Just Wil­liams

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Si­mon on act­ing’s great taboo

PEO­PLE ASK WHAT it was like grow­ing up in a the­atri­cal fam­ily (both my par­ents were ac­tors) and imag­ine melo­dra­matic ex­changes over break­fast: ‘For the love of God, child, pass your fa­ther the Weetabix!’

But over­act­ing was a car­di­nal sin in our house, ranked above belch­ing or pulling a sin­gle grape off the bunch. Ham was not wel­come on board. If I told a joke, I was ‘show­ing off ’ and needed ‘an early night, my boy’. Yet we are all born ac­tors – ex­ag­ger­a­tors, liars, racon­teurs; as ba­bies we learn that if we can shed a con­vinc­ing tear we’ll get an ex­tra bis­cuit or another five min­utes in the bath.

The trou­ble with act­ing is that it has to look so like re­al­ity. ‘If it looks dif­fi­cult,’ they say, ‘you’re not work­ing hard enough.’ Un­less of course you’re Brian Blessed or a mezzo-so­prano, then you give it plenty. As Ge­orge Burns said, ‘Sin­cer­ity is the key to suc­cess. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’ I once heard a pro­ducer be­ing very plau­si­ble on the phone to a cred­i­tor, ‘ I swear to you the cheque is in the post… Who shall I make it payable to?’

The­atre di­rec­tors of­ten re­visit their long-run­ning pro­duc­tions to rein in their ac­tors and ‘take out the im­prove­ments’. Over­act­ing, oth­er­wise known as ‘chew­ing the scenery’, is taboo. None of us wants to be seen putting the ‘ham’ in Ham­let, al­though I am rather par­tial to a bit my­self.

Kindly friends tact­fully sug­gest, ‘Less is more, Si­mon.’ But that can’t be right – it’s cer­tainly not true of sticky tof­fee pud­ding. Less might just be… less. So I big it up, just to be on the safe side. One di­rec­tor ex­plained, ‘Act­ing is not like jus­tice, Si­mon, it doesn’t have to be seen to be done.’ In fact, it’s sur­pris­ing how lit­tle you need to do. Act­ing is about choices – what you show and what you con­ceal. Get it wrong and you’re a shoo-in for The Only Way Is Es­sex.

Ge­orge Cukor was once so ex­as­per­ated with a young ac­tor over­do­ing things that he shouted, ‘For God’s sake don’t just do some­thing – stand there.’

In the war film One of Our Air­craft Is Miss­ing, my fa­ther, Hugh Wil­liams, had a group scene in the of­fi­cers’ mess. Dur­ing re­hearsal he said to Peter Usti­nov, ‘What are you go­ing to do in this scene?’ Usti­nov shrugged, ‘Noth­ing.’ To which my fa­ther replied, ‘Oh no, you can’t – I’m do­ing that.’

Here’s the sad­dest of epi­taphs, seen on an old stager’s head­stone: Ac­tor Rest­ing. Si­mon plays Justin El­liott in The Archers

Kindly friends tact­fully sug­gest, ‘Less is more, Si­mon.’ But it’s not true of sticky tof­fee pud­ding

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