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“It wasn’t very pleasant,” says Ian Richardson with understatement. He is referring to his experience of active duty during National Service in the aftermath of World War II, an experience he chooses not to give me in too much detail in this, the fourth and final part of my interview with the actor. Fortuitously, he was later posted to Forces Broadcasting, picking up vocal experience that would prove invaluable at the start of his professional career.
My wife, Maroussia, is half-Russian; her mother, the English half, and her Russian father both met at Wassily de Basil’s Ballets Russes when she was on a tour all over the world but particularly to Australasia, where her father and mother married in a registry office.
And then the tour ended up in Marseilles in the South of France where they weren’t given any money because there wasn’t any money. And her father said to her mother, ‘I know a White Russian colony along the coast in a village called Les Lavendou. Let’s go there – at least we’ll get a meal.’
So I think they hitch-hiked along the coast to Les Lavendou. This is the end of 1937. And, indeed, they served at table. My father-in-law played the balalaika in the evening during dinner, and they were very happy there.
Then my mother-in-law discovered that one of the villas owned by a baron was being sold because the baron wanted to move down to the coast to be nearer the sea, although he wasn’t all that far from the sea – it was a hillside, for goodness’ sake.
The villa was called the Coq D’Or, the Golden Cockerel, and my mother-in-law wired through, as one did in those days, to her mother in London and said, I need such and such a sum of money.
And granny made the journey from London with the money in her bag and came along and they bought the villa and they ran it as a sort of pension until the Nazis began to get nervous about the possibility of an Allied landing on the south coast, which was entirely the way the Allies wanted them to think.
And so they came south and of course my wife’s father was half-Jewish… no, he was Jewish. So my wife, in fact, is half-Jewish, and so there was no question that they could stay there.
They escaped and they went through Spain into Portugal and from Portugal they finally got a boat to take them to Ireland and eventually back to England with two year-old Maroussia, who was born there, in tow. And it’s just as well they did that because the Germans did arrive and they went to the working men’s club under the impression they were either Communists or Jews, and they took them all out and shot them. Then they blew up the Coq D’Or and it had to be re-built.
But anyway, that’s that part of the story.
I saw a bit of action. Not World War II but I saw a little bit of the aftermath for the brief time I was a soldier and I was involved in a little bit of active service which involved shooting and things like that. It wasn’t very pleasant.
Probably one of the reasons why I was sent off to Forces Radio was because I was involved in a fracas with open fire, you know, where you just point your pistol and shoot. I was never aware whether it was my bullet that did the damage to one particular Arab but anyway it happened. So all of us involved in that were posted out and I found myself not being wanted or because of a vendetta from the family, I found myself posted to Benghazi. They didn’t know what to do with me and that’s how I actually got into Forces Broadcasting.
So having had that experience, I’m not at all interested in war. But I am very interested in history – history’s my favourite subject and I’m very interested in historical buildings, books, paintings, and I’ll go anywhere to see some stained glass, like when we were trying out in Malvern. The Priory there has some of the oldest stained glass in England. And the only reason I said, yes, I’ll go to Malvern for a week, was I wanted to see the Priory!
But I must tell you briefly about Miles. He had appalling dyslexia and when I was doing My Fair Lady on Broadway, the boys [Miles and Jeremy] came with me and I sent him to a school that specialised in teaching boys who had that particular drawback.
He seemed to do quite well but not entirely home and dry, and in actual fact, when we came back to England, his headmaster at the school I sent them to out Hampstead way, wrote to me – Miles was fourteen – and said, please take him away because there’s nothing we can do for him because he cannot read; because at that time dyslexia was not entirely understood. And that was when I said to Miles, ‘What on earth do you want to do?’ And he said, ‘Well, I want to be an actor.’ Oh, God!
I said, well, you’re going to have to learn how to read properly. I said, ‘What interests you apart from the theatre?’ He said, ‘World War II. From the American side.’ I went out and I bought some books on the Second World War, from the American point of view. Very dull tomes with very few photographs – mostly maps and things like that – and he pored over these volumes and in his own way, he cured his dyslexia. Not entirely. He will see a bus coming which is supposed to be the 21, which is the one he wants, and in actual fact he lets it go by because he thinks it’s a 12. He’s through it now and I’m very happy about that.
I could have listened to Ian all day and the next but Maroussia (“she’s in charge”) popped her head round the door to say our time was up and that he needed his nap before the evening performance.
I was immensely sad when I heard news the following year that he had died in his sleep. A lovely actor and a lovely man. It was a privilege to interview him.
With thanks to Miles Richardson for the use of the photographs. Miles is currently appearing on Broadway with Tim Pigott-Smith in King Charles III.
Sarah Vernon © 2006
Originally published on R&V on 26-03-06
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