theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
In the second part of my interview with Ian Richardson, the actor talks about his background, how one particular school teacher helped him to find his mètier, and how actor and director Bernard Hepton gave him his first professional job at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
“Absolutely nothing [theatrical] in my background. What is in my background is a school teacher. I was not a very bright student and he felt there was potential there and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t sort of coming out of a shell; I was a very backward pupil and he couldn’t help feeling – or so he told my mother; my father was away in the army because it was wartime – he told my mother that he felt there was something there but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
He thought it might be music so at great expense, because there was not a lot of money in the family, a piano was purchased and I was sent to piano lessons, which I’m very grateful for because I play really quite well and I use it as a wind-down. Not in my London house because there’s no room in a Victorian terrace house for a Bechstein! I have it in my house in Devon. I really enjoy playing classical music, of course, I’m afraid. No, I’m not afraid – it’s what I prefer.
I was very grateful for the piano lessons and then I realised that I would never be a concert pianist and I think my piano teacher realised that too. I might get away with it in clubs and pubs but not on the concert platform. The next thing that was tried was art and I was asked to paint a subject of my own choice. I painted it and the art teacher absolutely shrieked with horror and said no.
And then it coincided with my having to read a bit of something in church and I can remember that it was in fact the Armistice Day service and ‘R’ for Richardson comes quite far down the alphabetical list and so it was some time before the chance came to me to do ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old’ etc.
And precocious as I was at that time, I decided it would be much better to memorize it – this is pure instinct on my part – rather than read it from the lectern. I was never very tall and it meant if I stood behind that brass eagle thing, nobody would see me!
So purely instinctively I stood in the centre with my back to the altar and I said it from memory. And I can remember to this day, all these years later, sixty-odd years later, remembering the astonishing silence in the packed congregation when I’d finished.
And the history teacher didn’t write to my mother this time, he phoned her and I remember it was so long ago that we’d only just got a phone into the house, and he phoned her and he said, “Do you realise the congregation stopped breathing for three seconds when your son had finished? He’s not going to be a pianist, he’s not going to be an artist, he’s going to be an actor.”
And he said, “Now you’re going to have to get rid of that accent.” Of course, I had a Scottish accent. So he said, “I happen to know a reputable elocutionist who will get rid of some of those Scottish sounds.” Nothing daunted, my poor mother found pennies from somewhere and I went for elocution lessons. And then my father came back, was rather appalled at what was happening but he didn’t protest too much, just expressed disdain.
And then, of course, in those days, National Service came along when I was eighteen. I went into the Army. I was just as hopeless as a soldier as I had been as a pupil because that was not my mètier. So when I was in the Middle East, in Benghazi, which was then the capital of Libya – in 1953 I suppose it would be – I was seconded, as they say rather quaintly, to the . And there, because of the heat of the afternoon, we never worked in the studio, we just brought in the programmes from the General Overseas Service of the BBC, as it was called then.
And we went downstairs to the air-conditioned offices and studios and prepared a lot of our programmes on tape. Not like modern-day tape recorders or small ones like you’ve got there but enormous great Ferodo – no, that’s tyres – Ferrari – no, that’s a car – I can’t remember. But anyway, it was gigantic and needed two people to carry it. Reel to reel. And I remember, gradually, listening to my voice on these tape recorders and with the help of my chief announcer, who had a beautiful voice, correcting my vowel sounds.
By the time I’d finished and came home, I was talking more or less the way I’m talking to you now. My father was horrified but he finally got used to it and of course in those days you could not expect to have any career at all in the theatre if you had a regional accent.
And it was rather good in a way because then, having been demobilized, I went to Glasgow College of Dramatic Art [now RSMAD] and because I was talking with an accent like this, the BBC and the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre and, indeed, the Gateway Theatre in Edinburgh, they realised they could save quite a bit of money by not having to send down to London to find an English actor to come up and play an English part either on radio or television or the Citizens’ Theatre or Gateway, when they had an English-speaking student who was already a good enough actor to do the thing.
And so I made money and I was able to pay my fees, which was just as well because my father refused until the end of the first year when he came to see the first ever performance I’d given on the stage. He never used to see anything I did as an amateur actor; only my mother and my sisters used to come. My father absolutely refused. Not for any Presbyterian or religious reason but because he was under the impression that all actors had to be gay. We didn’t use the word ‘gay’ in those days – he called them ‘queeries’, which was quaint.
Anyway, after he’d seen me in my first year performance, and he was driving me back to Edinburgh where I was going to the family home, he said, ‘Oh, I think you’re definitely right to choose the theatre as your profession so I will agree to finance your remaining two years but isn’t there anything else in this for you?’
And I said, ‘Well, I can start a teaching course at Glasgow University which will enable me to have a second string to my fiddle because if I’m out of work I can teach drama or Shakespeare or the classics.’
‘Do it! And is there nothing else?’ he said. And I said, ‘Well, there’s the diploma itself and I suppose there are the prizes – the Silver Medal and the Bronze Medal and the Gold.’
‘You get the Gold Medal,’ he said. And you know, that hung over me for the rest of my time there but of course I did get the Gold Medal.
One of the judges on the panel of judges looking at the diploma performances happened to be Bernard Hepton who at that time had abandoned acting himself, excellent actor though he was. He’d abandoned it in order to become artistic director of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. And he had just lost Albert Finney to a play with Charles Laughton called The Party, which was being bombed all through the provinces and never actually came into London.
But that meant that Albert had left and there was a vacancy in the company. So after the diploma performance, which was a matinée performance – the parents came in the evening, you understand – he sent for me and I went there with fear and trepidation, not knowing what it was going to be about.
And he came out into the draughty hallway of the Gothic building [Athenæum, 1847] which the Academy was once housed in, and we sat quietly in a corner and he said, ‘I would like you to join my company. I’ve lost Albert Finney and I would like you to take his place.’
In those days we were called juvenile character actors. And I said, ‘But oh my God, that’s wonderful.’ And as he stood up to go he said, ‘I’ll send you a contract. Oh, and by the way, the other thing you might be thinking about as a result of your performance: it’s yours, it’s yours!’ I said, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have told me that!’ He said, ‘Of course I should. What are you talking about?’
And so off he went and I had to go through the whole of the evening performance knowing that I’d got the Gold Medaland knowing that I had a contract at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. How do you keep that and remain modest? I don’t think I entirely succeeded. I kept the secret but I don’t think I remained modest.
With thanks to Miles Richardson for the use of the Duchess of Malfi photograph. Miles is currently appearing on Broadway with Tim Pigott-Smith in King Charles III.
To be continued…
Sarah Vernon © 2006
Originally published on R&V on 18-03-06
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