Edward Wilson: Charismatic artistic director of the National Youth Theatre
Wednesday 13 February 2008
Edward Wilson was an actor and, from 1987 until 2003, the talismanic artistic director of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain.
Born in South Shields in 1947, Wilson was the son of a miner, and his North East roots remained important to him, informing much of his work and humour. A grammar school boy, he became a member of the National Youth Theatre in 1965. Here, his talent for acting was nurtured by the NYT founder Michael Croft, alongside some equally promising contemporaries – Helen Mirren, Michael York and Derek Jacobi to name but three.
Wilson was also inspired by Croft's leadership of the company – this would bear fruit later in his life, but after graduating in English from Manchester University he began his career as an actor. He quickly became a familiar face on British television, in such series as The Likely Lads, and Rockliffe's Babies. But it was as Billy Seaton in the seminal When the Boat Comes In between 1976 and 1981 that he found (surprisingly lasting) fame. After his move to Los Angeles in 2004, it was not unusual for him to be stopped on Sunset Boulevard by a passing Geordie requesting an autograph.
In tandem with his acting career, Wilson had continued honing his skills as a director, which had first come to the fore when he founded the South Shields Youth Theatre at the age of 19. He went on to stage large community productions in Newbury, and worked regularly with the Spanish Shakespeare Foundation, both in Valencia and Madrid. As a freelance director, his particular skill was fantastic organisation of extremely large "one off" productions. He was the regular director of choice for the annual Stonewall Equality Shows, and most recently directed Europride in 2006 – all staged at the Albert Hall with a cast of hundreds.
However, it is his work with the National Youth Theatre for which Wilson will be best remembered. He succeeded his own mentor, Croft, as artistic director of the company in 1987, taking the helm during an exceptionally difficult time for the arts in Britain – the NYT was hardly a funding priority for the government of the day.
Wilson's tremendously sharp business acumen combined with his magnetic personal charisma to pull several financial rabbits out of hats. He repeatedly won major sponsorship deals for the company, from Hanson, Sainsbury's and HSBC respectively. In 1996, the NYT's 40th anniversary year, he spearheaded a campaign to purchase the Holloway Road headquarters. Thanks to a grant from the National Lottery he succeeded and for the first time the National Youth Theatre had a permanent home. It was one of his greatest achievements and, of course, a lasting legacy.
Artistically, he was no less passionate and able. His love of the NYT was matched by his ambition for it – as a result the profile of the company rose dramatically. In 1989, Wilson used his considerable political ability to secure one of his greatest coups, when the NYT's production of Murder in the Cathedral played the Moscow Art Theatre. Back in the UK he oversaw the company's return to the West End with a triumphant production of Lionel Bart's Blitz!, featuring a young Jessica Stevenson in the lead role. The fact that it was also Bart's return to the West End after an absence of many years guaranteed far more press coverage than the NYT alone could have secured – a fine example of Wilson's canny operating skills as its figurehead.
His productions for the company were energetic, often funny and always ambitious – a memorable example was his Threepenny Opera in 2002, which played to huge critical acclaim. They typically featured a large cast, and at a time when drama school grants were impossible to come by, he was passionate in encouraging talent from all areas of the UK. He liaised with councils to ensure bursaries were available to all who won a place, and during his tenure many notable actors were spotted by him in audition rooms around Britain – Daniel Craig, Catherine Tate, Matt Lucas and David Walliams spring to mind.
In 2003 he retired from the NYT leaving it a far more dynamic and high-profile organisation than before. Never a man who enjoyed idleness, he headed for the Hollywood hills to take over the California Youth Theatre. Alas, these efforts were thwarted by cancer, the same disease which had cruelly taken his partner and resident designer Brian Lee in 1994.
Yet none of these career listings, this charting of a life in chronological format, get to the heart of the man. Ed Wilson did not merely select the members of the NYT during his time there – he championed each and every one, and retained an interest in them long after they had left the company. A noted wit, he was as clever as he was stylish, and he had an undoubted genius for friendship. When tragedy or bereavement struck, he was magnificent, and he would move mountains to help a friend in need. His Catholic faith, a deeply felt conversion in recent years, was inexorably linked to this.
Best of all, he was the most terrific fun. Camply but accurately describing himself as having "that extra élan", he had Yorick's ability to set the table on a roar, and he was adored by his very many friends.
Edward William Wilson, actor and director: born South Shields, Co Durham 13 July 1947; artistic director, National Youth Theatre 1987-2003; died Los Angeles 2 February 2008.
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