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