With his suave accents and polished come-to-bed manner, the character of Nelson Gabriel, as memorably enacted by Jack May, was something of an enigma in the rustic world of that awesomely long-lived radio soap, The Archers. Latterly, of course, he and his Borchester wine bar had seemed less out of place in a serial which, in past years, had been furiously and trendily updating itself to be more in tune with the mores of the late 20th century. Drugs, abortion, live-in gay relationships, depression, suicide, Jennifer Aldridge trying to learn to fly are now staple fare, at a far remove from the original gentle bucolics of a rural Britain still in a state of innocence in such matters.
Yet, when Nelson Gabriel first joined the cast, not so long after The Archers first went on the air in 1951 as a BBC Light Programme "experiment", he did so as a somewhat mysterious figure. What on earth was an "antiques dealer" (as he then was) doing in a programme which billed itself as "a tale of country folk"? And how had the son of the conspicuously loamy-voiced Walter Gabriel acquired a speaking voice which argued some immersion in a public school, even if only one of a minor and possibly spurious nature? His antecedents were always left deliberately vague. His background was apparently RAF, but whether that had been at wingco or warrant officer level was never precisely established. His father would have liked to see him in jail and nearly did when his son was implicated in the Great Borchester Mail Van Robbery, for which which he was tried and happily acquitted. This was a case of Archers scriptwriters suffering from one of their periodic and rather charming rushes of blood to the head.
Nevertheless, in general, in a programme which, in those far-off days, concerned itself much more with the state of Britain's postwar agricultural economy than it does now, Nelson and his activities never seemed totally out of place. A two-minute visit to the antiques shop once or twice a week, provided a soothing counterpoint to the problems of bringing on the spring wheat; lifting the potatoes; or battling to accomplish the lambing against the hostility of the elements.
By the time Nelson's antiques gave way to the wine bar in the 1970s, life had changed in Ambridge, too. Young (and generally female) sophisticates had abandoned the milkpail and the beer pump for the frenzied life of solicitors' offices and snatched lunchbreaks over a glass of spritzer. Father Gabriel might still be quaffing pints of Shires ale at the Bull in the company of Tom Forrest a vignette of senescent rusticity if there ever was one but the young folk would almost certainly be patronising Nelson's in-town premises with their background muzak, open sandwiches, Cabernet Sauvignon by the bottle and tinkling, kittenish conversation: "Oh, no, not another one Nigel, I'm supposed to be driving".
Being chained, as he was, to a soap of such formidably enduring character tended to obscure the fact that Jack May was a fine actor with a solid repertory experience behind him. Born at Henley-on-Thames and educated at The Forest School, Essex, after war service in the RAF in India he was offered a place at RADA but turned it down in favour of a place at Merton College, Oxford. This did his acting no harm. He was active in OUDS and was determined to be an actor when he came down.
He had always set his sights on Birmingham Rep, then the starting point outside London for any stage career. Eventually, he was invited by its producer Douglas Seal to audition for a small part in that never easy Shakespearean exercise, the three parts of Henry VI. After a read-through it became apparent that the Birmingham Rep had acquired a star, and May soon found himself cast as the eponymous hero. He carried the play, the production of which was so successful that it was given an airing at the Old Vic. By general consent among the critics, May's rendering of Henry's heartbroken lament:
O God! methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain....
which was to foreshadow the great outpouring of Shakespeare's Richard II), was the riveting centre of the production.
In 1951, the year of its launch, Tony Shryane, producer of what was then seen as a farming serial, The Archers, approached May and asked him if he would like a part. It was an inspired choice to fit a character of his kidney into a programme which bade fair at its outset to sound like a radio version of Virgil's Georgics. May (in the person of Nelson) added the touch of louche barfly, slightly dodgy, hovering on the brink of criminality, which counterbalanced the earnest accents of rural economics. Eventually the whizzkid aged a trifle but, whether as antiques dealer or wine bar proprietor, he always had a definable niche.
Nelson's love-life was always something of a mystery. He "never married" but was he a homosexual? Certainly the demanding Julia Pargetter, widow and mother of the toffee-nosed and tiresome Nigel, did not think so, since she danced assiduous attendance on him, even somewhat obtrusively, helping him with his interior décor on occasions.
May's Archers career was a classic example of how an individual can become indistinguishable from his soap opera role. Yet, for May, there was life outside The Archers. He acted in a number of films, notably The man Who Would Be King, and was familiar on television in drama productions which ranged from Goodbye Mr Chips to The Age of Kings.
He is survived by his wife, the actress Petra Davies, and by a son and a daughter.