This was my life – or was it?

He was smoothie James Bel­lamy in Up­stairs, Down­stairs and now plays Justin in The Archers. But Si­mon Wil­liams is also a hus­band, a grand­fa­ther, a frus­trated crick­eter and a witty chron­i­cler of modern life. All of which means there is no short­age of ma­teri

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Our new colum­nist, actor Si­mon Wil­liams, reminisces about his past glo­ries – from Up­stairs, Down­stairs to The Archers

BAD DAY SO FAR. This morn­ing the house martins were mus­ter­ing in the sky and will soon be off to their time-share nests in the sun, and by lunchtime rain has stopped play at Trent Bridge. What to do? The post­man brings a newly trans­ferred DVD of my 1986 ap­pear­ance on This Is Your Life – my life ac­cord­ing to Thames Tele­vi­sion – 31 years ago. Ig­nor­ing the In­dian proverb, ‘The past is a good place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there,’ I slip it in and press ‘play’.

Eamonn An­drews, fee­bly dis­guised as a liv­er­ied door man, am­bushes me out­side Fort­num & Ma­son, where I once worked in the gro­cery de­part­ment. He beams, ‘Si­mon Wil­liams – This Is Your Life,’ and I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘No no, it isn’t, it can’t be – I’m not old enough!’

Too late: half my life was al­ready flash­ing be­fore my eyes. I stand there like a man caught with his trousers down in the women’s locker room. What dirt had they un­earthed about me? I imag­ined old flames, house­mas­ters, cred­i­tors and cast­ing agents queu­ing up to put the boot in.

In fact the show is like be­ing at your own memo­rial ser­vice, a flat­tery fest, an air-brushed ver­sion of you with the bad bits redacted – no men­tion of a quick tem­per or dirty per­sonal habits.

I re­mem­ber re­al­is­ing that the pro­duc­ers and re­searchers must have been se­cretly col­lud­ing with my wife, Lucy, and ri­fling through my ad­dress book for A-list friends. For six weeks she’d been aid­ing and abet­ting them be­hind my back, giv­ing them the heads-up about ev­ery­thing. Re­ally, she should have damn well warned me – I could eas­ily have faked the sur­prise, the hum­ble grat­i­tude etc. But I got noth­ing from her, not the small­est hint. She didn’t even have the de­cency to tell me not to wear the yel­low V-neck sweater that ’s now on record for all time. Note to self: re­mem­ber her fa­ther, Peter Flem­ing, was in De­cep­tion dur­ing the war.

I wish they had told the real

story of my child­hood, how we lived hand to mouth in rented prop­er­ties: manor houses when my fa­ther, the actor Hugh Wil­liams, was in a suc­cess­ful pro­duc­tion, and the freez­ing apart­ment in the east wing of a stately home when he wasn’t. Of how his friends clubbed to­gether to buy us an old Lon­don cab so that Mummy could drive us to Dym­church to be stung by jel­ly­fish in the English Chan­nel. Of how, when my par­ents sold the film rights to their play The Grass Is Greener, they bought a Ford Zo­diac and we spent the sum­mer in a huge villa in Ma­jorca. Thanks to my mother, we never re­ally no­ticed the dif­fer­ence be­tween the good years and the lean. Only later did we dis­cover that the weird man she was oil­ing up to in the kitchen was a bailiff.

Most of all, I wished they were telling the story of how we even­tu­ally came to set­tle in a dream house on Harold Macmil­lan’s Birch Grove es­tate – the rent was £80 a year. He was Prime Min­is­ter, and I could earn half a crown for ‘ beat­ing’ on his shoot, when var­i­ous cab­i­net min­is­ters would rock up in their tweeds and traipse past our gar­den with their guns cocked–we’ d never had it so good. The high point was when John F Kennedy came to visit Su­per­mac. The cows had to be moved from the field so his he­li­copter could land, and the vil­lage was over run with FBI agents grum­bling about the warm beer and hand­ing out sticks of gum.

But here is Eamonn show­ing view­ers pho­to­graphs of me aged five with a kirby grip in my hair and pink NHS glasses – and there’s a close-up of Lucy, all wide-eyed in­no­cence.

There are clips of me in var­i­ous pro­grammes giv­ing sup­pos­edly dif­fer­ent per­for­mances: Up­stairs, Down stairs ( grumpy with mous­tache), Agony, with Mau­reen Lip­man (chau­vin­is­tic with glasses), Don’t Wait Up, with Nigel Havers ( jovial with stetho - scope). Most mov­ing was the blurry footage of a film that my best friend, An­drew B irk in, and I made at school, a tragic love story that he directed, which fea­tured me and his beau­ti­ful sis­ter, Jane – it was des­per­ately sad, of course, but with plenty of snog­ging. (Thanks, An­drew.)

Like a trailer for a lousy film, the pro­gramme only shows the high­lights of one’s life – there’s no ref­er­ence to the dis­ap­point­ments – the di­vorce, the failed au­di­tions or the stink­ing re­views. There is no men­tion of the Kid­der­min­ster Play­house, where we per­formed a Brian Rix farce to an au­di­ence of 11, or of the digs I had in Hull shar­ing a room with three Ir­ish builders, or of do­ing No Sex Please, We’re Bri­tish in a black­out dur­ing the three-day week of 1972 – Michael Craw­ford and I pointed torches at one an­other across the stage.

In­stead, Joan Collins is beamed in from Cal­i­for­nia, Jane Birkin from Paris, Gor­don Jack­son from Aus­tralia, Hay ley Mills from Rich­mond, and Mau­reen Lip­man from Crouch End. They are all agreed that I am pretty near per­fect. My chil­dren and stepchil­dren had

been sprung from school – they are sit­ting in a row 31 years younger, all clean with their teeth un­tamed and voices not bro­ken. How did they grow up so quickly? My dar­ling mum was flown in spe­cially from Por­tu­gal. (I’m on my 10th Kleenex.) But what re­ally brought a lump to my throat was my dog, Floozie, a res­cued col­lie cross, who bounded on to the stage thrilled to see me – she clearly has no idea how fa­mous I am.

In my real child­hood my life was ruled by my older brother, Hugo. I was his slave, his stooge, his dis­ci­ple. I was Pan­cho to his Cisco Kid, Friar Tuck to his Robin Hood. For him I

Joan Collins is beamed in from Cal­i­for­nia, Jane Birkin from Paris… All are agreed that I am pretty near per­fect

tried in vain to love Brubeck and Larkin, when I was an Elvis and a Mase­field man at heart. His fan­tasies were of Bar­dot, mine of Hep­burn, his bike had drop han­dle bars, mine was a sit-up-and-beg. Once, as a re­ward for faith­ful ser­vice, he lent me a green suede bomber jacket that the Guin­ness heir Tara Browne (yes, he of the Len­non song A Day in the Life) had given him.

He wanted to be the actor – he could do things with his eye­brows and was good at jiv­ing – but my fa­ther said no, so he took to po­etry in­stead. When my first novel was pub­lished, I held my breath while he read a proof copy. It took him ages. When I asked him what he thought of it, he said, ‘Best to avoid semi­colons.’ I’ve hated them ever since.

My younger sis­ter, Polly, tried to teach me about girls and how they worked. She vet­ted my clothes and helped me cam­ou­flage my spots. She was won­der­ful in a cri­sis and al­ways had the right pills or drugs in her bag. She died 14 years ago, and I miss her more than I would ever have imag­ined pos­si­ble when she was five and made me sit at the tap end of the bath.

The cli­max of the show it­self was the en­trance of my 85-year-old god­mother, Miss Muriel Bell who had known me lit­er­ally since birth. She was the nurse whose quick re­ac­tions saved my life when I turned blue in the in­cu­ba­tor. With a big smile on her dear face she told the view­ing mil­lions that I’d been born eight weeks pre­ma­ture weigh­ing a measly 2 lbs. ( Just over one per cent of what I weigh now, 26,046 days later.) Muriel reached up from her Zim­mer frame and stroked my face. ‘My lit­tle scrap,’ she said.

As the end cred­its roll, Eamonn hands me the fa­mous red book of My Life, and I am im­me­di­ately en­veloped by all my A-list friends. But where were the sup­port­ing play­ers, the old school chums, the flat­mates, the for­giv­ing land­ladies, the friendly neigh­bours? There I am, to­tally be­wil­dered in my eff­ing yel­low V-neck sweater, think­ing about all the kind peo­ple in my life who aren’t celebri­ties.

The past is a good place to visit but I’m not go­ing to live there. Si­mon Wil­liams’ col­umn be­gins next week

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