Actor Edward Wilson was the respected artistic director of the National Youth Theatre from 1987 to 2004 and was instrumental in shaping the organisation’s critical reputation. Performers such as Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Orlando Bloom, Daniel Craig and Chiwetel Ejiofor all benefited from his tutelage.
The NYT was founded in 1955 by Michael Croft to promote amateur productions featuring child actors from all over Britain. Initially the company presented plays by Shakespeare, winning critical acclaim in the West End, but later diversified with such modern classics as Zigger Zagger by Peter Terson (1967). Wilson acted with the NYT from 1965 to 1970, before the company moved into the Shaw Theatre in London in 1971 and set up an additional professional company.
Wilson was born in South Shields on July 13, 1947, the son of a miner. Educated at a local grammar school he began acting with the NYT in the school holidays. At the age of 19 he set up his own local branch of the NYT, presenting plays at the Pier Pavilion, South Shields.
He read English at Manchester University and later was invited by Michael Croft to direct NYT productions, notably an acclaimed version of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which was presented at Westminster Cathedral. In all, he directed more than 40 productions for the company, including Blood Wedding, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, several Othellos, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Nicholas Nickleby, The Rivals and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?.
Early in Wilson’s tenure, Sean Connery presented Wilson and the NYT a cheque for £50,000 for the work he had seen with his son Jason, who was a member of the company.
Wilson had a successful career as a television actor appearing in shows such as Crown Court and The Likely Lads, but he gained international fame when he played the role of Billy Seaton in the popular BBC TV drama When The Boat Comes In (1976-77), in which he co-starred with James Bolam. The top-rating series introduced viewers to the peculiarities of the lilting Geordie dialect and has since been fondly remembered as a piece of social history.
Wilson was artistic director for the Royal Jubilee Trust’s 40th anniversary celebrations and he also directed tours for the British Council and the Shakespeare Foundation of Spain.
In recent years he had been living in California where, at the invitation of actor Michael York, he became the artistic director of the Los Angeles Young Actors Company in Hollywood. Two years ago he directed his friend Ian McKellen in his one-man show, A Knight Out in LA.
He had been suffering from cancer and died on February 2, aged 60. His partner, Brian Lee, a former designer with the NYT, predeceased him. He is survived by a brother and sister.
Paul Roseby, the current NYT artistic director, said: “We are all so deeply saddened by the loss of this great, inspirational and talented man. Not only did he lead the NYT with such passion and energy, fighting so tirelessly on its behalf for so many years, he became a true and loyal friend to so many who would not be where they are today without his love, support and wonderful wit.”