I’m breaking my recent blog-silence to note the sad news of the death of Nicol Williamson, a great British actor on both stage and screen. He’ll be remembered for numerous roles – in Tony Richardson’s Hamlet, in a legendary TV adaptation of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and as Sherlock Holmes in The Seven Per Cent Solution. (He also crops up in the dual role of the sinister alienist and the wicked Nome King in the surpisingly dark 1985 Disney movie Return to Oz). But for me he was always Merlin, the role he played in John Boorman’s Excalibur, the 1981 movie which pretty much defined my early teens and which has influenced much of what I’ve gone on to write – most obviously, of course, Here Lies Arthur.
A lot of the decisions I made when writing that book were designed to move my version of the legends out of the long shadow cast by earlier re-tellings, and by Excalibur in particular. As a sort of homage I opened and closed the books with images loosely based on the opening and closing moments of the film, but I tried to make everything in between as different as I could: there’s no shining armour, no mediaeval trappings, no magic. But I suspect that my Merlin, the consummate story-teller and political trickster, still inevitably carries an echo of Nicol Williamson’s Merlin. Younger than your average screen wizard, his head encased in a peculiar silver skull cap, ageing not a bit while Uther’s generation gives way to Arthur’s, swerving from stern sub-Shakespearian declamations to crap jokes and wobbly slapstick, his presence dominates the film. It divides critics too: half the people I know think it’s one of the maddest performances ever to grace a major movie, while the other half think it’s genius. Personally, I reckon it’s both.