DVD Reviewer Interview

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Richard Wilson - Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the GraveThursday, 20th September 2001

One Foot in the Grave Video Cover

 Richard Wilson.

Richard Wilson is probably the third most famous living Scott after Billy Connoly and Sean Connery. A veteran of sitcom TV, he has appeared in a number of series including Only When I Laugh, but is most famous for his lead role as the loveable old moaner Victor Meldrew in the hit BBC TV series One Foot in the Grave. BBC Worldwide have kindly provided us with the following interview with the star.

Even a year after his much-loved screen alter ego, Victor Meldrew, was tragically killed in a hit and run accident, actor Richard Wilson cannot escape from people coming up to him and wanting to talk about One Foot in the Grave, the highlights of which are now available on a BBC Worldwide video. Complete strangers are forever approaching and shrieking Victor's catchphrase, "I don't believe it!", at Wilson, as though they are the first people ever to have dreamt up this wizard wheeze.

Wilson, who is in a splendidly upbeat mood as he sits in bright sunshine outside a Hampshire pub, is admirably patient about people's obsession with Meldrew. "It's never going to go away," he says with a wry smile. "I opened a birthday card recently and it cried out, 'I don't believe it'. I was fascinated by it, it was a very good impression. Now I'll only say 'I don't believe it' for charity. The other day, a woman came up and said she'd give me 200 if I said it. So I gave her a personal rendition right in her earhole and made 200 on the spot for guide dogs for the blind!"

"Then yesterday I was in BBC Television Centre, and another woman approached me shouting 'Victor, Victor.' I had to explain to her very slowly that Victor was dead. 'Sorry, Mr Meldrew,' she replied. You just can't win!'"

The problem, Wilson reflects, is that "like the Nepalese royal family, people don't want to believe that Victor is dead. They think that he is going to miraculously reappear and it will all be all right again. They think he can just emerge from the shower like Bobby Ewing did in Dallas. I'm quite pragmatic about the One Foot fans now," continues the actor, who is done up in a natty beige jacket and a khaki baseball cap bearing a trendy Nike logo (Wilson is a considerably snappier dresser than Victor ever was). "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 learnt 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."

All this interest in Wilson is generated, of course, because Victor is such a wonderful character. As conceived by writer David Renwick, Victor sums up our general sense of exasperation with all those aspects of existence that are sent to try us. Despite the promise of new technology, so much of modern life is about disappointment, about all those things that prompt Victor to scream "I don't believe it"; cone-induced traffic jams, gadgets that break and incompetent workmen.

The character immediately struck a chord with viewers, and soon after his debut on BBC1 in 1990 Meldrew went mega. The Christmas specials started pulling in unheard-of audiences of twenty million plus. The Sun ran competitions to find a real-life Victor, and Wilson released a book of absurd facts called, you guessed it, I Don't Believe It.

"People love him because he's a universal character," Wilson muses. "Most of my mail comes from young people. They identify with the idea that Victor can say what he wants - that's exactly what they want to do. It's a young, anarchic quality. The title is ironic - the foot that is out of the grave is the important one, the one that is still kicking at things." The actor has found this last ten years in One Foot in the Grave a most rewarding experience. "Being in One Foot in the Grave is very humbling," he confirms. "You get letters from people saying how much it meant to them at a particularly bad time in their lives. I'd rather make people laugh than cry."

In person, Wilson is the polar opposite of his most famous fictional creation. A wonderfully warm and witty man, he is very far removed from Britain's most celebrated curmudgeon. He has a wide range of interests: he campaigns on social issues like health and education, he enjoys regular games of squash and has a great knowledge of fine wines. As well as starring in such diverse TV series as Life As We Know It and High Stakes, Wilson has impeccable credentials as a theatre director. He is currently directing a new play at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

The 65-year-old actor does admit, however, to the odd Meldrew-esque moment. "I do find it quite easy to get angry, especially after a hard day. In public, you have to try and rein in your temper because people try and goad you into it. But I did lose it with a company the other day. I shrieked at them because they were lying about coming to fix my boiler. I went ballistic, 'what are you doing to me?' They were just incompetent, and I couldn't be bothered to hold in my anger anymore."

Looking back, Wilson thinks that the filming of Victor's death was "rather surreal. I was lying in a gutter in the rain at 3.30 in the morning. David Renwick always likes to put me through terrible trials! The tone of the shoot was quite businesslike and even jolly. It was only when I saw it all put together that the full impact hit home."

"I felt a huge mixture of emotions. There was great sadness because it was the demise of someone I had known for a very long time. But for all that, it was the right time to end it. I felt that I had played Victor for as long as I could and that there was nothing more I could do with him. The whole point about becoming an actor is variety and changing roles. We never did too many episodes of One Foot in the Grave and it remained very fresh, but to keep on doing it would have become like a sausage machine." In conclusion, this most likeable of actors reveals that for a very personal reason he is also secretly relieved that Victor has been killed off. "His death means that taxi drivers have finally stopped asking me when we're doing the next series of One Foot in the Grave. And I can't tell you what a relief that is!"

The Very Best of One Foot in the Grave is out to buy from all good retailers from 22nd October, priced at 15.99.


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