theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
“As you’ve probably noticed, I just have to be given a little cube of sugar like a racehorse and I go,” says Ian Richardson twenty minutes into our interview.
It’s pure pleasure listening to a classical actor the calibre of Mr. Richardson with his soothing and sonorous voice, a voice which can so quickly become menacing when he is playing characters like Francis Urquhart in 1991’s House of Cards (who might know something but couldn’t possibly comment).
It is a voice and a prodigious talent that has given him some of the best parts in Shakespeare under Peter Hall’s youthful aegis at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in the 1960s and a somewhat late-blossoming television career, kick-started by the offer of a part in the adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1979, for which happenstance he credits Alec Guinness.
“It’s out on video. The boys [in The Creeper cast] asked me if I could bring in a copy, especially Robert [Styles] who plays the policeman and doesn’t come on until the end. I brought in also my portable DVD player and he just sat enthralled because you see for these young people, they don’t realise what television used to be like.”
When we meet in his dressing room at the Playhouse Theatre in the West End towards the end of February, the closing notices for The Creeper, Pauline Macaulay’s 1960s play, revived by director Bill Bryden, had yet to be posted. Originally booking until 22 April, the critics put paid to that and the production closes this Saturday. Why, so many of them asked, was he not giving his Lear or his Prospero?
A heavy cold did nothing to dampen Mr. Richardson’s strength of feeling, whether talking about the views of theatre critics, his family, the joy of stained glass and historical architecture, the influence of Gielgud and Guinness, or the verse of Shakespeare.
“I didn’t do Lear because I wasn’t asked to play Lear. I wasn’t asked to play Prospero either. And I didn’t want to do a revival of something that had been relatively recent and, not only that, filmed with rather important people, because what’s new about that?
And they sent me this play, The Creeper, and I thought the part of Edward Kimberley was a remarkable challenge. It required a showpiece at the centre of the drama with these young men and only Harry Towb, who’s my manservant, is slightly older than I am. So when I saw it, I thought, well, it’s not the greatest play in the world but it’s a jolly good piece of entertainment and that’s the thing one must remember. That’s the thing a lot of the critics forget. They sort of think plays about sad lesbians with AIDs is actually terrific theatre. It’s not, not at all.
This is a piece of entertainment and that’s why I wanted to do it. First of all, it was a challenge, a very good part for me, and that’s why I did it. And unfortunately, apart from the more responsible critics who remember that they are there to report on the reaction of the audience and whether the audience liked it or not, the critics take a little ego trip saying how awful they think it is because they’re feeling bitter about their own plays never having made the grade. Or feeling bitter because as actors they never made the grade. And a lot of that happens, you know.
It’s quite an incredible thing – as though I just snapped my fingers and said, ‘Right, I want to do Lear.’ Somewhere like the Orange Tree might jump at it but, you know, I’m not going to do it there. And now it’s far too late, I couldn’t possibly.
In actual fact, I decided that this possibly could be my last stage play, that I won’t do any more after this. Which makes the reaction to it of, well, principally the Telegraph, which was just vicious, and the Mail on Sunday, which was homophobic from that woman – it just makes it such a shame that my last venture into the theatre and on the stage, after all those years, should have been treated with such disdain. So I don’t go out with flying colours; I go out, really, in my black suit, I think.
It’s like Pavlova who went on having farewell matinées ten years after she said she was retiring. I’m not retiring but I’m retiring from the stage. I find it too much of a strain. I shall be seventy-two in April and this is a great strain on me, Edward Kimberley. I get to sit down quite a lot, which is nice, but equally I have to fall down, kneel down and do all sorts of things, which I find very difficult.
And I’m enjoying myself and I have to boast and say that the audiences who see it also enjoy it. Of course you get the odd person: Oliver Dimsdale, who plays my young companion and my co-star in the piece, he has better eyesight than I have and he said that at the point where we became rather smoochy in our bit at the end – have you seen it, by the way? – which I suppose could be a little bit of homosexuality bursting through, although I’m heterosexual and I play it quite straight; but when you consider what rugby players and football players do whenever they score a goal: they practically rape each other on the field – and Oliver said to me there was a young woman with her boyfriend, obviously homophobic, sitting in the very front row, and when we did the smooch bit, Oliver’s head was down and he saw out of the corner of his eye the woman actually putting her hand over her boyfriend’s eyes so that he wouldn’t have to look at it! I mean, really, really – come on now! Anyway, that’s the answer to that question.And I just think I’ve had enough of theatre. After all, I did it for the first half of my career before Tinker, Tailor came along and launched me immediately into television and film for thirty years thereafter, and I just wanted to have one last fling.
Because I did fifteen years of Shakespeare, I get a yearning to actually speak that wonderful language but I get over that by doing the odd Shakespearean recital, frequently with Judi Dench, which is very nice. She and I are the same age but she looks better.
I get the Shakespearean urge out of my system by doing the recitals, and I get the urge to return to the stage, which is also satisfied by doing the recitals. For instance, Diana Rigg, Derek Jacobi, Donald Sinden – and you notice I don’t use their titles, unlike a certain Pakistani actor – we went off and did The Hollow Crown all over Australia, New Zealand and ultimately Canada, and that was on the stage.
All right, it’s not quite the same thing because you all do a little ‘turn’ and then you go and sit down and it’s somebody else’s chance. But it was fun and we all got on famously together and we stuck together; well, like my little group here – there are five of us and we’re very fond of each other. Harry Towb tends to go home because he’s even older than I am! But the young chaps – we wander along the road to the pub and sort of swap dirty stories and drink a couple of pints of beer – as Bill Bryden calls it, a sort of ‘pissed-mortem’.
It’s very good because you have your first drink and what happens is we sit down and it’s about £20 odd a round for a pint of beer and a bottle of wine because some of them drink wine. But I like it because it keeps us together. And after the first drink is down, a bit of truth comes out.
I remember saying to Oliver, for instance, how the heck am I supposed to get you back here with your tie and your jacket if you’re walking around all of the stage and you’re supposed to be sleepwalking? Help me! But I wouldn’t have said that had it not been that we’d gone and had a drink together. So that’s why I encourage it.
They do do exactly that [take on board what I say] but not only that, they will come to me and they will say, listen, I’m having a problem with what you’re doing there – do you think we could talk about it and maybe compromise. And I say, well, I’m only doing that because I feel I’m upstaging you. Oh, I don’t care about that, it’s much better when you do that and go up to the club fender and sit. Alright, I say, I’ll put it back. A good company is worth gold, absolute gold.
And we became very close together as a company because the director, Bill, had to go off to Birmingham at a very crucial point in our out-of-town try-out. And I got in touch with our production office, to Jenny [King] and to Matthew [Gale], and said, ’Look, I can see things that can be put right but I need your authority to allow me to put my other hat on as a director and do it. And I said I will call the boys to rehearsal and I did.
I called them in an hour before the show and I rehearsed things and I suggested things and when Bill came back I was a little bit apprehensive and I said, I’m sorry, Bill, I’ve changed this and I’ve changed that and I’ve altered this and I’ve tightened that and cut this and cut that. I said, I hope you don’t mind. He said, ‘No. I get the credit!’ Very realistic of him.
I always find it so extraordinary that critics should actually assume that [we go on stage wanting to do our worst] – I mean, have you ever met an actor who goes on determined not to do his very best?
I went to Broadway to rehearse My Fair Lady in 1975, I think it was, yes. I was playing Henry Higgins. We had only one opportunity to play out-of-town before coming into Broadway. The producers who had done the original twenty years before – they had not a lot of money to do an extensive pre-Broadway tour so we went to Philadelphia.
And would you credit it, that the drama critic of the Daily Telegraph who happened to be in New York, came to the very, very first night of My Fair Lady in Philadelphia on a try-out and published his not very good review in the British Daily Telegraph two days later. That is dishonourable.
I may say that this very same critic has never ever in his life liked anything I do. It’s always been like that. But when he carps on about my very clever colleagues, I begin to think: where is the humanity in this man? So. Actually, if he were to retire or die, preferably, then I might come back into the theatre but I’m not coming back to allow these awful charlatans to tear me apart for no reason.”
To be continued…
Sarah Vernon © 2006
Originally published on R&V on 17-03-06
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