'There are too many hills in Hampstead so I've moved'

Richard Wilson in rehearsals for Peggy For You at Hampstead Theatre 2021

Director Richard Wilson in rehearsals for Peggy For You at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: Helen Maybanks

After years enjoying the sunlit uplands of Hampstead, Richard Wilson has reluctantly departed the village.

But the Merlin and One Foot In The Grave star, who suffered a heart attack outside a Hampstead cafe in 2016, hasn't gone far.

"I had a heart attack and hit my head and after that my memory ceased to be so good," says the 85-year-old.

"I moved back to Hampstead but there were too many hills and stairs, so I've moved to Regent's Park where there is a lift."

But when the opportunity came to direct a comedy at Hampstead Theatre, he jumped at it.

"It's just up the road!" says the Scottish actor.

It's a revival of Hampstead Theatre's 1999 hit Peggy For You about the formidable agent Peggy Ramsay, who represented writers such as Alan Ayckbourn, Caryl Churchill, David Hare, and Joe Orton.

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Modern British drama would be much the poorer without her talent spotting and fierce support, yet few outside the theatre have heard of her.

"I travel around in taxis these days and people always ask what I'm doing now, but I I haven't met any non theatre person who knows who she was," says Wilson.

Tamsin Greig plays literary agent Peggy Ramsay in Peggy For You at Hampstead Theatre

Tamsin Greig plays literary agent Peggy Ramsay in Peggy For You at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: Shaun Webb Design Landscape

Tamsin Greig is the latest actor to take on the eccentric Peggy, who was played by Vanessa Redgrave in Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears, and by Maureen Lipman in the original production.

Set in Ramsay's top floor Soho office, the play by the late Belsize Park writer Alan Plater features a version of himself - a blunt northerner frustrated by her sometimes neglectful unpredictability.

"When I read it I just found it very funny," says Wilson. "I loved the way it talked about writers and their agents. It goes from the new young writer who is terrified on his first day, to the big West End writer, to the fraught relationship with the older one who wants to leave her because she's not getting him any work.

"When Alan left Peggy she was very upset, but the play was his tribute to her in the sense of its funny dialogue and how she could be very kind to people. It's also very serious about new writing and what writers go through."

Peggy Ramsay with her client the late Belsize Park playwright Alan Plater

Peggy Ramsay with her client Alan Plater who lived in Belsize Park - Credit: The Alan Plater Literary Estate

Highgate actor Simon Callow talked to the cast about his "passionate friendship" with Ramsay detailed in his memoir Love Is Where It Falls.

"She was devoted to him, he would open his door in the mornings and there would be flowers. She bought a flat for him and if he hadn't been a gay man she would have gone for him. He said she had a brilliant sense of humour but a terrible memory and could never remember people's names."

Sharp-sighted and passionate about art over profit, Ramsay was known to open her handbag and offer cash to hard up writers, but also to tell producers a client's play was bad, or berate playwrights for being tainted by success.

"She was very bright and wasn't interested in money for her writers," says Wilson. "She wanted them to be successful in writing truthfully, talking about the society we were living in, which I agree with her."

When she died in 1991, Ramsay's will stipulated that her legacy should ‘benefit writers in need of assistance' and encourage 'the art of writing.'

Wilson, who has combined acting with directing throughout his career, believes Greig will be the best Peggy yet: "She's very easy to work with. Whoever plays Peggy has to be very good at comedy and she certainly is."

Tamsin Greig in rehearsals for Peggy For You which runs at Hampstead Theatre from December 10 to January 29, 2021

Tamsin Greig in rehearsals for Peggy For You which runs at Hampstead Theatre from December 10 to January 29, 2021 - Credit: Helen Maybanks

He adds: "I never intended to be a director but when I was at RADA in the final year we had to do a mime and I said I would be happy to direct it because it meant I didn't have to be in it. I have loved doing both ever since. I don't mind not being known as a director. I don't think we should be known if we are doing our job properly. I am just happy when my actors are doing well."

Asked whether his own comedy skills are of use he says: "I'm not saying every director should have been an actor but it's certainly very helpful. I've met a few who are good at doing voice demonstrations of how they think it should be done, but I would never do that to an actor. I would talk about who they are and what they were thinking."

Peggy For You runs at Hampstead Theatre from December 10 to January 29, as part of the theatre's 60th anniversary season.



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