His voice has set the tone

for his whole career. And, yes, Richard Wilson doesn't believe it. Lynne Walker meets the

man with one foot in the rave

''Ten or maybe 20 years ago I would have had to have had a posh, advanced English

accent to become an actor. It was a great breakthrough when I began to realise that

my accent and way of talking was something that people wanted to hear. I still think that I might have a stab at advanced English. For some strange reason that seems to suit me more, despite the fact that I'm Scottish working class.''

For Richard Wilson, born 1936, in Greenock (where he was brought up as Iain Carmichael Wilson), his voice and accent have been both a bane and a blessing. They were such a bane in his early years, actually, that it took him a long time to become an actor. When he was 13 he plucked up the courage to announce to his English and drama teacher that he wanted to be an actor. In an account of that occasion he recalls: ''That took some doing, because acting was not a profession that was encouraged in a small Scottish town like Greenock. She replied, 'Don't be stupid, boy. You can't speak!' and I was absolutely devastated.''

Years later, on location in Greenock making a short autobiographical film, he met up with this old teacher, who insists still that it was not she, but someone else, who made that crushing remark. This time she said, ''Iain, I didn't say you couldn't speak. I said you spoke through your teeth and, if you don't mind my saying so, you still do!''

But the early put-down persuaded Richard Wilson to restrict his acting to amateur dramatics and to pursue a career as a laboratory technician. ''I didn't go to drama school until I was 27. I had a huge inferiority complex and I'm sure that affected my thinking in many, many ways and it still does.'' His end of term report from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1965 noted: ''Your OH and OO sounds are too narrow still. You are limited in vocal range and colouring. You should work on carrying lower resonance into your upper range, but its light dry quality matches your comedy.''

To lose his Scottish accent was essential, he believed, if he was to escape from the role of ''Scottish actor''. Oddly enough, one of the earliest shows he devised and directed, in Copenhagen in 1966, was called English Spoken. The following year, in James Bridie's The Queen's Comedy in Perth, his performance was described in The Glasgow Herald as ''a little gem . . . Richard Wilson's sketch of Vulcan, a Scots-spoken engineer who moves in a breath from an explanation of how to split the atom to domestic plumbing repair.'' At the Citizens' Theatre he appeared as a hellfire minister, doubling as a soldier with only one arm and one leg. It wasn't actually a comedy, but it nearly became one when his peg-leg snapped and rolled down the stage on the opening night. ''I've no idea why I'm good at comedy. Maybe it goes back to the inferiority complex I had when I was young. I was quite agile, but

I didn't have a competitive sporting instinct. But when I discovered I could make people laugh I developed that as a protection. Being a very skinny, gawky youth it helped if I could raise a titter.

''I hated my body so that I got to thinking of myself as freakish and disabled. I knew what it was to be teased and ridiculed. I used to pray to God to make me fat, and I think it was his failure to do that which finally destroyed my illusions about God. I thought, you're not going to do anything for me, chum!'' But out of this identification with disability came Changing Step, a film which he devised and directed, about amputees of the First World War.

He's enjoyed equal success as an actor and as a director. ''I can never understand why audiences want to see old plays when it seems to me new writing is what theatre should

be about.'' Unusually for him, then, in 1986 he directed

J B Priestley's An Inspector Calls at Manchester's Royal Exchange with the then unknown Hugh Grant as Eric Birling. It was the play's focus on the divisions in society that attracted him.

''Living in a Scottish ship-building town you can't

help noticing the difference between the rich and the poor and that is the simple reason why I'm a socialist. The gap is too big and that upsets me. It's one reason why I do new plays. It's easy to keep the difficult, dark side of life

away from us, but it's often the playwright who seeks these things out.''

Later, the Royal Exchange provided a platform for Wilson to direct Iain Heggie's controversial A Wholly Healthy Glasgow. It caused an uproar when scores of the audience walked out barely 10 minutes into the play. It seemed that because of the thick Scottish accents, the only words they could understand were the four-letter ones. ''This is a disgrace to the English language, you should be ashamed of yourselves!'' shouted one man as he headed for the exit.

''I have huge admiration for the Royal Exchange putting that play on. It was a dangerous thing to do because the language was so fruity. It was set in a gay sauna and the patois took on a reality of its own as soon as I read it.

I felt it was our job to put this on stage, although no-one

was prepared for the vicious reaction it provoked. But

we can't ignore these people. They live in our society

and the fact they swear just means they haven't had a decent education.''

With Tom Watson as Donald Dick, the play set in the massage parlour of a sleazy Glasgow health club transferred to the Royal Court in London and to the 1987 Edinburgh Festival, where it ran alongside shows from Tel Aviv, Japan, New Guinea and Tblisi. To some, no doubt, they were all equally incomprehensible.

In 1979 the role of the surgeon in the TV series Only When I Laugh brought Wilson before a wider public and gave him his first catchphrase. His idiosyncratic way of saying ''Figgis'', the name of fellow actor James Bolam's character, was later followed by ''Miss Tonar'' in John Byrne's Tutti Frutti, in which he played alongside Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson. Hot Metal, a fierce attack on Fleet Street hypocrisy, provided Wilson with the opportunity to appear in the constant state of outrage that later boiled over into the character of Victor Meldrew, turning him into a star and, with his most famous line, ''I don't believe it'', a national icon, even. At first he turned down the role, reportedly on the grounds that: ''I thought Victor was rubbish because I felt he was angry for too long and I couldn't imagine the audience would believe in him.''

David Renwick's scripts, with their sharp-edged writing and social comment, comedy and tragedy, humour and

bad taste often overlapping, persuaded Wilson to age up from his early fifties and play a man of 60. ''Victor's an older person'', he rebukes me, Meldrew-ishly. ''We don't say old any longer, and you realise that there are certain parts you're not going to play any more. Romantic juves are probably beyond me, though it's amazing what a wig can do. Age

dictates the age you play. When I left Rada I was already beginning to lose my hair at 29 and so I've never played young people and I don't know what it's like. Older roles are usually more interesting, though I wouldn't do Lear because I don't like the play.''

It was apparently the expression on Wilson's face in the satirical film Whoops, Apocalypse that gave David Renwick the idea for Victor Meldrew. But it's really all down to the voice, of course, as Susan Belbin, producer and director of One Foot In the Grave, confirms. ''Richard's voice is vital to the characterisation of Victor Meldrew. His enunciation is wonderful, the way he bites off the words and munches them.''

There's a new series in the pipeline, the last for the time being, although, as Wilson muses, ''I don't suppose we'll ever kill him off.'' He believes that the enormous success of One Foot In The Grave is due to David Renwick's writing (an opinion reinforced by Renwick's recent Bafta award) and by casting actors, rather than comedians, as the Meldrews.

The same casting policy applies, he believes, to the success of Beckett's Waiting for Godot in which he is currently playing Vladimir at the Manchester Royal Exchange, newly

reopened following massive refurbishment in the wake of the IRA bomb.

''We're two dodgy old tramps, a pair of clowns in a music hall or circus, and maybe people will come who like sitcom. But this is the millennial play. I think I'd go so far as to say it's the best play in the English language. It's the only play I've ever wanted to do again. I did it 30 years ago at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and I was too young for it then.''

That production was directed by Gordon McDougall who wanted to show up the hypocritical attitude of Edinburgh middle classes towards the tramps on their own doorstep. He marshalled his cast of two - John Sheddon played Estragon opposite Wilson - out into the Grassmarket to rub shoulders with the down-and-outs who gathered there. At the Royal Exchange, director Matthew Lloyd has cast another Scot, Brian Pettifer, as Gogo to Wilson's Didi. Lloyd was interested in how the rhythms of the Scottish accent would work against the Irish-English which Becket wrote, and introduced two English actors as Pozzo and Lucky, hoping the sharp distinction in their speech patterns would point up another tension between their worlds. Is Wilson anticipating another mass walkout by Mancunians bemused by Scottish accents?

''I hope they won't march out with such alacrity as they did in A Wholly Healthy Glasgow. We don't say c*** in the play,'' he explains with relish, ''which is a great help, I think. Anyway, although it was written in French, Beckett was a Celt and I would have thought it works better in Scottish than in English.''

Vladimir: Calm yourself.

Estragon: Calm . . . Calm . . . The English say cawm.

''People have suggested that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for the millennium, that Godot represents the millennium. Of course, there are lots of theories as to what Godot is, or represents. Everyone's waiting for the millennium at the moment and it's probably going to be a bit of a damp squib, and that's exactly what Vladimir and Estragon go through every day, experiencing expectation, deflation . . . It would be nice to think the millennium was going to change things, but I suspect it's going to be the same nasty, terrible old world,'' sighs Wilson.

''The most common idea is that Godot is God, but while Vladimir might hang on to the notion that there is a religious connection ('we are blessed - we know why we're waiting for Godot to come') as far as I am concerned Godot doesn't exist and Beckett is simply writing about people relying on each other and waiting for some change, something different, that will probably never take place.''

Interestingly, while finding Wilson ''a much more varied actor than TV sitcoms would suggest'', it is once more his voice and accent that have caught the attention of the (English) critics. The Guardian relished the shared Scottish accent of Wilson and Pettifer ''bringing a Scottish dimension to the language . . . a kind of McGodot'', comparing Wilson's ''wonderful line in reproof'' to Alastair Sim as a ''prim Edinburgh dominie''.

Vladimir's ''I can't go on'' sounded, to another critic, like Victor's ''I don't believe it . . . his voice is so distinctive, and his mutterings of aggrieved outrage so familiar'', while another commented on ''Wilson's strained rasping voice and the barking marcato of his verbal dynamics''. The Times found that ''the reedily nasal tone of Wilson's Vladimir is quite pleasing''.

It's a mystery to Wilson. ''The extraordinary thing is that some people find my voice very attractive. I always hated it, really hated it. I just thought it was nasal and dull.'' Yet the anglicised accent he acquired at Rada has not served Wilson altogether well. Strangely enough, for someone with (to my ears) as colourless a voice as Alan Rickman, it was Rickman who advised Wilson to do more work on his voice after seeing him in Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw at the Royal National Theatre as recently as 1995, ''because all I can hear when you're playing someone English are those dying Scottish falls''. As James Roose-Evans reports in his biography of Wilson, One Foot on the Stage, Rickman criticised him for ''constantly coming downwards vocally and then having to scrape himself off the floor''. He felt he should ''look cold-bloodedly at where he could flick the lines up in order to help


''I'd like to think of myself as a metamorphic actor, but I realise that maybe I'm not,'' admits Wilson. Not that it matters. ''One can be more choosy now - I can afford to turn things down, but there are times when you do things because they're on the table and you want to work.''

He's already filmed Life Support, a new six-part series for BBC1, based in a fictional Glasgow hospital trust. Wilson is the eminent QC, father of a medical ethicist, played by Aisling O'Sullivan. ''I chose to do Godot after that because I don't have to do a long run of it. When you're doing Waiting for Godot your mind seems to be rather concentrated on Waiting for Godot. I'm off stage for about 30 seconds in the whole evening and I get to sit down for about the same time, otherwise I'm standing, walking or limping around. I really don't know if I've ever lived before this time or whether there's anything after it, except perhaps a rest or a nursing home, or maybe a mental home. Or maybe I'll go into a religious order, but it won't be theatre, I'll tell you that. I'm hoping to have a rest.''

The Labour Party in Scotland did try ''very hard indeed'' to get him north of the border before the Scottish elections. ''They found it difficult to understand just how difficult rehearsing Waiting for Godot is. Besides, I did explain that it would be a bit like Sean Connery coming in to support the SNP when he, like me, doesn't live there. I don't have a vote and I've lived in London since 1959 so I can imagine what some people would say, though I was there a lot when I was rector of Glasgow University. I'm very supportive of the idea of a Scottish Parliament but rehearsing Godot was a 24-hour job. I think they were a wee bit peeved.''

So, is it all work and no play? ''I managed to Milan to watch one of the most exciting matches I've ever seen.'' He's supported Manchester United since the 1960s when he first worked at Granada TV's Stables Theatre. Now he enjoys games from the directors' box, though he still carries a banner for Greenock Morton.

''I admire the athleticism of footballers and their money. I suppose I'm envious of their pulling power. To fill 55,000-seat stadiums and still know there are queues outside trying to get in. Actors just don't have that. I still have a very negative outlook on my own work, though now that one is becoming more flavoursome I begin to think that maybe there is something there.''

l Waiting for Godot is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, until June 26. Tickets: 0161 833 9833. Life Support will be shown on BBC1

this summer