Simon Williams on falling in love with theatre: 'She took off her wig and crinoline, and there she was with no hair and no hips'

Simon Williams
Simon Williams

Interviewers ask if I have show business in my blood – as if my life’s work was a peanut allergy. Perhaps I do. It was love at first sight, anyway: Peter Pan, in 1953. A girl dressed as a boy who could fly, a dog who was a nanny, a crocodile who had swallowed a clock – what’s not to love?

I also blubbed at The King and I, with Valerie Hobson singing, ‘Whenever I feel afraid… I whistle a happy tune’ as she arrived in Siam. When my father took me to her dressing room afterwards, she took off her crinoline and her wig – and blow me down, there she was with no hair and no hips; it was all make-believe, a magic behind the magic. She kissed me and told me that she too had a son called Simon – I was on the slippery path. 

Sometimes I went backstage at a theatre where my father was working and I’d be in on the secret: the doors that went nowhere, the painted sky. I’d crouch down and watch him through the fake fireplace.

He was always younger on stage, no glasses and his stomach flat. He’d be mixing cocktails, and saying funny things. He was never grumpy in the theatre. If a play was a success, he’d do it for two years – unheard of today. He made acting look so easy – anyone could do it, even me. 

After the audience had left, I would stand on the stage and look into the empty auditorium, my head full of possibilities

After the audience had left, I would stand on the stage and look into the empty auditorium, my head full of possibilities. Maybe courtrooms do it for lawyers and surgeries for doctors, but it’s theatres that do it for me. I love them, full or empty, new or old – a place where anything can happen.

Here was the future. I could play Hamlet like John Neville, or Henry Higgins like Rex Harrison; I could be anyone, funny or sad. I didn’t know then that you have to be sure of who you are yourself before taking on other characters. Here was a world with no need for spelling or algebra.

I’d be in films too, raising one eyebrow and shooting people in a Mackintosh. My brother taught me to be quick on the draw, 10 caps in 20 seconds – cool as Gary Cooper. I’d wear  a beret and drive an MG Midget with a Gauloise in the corner of my mouth. I’d have a collie like Lassie and a girlfriend like Audrey Hepburn.

I couldn’t believe it when my father forbade me to follow in his footsteps. ‘You’ll break my heart...’ he said. Two years later, he wrote a part for me in his new play. He died too soon to see me as Captain Bellamy in Upstairs, Downstairs – a performance I based on him. Yes, it’s in my blood.

Simon plays Justin Elliott in The Archers

Simon Williams | Best columns
Simon Williams | Best columns