Michael Lay: Country barfly who inspired Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, the charismatic central character of the hit play 'Jerusalem'


Click to follow

Michael Lay, a former builder, was the real-life inspiration behind the heavy-drinking lead character, Johnny "Rooster" Byron, in the transatlantic hit play Jerusalem, written by Jez Butterworth. Lay collapsed with a heart attack while waiting for his local village pub, the Moonrakers in Pewsey, Wiltshire, to open.

Lay would go every Friday to buy a lottery ticket and then wait for the pub to open at 4pm. Describing him as "a village character", Jerry Kunkler, landlord of the Moonrakers, said, "Unfortunately, he just collapsed outside the pub just as I was about to open it up. Micky liked to have a chat with our barmaids so that's why he got in early. He was an early-doors man."

Lay, known locally as "Micky Do", from his habit of saying, "I can do this" or "I can do that", gained a certain fame after it emerged that Butterworth had based the charismatic and eccentric Rooster on him. Butterworth had lived in Pewsey for a short time in the 1990s and got to know Lay who, following a divorce, was living in a caravan in the trees "shooting rabbits on the railway tracks." In the play, Rooster, an ageing motorcycle stuntman played by Mark Rylance, lives in a caravan in the woods, surrounded by what he calls a "band of educationally subnormal outcasts." Butterworth was among the younger drinkers who knew Lay as "gramps" and was serenaded by his tall tales.

The village is a very English sort of Jerusalem. For Butterworth, it provided a clear vision of the endangered rural landscape. Renamed Flintock, Pewsey became the notional Jerusalem in the play, and Lay, as Rooster the anti-hero, was transformed into an almost allegorical figure.

Butterworth fashioned Rooster as a kind of country philosopher. "School is a lie, prison a waste of time and women are wondrous," he advises. Lay put it more succinctly: "I just think you should enjoy life." But he did share Rooster's nostalgia. "The village just gets deader," he said. "They build one big Co-Op store and it kills all the other stores. It is a total balls-up."

When Butterworth worked on the script with Rylance, he and the play's director, Ian Rickson, sent Rylance to Pewsey to meet the original Byron. However, they did not get off to the most auspicious of starts. Lay, by then living in a house in the village which housed a bar billiard table, refused to let the actor in, telling him to "fuck off." Unperturbed, Rylance returned with a bottle of whisky. The two hit it off and Lay's suit for the races inspired Rooster's suit for the bulldozers.

Jerusalem opened at London's Royal Court Theatre in July 2009 to universal acclaim, becoming the theatrical event of the summer before moving to the West End's Apollo Theatre the following year. All shows were sold out in days and the play was nominated for six Laurence Olivier Awards, with Rylance's performance as the charismatic Falstaffian figure, drinking through St George's Day as he faces eviction from an illegal encampment, winning best actor and Ultz winning best set design.

The Royal Court production moved to The Music Box Theatre on Broadway, where once again it opened to rave reviews and packed houses. Rylance beat Al Pacino, playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, to the 2011 Tony Award for best leading actor in a play.

Rylance, acknowledging that he had based the rhythms of Rooster's speech on Lay, said he wanted to give the Tony "to the guy in Wiltshire who very much inspired Jez to write the play. I think he'd really like it. He was very generous with me and invited me into his house and talked with me for six hours or so on different occasions about his life as a Romany Gypsy man in England." Lay said, "If someone wants to give me a Tony Award, fair play to them. I suspect it's the only Tony in Wiltshire."

Lay admitted that he "loved misbehaving" and was known for his tall stories. He once boasted of drinking 43 pints of Guinness in an afternoon, although this kind of behaviour resulted in bans, or at least two-pint curfews, at several of Pewsey's pubs. Lay's outlook remained the same – he disliked the anonymity of city life, preferring the intimacy of the country. "I still do what I want to do. I just take life as it comes," he said.

Michael Valentine Lay was born in 1940. His mother Daisy cleaned locally, while his father, according to Lay, was "a pisshead". Lay, who was convicted of dealing cannabis and served time in prison, used to run a JCB excavator, doing building work locally. Rylance recalled an instance that seemed to sum him up. He remembered him falling backwards down some stairs at the Apollo. "He was standing next to me in his suit and fedora, glass in hand, and then he was gone rolling backwards down a dozen steps. When I turned in horror he was just rolling to his feet at the bottom of the stairs, glass upright in hand and fedora still intact. He walked back up to me and continued our conversation without remark. He certainly had a magic to him, did Mickey Lay."

Aside from horse racing, Lay also enjoyed nature, in particular bird-watching, and claimed that he had been able to imitate them "years ago", but with their demise had resorted to watching Springwatch on television. When asked on how he rated Rylance's accent in the role, Lay said with a wink, "Well, it takes years to perfect, doesn't it?"

Michael Valentine Lay, builder: born 14 February 1940; twice married (twice divorced; four children); died Pewsey, Wiltshire 27 December 2013.