Alas Poor Nicol, I Never Knew Him

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The death has been announced of one of the finest Shakesperean actors of his generation - Nicol Williamson.  In keeping with many of our news stories we are a bit behind the event, because his date of death was actually December 16th. However we are in fact bang up to date, because his family only released the information yesterday.


But what's this to do with us?


Well, Nicol was a South Lanarkshire boy, or almost was. The first time I heard of him was when I was a pupil at larkhall Academy and my English teacher (a notorious cultural snob) berated me and the rest of my class for our lack of knowledge of a local hero, namely Williamson. The occasion was our study of the Immortal Bard's Hamlet. The year was 1975 and the link between the play and the man was the notoriety engendered by his performance in the title role in 1969, both in a London stage production and then its filmed recording.


His portayal of the Danish prince was by all accounts a masterpiece and is still talked about today. We, of course, had never heard of him and weren't even too sure about Shakespeare. It wasn't just that one performance, either: Williamson seems to be generally regarded as the greatest actor of the 1960's and  early 1970's.

Being a great actor in that period almost inevitably means that he was an erratic character and he lived well up to that stereotype. Mercurial on stage, he sometimes stepped out of character and addressed his audience directly, occasionally having rows with fellow actors during a performance. His behaviour probably wasn't helped by his heavy drinking (he's from our part of the world, remember?) and that probably contributed to the oesophageal cancer that eventually killed him.  

So what's all this to do with South Lanarkshire? Well, nothing really, because in 1975 South Lanarkshire didn't exist as a county. It was Strathclyde at that point, that enormous region that took in half of Scotland's population. Before 1974 it was Lanarkshire, and it was in Hamilton, Lanarkshire that Wiliamson had been born in 1938.

At the time of our introduction to this giant of the world theatre he apparently was living about three miles away from our school, in Stonehouse. Or we were told he was. It seems a bit unlikely. For those of you who don't know Stonehouse, let's just say it's not Los Angeles. In fact, it's not even Strathaven.

But the odd thing is he did really live in Stonehouse, we're just not sure when. And if he was born in Hamilton and lived in Stonehouse that means we can claim him as a South Lanarkshire boy.

So RIP Nicol Williamson, 1938 - 2011. And now I am going to have to buy the DVD of his Hamlet just to see what Mr McLeod was so snooty about in 1975.

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