Nicholas Clay

Nicholas Clay
Nicholas Clay

Nicholas Clay obituary in “The Guardian” in 2000.

Nicholas Clay was born in London in 1946.   He acted on stage throughout the seventies and also made some films.   In 1980 Hohn Boorman cast him as Sir Lancelot in “Excalibur” which was a huge success.   He also starred in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Evil Under the Sun.   He made many guest appearances on British television.   He was married to the actress Lorna Heilbron.   Nicholas Clay died in 2000.

His “Guardian” obituary:Nicholas Clay, who has died of cancer aged 53, was a superb Lancelot in John Boorman’s film Excalibur (1981), a prominent player during Sir Laurence Olivier’s golden Old Vic period in the 1970s, a television star, and an actor who loved teaching – and was good at it.

We first met in the early 1970s, at the Old Vic. Nick had named parts, I was “as cast”. He was quite the most beautiful man I had ever seen, gallingly handsome and awesomely athletic. Olivier’s company enjoyed hit after hit – and Nick was in most of them, notably Jumpers, The Misanthrope, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Equus. After that, he went with The Misanthrope to Broadway.

His first film had been The Night Digger in 1971. A year later, he played Charles Darwin in The Darwin Adventure, and the decade ended with Zulu Dawn (1979). In the 1980s, he appeared in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981), Evil Under The Sun (1982), Sleeping Beauty (1987), Lionheart (1987), and, of course, Excalibur. He wore a lot of armour – but that comes with heroic acting, and Nick did that with epic braggadocio. He could swash a buckle.

He also appeared in numerous television series. He was the Earl of Southampton in John Mortimer’s William Shakespeare (1978) and starred in Virtual Murder, Picture Of Dorian Gray, The Three Musketeers and Gentlemen And Players, in which he shared top billing with Brian Protheroe. Nancy Banks Smith wrote: “Brian Protheroe looks as if he’s been pressed between the leaves of a book. Nicholas Clay looks like he’s been hit over the head by a brick.” He loved quoting that. Self-deprecation was not a problem.

His stage work continued. There was a world tour of She Stoops To Conquer, and, at Chichester, he played in The Confederacy and A Month In The Country, opposite Dorothy Tutin.

Nick was born in Streatham, south London, to Rose and Bill Clay, a sergeant in the Royal Engineers. After a nomadic army childhood, the family settled in Kent. There is a clan of Clays in Kent – with no tradition of theatre or the performing arts. Dan Willis, a teacher at Upbury Manor school, kick-started Nick’s love of theatre and he was soon performing with the Little Medway Theatre Club; he would later become its patron. But his defining moment was seeing Leo McKern in Peer Gynt at the Old Vic. The dye was cast. He worked as a hod carrier for two years to pay his way through the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; in later years, he became an associate there, active in development and fundraising work.Advertisement

Nick married Lorna Heilbron, a psychotherapist and actress, in 1980, and they had a daughter, Ella. After our Old Vic period, we had drifted apart for a bit. Our friendship rekindled and developed at about the time his second daughter, Madge, was born, 14 years ago. He and Lorna had been visiting Gillian Barge at her cottage at Sibton, in Suffolk; I was there as her partner.

He loved nature, and he loved that place. It suited his spiritual and practical sides. He was a very practical man, a collector of tools that he could use expertly. His favoured charity was the John Muir Trust For The Conservation Of Wild And Open Spaces.

Lately, Nick had been terrific as Ernest in Design For Living. It transferred from the Donmar Warehouse to the Gielgud theatre. Last year, he appeared in Max Gold’s 50 Revolutions at the Whitehall. It was interesting, experimental stuff. He was a regular in Channel 4’s Psychos, quite the most interesting drama series of last year. He was doing a lot of teaching at the Actors Centre and the Academy Of Live And Performing Arts.

Nicky faced his illness with enormous bravery, as I knew he would, without self-pity, sentimentality or “why me?” anger. He was open and candid about it, and thrilled when he heard that his old school was naming its new arts facility the Nicholas Clay Centre. He was a lovely man, and I am a better person for having known him.

At the end of Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Ector Maris addresses the corpse of his friend and brother, Lancelot: “Thou were the courtliest knight that ever bare shield; and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse . . . and thou were the kindest man that ever strake with sword; and thou were the goodliest person ever came among the press of knights . . . Then there was weeping and dolour out of measure”

Nick is survived by Lorna, their two daughters and his mother, Rose.

Clive Merrison

Nicholas Anthony Phillip Clay, actor, born September 18 1946; died May 25 2000

His “Guardian” obituary can be viewed here.

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