theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
In the third part of my interview with Ian Richardson, he talks further on the disparity of opinion between drama critics and audiences, and about never being frightened “ever, ever again” after playing the major Shakespearean roles. “Everything I know about how to speak Shakespeare I learnt from John Gielgud,” he tells me. And he credits Alec Guinness with teaching him about television technique.
I was at the Birmingham Rep for eighteen months, having taken over Albert Finney’s dressing room, his digs and his position in the company. During the eighteen months I was there, one of the parts I was offered and played at the age of twenty-five was Hamlet. At the time I played it, Peter Hall was the artistic director designate of Stratford-upon-Avon, then called the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. He was taking over from Glen Byam Shaw.
He didn’t start till 1960 but he wanted to get his company together and he wanted to get rid of some of the old tradition and bring in a lot of young actors because he was himself a young man. He wasn’t even thirty – I think he was about twenty-seven. That means he was two years older than I was.
So, eighteen months after arriving in Birmingham, I went thirty miles down the road to Stratford-upon-Avon and that’s where I met my wife. And I started playing reasonable parts – speaking parts – and gradually, under Peter Hall’s tuition or tutelage, one was promoted. That was part of his system.
He first of all decided if he liked you and liked your work and your potential, he signed you up for three years, which was unheard of in the theatre in those days. Three years! Well, immediately, I got married and started having children on the strength of that security. My wife had the children, but anyway! Be that as it may.
But the condition of this was that he would decide when you were ready for promotion. And he was true to his word. And by the time he left – 1966, I think it was – and Trevor Nunn took over, I’d already reached the point where I was playing parts like Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream with Judi Dench and Ian Holm as Puck. And Diana Rigg was promoted … no … yes, she was promoted to playing Helena from having walked on with my wife in 1960.
So it was all a wonderful experience and I must tell you that once you’ve played the real big Shakespearean roles, nothing ever, ever can frighten you again. And it’s funny that I should reach this point in my answering your question. I remember standing in the wings before my first entrance on the first night [of The Creeper] going through my usual procedure, which I suddenly remembered from nine years ago which was the last time I’d been on the stage, whereby I drained myself of any kind of nerves so that in nothing I did would my hands shake. I have to give the young man a cigarette and light it. Now, that’s a big giveaway: it’s almost as big a giveaway as being handed a cup of tea with a spoon and a saucer.
I just drained myself of all possible nerves and went on. And do you know – I can say this because Milton Shulman’s no longer with us – he used to hate it when he went to a first night and he noticed that an actor wasn’t nervous; they HATE it! Another reason why you get slammed.
It’s one of the great drawbacks of being back in the theatre. You are at their mercy. You have people outside the stage door who have access to you, which they do not have when you’re on film or television. You have critics of the theatre who can get at you in their newspapers, which they don’t have when you do film or television because you’ve long since done it; it’s been edited and the soundtrack has been improved with music and effects and everything, and you’ve forgotten you ever did it, actually. And so nobody reads television reviews unless they’re wonderful like Bleak House was. They feel they can’t get at you.
And I was saying to my young colleagues here in the cast, ‘I think what it is, boys, is that they’ve been dying to get at me ever since I did Francis Urquhart [House of Cards], and they haven’t been able to get at me and they think, oh, I’d love to get that swine back on the stage so I could tear him to shreds.’ And some of them did.
That’s why this is my last stage play. Let them tear each other to shreds. I happen to know – I must be careful here – an evening paper (is that enough to identify?); he is a playwright as well and Miles, my son, took part in a reading of his play one Sunday evening at the National. I asked Miles what it was like and he said very pedestrian. Well, there’sone person who’s going to be jealous.
And the Mail on Sunday was just homophobic and just unpleasant about everything. Absolutely unpleasant about everything. And one wonders why. And you go out of the stage door and there are people – a lot of people, who have no intention of coming and seeing it, want autographs for eBay sales – who actually have stayed, in the wintery weather we’re having, just to say, ‘I really don’t understand the critics. We had a wonderful evening.’
The play is not the greatest piece of work in the world but it’s supremely well acted by everyone up on the platform and it’s a wonderful piece of entertainment. And tell me, what is show business about if it’s not entertaining?
When I was doing exclusively the classic theatre, especially Shakespeare, my God was John Gielgud because he was the finest exponent of Shakespearean verse that I think we’ve ever had, as far as I know. Everything I know about how to speak Shakespeare I learnt from John Gielgud.
Now, when I went into television, which happened when I came back from America and Canada, having been away for two years, I found to my horror that everybody had forgotten I even existed, here in England.
I went to a memorial service at which Alec Guinness delivered some poetry. Rather boldly, I went up to him afterwards and said, ‘Sir Alec, that was absolutely wonderful’, and he looked at me in that very quizzical way and said, ‘I think I know you. What is your name, please?’ I said Ian Richardson and he said, ‘Ah yes, you’ve been away for a while.’ I said, ‘Yes, Sir Alec. And don’t I ‘alf know it. Nobody seems to know who I am any more.’ ‘I know, I know – I remember very well.’
And two days later, the scripts of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy arrived on my doorstep. And I’m sure it was because Alec had casting authority. And you see I was perfect casting and I know this sounds conceited but I was perfect casting because I had had all this acting experience, brought up in the hurly-burly of the classical theatre, but only the cognoscenti knew who the hell Ian Richardson was.
So here I was able with a certain amount of experience to tackle the role without my face being instantly recognized on the screen so that no one would say, well, he wouldn’t do it if he was the baddie, which was very clever of them indeed.
The story was quite different after it went out and I got a great deal of notice because of my playing of Bill Haydon. That was the start of my television career and I owe – we’re going back to where my influences are – I owe everything to Alec because I knew nothing about playing to the camera at all.
Fortuitously, all my scenes, bar a couple of office scenes, where he didn’t appear, were with Alec, and I watched him like a hawk and I learned from him. And he, of course, being a very astute man, realised that I was watching him and he decided that he was flattered by my attention and wanted to help.
He told me how essential it was to know what the lenses were on the camera because then you know whether you’re at a distance so that you can use theatrical gestures, or whether you’re very, very close and the raising of an eyebrow can be as big a theatrical gesture as of a wide-sweeping arm.
He also told me that if you are in a film or a television thing where they inevitably shoot out of sequence in the story, it’s very advisable to be completely au fait with the graph and the shape of your performance. And he said, ‘I go further than that. I memorize in advance if I know what I’m going to do.’ Of course, Sir Alec always knew what he was going to do.
So I decided to follow suit. And I’ve never done anything, either on film or television without memorizing it all first and deciding how I wanted to do it.
It sounds very arrogant but I found, on too many occasions for it not to be a good idea, that the director has not spent enough time preparing it and so he’s very grateful for the fact that I’ve done my own preparation.
There are still things, particularly in France, where I’ve just made a film, before we came here, which had an enormous budget. But here in this country both film and television, particularly television, they have such small budgets that if they don’t get it on the third take, they’re getting rather agitated.
With me, they usually get it on the second take. The first take I’m slightly slow because I’m covering myself – a sort of insurance policy against going wrong by playing it slow, like they do in soap operas. That’s why soap operas are generally played at a very slow tempo. It’s because they haven’t had time to absorb the lines and say them with any semblance of variety and tempo. They play safe, so consequently, soap operas, particularly American ones, are very slow.
So the second take I decide, well, they’ve got that one in the can so I can experiment a bit and I sort of throw my hat over the passionate wall and go for it. And that’s usually the one they want. They take another one for safety’s sake but it’s usually beginning to get complicated so they go for the second one.
So, John Gielgud for my classical work and Alec Guinness for my work for the camera.
With thanks to Miles Richardson for the use of the Romeo and Met photographs. 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 22-03-06
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