Sandy Neilson: Actor and director who transformed Scottish theatre

Sandy Neilson, actor and theatre director. Born Grantown-on-Spey, 29 January, 1943. Died Edinburgh, 19 October, 2017, aged 74

Actor and director Sandy Neilson
Actor and director Sandy Neilson
Actor and director Sandy Neilson

Sandy Neilson, who has died aged 74 of a heart attack while recovering in hospital from a hip fracture, was one of the great leaders of the ­generation of artists who transformed Scottish theatre in the 1970s and 80s, connecting at the deepest level with the life and history of a nation undergoing profound change. As an actor, a director, and even – for a time – the Scottish Arts Council’s drama officer, he was a passionate supporter of new writing for the theatre, as well as a fine re-interpreter of the classics; and he deployed his inimitably witty and lugubrious Scottish presence, and a magnificent voice which encompassed both BBC English and every variety of Scots, in productions that ranged from Shakespearean tragedy to challenging new work by his son, the playwright Anthony Neilson.

In the 1970s, with the playwright Donald Campbell, he founded Viewforth Productions, and directed Campbell’s hugely successful plays The Jesuit (1976) and The Widows Of Clyth (1979). In the 1980s, he was a successful director of the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh; later in the decade, he co-founded the Fifth Estate Theatre Company, directing its award-winning 1991 production of George Rosie’s Carluccio And The Queen Of Hearts, about the long exile of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

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In the 1990s, his acting career began to take precedence, notably in his work with Hamish Glen at Dundee Rep, where in 2000 he became a founding member of the Dundee Rep Ensemble. In 2007 – for what were to be the last five years of his active professional life –he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company ensemble created at Stratford by artistic director Michael Boyd, former director of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, and played roles ranging from Justice Silence in Henry IV, to Lepidus in Antony And Cleopatra.

Although theatre remained his first love, he also appeared in dozens of radio, film and television productions, including the 1999 film The Debt ­Collector, written and directed by his son Anthony, and starring Billy Connolly. Sandy Neilson was born in Grantown-on-Spey in 1943, one of three children of Guthrie ­Neilson and his wife Maisie.

The family was well to do; Guthrie was descended both from the Neilson family of successful Glasgow engineers and industrialists, and from the great Edinburgh churchman and philanthropist Thomas Guthrie, also great-grandfather of Tyrone Guthrie, whose statue stands in Princes Street Gardens.

The Neilsons lived in Tain, where the kilt-wearing Guthrie ran a field sports and crafts shop; but at the age of five, Sandy was sent away to school, latterly at Gordonstoun, an experience that seems to have marked the beginning of a lifelong ­distancing from the establishment and its ways; and when he left school, he went straight to early-1960s London, where he moved in creative circles, is said to have dated the model Jean Shrimpton, and decided to make a career in theatre.

Sandy returned to Scotland to train at the Royal Scottish Academy Of Music And Drama, graduating in 1966. He was a strikingly attractive young man, never short of girlfriends; and at the RSAMD, he met and married the gifted young actress Katherine Stark, who had already been recruited by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Their daughter Eleanor – now the film-maker, producer and teacher Eleanor Yule – was born in 1965; but the ­marriage was brief, and Sandy did not see Eleanor again until 1991, when – in a dramatic and ­successful father-and-daughter reunion – she arrived to interview him for a BBC arts programme.

Sandy returned to Scotland and married Elizabeth Forsyth, better known as the actress Beth Robens. Their sons Anthony and Ranald were born in Edinburgh in 1967 and 1975; and the couple remained together for more than 20 years, never divorcing even after their separation.

“Sandy always had a very strong work ethic,” said Anthony Neilson, “and his work meant everything to him when I was a young child, particularly after he gave up his secure Arts Council job to go freelance. There were times when things could be quite hand-to-mouth, and we would be on the corned beef hash until he would get another job. Then there would be Edinburgh Festivals where he would have three shows on at once. So if I say that I didn’t see a great deal of him as a child, it was mainly because he was working extremely hard, often because he had to.”

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The leading Dundee Rep actress Ann Louise Ross also remembers Sandy in the mid-1970s, when she first encountered him in an Edinburgh theatre-in-education company, and became a lifelong friend. “He was such a generous, intelligent soul,” she says. “He was a mentor to so many of us, and if he believed in you, he really encouraged you. He loved to work; and he loved it when the whole company would go to the pub afterwards, and talk into the night about the work, and politics, and everything. The conversation was just brilliant.”

For those who knew Sandy’s directing work in those decades, or experienced performances like his infinitely subtle and resonant version of the two dukes in Hamish Glen’s 1988 Lyceum production of As You Like It, there is perhaps a sense of a career that could and should have gone further, into the directorship of one Scotland’s leading companies.

Yet, while he was ambitious for Scottish theatre, he was not, according to those who knew him best, particularly ambitious for himself. Sir Michael Boyd – who first met Sandy in the 1970s – remembers him above all as “an indecently gifted actor, and a true champion of good new writing for the stage,” as well as a valued counsellor and friend. In the last decade of his life, Sandy Neilson lived happily in Edinburgh with his partner Jacqui Nagib, theatre manager at the Lyceum; and his son Anthony believes that so long as he was able to continue working, Sandy did not regret the way his career had evolved.

“He loved Scotland. He was a committed nationalist although not obviously political in his work, and he wanted to stay in Scotland, to live there, and make theatre there. When his declining health meant he could no longer work, I think he felt it was time to make his exit; although I think he would have liked to see Scotland vote for independence, before he died.”

Sandy is survived by his brother Graham, his daughter Eleanor, sons Anthony and Ranald, his partner Jacqui, and three beloved grandchildren. He also leaves behind a Scottish theatre landscape that is difficult to imagine without an actor and theatre-maker who became one of the defining voices and ­faces of Scotland over the last 40 years; urbane, outward-looking, deeply intelligent, and full of the generosity and wit that won him an army of devoted friends and colleagues, across the Scottish theatre world, and beyond.