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