David Renwick on resurrecting Victor Meldrew interview

One Foot In The Grave. Image shows from L to R: Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson), Margaret Meldrew (Annette Crosbie). Copyright: BBC

Victor Meldrew returns, in a new novel from One Foot In The Grave creator David Renwick. More exasperated than ever by the modern world, One Foot In The Grave And Counting finds the persecuted pensioner struggling to cope in an internet age that harshly reviews his window cleaning, even as the Meldrews get caught up in criminal misdeeds and Mrs Warboys befriends an axe murderer. Here, Renwick explains why he's chosen to bring his most enduring creation back from the dead.

David Renwick

Why did you want to revisit Victor?

There was no great game plan or premeditation to this, it began as a very off-the-cuff thing. After the final Jonathan Creek went out, during the Christmas of 2016, and having then decided to retire from TV, I spent the next twelve months happily writing nothing.

Writing, for me, has always been the most arduous chore, never a labour of love. It's only when you get to the other end, and something half decent has emerged, that it becomes rewarding. So I'm not at all sure now what induced me to have a go at another book - as with the original series it began as quite a tentative project, and I approached it more as a kind of challenge than a firm commitment. A spur of the moment idea that I gradually took more seriously as the shape of it came into focus.

What made it potentially feasible, I think, was the fact that twenty years after the series ended the character still appeared to have this amazing shelf life. It's quite astonishing to me that Victor Meldrew lives on, for many people, as a kind of reference point long after we laid him to rest on the box. The term "Meldrewish", I once discovered, had even turned up in the Collins English Dictionary. So I felt the show still had enough brand recognition out there to justify the exercise.

But as ever, my confidence ebbed and flowed in the early stages, and there was never any question of approaching a publisher until it was done. That removes all the pressure because I knew that at any moment I could just give it up as a bad job. When I did the first novel, which BBC Books had commissioned, I was working to a very strict deadline. But this was so open-ended I took about eighteen months in all, on and off, to keep myself sane.

And incidentally, it's worth paying tribute to Fantom Publishing who were happy to take the book on, because it certainly wasn't easy getting it off the ground. Of all the other publishers I approached only one, I think, did me the courtesy of actually reading some of the text before passing. Most of them, having expressed great provisional interest, then just proceeded to ignore me without further comment. And this was all pre-pandemic. It does leave you with a very Victor-ish feeling of "What's the point?"

One Foot In The Grave. Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson). Copyright: BBC

How exactly is he struggling with the modern world?

It's more a question of context than a lot of hard-and-fast specifics. To me, having just hit seventy, the millennium doesn't feel so long ago in the scheme of things, but of course so much of our life has changed in that time, and when you watch all those episodes now it does come home to you. How technologically primitive it all looks, for one thing, and the whole energy of day-to-day life, and social culture and the media and everything. So I thought it would be interesting just to re-imagine Victor and Margaret continuing their travails against that more contemporary backdrop.

Rather than take them back to where we left off, in a kind of period piece, it was more authentic to make the world around them one that we recognise. Which then gives me a lot of fertile material to feed off, as I always did, with Victor reacting to all the unlikely and frustrating complications that bedevil his life. We can imagine, for instance, that while embracing modern communication, he'd be no fan of social media, which you'd know is something Mrs Warboys would enjoy. So that kind of thing gave me avenues to explore.

Much of the fun, I'd hope, with Victor in 2021, comes from the incidentals and more up-to-date allusions, which I've tried to weave in to re-colour the stories and keep them fresh. This said, and although the book's direction of travel is primarily comic, I was concerned to give it an honestly morbid undertow that reflects my own very jaded view of the world and its prospects. I think One Foot In The Grave has always been noted for its bitter-sweet tone, and for fans of the darker elements I'd say there's plenty to get their teeth into.

How do you explain him returning from the dead? Or do you? Is this set in an alternate universe?

Anyone who read my first book will understand, I hope, that the TV and print versions exist independently of each other. While many events are identical they're often embellished and re-constructed, and interwoven in wholly different ways. Safest to regard the books as entirely self-contained, to avoid a whole host of anomalies. Not the least of which is Victor's death in 2000. The second book also refers back to the first at several points, and you have to draw a veil over the real-time gap of nearly thirty years, or we'll be in all sorts of Einsteinian paradoxes. In other words, just take it at face value.

Which storylines from the TV series does the book draw from?

The main sources were the last three Christmas specials that we made in '95, '96 and '97, but quite selectively re-structured and often expanded. With the entire canon of 42 episodes available it was also nice to dip into some other shows and re-visit some favourite routines. But this volume contains a lot more totally original material than the first, to shore up the comic and dramatic twists and turns. So even for people with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the series there should be enough new surprises.

One Foot In The Grave. Image shows from L to R: Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson), Margaret Meldrew (Annette Crosbie). Copyright: BBC

Is it easy writing for Victor and Margaret again and, with the greatest of respect, is it easier now that you're of a similar age to them?

It's as easy - or hard - as it ever was. I never had any difficulty getting inside the head of Victor when I was writing in my forties - as I've often said, his personality was very much an extension of my own at the time, with heightened reactions to get the laughs. So in a sense his thinking and mindset were pretty ageless, and a counterpoint to what was considered normal and sedentary for the so-called elderly. Similarly, having now reached my own eighth decade, with all that entails physically, I feel mentally no different to the way I did then. And that internal and external disconnect is not one of the pleasures of getting old.

Are you still planning to reissue your original One Foot novel?

Yes, the first novel, with a sweep of minor adjustments, is being re-released in parallel with the new one.

Richard Wilson said in a podcast recently that you're planning to adapt One Foot for the stage. Can you tell me anything about that?

Well, plans for a stage play were initially explored, but remain very much up in the air. I did embark on an adaptation about a year ago, but let's just say more complications arose than I think I'd bargained for. And given all the pressures live theatre is facing the project seems unlikely to surface any time soon.

Do you have actors in mind to play Victor and Margaret?

One Foot In The Grave. Image shows from L to R: Margaret Meldrew (Annette Crosbie), Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson). Copyright: BBC

It goes without saying that, given the indelible brilliance Richard and Annette brought to their roles, finding a new Victor and Margaret would, in any case, have been no easy task. It's something I thought they pulled off admirably in the Only Fools And Horses musical, but with older characters I think your options are more limited.

Generally speaking, my instincts have always been to quit while you're ahead, and when you've hit that peak of success maybe it's best to just leave things as they were, preserved in aspic. I'd cite the case, for instance, of my Mastermind sketch on The Two Ronnies, which they later included in their 1983 Palladium show. Away from its intimate studio setting it just felt horribly exposed on that stage, and never played nearly as well.

Have you thought about reviving any of your other shows in some form, particularly Jonathan Creek?

I've no current plans for anything else right now.

Are you absolutely retired from writing for television? Could you be tempted back if the right project or collaborator came along?

As far as TV's concerned it's hard to think of anything more guaranteed to drive me to an early grave. No, I think I've been really blessed in my career to have had the best of it. I wish the industry well, and everyone in it, but don't miss the experience one jot. To pluck a line from the book: "The minefield of modern life is for others to negotiate."

One Foot In The Grave And Counting is available now, from Fantom Publishing

David Renwick - One Foot In The Grave And Counting

In One Foot In The Grave And Counting Victor Meldrew, anti-hero of the nineties, continues his war against the world in a 21st Century where social and technological change have done little to make life more bearable.

Not for the first time, his attempts to claw back some self-respect with a new job are met with a string of disasters, while a mission to untangle the affairs of a deceased relative takes him to a spooky old house in the wilds of Yorkshire, pursued by a knife-wielding maniac. Mercifully he survives the ordeal, only to become embroiled in a macabre train of events that see him wind up in the bed of a married woman.

For Margaret Meldrew, living with the nation's grumbler-in-chief is all part of the daily routine, until a face from the past brings her to the edge of an emotional crisis that could threaten their marriage.

And in an age where communication between continents is no big deal how noble is Mrs Warboys' decision to befriend a convicted axe murderer in Arkansas? Guaranteed, as ever, to make the worst of a bad situation, she manages not only to draw Margaret into the mind of a killer, but to test her very sanity as the affair reaches a strange and grisly conclusion.

As Victor falls prey to the constant banana skins fate throws in his path - inadvertently sexting his neighbours and kidnapping a millionaire's mother - the soddishness of circumstance is ever there to thwart him. Whether he's being thumped in the face by Buddha or arrested for gross indecency in a car park; demolishing a priceless summer house or triggering a delivery of frozen urine to an old people's home, life is certainly never dull...

First published: Monday 18th October 2021

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