Richard Wilson interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 20th November 2009

0:05:07 Born in Cardiff in 1942, though technically in Glamorgan as my mother had me in the midwife's home; before she died my mother said she wanted to show me where I was born, but we drove around without success as she could not remember where it was; my birth certificate says Rhiwbina, district of Caerphilly, county of Glamorgan; my parents had been living north of Newport and moved to Cardiff; my father was called up into the R.A.F. in 1942; my mother followed him and rented a house; then my father was sent overseas, so my mother found herself in the middle of Cardiff, which was being bombed, and no family near; my sisters who were ten and eight and a half years older than me had been sent to mid-Wales, to a boarding school, because of the War; my elder sister, a strong personality, came home to help my mother look after me; my earliest memories are of fear; I was debating with Gabriel Horn quite how much one can remember and how soon, but I do have memories which seem to me both genuine and very early, and ones that no one else could have told me about; basically, they were fear of aircraft overhead; I can remember being in a cot and hearing aircraft and being very frightened; I can also remember being taken under a table; we had a very large oak dining table and I can remember being taken under it during air raids; I remember seeing the ceiling with cracks in it and a man coming to see whether it was going to come down or not; I remember that the cracks looked like spiders; I can remember bands passing and disliking sirens; these are all things that I don't think anyone else would tell me

3:06:21 My parents came from two, pretty modest, middle-class families in South Wales; my maternal grandfather had come down from Scotland and started a store in Newport; he then had a small manufacturing company at the base of Newport transporter bridge; I never knew either grandfather; my maternal grandmother had been born into a slightly more superior family; she had been sent to New Quay in West Wales and only spoke Welsh for the first years of her life; when she married my grandfather, she was told by her mother that she would not be able to mix socially with her sisters because they had married into a professional class; her sister Myra who married a man called Dr James lived in a rather smart house in the middle of Newport; that great aunt and her husband were the grandparents of William Rushton who was a television star; he was a few years older than me and his clothes used to come to me second-hand; I used to stand festooned in cricketing sweaters that would droop off me as I was thin and he was much larger; my father's side of the family had a strong church background; my grandfather was a solicitor and my grandmother, Nelly Lloyd, came from a family which had owned a very large coaching inn in the middle of Newport; neither of my parents went to university; my father was born in 1903, mother in 1904, both were Edwardian children and some of the flavour of Edwardian England lingered through into my upbringing; my father became a solicitor and then was called up; after the War they moved back to Llantarnam, north of Newport, very close to a new town called Cwmbran; before it became a new town we used to go there to get my orange juice; my father resumed his practice but it was a very grim period, business was pretty slim, and we just about scraped through; I went to school in Newport until the age of eight

6:54:20 My parents were shy, and my father did not make friends easily; my mother had had very little education; she didn't seem to have gone to school except for one year in London; my maternal grandmother had been a spirited lady, who had wanted to be a doctor and to go out to the Boer War, but her parents wouldn't let her; she trained a bit as a nurse and then she became a suffragette in Newport; they had an office on Stow Hill in Newport; my mother used to say in a jokey manner that she retired as a suffragette because she sat on a crochet needle and got a rather nasty flesh wound; they used to have discussions about when they were going to commit a crime, and she had a close friend who was going to put a brick through a window and chose to do it in August because she was a keen gardener and August is the least interesting month in the garden; my grandmother had a marvellous spirit; both grandfathers died before I was born, my father's mother died in about 1947 and I do remember her dimly but not well, so the only grandmother I knew was my mother's mother; my father hated argument which was difficult because I used to like argument; I liked to say things as a teenager to see what they sounded like; it was painful really; my mother was a highly intelligent woman but with no self-confidence; her father had been an extremely difficult man and had tried out nearly every religion, including Christian Science; she always remembered how, when she had had some illness like chicken-pox or measles, he had come in and thrown at her Mary Baker Eddy's book and said that her illness was all in the mind and that she should heal herself; she felt distinctly aggrieved; my father had been to a private school in Weston-super-Mare which he had left at sixteen, and had taken solicitors exams in the late twenties; in the early 1950s my father sold his share in the solicitors' practice and became solicitor to the Church in Wales; he had always hung round the edges of the church, became Registrar and then later, Secretary for the Church in Wales, which is independent of the State; he was the senior non-cleric in the church; he used to go to a synod every autumn in North Wales, and the children I used to play with were sons of clerics; he used the money from selling his practice to educate me; although my parents wanted me to have a private education, they were very much at a loss; they found a prep school in Weston-super-Mare, which was very well described by Roald Dahl in his book, 'Boy'; he rather cruelly lampooned the classics' master, who was known as Capio Lancaster; Dahl couldn't bear the school and describes some of its culture; it was quite a tough boarding school of that period; I think for me it was a huge shock; it was very isolated living near Newport, and I don't think my mother had the faintest notion of what to do with me, so I was on my own a great deal; I used to long for theatre, and when the pantomime came, or the occasional performance by the Newport light opera company, that was the most marvellous treat; I always made myself ill and had to be taken out of the theatre; this went on for years; similarly I used to love cinema which was a very rare treat, but has left me with a lifetime's love of movies; that would be my treat before going back to school

13:25:21 I was pathetically unhobbied; I learned to play the piano from the age of four and was reasonably competent at it; I continued playing until I left school at seventeen; the thing I loved doing was reading; I used to read the most inappropriate things; whatever books I could find in the house I would read, authors that no one reads now like W. Harrison Ainsworth, Francis Brett Young, W.W. Jacobs and H.G. Wells; it is extraordinary to think of me as six or seven, sitting there, wading through 'Mr Perrin and Mr Traill'; I look at some of the books now that I read then and wonder how I possibly could have done so, but anything that was around I swallowed up; I taught myself to read very early, when I was about three; I would read awful books like 'Odette', which one of my sisters had bought; so I would read books that they would read; I did not wear glasses as a child; no one noticed that I was short-sighted, and I didn't know that it could be better; one of the most revelatory moments of my life was in the C.C.F. at school; we had some sort of training exam and they asked me to focus a rifle on a target, a stone ball on a wall, and I couldn't see it; I began to realize that I wasn't just stupid but really could not see; they tested my eyes and found that I was very short-sighted; walking out into the street with glasses on, I discovered what it was like to see clearly; until then I used to survive by going up to the blackboard after a class and seeing what had been there; why I never noticed it myself, I don't know; I was brought up not to make a fuss so didn't; that explained why I was hopeless at cricket; I used to wonder how do people saw the ball as I had no idea where it was

16:29:18 I hated the boarding school as I didn't fit in, and didn't know how to cope with it; it was a school where, as through the whole of my education, sport mattered; I was hopeless at it and was extremely thin and weedy, had not much strength, and was pretty uncoordinated; there were things that I liked; books have been a huge support to me, and I read completely indiscriminately; I read all of Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, Leslie Charteris – 'The Saint', all of John Buchan; I used to find an author and would drill into them, this when I was nine or ten; I still have sets of authors such as Jerome K. Jerome; a lot of my upbringing had a strong Edwardian flavour; the prep school was quite 1920s 1930s with fist fights in the changing room and beating; I was beaten; I was a good child, and in the dormitory everyone else was having pillow fights; we had all been warned not to and the Headmaster said we must all come to his study in the morning; we were all beaten, and I still think it was extremely unfair as I was actually hating it all; I think I was taught some things extremely well; there was a master, who I am absolutely certain now would never have got through a child protection register - there were a number at that period as people were not alert to it - but I was not a pretty boy so never attracted that sort of attention; however he taught me maths absolutely brilliantly, and when I was working in the Treasury, controlling half of public expenditure, and I would do a basic bit of algebra I would tip my hat to him; I am really strong on quadratic equations and Euclidian geometry; English was not taught very well; I don't really know what they taught me but they kept me occupied; I developed a minor flair for acting; I took the part of Shylock which was the highlight of my time there; I was deputy head boy, so I didn't do badly, but I did find leaving home and being parted at the age of eight extremely difficult to cope with; I think, probably, it did me good but it wasn't much fun at the time; it was an interesting school as another person who was there, and a couple of years older, was John Cleese; he was extremely tall, a good boy, a good cricketer, who showed no signs of the man who emerged in comedy later on; he was a solemn, serious, able prefect; I remember we were all rioting slightly and he came in and broke it up; the first Shakespeare I ever saw was a truncated version of 'Twelfth Night' in which John Cleese, aged ten or eleven, played Malvolio; to this day I think he was the best Malvolio I have ever seen; the other thing about him is that whenever I see him I think of him as a day boy - there were about ten of them and they never really belonged - and I still can't think of him as a comic character as that wasn't how he was; his parents, I believe, kept a hotel in Weston-super-Mare, so the seeds of 'Fawlty Towers' were no doubt being laid at that time

22:10:05 I was then sent to Radley because my parents asked the Headmaster where I should go; he suggested Radley and there I went in October 1956; I arrived late because I had been given a double smallpox vaccination and was extremely ill; that was not anything like as good a school as it is now (I am Chairman of the school council now); it was a school that also gave huge weight to athletics and sport, but it did do rowing; I learned to row and loved it although I was not very good at it; I used to go sculling on the Thames and you could go off down the river for a pleasant afternoon; I also rowed in boats which were great heavy tubs which were difficult to move at all fast; I am President of Emmanuel College Boat Club now and I can identify with that; I would have liked to have been good at sport but the poverty of eyesight was a factor; sport brings out qualities which are quite good for running an empire, and I think that that was what it was about; I think I had a very good education to send me out to a colony or part of the Empire; I was taught qualities of standing on your own, endurance, leadership, all sorts of things about uprightness, probity, what a chap does and what a chap doesn't do, which you never really lose; in the fifties I still caught the flavour of the Kipling period; there were all sorts of things that I missed out on; my parents never had a television, so I have never watched it much; the first time I did watch it was when men landed on the moon, and I rented a television, but I was in my mid-twenties by then; there were other boys at school who would talk about television programmes but I had no notion of what they were talking about; I was brought up on middle-brow music, so I knew every Gilbert and Sullivan opera except for 'Ruddigore' and 'Princess Ida', but I knew the words and music of them absolutely backwards; it has always been useful as it is full of quotations you can use; I love 'Iolanthe' and its references to the House of Lords, and there are still lines in it that are relevant; I have never sung in it but would love to have done; Radley gave me the opportunity to do singing but I missed the choir tests so never joined it; I did sing there, but Gilbert and Sullivan was a craze I had about the age of eleven; I did play the piano but have always had the problem that my brain knows what it wants to do but my hands never quite keep up with it; I am a great living expert on musical comedies of the early fifties, so can do all of 'Annie Get Your Gun' etc., because they were performed at New Theatre, Cardiff, and that would be a treat; coming to Cambridge, the whole world opens up in front of you; at Radley I learned fairly orthodox things on the piano, and we did not have access to radio; there was one old gramophone in the house library where people were actually playing Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly; I was a bit shocked at first, but developed a taste for them later on, and the pop music of the sixties was fantastic; I have moved to chamber music now, and in times of trouble a bit of Schubert or Beethoven's late quartets, I find hugely consoling or inspirational; I carry music on my iPhone; the ability to carry round such a lot of music now is quite extraordinary; I also like Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra on his good days

29:27:04 I did acting at Radley in a number of productions, and produced a play; did such plays as 'Our Town', Shaw's 'Caesar and Cleopatra', and I got a lot of pleasure from that; when I came to Cambridge I did sign up for acting but it was a period when there was an extraordinary number of people who wanted to go on stage; so the Marlow Society of 'Macbeth' was produced by Trevor Nunn with Richard Eyre, Miriam Margolyes, John Grillo, and Mike Pennington - all sorts of people who actually have established themselves as pretty good names; I was a spear holder in my first term; I still have the scar because they sharpened the knives, I think on Trevor Nunn's instructions, and I had to go off and have two stitches in it; the best part I had was in 'Bartholomew Fair’ where I was Moon-Calf to Tim Brooke-Taylor's Ursula, the pig woman; I gave it up after a while, mainly because it took too much time, but also because I wasn't that good and they were terrific; it was a good thing to do as it taught me to appear before an audience; when I became a Permanent Secretary and found I had to make speeches and appear before audiences, I drew on that experience; at Radley there was one master called Paul Crowson who was my Housemaster, and he was hugely important for me - a father-figure, and a wise man, and a huge influence on me for life; I owe him a huge debt; later in my career there have been a number of occasions when I have been aware that I have said things, both to Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair, where I was repeating things that Paul Crowson had said; he taught me English but was also an historian; he was a terrific figure in the school and extremely wise; I think he had had T.B. as he was always stooped, and spoke in a slightly funny manner; for me he was absolutely the person at the time when I needed it; I was well taught there; I used to think afterwards that I went through school as if under anaesthetic - a lot of my schooling, I just sort of closed myself down; I think I was a lot brighter than they gave me credit for, but my family didn't really like people being clever; I remember being told that I was not clever but just worked hard; South Wales was not a place to be clever in; so what I did was just get through, and you learn to enjoy the little comforts and endure the rest; the things that I enjoyed, quite often things of the intellect, and suddenly I had a period when I did well; I had done satisfactorily in my 'O' levels, but when I got to 'A' level I suddenly took off; I had slightly gone off reading as I couldn't find anyone to read at fourteen, fifteen, but then I had a very good master who said if I wanted books I could buy them and he would put them on my parents' bill; so I read the whole of Evelyn Waugh, a huge amount of Thomas Hardy, and I suddenly graduated to grownup books in a different way; I threw over science, which I regret sometimes, and I did classics - Latin 'A' level in one year, and English, History and French; I suddenly connected with myself; it was hugely liberating, I found some friends and we started a school magazine; I wrote under the name of Apollo, I can't think why; it was just a period of eighteen months, and I came up to Cambridge to take a scholarship exam; I remember Paul Crowson saying that I should do the exam but would not get a scholarship but I might be offered a place, so I came up to Cambridge; in December 1960 I was leaving the school because my father had run out of the money to keep me there; I had never been to Cambridge and came because the school said they had not sent anyone to Clare College lately, but I was also put down for Worcester College, Oxford; I brought all my books with me in a suitcase, and remember taking a taxi to Clare and then dragging this huge suitcase along the path to Memorial Court; the excitement for me of taking that exam was just phenomenal; I had no idea that anywhere could be as beautiful or exciting as Cambridge; a few other friends were taking the exam at the same time, and the taste of freedom and the excitement of being here, I just fell in love with the place and have never fallen out of love; it was a very deep imprint which took immediately; I remember seeing Leavis, this old man in a mac apparently without a shirt, as we took our exams in Downing; I was so excited at seeing him because I had read all his books; they gave me an Exhibition which was really nice of them; I remember the telegram arriving while my mother was making a Christmas pudding, around the 18th December - I have still got it - saying that Clare College would like to offer me an Exhibition; the school was absolutely astonished; I think that Cambridge is hugely important to me because I had already connected with myself in some way that is very creative, and I hadn't the foggiest notion why or what was going on; I came to Cambridge and it just allowed me to grow all the bits of me that I had suppressed during the previous eighteen years; it is totally undisciplined, but I had people here who were like me who I could make friends with; it was a sort of revelation for me that the world could actually be as good as this, and I am very grateful indeed

37:54:17 I read law; that was a silly thing really, but a great debate had broken out that English was not useful; my parents said that I must read Law because I was going to be a solicitor; it was a good subject and I did perfectly well in it, but it didn't have the kind of excitement of other subjects that if I had had the strength or courage I would have done; I would have read English or History, History is the subject I really wish I had read; I don't want to sound ungrateful because Law was a really good discipline for me for the rest of my career, and has served me very well in all sorts of ways; I was taught by another very important person in my life, Bill Wedderburn, who was a Fellow and Director of Studies in Law at Clare, and was a huge influence on me; again I was very lucky in the father figures whom I accumulated through a period when you need them; I became his research assistant for a year at LSE after doing a BA and LLB, as I wanted to go to the Bar, or thought I did; he was important to me because he was very left-wing and he did all the things that I wanted to do, which was to ask questions; I remember horrifying my mother by asking if the family had a future, why should we all live in families; Bill Wedderburn, who was very radical, was someone who was prepared to debate without all the constraints of a pretty tight middle-class upbringing which I had had; on friendships - there was a group of us, mainly lawyers, but also classicists and others, and we still meet once a year or thereabouts; I had some of them to lunch with their wives two weeks ago; the nice thing about them is that you pick things up with them however much you see them or don't see them

40:49:13 I was very religious for a period, first of all at my prep school; the Scripture Union had a little green badge with a lamp in the middle, and they would send you readings which I found so exciting; at Radley I came to love chapel; it was all the things that you don't have now like the Common Prayer book, and I liked the atmosphere; it was a relief in those years of anaesthesia, and a place where you could actually have a few moments privacy with your own thoughts; Paul Crowson was very religious; I was Confirmed; at about sixteen, seventeen, I suddenly went off religion, and shed it gleefully when I came up to Cambridge, it was all part of that rebellion; I did have a very strong rebellious reaction against my upbringing for a period; although it was strong for me it was actually extremely modest; I never became a hippy or a CND member; I remember buying a pair of jeans and I walked down through King's wearing them; I wore them home and my father took me aside and said he didn't like to see me wearing them, and if I was short of money I should let him know; it was true for me that the sixties really did not begin until 1963; in the week Kennedy was assassinated I met my future wife and that was probably the most important thing that could ever happen to me; Caroline was in her sixth week at Newnham and I was in my third year at Clare; we met at a party in Corpus; we took a long time getting round to marrying which we did in 1972; she and our children are the most important people in my life; I think from the age of sixteen-seventeen onwards, the message I want to convey is that I am a hugely lucky man; I have had a blessed life, and the investment my father made in my education - although I did not get on with him at all because he was a withdrawn and pretty cold figure - was what gave me the break, and I owe my parents a lot for that; they were not at all rich and in their old age it was pretty tough; seizing the chance and winning a place at Cambridge, everything flowed from that

45:18:17 Caroline Lee, 'Caro', read English and got a first; she didn't want to settle down and get married after Cambridge so she went off to Nigeria on V.S.O. and was thrown out when the civil war broke out; she didn't want to come home and tried to renounce her British nationality, and has loved Africa all her life; she came back and was a teacher at a further education college, and taught 'A' level English; she gave up that job in 1976 and our son was born in 1979; after we had been going out for a bit she broke to me the news that her father, Frank Lee, was Master of Corpus; it came as a shock to me and was not wholly welcome, and I was very reluctant to meet them; her mother engineered a meeting and I became very fond of her parents; her father had been a civil servant; he had worked with Maynard Keynes in Washington after the War, and was very close to him; they were lovely people and became an important influence on me; Caro has sisters who are great friends; I went to the Bar, took the exams, but I suddenly realized I had not got any money and you needed a private income; you had to pay for your pupillage and maintain yourself, and I didn't see how I was going to do it; Frank Lee one day asked me if I had ever thought of entering the Civil Service; I had actually been very impressed by the train of civil servants who had gone through Corpus, people like Richard Powell, Permanent Secretary to the Board of Trade, William Armstrong, who at that time was a rising star, and Dame Evelyn Sharpe; I liked these people and thought their talk was interesting, and I picked up a sense of the Civil Service which I found very attractive; I thought I would take the exam, which I did, and I came in second; I enjoyed the exams, the tests and interviews, though not the written bit; I took to it like a duck to water; I was put in the Board of Trade as an Assistant Principal, which I joined on 5th September 1966; I was put into a job to do with trade in South Africa; I was not particularly happy at the time because Caro was in Africa and I was missing her; I also got mumps, which was dreadful; after a while I moved on to consumer protection where we had a Bill going through Parliament; everyone was ill at Christmas and I took over control of a bit of drafting of the Bill which had defeated everybody, which was about price comparison; if you shop and things are advertised as being reduced in price and it's false, how can you get at that; I think I can claim that I invented the law, which is still the law, that you have to have sold it at that price for twenty-eight days beforehand - Clause 11 of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968; I got it through and I think I took off then; the Civil Service for the next thirty-six years gave me a succession of jobs, all of which completely stretched me, and I loved it; I had the most interesting possible career that anyone could have had, and I was lucky at every step; lucky in getting an Exhibition to Clare, lucky in meeting Caro, lucky in getting into the Civil Service, lucky in all the jobs I had

51:41:05 We made sure our children knew about religion and gave them the choice; we moved to a small village in Buckinghamshire in 1978 when we started our family; we used to go occasionally to church, and to nativity plays, but I even had difficulty under Paul Crowson's tuition with what we used to call Holy Communion; I have never quite understood why; I was also struck by the fact that my dear father, who had been so involved with the Church in Wales, lost his faith in his later years; I think he watched the Bishops arguing, he had a terrible heart attack when he was younger than I am now, and when asked why, he said it was just seeing them argue so much among themselves; he was very disillusioned by the church and I think he lost his faith; he never talked about these things, he didn't believe in talking about any of the things that were interesting in life; sex, politics and religion were all subjects that were not allowed to be talked about; when I came to Emmanuel I had thought that there would be a time later in life when I would think about religion; I asked the Dean how I could help him and he said it would be very helpful if I would go to Chapel; I do go to Evensong every Sunday, and quite a lot of the things I liked about Chapel at Radley come back to me at Emmanuel; I like going on Sunday at six; I do regret the way the Church of England has developed; I had a good talk the other evening with the Assistant Chaplain on what has happened; when I went to church as a schoolboy it was part of the social structure of the English establishment, and based on the Book of Common Prayer which I loved, and still do, and the King James Bible, which I think is marvellous; I have not taken to the way services have developed or the use of modern translations of the Bible, which have lost the beauty of the language without adding anything much; but I support it because of the choir, and think it is a force for good in the College community, and there are people for whom it meets a need; I have had to cope with death quite a lot, and you do grieve and wonder about life after death, and I end up with a pretty agnostic position; I find when listening to the New Testament that Jesus Christ is a really interesting person; a lot of the incidents which take place are really very graphic, and I do think the picture of him is interesting; if I turn out to be wrong and there is an afterlife, then I will say I am glad and that he was a very important man; it is a pretty trivial approach, but it is very hard not to view religion as an anthropological development in mankind; I have very great difficulty with St Paul and all those letters; Don Cupitt was at Emmanuel and Norman St John of Fawsley, a Catholic Master, with whom I am still in contact