Ian Richardson

RSC actor of clarity and brilliance who starred as Urquhart in the television drama 'House of Cards'

Saturday 10 February 2007 01:00

Ian William Richardson, actor: born Edinburgh 7 April 1934; CBE 1989; married 1961 Maroussia Frank (two sons); died London 9 February 2007.

In a distinguished, 50-year stage and screen career, Ian Richardson will be best remembered on television as Francis Urquhart, the menacing MP in the 1990 mini-series House of Cards who would stop at nothing - including murder - to get to 10 Downing Street.

In the first part of the political trilogy, Urquhart - the Conservative Party's Chief Whip - trapped an innocent, young political journalist, Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), in his web, before throwing her over the parapet of the House of Commons roof garden. Then, as the ruthless politician achieved his goal of becoming Prime Minister in the sequel, To Play the King (1993), he found a new adversary in the newly crowned monarch, played by Michael Kitchen and clearly intended to represent the current Prince of Wales after having taken the throne.

The trilogy was completed with The Final Act (1995), in which Urquhart eventually received his come-uppance. He was assassinated after his dark secret was uncovered - that he had killed two boys in a war crime when he was a young Guards officer serving in Cyprus.

Richardson made the role his own, combining evil with wit and charisma in a chilling performance that was memorable for Urquhart's frequent, conspiratorial asides to the camera and his stock response to questions: "You might well think that. I couldn't possibly comment."

The actor modelled the evil Urquhart on Richard III for the trilogy, which was adapted by Andrew Davies from novels by Michael Dobbs, who had worked as a political reporter in the United States during the Watergate scandal and, more recently, as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. The successful formula won Davies an Emmy Award (1991) and Richardson both a Bafta Best Actor Award (1991) and Broadcasting Press Guild Award for Best Acting Performance (1991).

But the recognition that the role of Urquhart brought to the actor was a double-edged sword. "I am rather sick of him," said Richardson 18 months ago. "It did two things: it made me a star, which I had not been before; it also clung to me rather heavily. The parts that then came my way were always a relation of Francis Urquhart."

Born in 1934 in Edinburgh, where his father was works manager at a McVitie's biscuits factory, Ian Richardson attended the city's Tynecastle School and studied Drama at Glasgow University. While doing National Service, he was a continuity announcer for British forces radio in Libya and, after deciding to make acting his career, trained at the College of Dramatic Art, Glasgow, winning its 1957 James Bridie Gold Medal.

At drama school, Richardson was encouraged to cultivate his distinctive vowels. He recalled advice from his principal: "He said, "Now, look, Richardson, by no stretch of the imagination will you ever be a matinée 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.

On leaving drama school, Richardson gained wide experience in classical and modern plays with Birmingham Repertory Theatre (1958), before becoming a founder-member of the director Peter Hall's newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1960, making his début as Arragon in The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1960).

This was the beginning of a 15-year association with the company, under Hall, then Trevor Nunn, as artistic directors in both Stratford and London, that included playing Don John in Much Ado About Nothing (1961), Cassius in Julius Caesar (1968), Angelo in Measure for Measure (1970) and the title roles in Coriolanus (1967), Pericles (1969), Richard II (1973, 1974) and Richard III (1975).

"Over the years, he has given an extraordinary range of performances and proved himself an actor of amazing clarity and brilliance," said Hall. Richardson left the RSC after suffering a nervous breakdown but later said: "Having done Coriolanus and Richard III, nothing, but nothing, could ever be frightening. It gave me tremendous self-confidence."

He first appeared on television as Le Beau, alongside Patrick Allen and Vanessa Redgrave, in the director Ronald Eyre's BBC production of the RSC performance of As You Like It (1963). The actor was also seen on the small screen as Antipholus of Ephesus in one of the RSC Comedy of Errors productions (1964), with his comedy timing coming to the fore, before a wider variety of roles came his way.

His first chance to develop a character over a series came with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), the espionage serial adapted from John le Carré's novel about the uncovering of a British double-agent and starring Alec Guinness as the retired spy-master George Smiley. Richardson played Bill Haydon - "Tailor" - the British Secret Service's chief of operations, based in London, who turned out to be a mole, working as a colonel in Soviet intelligence, and was finally murdered. Haydon was comparable to the real-life traitor Kim Philby.

Richardson followed this with black comedy, starring as Major Neuheim, alongside Michael Elphick as the title character, in Private Schulz (1981) and winning the Royal Television Society's Best Performance Award (1982) for taking the role of the crazed commander of SS counter-intelligence in the Second World War who recruited the bemused fraudster Schulz to flood Britain with forged £5 notes in an attempt to destroy the economy.

Television roles continued to flood in for the rest of Richardson's career. He was Sherlock Holmes in both The Sign of Four (1983) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983), Nehru in Lord Mountbatten: the last Viceroy (1985), Anthony Blunt, another traitor, in Blunt ("Screen Two", 1987), Sir Godber Evans, the new master trying to drag a Cambridge college into the 20th century, in Porterhouse Blue (1987) and Lord Groan in Gormenghast (2000).

In later years, he reached a family audience as Sir Simon de Canterville in The Canterville Ghost (1997), Wasp in Alice Through the Looking Glass (1998), Stephen Tyler, the title character, in The Magician's House (1999) and The Magician's House II (2000) and the Chancellor in Bleak House (2005).

Among his film roles were Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Peter Hall's RSC production, 1968), Mr Warren in the black comedy Brazil (1985), Sir Nigel Irvine in the Frederick Forsyth thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987), the State Prosecutor in the director Richard Attenborough's apartheid drama Cry Freedom (1987) and Polonius in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990).

However, feature films were not Richardson's ideal medium. Of his first Hollywood picture, B*A*P*S (1997), he recalled:

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. . .

Anthony Hayward

Ian Richardson was one of the Royal Shakespeare Company's most distinguished Associate Artists, writes Alan Strachan. During a golden period between 1960 and 1975 he was totally committed to the ensemble ethic of the enterprise.

Richardson had one of the supreme voices of the late 20th-century stage - incisive, rich and resonant with a flexibility that allowed him to turn from the velvety reflective to the feather-light comedic on the turn of a dime. Outstanding in Shakespeare and Shaw, he also had an innate sense of rhythm and tone, not to mention breath-control, which was sadly too rarely exploited in musical theatre.

His roles with the RSC over 15 years at Stratford and in London displayed a remarkable versatility. Richardson appeared with Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the RSC's first Aldwych production, as Malatesti in The Duchess of Malfi (1960), going on to give a glitteringly ethereal Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962) and to make up one of the dazzling company (Judi Dench, Diana Rigg, Alec McCowen included) of Clifford Williams's ceaselessly inventive commedia dell'arte take, much revived, on The Comedy of Errors (1962).

For Peter Brook he played Edmund in Brook's heavily Brechtian revelatory scrutiny of King Lear (1964) with Paul Scofield, and was also a crucial part, playing the Herald, of Brook's teeming version of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, subsequently giving an impressively chilly Marat in New York (Martin Beck Theatre, 1965).

Trevor Nunn's apprentice RSC work included a stunning rare revival of Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (1966) with Richardson a scheming Vindice resembling some venomous, scabrous beetle. Other outstanding Richardson appearances for the company ranged from Prospero in The Tempest (1970), to which he brought a beautifully judged sense of inner despair, a triumphantly golden Richard II (alternating that role and Bolingbroke with Richard Pasco), Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost (1973), handling the rapturous odes to love with mercurial panache, and a startling Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1975), a study of obsessional jealousy as frightening as it was hilarious.

One of the rare breaks Richardson took from the RSC saw him in the musical Trelawny (Sadler's Wells and Prince of Wales, 1972), ineffably touching as the gentle playwright Tom Wrench in Julian Slade's version of Pinero's Trelawny of the 'Wells'. Even more impressive was his Higgins in a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady (St James's, 1976); banishing all memories of Rex Harrison, Richardson stamped the part as his own with a performance of impeccable style and precision-sharp vocal attack.

Television stardom reduced Richardson's stage appearances; Shavians especially were delighted by his Tanner in Man and Superman and the impish Doctor in The Millionairess at the 1977 Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and he made a striking return to the London stage with an hilarious Khlestakov, spiralling into self-mythic invention, in The Government Inspector (Old Vic, 1979). After a less than happy return to the US for a misbegotten Lolita adaptation (1981) he joined the Chichester Festival for Molière, playing Harpagon in a somewhat over-busy The Miser (1995) and for a splendidly dithery Posket in Pinero's farce The Magistrate (Chichester and Savoy, 1998).

Pauline Macaulay's psychological thriller The Creeper (Playhouse, 2006) was a sad failure despite Richardson's artful portrayal of predatory charm. Altogether happier was his valedictory stage appearance, marking his only National Theatre credit, when he played Sir Epicure Mammon in Nicholas Hytner's 2006 production of The Alchemist. Richardson was in vintage form, effortlessly filling the house with his unique comic amperage, and especially brilliant in his scoring of Jonson's sensuous descriptions of Epicurean delights.

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