From the Archive: One Foot In The Grave star Richard Wilson

The Big Sussex Interview - From the Archive with Phil Hewitt
Richard WilsonRichard Wilson
Richard Wilson

With our venues still in lockdown, we take the chance to look back on some of the memorable performances of recent years. Today we look back on my interview with One Foot In The Grave star Richard Wilson on his return to the stage three years ago in Chichester…

The headmaster in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On – the opening play in the 2017 Chichester Festival Theatre summer season (April 21-May 20) – is Richard Wilson’s first major role since his heart attack last August.

Richard, known to millions as TV’s Victor Meldrew, reckons the play will offer just the right start to the summer: “What is wonderful about it is that it has got a lot of music and a lot of dancing and a lot of children in it. A lot of Chichester children. 52 of them!

“But I was also interested because it was Daniel Evans’ first choice of play as artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre. I thought that sounds interesting, and because I had the heart attack last year, I was getting a bit bored. I was very pleased that he asked me to do it.

“We have known each other a long time. I was his associate director in Sheffield when he was there. When he said he was going to Chichester, he said to me ‘Would you like to come?’ It didn’t take a lot of thinking about.”

As for that heart attack: “Well, I don’t know. It’s a bit of a worry, of course. I have done a bit of radio since. Some days, it is on your mind; some days, it isn’t. So yes, I am excited about this – but also yes, I am worried.

“I was offered a part in the initial production of (Alan Bennett’s) The History Boys, but I was directing a play at the National. It would have meant I would be working during the day and doing The History Boys in the evening, and I thought that was too much. I was too old. So, no, I have not done a lot of Bennett, but I have known him for some time, and he is a great character.

“I have never played a headmaster before. I don’t think I have ever played a teacher. But this particular headteacher is not like me at all. He is a bit out of date in his thinking. He is a bit old-fashioned for me. I think I am more open-minded in my thinking than he is. He is of the old school, and it is his last day at school. I think from time to time that it is a jolly good job he is leaving… a jolly good job for him and for the play. I don’t think you will warm to him. But he is quite funny hopefully, and people may take to him. I think the writer rather took to him. To have had John Gielgud playing him was quite something.

Last summer, Richard was in Chichester to direct Fracked in the Minerva. 40 Years On, however, is his first time acting in the city. Fracked is going out on tour. Richard is happy not to have redirected the tour: “I would not have been doing this now.

“And the one thing I am very clear about is that if I am acting, I am acting; if I am directing, I am directing; and that the two don’t mix. I never let them cross over. Initially I went into acting and then I started directing. I had no desire to be a director, and then I realised when I did both that I liked the idea of directing something, then acting, then directing something, then acting.

“But I do think I am a better director than I am as an actor. Just looking back at my career, I think I am happier with some of my productions than I am with some of my performances. There was one time when I thought I was going to become a director and then stay a director. And then I decided not to. One of the things I told myself was that if I was going to continue to act, then I should remember as an actor some of the things I might tell myself as a director and pay more attention!”

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