Page last updated at 07:35 GMT, Thursday, 27 August 2009 08:35 UK

Talking Shop: Ian McDiarmid

Thomas Sangster and Ian McDiarmid
Thomas Sangster plays Ian McDiarmid's pupil in The Pickerskill Reports

Shakespearean actor and Tony award winner Ian McDiarmid will be forever etched on the minds of cinema-goers as the evil Senator Palpatine aka Darth Sidious in the Star Wars franchise.

He is now stepping into the shoes of the late Ian Richardson to play a school headmaster in the Radio 4 drama series The Pickerskill Reports.

The series focuses on a different pupil or former pupil each week - with the young star of Nanny McPhee, Thomas Sangster, among the actors - and their relationship with the charismatic head.

Speaking from the Edinburgh Festival where he was taking in some shows, McDiarmid chatted about his own school days, taking a break from acting and his career-defining role in Star Wars.

You're playing a headmaster in this Radio 4 drama, can you tell us a bit about it?

It's the story of a headmaster at a public school, a kind of Mr Chips figure, but maybe darker. He's got a very maudlin sense of humour but he's very supportive of the pupils he teaches - and has taught, because most of them are former pupils in this series - who have got an anarchistic bend.

He's more interested in individuals than he is in churning out people for the corporate system. He gets involved with these enterprising young boys in lots of ways and sometime enters into a competition with them. He's taught them and he's proud of them and he's proud of their sense of adventure as much as their actual learning.

Did you draw on any of your own teachers for the part?

No, I didn't have any teachers like that. It was just a wonderful script, that was the reason I wanted to do it. It's very amusing and very literate. [Writer and director] Andrew McGibbon offers lots of opportunities to actors so I knew I'd get to work with some good actors over the series.

Do you have fond memories of school yourself?

No, not particularly. Friends I've made, situations I found myself in. They weren't the happiest days of my life.

You took over the role from the late Ian Richardson, did you have any reservations about that?

None whatsoever, I was delighted to be asked. I thought he was a wonderful actor and I didn't hear what he had done. I could have listened, but that's not a very good idea - but when I read them I kind of had his voice in my head. So in a sense I'm happy to carry on as a kind of tribute to him.

I did know him, not well, but I did admire him as a remarkable actor.

As a respected former artistic director of London's Almeida Theatre are you an easy person to direct?

Star Wars
Senator Palpatine (l) appears in all the Star Wars film in different ranks

I've not been an artistic director for about five years and, even when I did that job, I saw myself as an actor who ran a theatre. Most actors like to be directed well. Nobody likes to be directed badly. It's a collaborative venture. In some areas directors take the lead, while in others, the actors do.

Do you have a desire to get back to directing?

No, I'm just enjoying acting. It's nice now to take a back seat. I do still get involved with things but not in the 24-hour a day terms, which is what it's like when you're running a theatre. Not that you're there all the time, but your brain is.

You had a health scare on stage last year (he was widely reported to have finished a play despite having a suspected heart attack), has this affected your career at all?

I don't talk about it. I've nothing to worry about and it hasn't made any difference to my working life.

You've got this vast body of work but to many generations you are most recognised for Star Wars, does that bother you?

No, it's great. It's extraordinary - and thank goodness my face isn't that recognisable.

As the series went on of course, they took more and more latex away and more of me was revealed. But the franchise has gone to sleep a little bit over the past few years, so I can get by without being stopped on the street on a regular basis.

It was a great thing to do and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was an enormous lucky break and great fun, and I always speak fondly of it.

Do you get involved in the Star Wars fan world?

I haven't no. I try to keep separate from that. There's the odd charity event when people ask me where I'll go along and say hello and chat and be interviewed, or whatever they like, but no I don't really want to be involved in that side, but I love being involved in the movies.

Some of the actors have made it their life and career

They have and they have made a good life out of it and good luck to them.

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm not working on anything specific at the moment but last year I wrote something that went well and I was encouraged by that so I'm thinking about writing other things - that's where my head is at the moment. I'm not telling anyone about it, so don't feel singled out!

So you're really just having some down time at the moment?

Yes, there are all sorts of projects going on, there will be things happening next year but, as we speak, I'm just enjoying being in the audience for a while.

I enjoy going to the theatre, concerts, galleries, spending time with friends, and a glass of wine every now and then.

Ian McDiarmid was talking to BBC Entertainment reporter Keily Oakes. The Pickerskill Reports begins on Radio 4 on Friday, 28 August at 1130 BST.

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