Richard Wilson has always been a political animal. By his own admission, the former Glasgow University rector, lifelong Labour Party supporter and no-questions-asked OBE for services to drama as both actor and director likes to remain quietly in control.
Playing a Tory Whip in Steve Thompson’s imagined future parliamentary nightmare of a David Cameron led minority Conservative government, then, should come naturally for the 70-something veteran. In conversation, Wilson remains as charmingly erudite as his immortalisation of Victor Meldrew in TV sit-com One Foot In The Grave was the epitome of grumpy old men everywhere.
Of course, if one wanted to be cynical, talking as we are the day before Prime Minister and new chum of Margaret Thatcher Gordon Brown doesn’t call a snap election, Whipping It Up’s UK tour could all be an immaculately timed and presented piece of post-Blairite spin.
“It couldn’t be more apt, really”, admits the Greenock born actor. “I don’t envy David Cameron his job one bit, but the idea here is that the Tories have won, but only with a majority of three. So when the next election is called the Whips office suddenly becomes much more important than they thought they’d be. I play the old codger who’s the Chief Whip, who’s a bit foul-mouthed and isn’t quite in the game.”
As with Tony Blair adopting policies and attitudes first seen during the Thatcher years, Whipping It Up is something we’ve seen before. On television there were few better dramatic expositions of arch spin-doctoring in the 1980s than House Of Cards. In a lighter vein, the sit-com Yes Minister equally showed up the absurdities of who really ran Westminster. More recently, The Thick Of It was a darker, more verite look at just how inept our politicians have become.
It also begged the question of whether, given the state of Westminster (and let’s not even get into the hilariousness of what’s going down in Holyrood, a vein mysteriously un-mined by any dramatist of note), politics and politicians today are beyond parody and satire. It was politically minded American song-smith Tom Lehrer, after all, who is alleged to have given up writing and performing in 1973 after Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
When Whipping It Up transferred to the West End last year after Terry Johnson’s production at The Bush Theatre proved to be a hit, it seemed to tap into the prevailing mood of distrust which has forever blighted politicians, but since the Iraq war has become more prevalent than ever.
“I joined the Labour Party years ago” says Wilson, “and I’m still a fully paid up member, and there aren’t many of us left. In this play I have to say some pretty nasty things about Labour, which is interesting because I don’t always agree with what they say. I was very much against the war, as were a lot of people like me who left the party because of it. But I always think that the Labour Party isn’t just Tony Blair, and supporting the war was very much his doing. That upset me a great deal, but there’s no other party I could declare my allegiance to. Tony Blair was a consummate actor” Wilson observes, “and without doubt a very skilful speaker and politician. But one of the problems of the Labour government who were elected in 1997 was that their majority was too big.”
Wilson is a cautious supporter of Gordon Brown.
“I was pleased with his appointment”, Wilson says, though he admits that the new PM’s unfortunate Downing Street tête-à-tête with Mrs Thatcher was “a bit cheeky. Not his smartest move. I wouldn’t have invited her.”
There’s something in such sentiments of the old school activist which Wilson may have absorbed during his tenure as Rector of Glasgow University between 1996 and 1999.
“It was a job I loved” he says now. “You don’t get many jobs like that. I was very honoured to even be nominated, and had to fight an election campaign and everything. I’d have loved to have carried on doing it, but I kept on getting too much work elsewhere, so I couldn’t fly up to Glasgow as often as I would have liked.”
Wilson was playing Victor Meldrew throughout his period as Rector, though he had already struck a chord in the public consciousness in John Byrne’s 1987 series, Tutti Frutti. Wilson played Eddie Clockarty, the smooth-talking small-time Glasgow shyster and would-be rock Svengali, whose management of rock and roll has-beens The Majestics was considerably less smooth than his affected Kelvinside brogue.
While he didn’t see Byrne’s recent stage adaptation of the show, Wilson retains an affection for it.
“It was very important for me to be doing something like that in Scotland” he says, “and it’s great that it’s had some kind of other life at last.”
Wilson’s return to the stage after such a high profile on the small screen may seem unnecessary for an actor of his vintage. Yet, while his BAFTA winning comic turns have seen him hold court on the TV chat show circuit with a winning debonair wit, Wilson has quietly built himself a career as a stage director of note.
This began with his production of Iain Heggie’s scabrous gym-set debut, A Wholly Healthy Glasgow at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in 1988 before it transferred to the Edinburgh International Festival. Since then Wilson has developed an ongoing relationship with The Royal Court, where he has directed several shows.
More recently, his production of The Presnyakov Brothers’ comedy, Playing The Victim for the Told By An Idiot company played an acclaimed Edinburgh Festival Fringe run. Wilson also directed East Coast Chicken Supper, Martin J Taylor’s play about life among Fife’s stoner set at The Traverse Theatre. He also directed Simon Farquhar’s Aberdeen-set Rainbow Kiss for The Royal Court.
“I much prefer doing new writing”, Wilson says. “It’s more democratic. But I never like to hog the limelight when I’m directing. Good directing is something you shouldn’t really notice. But I would actually much rather be a writer. Acting’s not high art.”
Back on stage, Whipping It Up isn’t the first time Wilson has appeared in something lampooning the Conservative Party inner circle. In 2002 he played the Duke Of Edinburgh in Jeffrey Archer: The Truth, a comedy drama outlining the downfall of the scandal-addicted MP. In the spirit of Archer’s deception, the film was publicised with the phrase ‘This story is based on real events. Only the facts have been changed.’
“I think politicians are under more scrutiny than ever before”, Wilson observes, “which is a good thing. But when there is an election I’ll be voting for Gordon Brown and for Glenda Jackson, who’s my local constituency MP. So I’ve got an actor and a Lefty. I’ve never considered myself a Lefty, but I’ve changed a bit.”
Whipping It Up, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, November 5-10
If politics is, as someone once suggested, merely theatre for ugly people, putting lie-friendly politicians onstage has frequently been a gift for dramatists, who can go beyond the rhetoric to get to the sleaze, spin and scandal. Jeffrey Archer even put himself onstage, but let’s stick with the good stuff.
The New Statesman
Rik Mayall may no longer alternative, but the manic comic actor’s grotesque characterisation of Tory slime-ball MP Alan B’stard was a TV hit between 1987 and 1992, a period which coincided with Mrs Thatcher’s third term giving way to her inglorious downfall and secession by John Major. Written by sit-com regulars Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, whose stint on Birds Of A Feather gave little hint of any political sensibility, The New Statesman was revived as a stage play in 2006, again with Mayall in the lead role. Tellingly, B’stard had signed up to New Labour, who he observed to be “young, sexy and more right wing than the Tory Party.” Prime Minister Blair made no comment.
The Absence Of War
In the early 1990s playwright David Hare survived the fallout the post 1968 generation of politically motivated playwrights were forced to face up to in the light of Thatcherism, and wrote a trilogy of works examining British institutions. Where Racing Demon tackled the church and Murmuring Judges dissected the legal system, 1993’s The Absence Of War got inside the Labour Party, with Hare’s research including time spent with the party’s then leader Neil Kinnock before the disastrous 1992 General Election. Yet to receive a production in Scotland.
A Passion In Six Days
An early play from 1983 by the still politically motivated Howard Barker. Depicting the personal and political struggles going on behind the scenes at a Labour Party conference, it presented its seaside set scenario through a series of musical numbers. Arriving at a time when an unreconstructed party led by veteran Left-winger Michael Foot was slowly tearing itself apart, as a tragic-comic study of its era it now looks like a prescient period piece. Directed by the young Michael Boyd, who would later run Glasgow’s Tron Theatre before becoming artistic director of The Royal Shakespeare Company.
The Herald, October 2007