Victor Meldrew is being resurrected. I know what you’re thinking… I don’t believe it. After all, Meldrew was killed off in the final episode of One Foot in the Grave back in 2000. But at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which begins this week, actor/director Richard Wilson will re-create David Renwick’s script for a 1993 episode called The Trial, written as a solo piece for Victor, who’s waiting in the house, on a rainy day, on call for jury duty. Half an hour with Victor will be followed by half an hour with Wilson himself, answering questions gathered from the audience.
“I do the second half as myself because I want people to have a chance to talk about all aspects of my career,” says Wilson, who has just directed Fracked! Or Please Don’t Use The F-Word, a very political anti-fracking play at Chichester. “Although I do not go into my personal liking for green rubber knickers.”
But is Meldrew/Wilson not a perfect performing double helix? How can they be disentangled? “I worked with David Renwick on a television series called Hot Metal and then a film called Whoops Apocalypse and he wrote Victor with me in mind, which is not really a great compliment, is it?” he says. “I think there was maybe something of David in Victor as well, and something of David’s father. And then I suppose he saw something in me. But I tried not to analyse too much about who was who.”
Did he mould Victor at all, make the character, as the cliché goes, “his”? “David’s writing was so clear,” says Wilson, emphatically, “just so good, that I simply obeyed his scripts and got on with it.”
Wilson has just turned 80 and it has been more than 25 years since that famous exclamation first delighted Britain. “I suppose the novelty of ‘I don’t believe it!’ was rather amusing at first. And then it became rather boring. And then I just thought to myself, ‘Well, you’re never going to escape this, so you might as well accept it.’ Victor did change my life. If I am walking down the street now and someone shouts it at me I just raise a hand and wave and walk on.”
That must mean a lot of waving. He smiles and nods. He still needs a secretary to deal with his fan mail. “Although a lot of that is from Merlin,” he says, referencing another of his TV hits, in which he played the physician Gaius.
“The humbling thing about Victor is the number of people whose lives he touches… I mean, I had a taxi driver only last week, and when I got my money out he said, ‘No, no, this is on me, Victor, for the pleasure you have given me over the years.’ And even more humbling is the number of people who tell me, ‘I was going through a very bad time and it was One Foot In the Grave that gave me a lift.’ ”
He originally thought he was too young to play Victor. “I was in my early 50s and Victor was 60,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I turned it down.” But who else could possibly have filled Victor’s slippers? “I think Les Dawson was being considered,” he says. “A very funny man but I don’t know if he could have played Victor.” Luckily for all he didn’t have to, because producer/director Susan Belbin pursued Wilson to persuasion. “She sent me another couple of scripts and I saw what was happening much more clearly, so I went in to see them and… that was it,” he says about his change of heart.
“Victor was the opposite of me in many ways. I always thought that he was, maybe not a Conservative, but certainly a member of the Liberal Party, and I have always been a staunch left-winger. He had no work at all, poor man, and I had too much. But I suppose there is a sort of Scottish dourness about Victor… and me.”
Has Victor aged and mellowed with Wilson? “I think Victor is around 80 now,” says Wilson in a faux considered manner. “But I am playing him roughly 74.” And as for mellowing… “He has not changed one bit. In fact it’s quite hard to get back to my normal, affable, loveable self after being him, even for half an hour.”
This onstage hour was born at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, as a fundraiser. “I got such a partisan audience. I was wallowing in gales of laughter,” he says. “I just thought I have to do this again… so we decided to come to the Festival.”
So is this how Wilson imagined his career would be when he was 80? “When I started acting I was just so thrilled to have started,” he says. “I got to drama school at 27 years old and I never had any aspirations about being well known. So I suppose it has all gone better than I thought it might.”