TV

Richard Wilson: "The Brexit win was terrible"

Actor Richard Wilson talks politics, Kafka and how Victor Meldrew would have taken to social media

Richard Wilson

Why is 2016 the right time to resurrect Victor? “I don’t think there’s anything significant in it other than I’m trying to create work for myself,” Wilson says. “It’s not really to make money, it’s just to keep well-oiled on stage. I don’t mean drunk,” he adds, laughing. “The simple truth is older actors don’t get much work. I don’t want to work too much at the grand old age of 80 but I still want to work.”

Victor Meldrew was one of these roles that for an actor can be a blessing and a curse. So brilliantly did Wilson embody Meldrew’s cantankerous spirit that he forever became associated with the part and it is not hard to believe he still gets a certain catchphrase shouted out to him daily. But through the years, as well as a Father Ted episode that riffed on his infamy, Wilson’s made peace with Victor.

This Edinburgh Fringe, with the blessing of One Foot in the Grave’s writer David Renwick, he is performing an episode from the series called The Trial. Meldrew’s stuck at home on a rainy day waiting for a call to inform him whether he’s required for jury duty (it’s the one where an overeager delivery boy takes the instruction to put the yucca plant in the downstairs toilet a little too literally). Like the protagonist in Kafka’s play, Victor too seems to be perpetually punished for an unknown crime.

[Update: Following a heart attack last week, Richard Wilson’s Edinburgh show – I Don’t Believe It! An Evening with Victor Meldrew – has been cancelled. The actor is reported to be in a stable condition in hospital. The Big Issue wishes him a speedy recovery.]

I joined the Labour party because the gap between the rich and poor was so great. Now it’s getting worse

“A lot of people thought Victor was a pensioner,” Wilson says. “He wasn’t – he was made redundant and that’s what angered him about society, he couldn’t get a job. It is difficult for a lot of people today – then you see the BHS man [Philip] Green on his luxury yacht sailing around the place… my God. I joined the Labour party because the gap between the rich and poor was so great. Now it’s getting worse.”

Richard Wilson is almost Meldrew’s antithesis. Whereas he would howl into the storm, Wilson is thoughtful, slightly despairing about the state of society, especially his beloved but fracturing Labour party (below he is pictured speaking at a Labour Party rally last year). As recently as February he said in an interview that Jeremy Corbyn was the living person he most admired but in increasingly dark days for Labour he finds it hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel.

Richard Wilson as Victor Meldrew

“Oh I wish I thought there was,” he says. “I voted for Corbyn because I thought the party needed a shaking and the three other candidates didn’t impress me at all. But I wouldn’t vote for him again. I don’t think he’s shown any leadership skills. I suppose he’s being true to himself but I don’t see how you can run the Labour party in the House when most of your MPs aren’t on your side.

“The fact that he is standing again, there is a sort of belligerence about that. I just don’t know where we’re going to go. I don’t know about this other chap, the new guy [Owen Smith]. I haven’t decided whether I’ll vote for him but I won’t vote for Jeremy again.”

Wilson has lived in London since the 1950s but was born in Greenock, down the Clyde from Glasgow. At the time, the tightknit shipbuilding community was a Labour stronghold and stayed that way until the SNP’s election yellow-wash in 2015. “I went up to Greenock in the last election to do campaigning for the Labour man,” Wilson says. “I remember thinking I hadn’t seen much SNP activity, what I didn’t realise was they probably weren’t bothered because they knew they were going to win. Winning Inverclyde was extraordinary and a terrible blow.”

The SNP’s victory ended the attitude in Scotland that you voted the way your parents had always voted. Wilson was born into Labour, would it be different if he had been born into different politics? “I suppose if I was back there now I would probably be SNP but I’m a unionist.”

A lot of it unfortunately is down to immigration, jobs and rather basic xenophobic hard-right politics. That’s the sad thing

Is the turmoil just the natural cycle of parties become more and less popular or is something more fundamental happening? “The Brexit win was terrible,” he sighs. “I was going around, a Hampsteadite I suppose, saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be close but we’ll stay in.’ Of course I was out of touch with large swathes of the country. In the north in some cases 80 per cent of people were voting leave. A lot of it unfortunately is down to immigration, jobs and rather basic xenophobic hard-right politics. That’s the sad thing.”

In the 1990s people loved Victor for being outspoken, speaking his mind no matter the consequences. Now we have social media where everybody has a platform to make their thoughts known. But maybe it is not always a good thing to know what everyone else thinks.

“I think that might be the case,” Wilson agrees. “I’m sure Victor wouldn’t have been terribly good on the internet and on Twitter but he may have taken to it realising its power. When I was doing the show, I always put him down as a liberal. Gosh, Victor probably would have voted to come out. I think there’s a lot of latent right-wing ideas lurking around Victor.

“The world is changing. The drama of Brexit and Boris was absolutely Ibsenesque in its dramatic potential. The other tragic thing is it’s the young people who need to be looked after and helped and they’re not getting it. I’m really in a very despondent place politically. I’ll keep fighting… I don’t know quite how.”

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