The Book of Wag

By Paul Sidey

A remarkable posthumous South London novel from a legendary editor

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Failed Film Producer Seeks Work (6)

From Marianne:  While the good folks at Unbound put the finishing touches to The Book of Wag, it is good to see more pledges coming in. Even though it is fully funded, it is possible to pledge and get your name in the back of the book as a supporter before the book goes to print at the end of the year - copies should be ready in Spring 2016. 

Here follows another extract from Paul's unreliable career memoir...


A more curious experience occurred with another notable actor Nicol Williamson. I had seen him at the Royal Court in 1964, when he performed the role of Bill Maitland in INADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE, written specially for him by John Osborne. If the seats in the auditorium had been wired with electricity, the audience could not have failed to be zapped by the legendary high voltage of Williamson’s performance when he really let rip. I saw him, magnificent again, fourteen years later when the play was revived. But his career burned out. Anger and alcohol probably did not help.

In 1994, he made a notorious return to the London stage in a freewheeling play about the glorious but tragic life of John Barrymore, co-written with Leslie McGahey. No spectator at the Criterion Theatre could have been in any doubt that they were in the presence of genius – however erratic and self-destructive. I wrote Nicol a fan letter.

We had lunch the week after the opening. He had, as so often, disgraced himself by failing to turn up to his second night after a long party. But he was on time for lunch – tall, besuited and wearing a grey fedora. He looked the part of the great thespian. He was not interested, at that stage in doing a memoir, although he had an evocative store of stories about Beckett and Osborne (and could do murderously accurate impressions of their voices), but, apparently had more or less finished an autobiographical novel. After I had paid the bill, he invited me to return to his dressing room, where he had a tape recorder with a couple of excerpts I could listen to.

Once back at the theatre, he opened a couple of beers, and settled down to watch how I responded. It was hard not to be self-conscious. I liked what I heard, though. The Williamson voice was deep and mellifluous, there was a rhythm to the prose, and the situation – an oversensitive man betrayed by his wife – had clear dramatic potential. Perhaps the hero’s hatred, though, was reserved more especially for his mother-in-law, whose special name he coined from the comic strip FLASH GORDON. She was going to be in the title – MING’S KINGDOM.

The second extract made me laugh out loud. One of the characters was caught short with terrible diarrhea. The whole scene was a scatological tour de force.

A contract was signed. Producing the text, however, was a far from straightforward process. Nicol would handwrite or tape sections, and I had to find a patient typist. Then I would edit the new material, he would check through, and, afterwards, we would sit down together to make the pages the best we could. More retyping after that. It may be that he had knocked the Broadway producer David Merrick to the floor and had also struck a fellow actor with his sword during a performance of I HATE HAMLET, but Nicol remained the model of cooperation during the long working sessions on his manuscript.

One Sunday, as the last rays of the sun seeped into a deconsecrated church in Notting Hill – an artist friend had lent their place to Nicol for the week – I wondered what on earth I was doing with this project. After a protracted session in a vast, high-ceilinged hall, the kitchen area concealed by an ornate, wooden ecclesiastical screen, Nicol sat down at the piano and sang ‘Nessun Dorma’. He had a pretty good voice and did a week’s gig at Pizza on the Park with a band to coincide with publication of his novel, but Pavarotti this wasn’t.

‘No one will buy this book,’ he said. ‘Everybody hates me.’ He was right about the book.

I liked him a lot. He had this big old house on one of the canals in Amsterdam, acquired when his film and theatre career was in full swing. I was in town visiting relatives with my Dutch wife, Marianne Velmans (the Publisher of Doubleday UK), our kids, and her parents. Nicol was in residence at the same time, and invited us round for drinks. He had even prepared canapés. Afterwards, we had the guided tour. When we reached his bedroom, he turned, eyes wide with mischief, to my mother-in-law and stage-whispered, ‘This is where the monster sleeps.’

He died last year of oesophical cancer. Six people attended his funeral. We had lost touch after a lunch where he had left me a disc of some songs he had recorded, combined with a couple of stories about Samuel Beckett. By this time he had moved to a new place in Rhodes. He left me no address, no phone number. And no doubt, he felt in some way I had let him down, like everybody else.


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