Secrets of the Grave – and Miss Toner

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The playwright John Byrne has given the world many wonderful fictional characters. Mostly on stage. But for the glorious six-week run of Tutti Frutti in 1987, the airwaves echoed to the stentorian catchphrase of one Eddie Clockerty.

And so Greenock’s gift to comedy, as the conniving manager of a down and out rock band which had a young Robbie Coltrane as its lead singer and Emma Thompson as his girlfriend, delighted his first battalion of fans.

“With One Foot In The Grave people want me to say, ‘I don’t believe it !’” says Richard Wilson. “With Tutti Frutti, they just wanted me to say, ‘Miss Toner!’”.

The Bafta award-winning series was Wilson’s passport to cult status. “In TV then all I was known for was Crown Court, where I was trying to play a posh barrister. Then I did Tutti Frutti and people would say, ‘You’ve got a very good Scottish accent.’ And when I told them that I was Scottish, they were shocked. People I meet now say, ‘Where were you born?’ and when I say Greenock they ask ‘Why no Scottish accent?’ so I realise I have somewhat lost my accent… a bit.”

To be honest, I point out, he does still have what we from Paisley would describe as a bit of a “pan loaf” accent. He seems surprised.

“When I came down to London my Scottish accent was so broad that I realised I would have to say everything twice because no one understood what I was saying to them,” he remembers. But then he went to RADA.

“RADA doesn’t try to make you posh,” he says “but it tries to teach you RP… a sort of neutral, understandable accent.”

Although Wilson went to drama school very late, he got the theatre bug early.

“Greenock was always very strong on the amateur dramatic scene. My primary school – Lady Alice – had a stage in the gym, and when you were in your 11-plus year you got to stay behind after school to put all the chairs out from under the stage and it became the theatre. Then you’d go home and have your tea and come back and watch the play.” He smiles. “That’s where I got the taste of greasepaint.” And the little Richard liked the taste. “I also had a very good teacher – Miss McLeary, who did plays.”

Of course, Wilson went straight to playing authority figures. “The first play I did was the Princess And The Pea. I played the king.” At Greenock High, Wilson (along with Bill Bryden, Mary Riggans and many other greats of Scottish drama) benefited from being taught by the great Mabel Irving, who also ran the after-school drama group. “I remember doing a play and running home for my lunch with my make-up on,” says Wilson. “It was terribly daring… I don’t know if I’d try it now.”

Despite having developed an appetite for greasepaint, Wilson didn’t get to RADA until he was 27, National Service in Singapore and a stint as a lab technician having intervened. “For a long time I thought I just wouldn’t be good enough at acting. But at 27, I thought, ‘If I don’t try now, I’m never going to.’ So I decided to give it a bash.”

And some quality bash that turned out to be. As a stage actor Wilson has played everything from Malvolio to Krapp, and as a theatre director he has championed new writing from the Royal Court to the Traverse. Keen as he is on new writing, some new performing styles would have Mabel Irving turning in her grave.

“When I am directing I always tell my actors that the most important thing is to be heard,” he says emphatically. “But I don’t want them to lose the nuance that we have worked on over the last five weeks… it’s not about loudness, its about placing it.” He sighs.

“There’s an awful lot of shouting in the business now.” He tuts. “The number of plays I go to where I get shouted at. I hate it.” There is a short pause. “Mumbling is worse,” he continues. “When I was a boy, the films of John Cassavetes used to get a lot of criticism because there were a lot of mumblers in his films. I used to think, ‘I don’t mind missing the odd line because it is just so real.’ I don’t mind the odd mumbler,” he says, “as long as it’s not in one of my productions.”

I ask if he agrees with John Frankenheimer, who said that casting is 65% of directing. “Absolutely,” he says. “Get a good cast and your job is easy peasy.” Which seems to be a good point at which to ask who cast him for One Foot In The Grave.

“David Renwick wrote it with me in mind. Which is not a great compliment, really. I suppose he saw something… a sort of Scottish dourness maybe. I think there was maybe something of David in him too, and something of David’s father, but I tried not to analyse too much about who was who.”

Renwick had already worked with Wilson on Whoops Apocalypse and the sitcom Hot Metal, but that didn’t stop him turning down the part at first. “Victor was the opposite of me in many ways. I always thought he was maybe not a Conservative, but certainly a member of the Liberal Party, and I have always been a staunch left-winger,” he says. Plus Wilson was convinced he was too young for the part. Victor was written as being 60 while Wilson was a mere 55.

But who else could possibly have filled Victor’s slippers? “I think Les Dawson was being considered,” murmurs Wilson, “a very funny man but I don’t know if he could have played Victor.” Luckily for legions of Meldrew Maniacs everywhere, he didn’t have to. A persistent producer and a reading of a couple more scripts convinced Wilson. “David’s writing was so good… so clear that I just obeyed his scripts and got on with it.”

Wilson admits: “Victor did change my life. I mean I had a taxi driver only last week… and I got my money out and he said ‘No, this is on me, Victor, for the pleasure you have given me over the years.’

“And it is humbling, the number of people who write to me and say, ‘I was going through a very bad time and it was One Foot In The Grave that gave me a lift.’”

On stage this month he will be performing the one script that Renwick wrote as a solo piece for Victor, at home, on call for jury duty, as well as doing a Q&A as himself for half an hour.

“I think Victor is around 80 now,” he says gravely, “but I am playing him roughly 74.” And, according to his alter ego, Victor has not mellowed over the years. “Not changed one bit. In fact it is quite hard to get back to my normal affable loveable self after being him.”

Is this how Wilson thought it would be, at 80, all these years ago playing the king in the Princess And The Pea?

“When I started acting I was just so thrilled to have started,” he says, “ I 
never had any aspirations about being well known. I’ve been blessed with 
Victor and with Tutti Frutti… two wonderful writers. I’m quite pragmatic as to my possibilities… I am a character actor and I think it has all worked out quite well.” ■

I Don’t Believe It! An Evening With Victor Meldrew, Assembly Roxy, Tuesday to 28 August, 5.30pm.

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