“An actor of astonishing power and magisterial presence on stage and screen; away from it, a humble, engaging, and truly likeable person. For any writer, it was an honour just to hear him speak one’s words.”
My first meeting with Ian Richardson was at the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in March of 2001. It’s an imposing building in the middle of a block close to the Shaftesbury Theatre. BBC Films had taken one of the upstairs rooms for the table read of my Murder Rooms episode; not exactly a rehearsal, but a readthrough of the material and an opportunity for everyone to meet the people they’ll be working with for the next few weeks. For the writer, a readthrough has an extra father-of-the-bride kind of significance, because it’s the moment when the script moves out of your hands and into the hands of others.
(In theory, at least. In practice you tend to get sent away with a notebook filled with last-minute changes to implement.)
Murder Rooms was a series of feature-length films for television. The series was created by David Pirie, essentially a continuation from a one-off drama that he’d written around the relationship between the young Arthur Conan Doyle and his Edinburgh teacher and mentor, Joseph Bell. I thought it was an exceptional series idea in classic BBC style, and I was happy to be on board. The concept was a blend of fact, fiction and metafiction – Bell wasn’t Sherlock Holmes but had provided Doyle with some elements for his fictional creation, and now here was the fictional Bell, playing a Holmesian role.
I always look forward to readthroughs. There are few happier sights than an actor with a job, and at a readthrough you get a room full of them. And if you’re really lucky, there’s cake. This time around, though, I was slightly nervous. Ian Richardson was playing the role of Joseph Bell and was a big name in anybody’s book – an old-school, highly-regarded professional who would, I can imagine, have been equally at home on a bill with Henry Irving or Beerbohm Tree as on a modern film set. I’d first been impressed by the offhanded authority of his Bill Haydon in Arthur Hopcraft’s adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; the air of dignity and acceptance with which he dabbed blood from his nose after a rough interrogation struck me as an acting masterclass all in itself.
I suppose that what I’m saying is, I felt a bit excited and a bit intimidated.
I needn’t have worried. He arrived without ceremony, and demanded no special attention. The most magnetic actor on the screen was the most diffident man in the room. During a break I went over and introduced myself. Usually at this point I’d thank a performer for taking on a role, but in this case he wasn’t joining my project – I was joining his. Dave Pirie had created a winning format and Charlie Edwards was a dashing Conan Doyle, but Ian’s was the name and the presence that gave our show its stature and credibility.
In this case I think I just babbled a bit. I introduced my daughter, who had a small part as a circus girl with a line and a song; Ian’s son Miles, who was busy with RSC duties and hadn’t been able to make the readthrough, would be opening our film as the explorer Everard Im Thurn. I mentioned a short documentary I’d recently seen on BBC3, in which Ian took a walk up Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and reminisced about his youth in the city. “Oh, that thing,” he said. “I’ve no idea why, but they do keep showing it.”
The next time we met was on location at the old American University in Bushey, a complex of redbrick buildings that’s been used in movies from Lucky Jim to Harry Potter. The frontage was our Southsea museum, the yards around the back housed our wintering circus troupe, and inside the dining hall the art department had erected a fairground marquee for interior cover. This time Ian was mostly in character and in costume, and cut a genuinely commanding figure. He’d played Sherlock Holmes onscreen, but his Joseph Bell was a distinctly different creation; sharp and intelligent, but with a warmth unique to the character.
As we talked between setups, I realised that his research for the part went way beyond the page. He lent me a book on Bell, which I read and returned, and some photocopies of his research which I was to keep for future reference. None of us doubted that this was a series of continuing potential.
The film, directed with grace and precision by Simon Langton and with a marvellous turn by John Sessions as Bell’s colleague William Rutherford, gave me more of a sense of satisfaction than almost anything else in my CV. The series as a whole was a success with both the critics and the audience.
So naturally, it was cancelled. A second set of stories was planned, but the plug was pulled before they were commissioned.
But hey. I got to meet Ian Richardson.