Sunday, 24 June 2018

Letter from an Actor

I recently received an interesting message from actor David McKail in response to my book, Beware of the Actor! The Rise and Fall of Nicol Williamson. With Mr McKail's permission, the message is shared below. 

Dear Mr Dowsing

After reading your book with both much interest and enjoyment I am taking up your offer to make a comment or two.

I was one of the world premiere cast of  “Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun”, playing what became known as the Ian Holm part, and have memories of the “J Arthur Rank” controversy.  There was a discussion after the Lord Chamberlain’s department refused the reference as to what might be acceptable as it was desired that the joke should be retained.  Someone came up with “Jodrell” in homage to the first radio astronomical telescope at Jodrell Bank.  The Chamberlain’s office agreed, presumably on the notion that the “hoi polloi” would not get the reference so that was what we used and to the intellectual audience of Hampstead it was instantly recognised and every night we got the hoped for laugh.  In the Methuen edition of the text I noted that John had put back the “J Arthur...” line, which is something authors do in published texts if they did not like some cuts made at rehearsals.  Robert Bolt did it in the “Vivat Vivat Regina” text, another premier I was involved in, and there are other lesser known works too.

I was pleased to see the reference to my local pub The Bull's Head Hotel in Chislehurst, which the gives the impression that he had spent a couple of nights there, whereas it was an important place in his life for at least six years.  My wife died in 2006 and he had been coming for some time.  When I first noted his appearance I said to one of the staff.  “Do you know who that is?” I got the reply, “Mr Williamson - he’s a resident in the hotel.  Why, do you know him?” I said that I did not know him personally but they should for he was perhaps the best actor of my generation, to which the response was “Never heard of him.” The then manager, David (whose second name I have forgotten) a young New Zealander thought he was a singer as he told me he was recording an album in a studio in (he said) Orpington.*

As a fellow actor I did not wish to disturb him, though many would, so although other regulars got to know and recognise him and look him up in an old Halliwell “Who’s Who in the Movies” I had donated to the pub he was left to his own devices and was seen to have chats with David and the staff which were about the same age as him (still there and over 80) and were charmed by him and treated him as an ordinary regular when he was in residence.

One Saturday lunchtime, when I was in the Bull with my late wife (who had also seen his Hamlet at the Roundhouse and several films and was a great follower), various other regulars came in and each came over and gave her a peck on the cheek.  Nicol was ordering a drink on the other side of the angle of the bar and caught my eye and cocked his head as if to say what is all that about? I said, “Her fan club.”  He looked a bit rueful and said “I used to have one of those”, to which I replied, “You still have.” At that point he got his pint and turned away to have it in a window seat.

Our source of information about his many visits came via David or the senior staff to whom he had volunteered that he could not cope with the Greek summer heat, and he was recording more songs.  On one occasion David told us that Mr Williamson wanted to acquire a second-hand long-wheel base Jaguar and had they any suggestions.  He must have overheard various car-based discussions.  Via David an agreement was reached that they would search out what examples were to be had locally and they would evaluate them and then take Nicol to view the one they thought he should have and that is what happened.  Those participating in the deal were still moaning about the non appearance of the promised dinner they would be treated to when I mentioned, at a funeral on Tuesday last, that I had read your book. I understand that Luke drove his father in the car to Greece at the end of that visit.  Dave the Diver who was main mover in the car sourcing told me at the funeral that Nicol had left the car to David the manager in his will.

David the manager had offered to introduce me to Nicol on an appropriate occasion and one arose after my wife had died when I came upon them having a chat in a corner.  This would have been in early 2007.  David said, “I don’t think you’ve met David; our resident thespian, David McKail.”  So we shook hands, and I said how delighted I was to meet him as I had seen his Hamlet and thought it to be very Calvinist and just right to me (I am a fellow west coast Scot and 18 months younger than him) and that I had, there and then, abandoned any desire to attempt it as I could not see that it could be bettered. Without acknowledging my remark, he took off on an angry riff about the whole acting business having been ruined by the fucking managers.  After a moment I made my excuses and went to the bar to order my pint.   After that we just nodded when we saw one another.  He was much loved in the Bull though and his repeated visits suggest that he felt very much at home there.  My last sightings of him were during his chemotherapy when he took to using the lounge bar known as “God’s waiting room” where he would sit in the corner seat by the window onto the main road, a woolly hat on his head, reading a newspaper as I made my way from my flat across the road to the main bar in the middle of the building.

According to the doyenne of the barmaids, Luke took him off to Holland where he was to end his life in a Dignitas clinic.**

I think he was a wonderful actor and I know from my own experience how easy it is to get the reputation of being “difficult” when all you are trying to do is to “get it right”.

Thank you for your splendid book.

David McKail

*Actually at Porcupine Studios in Mottingham
**Nicol Williamson spent his last days at a hospice in Hoorn. It was not an assisted suicide

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

How to watch Nicol Williamson - Part 3

Worth a Watch

Laughter in the Dark (1969) The BFI has a copy of this, which they screened fairly recently. Otherwise, it’s only available as a bootleg DVD from various online sellers. It’s not a great film, but it has a lot of interesting things about it and Nicol’s performance in the lead has some powerful moments. Apparently there are some complicated legal or copyright issues which have kept it in obscurity. 

The Monk (1972) I kind of like this even though it’s not very good. There’s a memorable supporting turn from Nicol. I have the Italian Il Monaco Region 2 DVD from Golem films which has the option of an English audio track and I can confirm that it is Nicol’s voice we hear. The sound and picture quality are both a bit murky but it’s watchable. Approach with low expectations and you might enjoy it. 

Columbo: How to Dial a Murder (1978) Nicol preferred to forget about this but a lot of people love it! It’s on TV constantly but also available on DVD. 

The Human Factor (1979) Great to see Nicol in the lead here and he’s excellent in an uncharacteristically understated way. Shame a number of human factors prevented it from being the great film it should have been. There are some dubious DVDs of this around, but the Warner Archive disc is excellent quality.

Venom (1981) A silly premise but a hugely entertaining film with a fascinating cast. Any of the Blue Underground discs are recommended as they’re excellent quality and all feature a fascinating commentary from director Piers Haggard. 

I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can (1982) A brilliant performance from Nicol in a rather underwhelming movie. It can be watched for a small fee on Youtube.

Macbeth (1983) A rather uneven performance from Nicol. Available on DVD.

Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986). Nicol does extremely well cast against type in the title role. It’s well-made and historically accurate as far as it goes but the portrayal of the British in India seems too squeaky clean to be convincing. The out-of-print DVD has become rather expensive in the wake of the recent film Viceroy’s House.

Black Widow (1987) Available on DVD. Good film with a nice supporting turn by Nicol. The 2016 DVD from Signal One has a few extras but nothing of note about Nicol’s involvement. 

The Exorcist III (1990) Nicol doesn’t have much to do in this but it’s a surprisingly intelligent, funny, scary film with a top cast. Available on DVD. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

How to watch Nicol Williamson - Part 2

Highly Recommended

Horror of Darkness (1965) A bleak and depressing play, but very well-made and with brilliant performances by Nicol and Glenda Jackson. Can be watched for free at the BFI’s Mediatheque in their South Bank building, usually without the need for an appointment. 

Return to Oz (1985) Nicol makes a fine Nome King in this underrated film which has a deservedly strong cult following and remains the only feature directed by celebrated sound and film editor Walter Murch. Available on DVD. Note that the 30th anniversary Blu-ray edition features no extras. 

Mistress of Suspense: A Curious Suicide (1989) The American title of this series was Chillers and this episode is available on a DVD entitled Chillers 4. I have to admit that the other 3 episodes on this disc I found to be unwatchably bad, but it’s worth it for Nicol’s one. He was in a bad way when he made this but still manages to give a riveting performance. The DVD has gone out of print and is not available at the time of writing on Amazon UK but Amazon US still have some cheap secondhand ones listed here

The Hour of the Pig (1993) This is an unusual and wonderful film with a marvelous cast that also includes Colin Firth, Ian Holm, Donald Pleasence and Harriet Walter. Unfortunately, Harvey Weinstein had money in it and he recut and re-titled it as The Advocate for its American release. Only this butchered version is available on DVD, apart from a Hungarian DVD which appears to be dubbed and have no English option. Old VHS copies of the original cut are now hard to find.

John Osborne and the Gift of Friendship (2006) Tony Palmer’s excellent documentary features an exclusive interview with Nicol and rare footage of him on stage with Jill Townsend performing scenes from Inadmissible Evidence. Essential viewing for anyone interested in Osborne or British theatre. 

Monday, 25 December 2017

How to watch Nicol Williamson - Part 1

The Essentials

Inadmissible Evidence (1968) The performance which made Nicol famous. The film is excellent, but unfortunately only currently available on bootleg DVDs from various internet sellers. 

The Bofors Gun (1968) The 2012 DVD from Odeon Entertainment
is excellent quality and has some great extras. DVD at Amazon UK

The Reckoning (1969) The 2017 DVD from Powerhouse Films’ Indicator label is excellent quality and has a nice booklet and a few extras. DVD at Powerhouse Films

Hamlet (1969) Simply one of the greatest Shakespearean performances ever. Available on DVD. 

Nicol Williamson (right) and director Jack Gold (with camera) on the set of 
The Gangster Show: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

The Gangster Show: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1972) Nicol is brilliantly funny here as the Hitler-like gangster scheming to gain control of the cauliflower racket. One of the most impressive pieces of TV drama the BBC has ever produced, it’s partly a homage to the Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s and should have been given a cinema release. The BFI occasionally show it, otherwise it’s all on Youtube in 12 parts. The quality is not quite as good as one would wish, but it’s watchable. Here’s a link to Part One

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) Not a great film, but a very entertaining one and featuring one of the all-time great supporting performances from Nicol, who completely steals it from stars Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier. Available on DVD

Robin and Marian (1976) Nicol’s Little John makes a wonderful sidekick to Sean Connery’s Robin in this, perhaps the best film Nicol appeared in. Available on DVD

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) Nicol as a paranoid, cocaine-addicted Sherlock Holmes. Shout Factory’s Blu-ray / DVD combo is the one to get, although you may need a multi-region player to watch it in the UK. Features an interesting interview with author and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer. 

Excalibur (1981) Nicol’s most eccentric performance as Merlin. Despite the presence of Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart and others, he’s the one you’ll remember. There are various DVDs available. I recommend this US Region 1 version because it’s good quality and has an excellent commentary by director John Boorman.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

The Nicol Williamson biography

Back in 2013, I embarked on a mad quest to write a biography of Nicol Williamson.  That quest is finally over and the book is now on sale on Amazon.

Playwright and theatre director Peter Gill worked as an assistant on the original production of Inadmissible Evidence, the play which made Williamson famous; later, he directed the star as Malvolio in Twelfth Night for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He calls Beware of the Actor! “A welcome and well researched account of the life and work of perhaps the greatest British actor of his generation.”

Leslie Megahey was, at separate times, editor of both the BBC's major arts documentary strands, Omnibus and Arena, winning a BAFTA for his work on the latter. He's probably the only person to have interviewed J.R.R. Tolkien, Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa. Megahey directed Williamson in the feature film The Hour of the Pig and subsequently in the one-man show Jack - A Night on the Town with John Barrymore. He had this to say about Beware of the Actor!: “Startlingly honest, balefully funny at times, and respectful of the huge talent that inspired it, this is an extraordinarily rich and detailed biography. Nicol was the most unforgettable character I knew and worked with, and this account vividly illuminates his genius and his demons.”

Other contributors to the book include Nicol's son, Luke Williamson; his first wife, Jill Townsend; actors Elaine Bromka, Michael Culver, Penny Fuller, Ian Hogg, Glenda Jackson, Jane Lapotaire, Paul Moriarty, Steffan Rhodri, Clive Swift and David Warner; directors Robert Bierman, the late Jack Gold, Piers Haggard, Terry Hands, Robert Knights, Richard Lester, Peter Dan Levin, John Tydeman, Walter Murch; and many more. 

I'll be posting more about the book in the near future but, for the time being, here's the introduction:

By 1969, Nicol Williamson seemed to have the world in the palm of his hand. Five years earlier, he had literally become famous overnight – on the 9th of September, 1964, to be precise. His leading role as burnt-out solicitor Bill Maitland in John Osborne’s play Inadmissible Evidence at the Royal Court theatre is still acknowledged to be one of the longest and most difficult ever written. A number of more famous actors had declined the part, perhaps because its difficulty made failure seem a far more likely prospect than success. Nicol had held the audience spellbound for three hours, immediately attracting a surge of press interest as a result and becoming an instant celebrity. His performance would be one of the most talked about in the history of 20th-century theatre.

Perhaps even more impressive than the reviews he received and the awards he won throughout the ‘60s were the plaudits from theatrical heavyweights; Osborne proclaimed him ‘the best actor since Marlon Brando’, Samuel Beckett credited him with ‘a touch of genius’, and Laurence Olivier was reported to have considered Nicol his only serious rival. He astonished his contemporaries in the film world by turning down many lucrative offers, choosing instead to take Inadmissible Evidence to America. He finally began accepting leading roles in films at the end of the decade, making a number of intelligent, challenging pictures that made little impact at the box office. Still, it didn’t seem to matter – in 1969, he stormed the Roundhouse like a Shakespearean rock star playing a new kind of Hamlet, vital, alive and decisive, in an interpretation which remains influential to this day. The following year he became the first actor invited to perform at the White House. By this point, it was not unusual for him to be labelled ‘the world’s greatest actor’.

Even greater things were expected of Nicol in the years to come, and he was closely followed by the press. Being not averse to a pint, a punch-up, a backstage tryst or a provocative remark, Nicol made good copy. Indeed, stories about him are still numerous, many of which have passed into theatrical lore. He famously walked off in the middle of a performance on more than one occasion and was equally notorious for having struck his fellow actors on stage – once with a hefty slap in the face, another time with the flat of a sword. He had even punched a powerful Broadway producer early in his career but still somehow managed to go on to play more leading roles on Broadway than any other English actor. Less of a womanizer than many of his contemporaries, he could nevertheless count Marianne Faithfull and Sarah Miles among his conquests. It is scarcely surprising, then, that Nicol has often been painted as a heavy-drinking hell-raiser but, although he certainly had that side to him, he was a far more complex man than this suggests. Some found him to be morose and misanthropic by nature, but his mood could change suddenly and with little warning. Displays of belligerence or generosity were equally likely. He was also a talented singer and pianist, a writer of poetry, autobiographical prose pieces, screenplays, songs and one published novel.

Most of all, he was an actor of unique and mysterious power – as the playwright and theatre director Peter Gill said, ‘… he was enormously gifted – the most unusual actor I’ve ever seen in my life… There he was – lanky, ranging, awful sort of yellow hair, not a pleasant voice, Birmingham-Scottish, and yet he was a riveting actor, very funny, he spoke marvellously. Nobody was as good as Nicol Williamson in the right part…’

Few could have foreseen that Nicol’s career had already reached its peak as the ‘70s dawned. His stage appearances would become increasingly sporadic and his film work seemed to gradually dwindle away, although there would still be the occasional triumph on the way down. On stage in the mid-‘70s he played Coriolanus, Macbeth and Malvolio, as well as Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya – performances which remain vivid memories to those lucky enough to have seen them. He was marvellous on film as a twitchy, neurotic Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, as a funny and moving sidekick to Sean Connery’s Robin Hood in Robin and Marian and, of course, in his most eccentric performance as Merlin in John Boorman’s Excalibur. However, compared to many of his contemporaries, he was far from prolific. As an admirer who had first seen Nicol in his late ‘60s films The Bofors Gun and The Reckoning on television during the late ‘80s, I found it difficult to understand why he was by that time only being glimpsed occasionally in throwaway roles in Hollywood movies like Black Widow and Exorcist III. Something had clearly gone wrong, but what?

When Nicol died at the end of 2011, he had not made a film for fourteen years or acted on a stage for ten. Meanwhile, fellow actors of his generation like John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen had gone on to hugely successful careers despite having taken considerably longer to make a name for themselves. Nicol Williamson, on the other hand, had faded away until he had disappeared altogether, god knew where.

When the press got wind of Nicol’s death five weeks after the event, the majority of the obituary writers had to rely chiefly on a piece written about Nicol by Kenneth Tynan for The New Yorker some forty years previously (a piece which itself contained certain inaccuracies). There seemed to be a remarkable lack of information about his more recent activities. According to the obituarists, the actor had been living in Amsterdam, but he had in fact sold his house there several years earlier and settled in the village of Lindos on the Greek island of Rhodes. There was also division on Nicol’s age at the time of his death, some saying he had been 73, and others 75. The reasons for his absence from the world of acting for so many years remained a mystery, although rumours suggested a number of possibilities: the booze had got the better of him; he was so difficult that he was considered unemployable; he had developed severe stage fright; he had become disillusioned with acting and simply retired.

It seemed to me that Nicol’s journey might very well be a story worth telling, and certainly no-one had done so before. Like so many other admirers of his talents, I wondered what were the true reasons for the decline of his career and his subsequent disappearance and particularly whether his fearsome reputation was the result of a few minor incidents blown up out of proportion or was genuinely deserved.

In researching this biography, I visited numerous archives and interviewed or corresponded with over 50 people who had been friends or colleagues of Nicol’s to try to discover what proportion of what I had heard and read could possibly be true. I made some surprising discoveries, such as the fact that Nicol had been married not once but twice, although very few people knew about his second wife. Despite the fact that in his lifetime Nicol seemed to have inspired almost as much enmity as affection, it was clear that most people who had known him had something they urgently wanted to say on the subject of Nicol Williamson, perhaps because they too were trying to resolve something in their own minds, in many cases about their own relationships with him. Even those who did not much care for him personally greatly admired his talent and were keen to be heard. In the four years it has taken to write this book, I have been on a fascinating, moving, bemusing and always thought-provoking mission.

Nicol Williamson led what is usually referred to as a ‘colourful life’. By the time I sat down to write these chapters, I knew this was a wholly inadequate description for his skills and passions, triumphs and flaws, humour, enthusiasms and dark days; in short, for the intermittent but unforgettable genius of this extraordinary man.