Obituary: Jack May

Jack May, actor: born Henley-on-Thames 23 April 1922; married Petra Davies (one son, one daughter); died Hove 19 September 1997.
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The Independent Online
Nelson Gabriel, the suave antiques dealer and wine-bar owner in the long-running radio serial The Archers, was a role that the actor Jack May played for 45 years. He took the part in 1951, when he joined as son of the waggish Walter Gabriel, and made him into a character famed for his underhand business methods. "He's not a crook but he's a bit of a rogue," May once said.

The star's voice was familiar to children as Igor, the butler, in the animated television series Count Duckula, whose characters were also voiced by actors such as David Jason and Ruby Wax, but his best- remembered screen performance was playing the valet Simms alongside Gerald Harper in the Sixties fantasy series Adam Adamant Lives!

Born in Henley-on-Thames in 1922, May was educated at the Forest School, Essex, and had ambitions to go into a career that would suit his extrovert qualities. "Barrister, archbishop, prime minister - Mrs Thatcher could have been my Chancellor of the Exchequer - or quite possibly the theatre," he said years later.

However, after serving in India during the Second World War and teaching for a year on his return, May turned down a scholarship to Rada to study at Merton College, Oxford. Acting with the Oxford University Dramatic Society convinced him that his future lay on the stage and he subsequently made his professional debut with Colchester Repertory Theatre in October 1950, playing Titinius in Julius Caesar. He moved on to the prestigious Birmingham Rep (1950-55), where he took leading roles in Richard II, Uncle Vanya and Moon on the Yellow River.

In 1952, while acting in Birmingham, May was approached by the producer Tony Shryane to join the cast of The Archers, a year after the farming serial made its debut on the BBC Light Programme. He remained in the role of Nelson Gabriel, the well-spoken son of the villager Walter Gabriel, until January 1997, when ill-health forced him to leave.

The Archers' recording schedules left May plenty of time to do other work. On stage, he became the first actor to play Henry, consecutively, in the three parts of Henry VI, in Birmingham Rep's productions both in Birmingham and for a season at the Old Vic, London, in 1953. His West End roles included the Headmaster in A Voyage Round My Father (Haymarket Theatre, 1971), Martin Knight in At the End of the Day (Savoy Theatre, 1973), and Colonel Pickering in Pygmalion (1974).

May's feature films included There Was a Crooked Man (1960), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), The Man Who Would Be King (as the District Commissioner, 1975), The Seven Percent Solution (1976), The Return of the Soldier (1982), The Shooting Party (1984), The Bounty (as the Prosecuting Captain, 1984) and The Doctor and the Devils (as Dr Stevens, 1985).

On television, he acted Shakespearean roles in both An Age of Kings (1960) - running the Bard's plays together to cover 86 years of English history and the lives of seven monarchs - and The Spread of the Eagle (1963, featuring Shakespeare's Roman plays). He also played Major Quadring in the sci-fi series A for Andromeda (1961) and appeared in The Verdict Is Yours (1962- 63), a Granada Television series of unscripted trials, each over three days, and a forerunner to the company's long-running Crown Court.

May's face became most familiar to television viewers as the valet Simms, helping Gerald Harper to swashbuckle his way through two series of crime and villainy in Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-67). Produced by Verity Lambert, the programme starred Harper as the Edwardian gentleman- adventurer Adam Llewellyn de Vere Adamant, who had been drugged and frozen alive in a block of ice by his arch- enemy, "The Face", in 1902 before thawing out 64 years later to find himself in London during the Swinging Sixties, complete with strip clubs, protection rackets and unruly youth.

Writers such as Tony Williamson, Brian Clemens, Robert Banks Stewart and Vince Powell and Harry Driver worked on the programme and the directors included Ridley Scott and Moira Armstrong. Juliet Harmer played Harper's mini-skirted dollybird sidekick, the chirpy girl-about-town Georgina, in a partnership that had echoes of Steed and Emma Peel in The Avengers. With May as Harper's valet, William E. Simms, the programme also had elements of Batman.

Later, he was heard as the voice of the butler Igor in the children's series Count Duckula (1988-91), a spin-off from Dangermouse, which had been created by the writer Brian Trueman and the singer Mike Harding. Both series were made by the highly revered Cosgrove Hall Productions. Whereas Dangermouse was a spoof of James Bond films and comic-strip superheroes, Count Duckula - featuring the duck that pulled hats out of rabbits - offered young audiences horror stories and creepy-castle settings, and was applauded by critics for the quality of its comedy.

May also made guest apearances on television in Doctor Who (as General Hermack, 1969), The Life and Times of David Lloyd George, Shoestring, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981), The Cleopatras (1983), All Creatures Great and Small (as a drunken vicar), Jeeves and Wooster (also as a vicar, 1990) and Danielle Steel's The Ring (1996).

Married to the actress Petra Davies, May was an antiques dealer with a shop in Islington, north London, for many years.


Every Archers listener has a favourite character, writes James Fergusson. Mine has always been Nelson Gabriel.

Nelson was raffish, cool, sardonic, faintly disreputable. He brought a smooth urban loucheness to the dim lanes of Ambridge. Most of the male Archers characters are, it must be admitted, wimps: there is a hangdog desperation about them as they slip off to the Bull or, worse still, the Cat and Fiddle, while their assertive wives make tea and curse them over the kitchen stove. They are hen-pecked, soft-bellied, predictable. The only thing predictable about Nelson was that, despite his surface steadiness, he was almost certainly up to no good. You could love him, but you couldn't trust him further than the wine-bar door.

Nelson had been in prison. He was dodgy. He disappeared from time to time. Inside the world-wearily affable mine host at that wine bar was a mad playboy who had, by the end, given up trying to break out, and he knew it.

He was born in 1933, the books tell us. His grandfather was the village blacksmith. His father, Walter (1896-1988), was the one with the silly voice - "Hello me old pal, me old beauty" - who conducted a dingdong romance with Mrs P (Polly Perkins) for an eternity. The appallingly behaved Nelson was the apple of his father's eye.

Walter was a farmer who took up making rocking chairs in his old age. Nelson was a lad who liked wine, women, Jaguars and luxury cruises. He did his National Service in the RAF (ground staff, whatever he said, not airborne) and then lost pounds 6,000 of his father's pools winnings in an engineering business in the early Sixties. He escaped the courts after forging a co- director's signature on a document, but not after he later masterminded a mail-van robbery. He was tried at the assizes and, by sheer luck, acquitted.

Like most of Nelson's ventures, the robbery didn't come off. He was at various times involved in betting shops and property. But his principal concerns were an antique business, first with Lilian Bellamy (widow of Ralph, the last squire of Ambridge), then with Kenton Archer (twin sister of Shula), and the wine bar, which closed down at least once. He was arrested for receiving stolen goods at the one, and narrowly prevented from setting up a sauna and massage parlour (with Clarrie Grundy as the unlikely chief masseuse) at the other.

In later life, ever more genial, he settled in his father's black-and- white thatched Honeysuckle Cottage, to the north of Ambridge village green. He conceived a passion for the local "toff" Nigel Pargetter's alcoholic mother, Julia, dispensed cynical advice to the young and ripped off the Archers when they sold him furniture.

He never married, but had an illegitimate daughter, Rosemary, who turned up, to his horror, as a trainee police cadet.

Jack May played Nelson Gabriel for an astonishing 45 years, and could surely never be replaced. I was an extra in a film with him once, Goodbye Mr Chips (1969). As far as I was then concerned he was not Nelson at all, but Simms, Adam Adamant's valet.