Once hailed by John Osborne as "the greatest actor since Brando", latterly known as a ruined genius whose unpredictable, hellraising behavior was legendary, Nicol Williamson always went his own way. Openly dismissive of "technical" actors, or others who played The Bard as if "their finger was up their arse", Williamson tore up the rule book to deliver a fast-talking canon of Shakespearean heroes, with portrayals marked by gut-wrenching passion. According to one co-star, Williamson was like a tornado on stage – "he felt he was paddling for his life". Fiercely uncompromising, choosy about the roles he accepted, contemptuous of the "suits" who made money off artists, and a perfectionist who never accepted second best from himself or others, Nicol alienated or fell out with many long-standing collaborators. But even his detractors still acknowledge his brilliance. After an extraordinary career on both stage and screen, Williamson was burnt out as an actor by the age of 60. But, as Gabriel Hershman explains in this authorized biography, a premature end was perhaps inevitable for an actor who always went the extra mile in every performance.
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About the Author
Gabriel Hershman is an experienced British journalist who has written for many international publications. His abiding interest is in film and theatre, and his previous biography of a lesser-known British actor, Ian Hendry, continues to be a hit among followers of cult film and has won rave reviews. He is the author of Strolling Player: The Life and Career of Albert Finney (THP, 2017).
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'I was always an outsider on the edge of the group.'
It was an unlikely beginning for someone whom Laurence Olivier apparently viewed as his 'closest challenger' for the accolade of Britain's greatest actor. Hamilton, 12 miles south-east of Glasgow, was hardly brimming with culture. John Calder, Scottish publisher and friend of Nicol's, later wrote that 'it is difficult to imagine him [Nicol] as a boy in that quiet little town where the main cultural event of the year is the Salvation Army's Christmas carol concert'. People made their own entertainment in a place where, in the thirties, a rousing singsong in a pub was the nearest to organised entertainment.
The only other theatrical 'name' to come from Hamilton, born eighteen months before Nicol, was the hard-drinking actor Mark McManus, best known as Taggart – 'the Clint of the Clyde' – whose impassive, granite-like, yet slightly mournful expression seemed quintessentially Glaswegian.
It was often noted that Nicol had a touch of the Viking about him, a word frequently used to describe his Nordic air and appearance. The Williamsons were Clan Gunn, an old Highland clan associated with lands in north-eastern Scotland. They probably originated from Norway – original Norse seafarers – but they were avowedly proud Scots. Some of the clan had moved to America in the late nineteenth century and, according to Nicol's first wife, Jill Townsend, President Woodrow Wilson was a distant relative. But all of the traceable relatives of Nicol's father had lived in Scotland.
Nicol's father, Hugh, was born on 30 June 1913. Hugh was later described by John McGrath (who became an important collaborator of Nicol's) as 'an imposing man, strong and gentle and very Scottish'. Jill Townsend remembered him similarly, 'He was a giant of a man; he just had that power, a big heart, and respect for people.' He was also a huge man physically with very broad shoulders and large hands, something Nicol inherited. He could always stem one of Nicol's moods with a mild reproach.
Nicol's mother, Mary Brown Hill (née Storrie), was born on 6 March 1914. Her father had been in a Scottish regiment during the First World War but was killed three weeks before the war ended. Jill speaks of her glowingly, as does Nicol's son Luke, although his recollections are, inevitably, more second-hand because she died prematurely in 1975. Nicol credited Mary for his lifelong interest in music. 'My mother had a wonderful singing voice, which has been a great influence on me,' he once revealed.
Jill recalls Mary's 'dignified and very loving nature' as well as her beautiful voice. When she visited Nicol's parents they would all sing together in the car, especially songs by American star Ruth Etting. Mary was also artistic, occupying herself during the war by making little paintings on ceramics and delicate hand-painted plates and cups. Jill describes Hugh and Mary as 'the best parents and grandparents in the world' and everyone agrees that Nicol adored them both.
Hugh and Mary's wedding early in 1936 was hardly glittering. 'When they got married, they came out of the registry office with half a crown in their pockets,' Nicol later recalled. 'That was in the morning. Dad went back to work, in the local aluminium plant in the afternoon.' Despite their straightened circumstances their marriage was very happy; Nicol described them as 'lovebirds'.
Nicol was born Thomas Nicol Williamson, on 14 September 1936 at Beckford Lodge maternity hospital. Tradition had it that, in the Williamson family, boys were either called Hugh or Thomas Nicol. It appears that Nicol was the first in the family to use his middle name.
At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at 192 Quarry Street, Hamilton. When Nicol was 18 months old the family moved to Birmingham – to Hansons Bridge Road, Erdington – where Hugh worked as a labourer in a foundry.
A childhood friend of Nicol, and later an accomplished producer, Tony Garnett, who later collaborated with Nicol on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, describes the atmosphere in his autobiography:
In the centre of England was Birmingham, restless and insecure beneath its sang froid; the city of a thousand trades and the centre of the twentieth century's dominant technology, the internal combustion engine. Small workshops were everywhere, handed down from father to son, often since the late eighteenth century. In the suburbs and the surrounding small towns were the immense factories of the twentieth century, busy with anything the world market would buy, from motor cars in Longbridge to motorbikes in Small Heath, to chocolates in Bournville.
Life in Birmingham was dull for Nicol. 'I had the usual boring suburban childhood. I kept saying to myself. I've got to get out of here or I'll die.' Nicol compensated by reading a lot. 'By the time I was five I knew all about the Macedonian phalanx and things like that. But when I was 12 or 13 I stopped reading – or at least I stopped amassing useless knowledge.'
The outbreak of war brought a momentous wrench. Birmingham was susceptible to bombing and so Nicol was sent back to Hamilton to live with his grandparents. It wasn't until after the war, when Nicol returned to Birmingham, that he discovered he had a sister, Senga.
Luke Williamson recalls what his father told him about that period:
My grandfather and his brother worked at the Spitfire factory, building planes and bombers for the war. The house was only a couple of miles from the plant and also one of the air bases. They were constantly worried that they were going to be bombed by the Germans. Nicol was sent back to Scotland. But Senga, born at around the time Nicol went to stay with his grandparents, was too young to be away from her parents, so she stayed in Birmingham. Dad looked at that and believed that, for whatever reason, they loved Senga more and that's very much something that as a child you can convince yourself of. And, of course, there's no doubt that Senga was very much loved. Boys are generally told to 'pick themselves up, dust themselves down' – that sort of thing. His grandmother was ok but his grandfather was not fond of Nicol and gave him a very hard time. Nicol didn't think anything less of Senga. Indeed he was protective and loving and supported her for some time.
Yet Nicol nursed a grudge about the period away. Jill Townsend believes that this was a traumatic event:
What happened to Nicol during the war had an awful effect on him ... the sense of being 'thrown away' when he was sent back to Scotland to his grandmother and aunties and the realisation after the war ended that his mother had given birth to a girl but she hadn't been sent back to Scotland. The rage and unfairness of the world loomed over everything now.
Nicol also referred to the separation in a 1986 interview. 'All that splitting up is ghastly. The good, solid family is the most solvent institution we have. If it splits up, the trauma stays with you forever. When a child asks, "Do you love me?" that's a mask for a sense of rejection.'
Nicol's relationship with his parents was not troubled. Numerous accounts – from close friends and Jill, his first wife – attest to how close Nicol was to them both. Perhaps it was precisely because Nicol was so close to his parents that he always resented the separation. It's like the child despatched to boarding school. If he gets on well with his parents, then he resents it even more. Nicol was very young when he was sent back to Scotland, probably too young to realise what was happening at the time; but retrospective bitterness can also count for a lot.
Nicol returned to Birmingham after the war. He later said that, by the age of 7, he had already decided to be an actor after listening to radio dramas:
I can never remember a time when I wanted to do anything else but be involved in the richness of language. And I was always around music. When I was 4, I hung around a piano player named Jimmy Duncan who played a wonderful version of In the Mood. 'Play it again, Jimmy,' I'd say. I could listen to it forever. All the family were singers. No one watched TV. On Saturday nights people would get together and sing. The memory of it recalls summer and autumn nights, the sound of a lawn mower in the distance, people making their own entertainment, telling jokes and stories. I'd be sent to my room, but I'd creep to the top of the stairs to listen. I'm a great lover of life and energy.
Nicol attended Birmingham's Central Grammar School between 1947 and 1953, after passing the eleven-plus, which (for the uninitiated) is a kind of intelligence and general knowledge exam. One of Nicol's school friends – and indeed lifelong friend – Tony Croft, reckons that about 5 per cent of children would have passed it.
Nicol did not enjoy school. Neither did Tony Garnett who later wrote, 'Central Grammar was a rough school with, anomalously, a baronet for a head. Sir Rodney M.S. Pasley, Bart, MA, tried – unsuccessfully – to run it on the lines of his own public school. There was rugby and prefects and caning. I hated it.'
Memories are always subjective. Another pupil in Nicol's year remembers the staff differently and, writing on a noticeboard about Birmingham, adds an ironic postscript:
Having spent five happy years at Central Grammar School (1948–1953), I would like to add a few memories of my own to the above comments. Sir Rodney Pasley was the perfect headmaster, supported by an excellent staff, including Mr Merryman (Music), Mr Paddock (Maths), Mr Dixon (German), Mr 'Caggy' Carter (French), Mr 'Pippy' May (French), Mr Greatrex (Art), Mr Evans (History), Mr Heslop (Maths), Mr Weightman (PE), Mr Faulkner (English) and Mr Reader (English). In my form was Nicholas (later Nicol) Williamson who, despite an unpleasant demeanour, became a well-known film star playing mostly 'baddies' in a variety of films.
Tony Croft was damning about the school's facilities:
You would not be able to imagine the state of our post war school. It was 1913 vintage, bomb and shrapnel scarred, had no gym, library, canteen or any other facility considered normal in a school today. The only available playing field was several miles and two bus rides away. Boys were gathered from all corners of Birmingham so there was no common area factor, which actually wasn't a bad thing as it meant each boy was confronted with others from diverse economic backgrounds.
Pupils sometimes have an inspirational adult figure, a teacher cum mentor. In Nicol's case – who, despite an impressive physique, took little interest in sports – it was his English teacher, aptly named Tom Reader, who predicted success for Nicol as a classical actor. Reader remained a lifelong friend. Nicol dedicated his book, Ming's Kingdom, to him. Tony Croft recalled, 'Tom Reader was a fine teacher and Nicol would credit him for the encouragement which led him to be serious about an acting career ... He saw no reason why he couldn't aspire to become a great actor and so he proved to be.'
Tony Garnett also remembers Reader fondly:
He was the only teacher in that crap school I responded to. He simplified my writing style, cut out too many adjectives and made me express myself parsimoniously. I owe him a debt. Growing up in a home without a single book, indeed where books were thought of as a waste of time, he legitimised my love of them.
Garnett is less flattering about the other teachers:
Apart from Tom Reader, the staff were lazy. They made boring subjects unbearable and interesting subjects boring. After a couple of years, I decided to ignore them.
Nicol always kept in touch with Tom Reader:
One rainy day in 1963, when I was feeling miserable because of a bird, I got on a train and went to see him at his home in Staffs. We went out to a pub, but he insisted on buying the drinks, which meant beer when I was dying for vodka.
Reader made such an impact that three of his former pupils, Trevor Philips, Rob Woodford and Luke Prodromou, set up valued annual reunions. They call themselves 'the chums' after Reader's nickname for his prodigies.
By the time Nicol was in his teens it was clear he had a budding thespian talent. School friend David Parry recalled Nicol's earliest performances, 'He played Marlowe's Dr Faustus with mesmeric power when only 15. In a very unsympathetic school-hall setting, he captivated a sparse opening-night audience. So riveting was his performance that word went round and the three following performances were packed, with some unable to get in.'
The following review of Faustus, dated June 1952, was written by a senior boy who was editor of the school magazine:
The concert ended with a dramatic climax. T. N. Williamson took the title part in a scene from Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. The presentation of this scene showing Faustus's last minutes alive was excellent, and Williamson, with a depth of emotion, and skilful use of tone and timing, carried his audience with him in a way which would have done justice to many a more experienced actor. This performance was a fine note to end on, and the audience did not fail to respond to the efforts of Williamson, and to the effective production.
David Parry recalls that, at Easter school camp in Wales, he and Nicol did their best to entertain the group by staging a sketch he calls A Ventriloquist Act with a Difference. Nicol played a convincing dummy while Parry, the ventriloquist, sat on his knee.
The school has uncovered a poem by Nicol, dating from 1952, at one such camp at Bryntail in the Welsh hills:
An Elegy on a Country Residence
'Llanidloes!' came the croaking shout,
Up to the 'cucumbers' we drew;
I'd come in last the others laughed To think that I'd be in the draught.
That night I tried to close my ears,
The second morning made me shiver,
I sank immediately, alas!
We went to town before departing To see the School's Old Boys imparting A beating to Llanidloes Town;
The Easter camp's had me perplexed,
(Nicol Williamson, 5s, 1952)
Tony Croft sensed that Nicol enjoyed the spotlight, 'We remember him as making the very most of any opportunity to act or display his ability to read lines and use his fine voice. The school (immediately postwar) was ill-equipped for stage productions but Nicol would make the most of whatever could be used.'
Tony Garnett also remembers Nicol's acting talent, 'He and I played all the leads. He was a brilliant mimic and his impersonations of various members of staff delighted the boys, if not the teachers when they caught him.' Luke says his father told him that he always had a riposte if he was scolded. 'Williamson, you will hang,' one teacher told him after a bout of mischievousness. 'Yes, in the National Gallery!' young Nicol replied.
Excerpted from "Black Sheep"
Copyright © 2018 Gabriel Hershman.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Luke Williamson 1
1 Little Hills 15
2 Thaw Gets Nicked 30
3 Inadmissible Behaviour 39
4 Taking Film by Storm 59
5 Fun in the Sun 69
6 Caged Tiger 78
7 Nicol at Nixon's 89
8 Writing on the Sand 102
9 Breaking Point 122
10 Battling Otto the Ogre 143
11 Inadmissible Love? 156
12 Vaulting Ambition 169
13 Banishing Olivier 179
14 Mountbatman 187
15 Anatomy of a Marriage 196
16 Madness on Broadway 208
17 From Pig to Jack 218
18 The Last Hurrah 237
19 Seanius the Squamous 245
20 The Stench of Death 253