Black Sheep by Gabriel Hershman (book review)

Gabriel Hershman now has three biographies to his name, all of actors who achieved prominence in the 1960s. The first, on Ian Hendry, and the second, on Albert Finney, were well-written and researched, and now with a step up to an ‘authorised’ biography, this book profiles Nicol Williamson (1936-2011).

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Williamson was a firebrand of an actor both on- and off-screen, coming to prominence in a dual screen and stage career which took off in the late 1960s. Yet by the end of the 1990s ennui had set in, with a retreat from performing, and this great actor just fell off the radar. By the time of his death – which was not announced until some weeks later – he was almost forgotten by all but his most devoted fans and admirers.

This book, authorised and supported by son Luke and former wife Jill Townsend-Sorel, sets out to redress that balance. In the acknowledgements Hershman describes his book as aiming to be a “truthful, balanced portrait of a complex man, neither coffee-table saccharine nor a hatchet job”. Luke Williamson describes his father as “the front seat of an exhilarating, terrifying rollercoaster”. Those who met Nicol Williamson, however fleetingly, would agree that he was infuriating, mystifying, and an incredible creative force.

As with the other biographies, Hershman dissects the best of Williamson’s performances as well as touching, where appropriate, on the man behind the actor. On Inadmissible Evidence, a film adaptation of the John Osborne play, where Williamson had created the role of Maitland, far older than his own age, he showed signs of dissatisfaction and vulnerability with his performance, asking the cameraman for his view on whether he “was as good as Spencer Tracy”.

By the 1970s this coiled spring would burst into violence during the Broadway run of Rex, the Richard Rodgers musical in which he played Henry VIII, a show in which his dominance of the role must have been something of a strain. By the time he completed his last notable screen role in The Hour of the Pig, he was idly teasing his colleagues and appearing bored, cast only after “the usual suspects” of his generation (Harris, O’Toole) were found to be unavailable. Pig was not treated well in terms of distribution, and is rarely revived now, but the balance of farce and straight-faced interpretation was handled well by Williamson, and rightly treated as a career highlight by this book.

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Personal issues – alcoholism, two divorces, arrogance, self-obsession, misogyny – continued to blight what can only be described as a troubled life. Hershman addresses these concerns with tact and diplomacy, with perceptive comments from Townsend-Sorel and others who knew him best.

This may well be a tale of a life which didn’t reach its potential in many ways, because the subject was his own worst enemy, and the final chapters inevitably have the sheen of sadness across them, but there are also pockets of celebration. He may have never been good enough for his own standards (by them, better than anyone else!) but the body of work left behind speaks for itself.

This is a very entertaining book, which casts the net widely to locate the man, the ‘black sheep’, which was Thomas Nicol Williamson, a Scot, a grammar-school boy, a boy who loved his parents but resented his sister, a young man who sang Al Bowlly songs but struggled with real love (an odd relationship with Sarah Miles, who seemed to relish his working-class roughness; the hook-up with his stage daughter from Inadmissible, Townsend-Sorel, which turned into marriage and high living), the performer who could essay tormented characters from his jaded older man in Laughter in the Dark to his tense gay lodger in the fantastic TV play Horror of Darkness (which visitors to the London’s National Film Theatre can view in the on-site Mediatheque).

On a personal note I found the Nicol I came to know and admire springing from every page, and it was an emotional read. The occasional glimpses of softness in screen and stage performances (Robin and Marian) were close to how he could be when introspective, caring, and kind. The novel Ming’s Kingdom, conversely, in its pornographic sex scenes and confused situations, showed the bile, the sharpness, and the loathing of women which was a troubling facet of his life (whether the novel is about his second wife Andrea, or a composite of characters affecting his equilibrium).

Hershman’s book is essential reading for biographic connoisseurs, for fans of 60s screen culture, and for those specifically interested in underrated and neglected British performers. It is an open question whether the subject would have approved of the final work, or collaborated with it had he still been alive (Finney did not contribute to Strolling Player). I’d like to think yes on both counts.

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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