During our set visit to Sins of the Father, Richard Wilson took special care to make the youngsters who were part of the party feel at home, laughing at the impression that one gave of Gaius annoyed at something that Merlin had done. Sitting in Arthur’s quarters before going to have his make-up and wig done, he was happy to chat about his long career…
Do you enjoy playing Gaius?
Yes, it’s very interesting, because I haven’t done a long spell of straight acting, as opposed to comedy acting. It’s been good and a bit of a learning curve for me.
The thing about acting is you’re always learning – you never stop learning, even at my ripe old age. A lot of the acting I do is with Merlin, Colin, and he’s very good to work with. It’s very enjoyable.
Do the younger actors ask you for advice?
No. We talk about acting – but if you’re playing a mentor, you don’t want to be a mentor as well. I wouldn’t dream of commenting on anything they were doing. You learn from them – they’re a new generation of actors. Colin is particularly professional and hardworking. We do talk about the problems of a long running series, how to keep energy. I can’t help them there – I’m still struggling with these problems myself. It’s very hard work – for Colin, much more so because he’s in everything. I get the odd day off, which is nice.
Two blocks of 13 episodes, already, and I’m 50 years older! Yes I did think a lot about it. It is quite a lot, 13, so it is surprising though how quickly the time goes. I’m leaving this block slightly early to go to Stratfordto do Twelfth Night. I’m looking forward to a change – it’ll be a change of everything. A change of money!
Which is a bigger challenge – maintaining a character like Gaius over eight months of filming, or the adrenaline flow of the two hour performance?
I haven’t played Malvolio before, so you’ll have to come back to me on that! The interesting challenge about Gaius is that a lot of what we talk about doesn’t make a lot of sense – it’s magic. You have to find ways of making magic real, by concentration, by making yourself believe it in a sense. Some of the stuff gets quite emotional, so it is quite a challenge to keep it going, but that’s part of what is fascinating.
The thing about Malvolio is it’ll be nice to have a change of pace. I’ll miss everyone but it’ll be a new thing.
Have you had much input into how Gaius has changed over the two series?
Not really. That comes as a surprise. We have a new block starting next week, and I don’t know what’s in it or what I’m up to. I was nearly burned at the stake in this block! I get a clue from the producers that the first episode is quite big for Gaius, but no more than that.
Would you like to have more?
I don’t know – the writers are so clever with their storylines. Some extraordinary ideas that they come up with. I don’t know if my mind is like that. I think I’d rather leave it to them.
I would like to do some more medical magic, because Gaius is the Court Apothecary, and he does a bit of magic every now and again. We have to remember that we’re at the children’s threshold, so too much blood might not go down too well.
I don’t do any stunts. I have someone walk upstairs for me if possible! Yesterday, there was a football match between Gavin & Stacey and Merlin – one of the sparks said to me, “Are you going to be a substitute?” and I laughed so much at the idea. How do they do it? How do they work here for 12 hours and then go and play football? (It was a walkover for Merlin – 8-2, largely thanks to my support on the sidelines.)
Do you get a lot of recognition from children in the street?
No, I think the wig is quite disguising, and I do wear a baseball cap to try and distract Victor viewers. Some do, but not many.
Are you still finding that you’re getting recognition as Victor Meldrew[from One Foot in the Grave]?
Oh yes, they still want me to say the phrase, and all that. Screech at me across busy streets. I usually wave, if I’m in a good mood.
The good thing about One Foot… is that it’s still showing, occasionally, on terrestrial. There’s a new generation. The great thing about it was that the audience was quite young. I was worried about playing old people – Victor was 60, and I was 55 when we started, and I thought I was too young. But a large part of the audience was kids.
What do you like and dislike about Gaius?
In a way, I don’t like my wig… My wig itself is absolutely fine because it’s a very good wig, but I’d rather not have to wear one. But then I would look wrong – it’s very hard to look mediaeval when you’re bald, so I had to have a wig. But it’s a nuisance.
What I like about him is that I don’t have to wear chainmail, which the others do. It’s quite tough, and very heavy. To spend a whole day in chainmail, you know about it – although I’ve never done it. And they have to put swords on…
Do you like fantasy?
Yes, I do. I read quite a lot of science fiction, and there’s so much good science fiction – graphic novels, the graphics are brilliant, wonderful. I find myself buying one occasionally and hoping no one sees me.
I like the idea I had two heads because of my gas mask. I thought it looked rather like me.
Was it strange at this stage of your career?
It was; it’s not something you think about when you’re starting out. I doubt there are many actors whose ambition is to have an Action Man made of them, with a gas mask. We’ve posed for ones for this as well. Older people included!
This is a much bolder thing than even Doctor Who, in a way. I think the production values in this are probably a bit more elaborate. We have a lot more CGI.
The thing about Merlin that always intrigued me was that there was just nothing like it around, making prehistory out of history. Doctor Who has proved to be brilliant, but Merlin was just something else – with dragons and magicians. It just seemed very bold, and it seems to have worked.
Was that what attracted you to it?
Its uniqueness – it was just something I had never tried, and it was nice to be asked.