attlee saying 'Is compromise such a terrible word?' "

What did he make of Driberg, the Communist socialite, the gossip columnist and radical thinker, the obsessively, torrentially on-for-it gay satyr? "I was interested to see that, in his William Hickey column in the Express, now and again, in among all the socialite stuff, he'd slip in some reference to the Welsh miners. But I don't understand his gayness, and the way he'd approach totally heterosexual people and seduce them. I don't understand that." Wilson shook his head with old-fashioned bafflement rather than distaste. "There was a case he was reporting on for the the paper, where a woman had been killed. Driberg went round to see the woman's husband, and ended seducing him in the afternoon, in his own house." You can detect a faint trace of admiration in Wilson's voice, even as you register his horror at the idea of having total strangers from the press entering your home, let alone...

Directing McCowen as Attlee - the least charismatic premier in the history of the world - was, I said, presumably a matter of saying "Do less" all the time. "What I said to Alec," said Wilson, "was 'I want to see how far we can risk making him a really boring man when you know he's not, that inside he's a very clever intellectual, a committed socialist and a party leader.' Not knowing much about the man, you have to start with this rather mousy, hunched figure. Alec, to his credit, will let out a terrible yell in rehearsal or in the tea-room and I'll say, 'Alec what's going on?' And he'll say, 'Well, you don't let me do it on stage'..."

The historical basis for the two men's convergence is shaky but just about plausible. "Churchill had left Potsdam to go to London for the election, and everyone thought he'd be coming back. But Clement Attlee came back instead. Stalin couldn't understand it - he thought he'd rigged the election," said Wilson, wide-eyed, as if the Man of Steel had recently volunteered the information directly to him. "We know that Driberg was there because he'd just been to Buchenwald, to look at the camps. He went to Potsdam, and must have met Attlee, his new PM, there, although we don't know for sure. There's Attlee talking about 'the great task ahead' and about 'remembering our roots' and it all seems very appropriate for 1997."

Richard Wilson makes no bones about his own roots, in the Scots Presbyterian working class, or about the unreconstructed radicalism of his political views. He's been a keen Labour party activist and fund-raiser for years, but one who manages, by his own admission, to embarrass the party moguls. His ringing declaration - "I'm a member of the Socialist party and I support Tony Blair" - would make Peter Mandelson pass out cold on the dressing- room floor. So would his attitudes to tax and education. "I believe education should be free," he says, "and I'd increase the tax on the rich to pay for it. Yes I do mean tertiary education. I know it's difficult to talk about, I know it'll cost a vast amount of money, and it's an unpopular view and one the Labour Party would hate to hear me talking about, but that's what I think government should be about." He suspects that, in the future, all parents will be charged university fees as well as living expenses. "If you're a working- class parent in Govan, and your child tells you they want to go to university but that it may mean you end up with debts of pounds 40,000 - well, they won't understand the first thing about a deal like that. It's just going to become more and more elitist."

It's an interesting perspective to come from the rector of Glasgow University, a post Wilson was elected to last year, and into which he has dived with Dribergian passion. "It's fascinating to get into a world you've never even smelt before," he said. "But then I stood for election as a working rector. Some people said, 'How can you be our rector when you live in London?' I said, 'There's the shuttle, there's the fax. There's e-mail.' But equally, I made it clear that if someone asked me to do a great new movie in Thailand, I'd say yes." It's turned out much more likely that he'll say, "Sorry, but it'll keep me away from the university for too long," when producers come calling.

Hanging over all this - the rectorship, the education initiative - is the fact that Wilson himself did not go to the university he now runs. His life has not been ruined by this lacuna, and the tying-up of threads that the rectorship suggests doesn't strike him as any kind of redemption. "The thing is, I didn't know what it was all about when I was a kid. Nobody told me. The idea of going to university was something beyond me, something I thought I was incapable of." What subjects was he good at? "I was best at science, which is why I became a lab technician for a while. And I liked English, but I'm not a great reader. I like looking - at pictures, the cinema, I love documentary. But I don't have a literary background." He pondered the long-distance attraction. "Looking back, I think I could say 'I wish I'd gone to university', but in some ways, who I am now is because I didn't go."

Fair enough. But there's a chippiness about Mr Wilson, a brittleness in the challenge implied by his peacock wardrobe and his over-deliberate consonants, that goes straight back to his Glasgow childhood. The boy he was then clearly disgusts the man he has become. "I had a huge inferiority complex for one thing," he reveals. "I was a skinny, gawky child. Terribly shy." Were all his co-students robust and confident, then? "Much more than me." Was he good at sport? "I was good at running. But I had absolutely no desire to win." You begin to see how this might have been misinterpreted.

Wilson's father was an elder of the kirk, and a severe moralist who objected to his son's backsliding. "When I stopped going to church, my father would refuse to speak to me on a Sunday until he'd come back from the service." (Even the young Richard's beliefs were wrong.) Did he believe in God? "I must have done, because I used to pray to him." For what? "To make me fat," Wilson wailed.

His salvation came in a simple form. "The most important thing I did in my teens was to start drinking alcohol. If I hadn't started, I suppose I'd still be in Scotland. I needed alcohol to give me opinions, to give me the courage to ask people out. Once I had a couple of pints in me, it was a great release. I remember thinking, 'Did I just say that?' " Since the Greenock social scene in the early Fifties was a little unpromising ("It was pretty dire. It was the cinema, basically. Women weren't allowed in pubs at all") Wilson took up dancing, a skill at which he remains famously adept. Tango, salsa, foxtrot and samba were soon mastered; but is it significant that he was relieved when dancing became de-partnered? "It was a great day for me when you didn't have to do any more..." (he indicated a complicated bit of partner-twirling) "... and became a freer, groovy..." (he writhed his hands briefly round his head like Travolta in Pulp Fiction) "... when you could do your own steps." Then modern cinema, National Service in Singapore, Rada and a fascination with what we now call "improv", and experimental theatre.

Tell me Richard, I said, all these things you do now which are so much not Victor Meldrew: appearing in fashion shoots in green Bryan Ferry suits, doing the Flora ads on television, cow-punching in Wyoming, directing in the West End, shuttling to Glasgow. Are you determined to show that you're not old-fashioned, dull, grey or Little Englandish? Or are you having some kind of mid-life crisis? He considered the proposition. "I don't think I'm having one of those because I don't know what the expression means. But I'm a great believer in not being old. My mental age is way below 61. I have this theory that, if you start to say, 'You're not supposed to play squash at 61', then you'll start to seize up. The honest answer to why I do so many things is that I've never been asked to do them before." And you could practically hear the put-upon gawky, silent schoolboy, whom no-one even thought of sending to university, basking in an unfamiliar glow of acceptance, half a century on.