Interview: Richard Wilson, actor
THERE is a corner of France that is forever Britain. I'm just outside Compigne, north-west of Paris, at the glorious Chteau de Pierrefonds. It is a very convincing double for Camelot in BBC1's hit Saturday teatime show Merlin, the second series of which is released on DVD today.
Pierrefonds is a proper castle that wouldn't look out of place in a Disney theme park. It's all turrets gleaming in the midday sun and griffin gargoyles so realistic you fear they might fly off the walls and attack you (which, indeed, in a recent episode of Merlin, they did). The castle even has a moat, and no doubt a canny Westminster MP is, as we speak, contemplating buying it and putting the cleaning on expenses.
The Chteau de Pierrefonds appears utterly impregnable: the single entrance on the far side of a drawbridge is so narrow that filming recently had to be halted when a witchfinder, played by Charles Dance, got his cart wedged in it. It all seems authentically Arthurian, however this splendiferous castle was not constructed in medieval times, but in the mid-19th century. It was built by Napoleon III as a monument to his towering ego.
Standing in pride of place at the centre of the grandiose courtyard is the statue of an imposing knight on horseback. He sits with his visor up and one hand on his hip in a cocksure manner, proclaiming "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough". This is clearly the locus where Napoleon III lived out his dream of being a knight in shining armour. But his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, would have surely been livid about the castle's current use as the magnificent setting for a TV series made by the hated British. He might even have exclaimed (en franais, of course): "I don't believe it!"
That is one phrase that you will never hear Richard Wilson utter these days – unless you are prepared to part with a large sum for charity. He persuaded Jonathan Ross to shell out 10,000 for a cancer charity in exchange for saying Victor Meldrew's celebrated catchphrase live on his chat show. Otherwise, quite understandably, the 73-year-old is simply fed up with being constantly asked to repeat the mantra of a character who was killed off in One Foot in the Grave nine years ago. As long ago as 1998, in Father Ted, Wilson, playing himself, was furious when the dim-witted priests Ted and Dougal approached him on holiday in Ireland and asked him to say it.
But more importantly, in person Wilson is simply not the sort of Grumpy Old Man to go around harrumphing his disbelief at the state of the world. We are meeting on the set of Merlin, in which he brings his very distinctive wry twinkle to the role of Gaius, the wise old court physician who advises the impetuous young title character.
The man I meet in a trailer nestling in the shadow of the ramparts at Pierrefonds is the polar opposite of Victor. Meldrew was suburban and permanently simmering somewhere near boiling-point – like Gordon Ramsay after a sous-chef has overcooked the broccoli. Wilson, on the other hand, is urbane, witty and charming. Where Victor favoured beige car-coats and cardies, his alter ego goes in for an altogther more dapper look. Today, he sports a natty pink striped shirt, teamed with an elegant pair of black trousers.
The actor and theatre director, who hails from Greenock, is also possessed of a dry sense of humour that even pain from a bad back cannot subdue. The only time he clams up is if you try to discuss his private life, an area which he, politely but firmly, says is "verboten".
When asked how his character in Merlin has progressed since the last series, he deadpans: "Gaius has developed a very bad back – oh no, that's me! Actually, the major development is that Gaius is a year older than in the last series. It's worth watching for the very subtle changes. It may look simple, but it's taken a lot of work…"
Later, Wilson jokes that every time he starts a new job, he thinks: "This is where I'm going to be found out. I've only got one character – Richard Wilson in varying degrees of grumpiness."
He adds: "Acting should be about metamorphosing into different characters, but because I've got no hair I can't change much!"
Wilson, who resides in North London, has clearly embraced his time in France with a rare joie de vivre. "I have quite a lot of down time here. On my days off, it's very nice to sit in a square in Compigne having a coffee and reading the paper. There are worse places to be in the world. I've also grown to love Paris. It's such a handsome city – its buildings are spectacular. It's fairly compact, and I'm beginning not to rely on taxis to get around. Above all, it has some of the best restaurants and hotels in the world. What's not to like?"
He has also relished filming at the castle, saying the ambience has helped him to get into character, since the Chteau de Pierrefonds is a place where the air hums with history. "So much has happened here," he reflects. "For instance, there are bulletholes in the wall where the Nazis allegedly executed members of the Resistance."
In addition, Wilson clearly enjoys being in the company of the vibrant young Merlin cast, led by Colin Morgan (Merlin), Bradley James (Prince Arthur), Angel Coulby (Gwen) and Katie McGrath (Morgana). "They tell me I'm always looking for acting tips from the youngsters," he smiles. "I try to keep up, but they're far too confident for my liking."
He says filming Merlin "has been a very bonding experience. Because we're all away from home together, we tend to hang on to each other". The cast all bonded over a table-tennis tournament during the lunch breaks. They also came together over the shared aim of trying to avoid a particularly tenacious band of young groupies – a quartet of German girls who turned up on set every single day, come rain or shine. Richard has obviously really revelled in his young colleagues' sometimes mischievous company. "I'd love to tell you there were lots of people throwing hissy fits, but there weren't. Everyone got on really well."
On screen, he is close to the younger actors, too. In the show, noted for its exceptional use of state-of-the-art special effects ("You want a giant dragon, sir? Coming right up!"), Gaius mentors Merlin, while also ensuring that his young protg's magical powers are kept hidden from the ruthless King Uther (Anthony Head), who has banned sorcery in his kingdom. According to Wilson, "there is almost a father-son relationship between Gaius and Merlin. Gaius is constantly trying to keep the young wizard in check and to keep his magic secret. But there are still times when Gaius has to say, 'You've got to use magic here'." At one point, Gauis is imperilled by Aredian, the scary witchfinder played by the aforementioned Dance. "Aredian fabricates evidence of using witchcraft against Gaius. He condemns him to be burned at the stake with gay abandon. It's really good storytelling."
Merlin has struck a chord right around the world – the series has been sold to 180 countries. The Camelot myth has a timeless appeal because any audience can find in it echoes of its own era. "Look at Uther," observes Wilson, who remains a Labour supporter, despite vocal opposition to the Iraq war. "His regime is pretty bloodthirsty in terms of rooting out dissent. He's a cruel monster. Are there parallels with repressive regimes today? Of course! There are so many tyrants ruling these days. Take your pick."
In addition to his work on the series, Wilson is fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing Malvolio, in Gregory Doran's RSC production of Twelfth Night. After an acclaimed run in Stratford, it is transferring to the West End next month. He has received rave reviews, including one that said: "Richard Wilson's majestic Malvolio, like a long-retired sergeant major still dreaming of promotion, and self-admiring to the point of idol worship. This is a masterclass performance, irresistible and manifold like its author."
Wilson explains: "Malvolio was the role I was told by everyone I should play. I don't take that as a compliment – Malvolio is a grumpy old sod. Brilliant casting," he adds with a laugh. "It's like when David Renwick (the creator of One Foot in the Grave] said he wrote the part of Victor with me in mind – it's a double-edged sword."
Our hour together has flown by, but before he departs to don Gaius's floppy white wig and stately robes, I ask how he copes with fans who constantly approach him in the street. I recall that during a previous interview a passing man spotted Wilson and said to his young child: "Look, there's Victor." With commendable equanimity, the actor patiently replied: "I'm afraid Victor's dead."
"I'm quite pragmatic about the fans now," he reflects. "It's only when people persist that it annoys me. Still, I try to put them off jokingly and never lose my rag. Once I walked away from someone asking for an autograph because I was in a real rush. That's the only time it's happened. I learned from Leslie Crowther when I worked with him on My Good Woman; he would never walk off when someone was wanting an autograph. He was my trainer in that regard.
"Still, we actors have it easy compared to footballers or Formula 1 drivers. They get so many requests for an autograph, they end writing something totally illegible. I wouldn't have their lives for anything!"
The second series of Merlin is released on DVD by 2Entertain today. Merlin continues on BBC1 this Saturday.