IAN RICHARDSON – obituary – Carole Woddis
There can’t be many actors who suddenly find themselves the centre of an awards night dedication. But that is exactly what happened at last week’s BAFTA awards. Apologising for `going on a bit’, Dame Helen Mirren, appearing on the point of tears, accepted her Best Actress award with the words, `this is for Ian’.
Mirren was a young actress when Ian Richardson, by then an established member of Peter Hall’s RSC, took Mirren under his wing and gave her `confidence in myself. He became my mentor’.
Outwardly, Richardson, 72, who died quietly in his sleep last Friday (February 9th) seemed less the avuncular counsellor, more like a dapper cobra. There was nobody who could point a line like Richardson or endow it with more acidic or ironic precision. Not for nothing has his passing been marked by universal reference to his portrayal of Francis Urquhart in the BBC’s adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards (1990), for which he won a BAFTA. No one who saw him will ever forget the smiling, silky menace with which he endowed the words: `You may think that: I couldn’t possibly comment.’
Little wonder that the phrase has now entered the Westminster political lexicon or that news of his death last week brought mention on national news bulletins. Such was his impact, it even prompted political editors on the national newspapers to mourn his passing.
Despite this, his appearance on the two sequels, To Play the King (1993), The Final Cut (1995), and many other acclaimed tv roles which included Sherlock Holmes, Lord Groan in Gormenghast, the `tailor’ in John Le Carre (accent on the e)’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), Sir Godber Evans in Porterhouse Blue (1987), the defending counsel in Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (1989) and more recently, Bleak House (2005) and Hogfather (2006), it was as a peerless classical actor that Ian Richardson should be remembered.
Ian William Richardson was born in Edinburgh, in 1934, the son of a biscuit factory manager. He attended Tynecastle school, later training as an actor at Glasgow’s College of Dramatic Art before going on to join Birmingham Rep where Sir Barry Jackson held sway. At 24, he played Hamlet but by 1960, he was being whisked to Stratford-upon-Avon to join Sir Peter Hall’s newly inscribed Royal Shakespeare Company, becoming a founding member, staying 15 years and working alongside Peggy Ashcroft, Sir John Gielgud and an up-and-coming Judi Dench.
With his physical elegance, vocal dexterity, speed, lightness of touch and a certain nervy restlessness, he quickly began to make his mark. Outstanding early roles included Oberon in Peter Hall”s 1962 A Midsummer Night’s Dream (to Dench’s Titania) and an Antipholus of Ephesus in Clifford Williams’ hurriedly rehearsed Comedy of Errors (1962) which still stands out for this viewer as a masterclass of comic timing and subtle double takes, only equalled by his similarly inspired Master Ford in Terry Hands’ The Merry Wives of Windsor, a whirling top of supposed cuckolded jealousy.
Richardson went on to find acclaim in Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1964), as Vendice in Trevor Nunn’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1969), as Cassius, Angelo and Prospero, a dazzling Berowne in Love’s Labours Lost and not least, alternating the role of Richard II and Bolingbroke with Richard Pasco in John Barton’s 1973 revelatory dual casting version.
Away from the RSC, he was an award-winning Professor Higgins in the Broadway revival of My Fair Lady (1976) and Humbert Humbert in an ill fated stage version of Lolita.
His last two stage appearances saw him, still in fine voice, if wasted as a creepily misogynistic millionaire in The Creeper by Pauline Macaulay and more gloriously, as Sir Epicure Mammon in Nick Hytner’s revival of Jonson’s The Alchemist at London’s National Theatre.
His last film appearance was in the Jane Austen biopic, shortly to be released. He was due to start filming an episode of Midsomer Murders and had just completed costume and wig fittings.
In 1961, he married the actress Maroussia Frank with whom he had two sons, Jeremy and Miles. In 1989, he was made a CBE.
Ian Richardson: actor, born April 7, 1934; died February 9, 2007.