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
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