Interview with Simon Ward
PUBLISHED: 16:10 28 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:33 20 February 2013
Simon plays King George III in the Blackeyed Theatre Company's touring production of The Madness Of George III by Alan Bennett at South Hill Park, Bracknell, September 21-25
Simon plays King George III in the Blackeyed Theatre Companys touring production of The Madness Of George III by Alan Bennett
What appealed to you about The Madness Of George III?
When I read it I fell in love with it and felt Ive got to do this! You dont feel that very often in life. Its the most extraordinary tragic-comedy and no one does it better than Alan Bennett. Hes an astonishing writer. One of the great things about this play is theyre all wonderful parts theyre all beautifully, comically delineated.
How do you feel about starring in such a ground-breaking production?
Its the first professional tour of the play since it was premiered, which is wonderful. Im following in the shoes of Nigel Hawthorne [who starred in the original National Theatre production and the film adaptation], who had huge success and became synonymous with the role. To try and bring whatever strengths or humours one has to the role is a big step and always leaves one feeling a bit frightened.
How do you approach the role of King George III?
Its one of the best parts Ive ever been asked to play. I love it so much. Its going to be incredibly tiring. In the first five minutes hes displaying the physical symptoms of his illness. Hes not on stage the whole time because the beastly court and doctors are gossiping about him. But every time he goes off stage theres a costume change or some huge leap forward in his symptoms so he exits in one stage of his condition, and when he comes back on hes 50 times worse. I think its accepted that it was porphyria that he had, which is a malfunction of the haemoglobin cells in the blood he went from great excitement to deep despair.
Do you like George III?
Hes an incredibly sympathetic character of all the Georges he was the only sympathetic character. Everyone was terribly fond of the king which is one of the reasons the story is so poignant. The people in the streets wanted to know what was wrong with the king, and if he was better. If he was better there was joy and happiness in the land, if he was worse they were gloomy. There was a real affection and admiration for him as a man which, considering we had lost our American colonies, was surprising. He never got over that loss, he felt we had lost Eden and in a sense, of course, we had.
Are you a royalist?
Oh yes. The play certainly hasnt turned me into a republican. Our unwritten constitution isnt ideal, but I certainly think its a better situation than exists almost anywhere else. For us, and after everything weve been through, it still works. The alternatives are almost too ghastly to bear.
Will the themes of the play be relevant to a modern audience?
Very much so. There is something deeply comical about this character and about the way his symptoms are presented. And there is something deeply comical about the other characters, in particular the doctors. Yet at the same time it makes you want to weep with rage at the way hes treated they tie him in a restraining chair, gag him. But he survived it. And it changed attitudes towards mental illness there is an argument that things were never the same again after the king recovered, which is quite something.
Susan Penhaligons your queen.
Weve worked together a couple of times before and I adore her. Weve had wonderful laughs and jokes.
Are you superstitious, like many actors?
I did another Alan Bennett play called Getting On about ten years ago. There were huge passages in it that I thought were the best bits of writing Id ever been allowed to perform. Then I had a rather unfortunate experience Id been doing it about eight weeks and had dinner with some people. One of them said, Off you go, break a leg. So thats what I went and did! I was carrying three small dogs out of the back of a car into the cottage wed hired. It was like tripping over a matchstick but I heard it go, and it was broken. Im not superstitious, but I wish people wouldnt say break a leg and if they do I always do superstitious things like cross my fingers.
You were at the National Youth Theatre from the age of 13 which makes yours a long and distinguished career.
Keeping goings a great achievement. More and more of ones friends fall off the twig or just dont work any more. One of the great things about the job is you can laugh from 10 in the morning to six at night theres always something funny going on.
You came to international prominence in 1972 playing Churchill in the film Young Winston. How do you look back at that role?
I look back at it not just fondly but with huge gratitude to Dickie Attenborough for holding my hands throughout. That was a frightening role in the same way as this one, in that you were playing someone whom everyone had very strong feelings about. As a role in a movie it had the most extraordinary mixture of adventure the fighting, riding, running up and down mountains and some wonderful dialogue scenes shot at Shepperton.
Also in the Seventies you played James Herriot in All Creatures Great And Small.
It was the first film of the books. I hadnt known the books and a lot of people hadnt known about them then, so at that time I wasnt taking on a national icon. Its always nerve-wracking playing a real person particularly if that real person is still alive and comes and sits on set watching you. Although Herriot was the most charming wonderful man who I really adored and kept in touch with till he died.
Youve done a mix of theatre, television and movies do you prefer one form over another?
You cant compare working in a theatre to working on a movie. Some movies, you get to go to the most glamorous places and have an absolute whale of a time for three or four months. Its like being on a wonderful paid holiday in a country you would not have visited otherwise. For theatre, the places you go to when touring a play are not necessarily so glamorous, but theres a marvellous thing about it you have control over the performance. In a movie you dont, you do what the director asks you to, and your prized moments may end up on the cutting room floor. In theatre, when the curtain goes up, youre in charge. Thats wonderfully freeing. And the audience are like another character on stage theyre always different.
When Stephen Fry walked out of the play Cell Mates and went missing, you took over his role. What was that like?
I wouldnt want to do that again. I had no time to learn the part properly Im talking about three days. Theres about four pages in Russian, and I dont speak Russian. So I sacrificed some of the Russian so I could learn the English dialogue. I gather that the Russian ambassador was there the first night I played it I dont know what he made of my Russian because I was talking nonsense! Then I polished it up and learned it better. What was terrible about the situation was when Stephen disappeared it became a running news story. The papers took the view that hed gone because the play hadnt got good reviews Stephens reviews werent bad and that did for the whole thing. You cant expect audiences to come see a play when theyre reading on the front page that Stephens left because its a bad play. It was a poisoned chalice which I picked up but I knew that. Within two days of his leaving the bottom dropped out of the Box Office, before I was asked to take over.
More recently youve played a judge in Judge John Deed and a devious bishop in The Tudors. Were those enjoyable shows?
Yes, I loved both of them: I was very sad when Deed finished. It was great doing The Tudors. In the last series my character is revealed to be even more evil and terrible. Bishop Gardiner managed to survive and died a natural death in 1555 just astonishing but behaved, I believe, very badly. It was no fun going to executions OK theyre pretend executions, but theres something so awful about it. I wasnt very mad about the burning. Tudors were always ordering people to be burned at the stake. You dont feel very good at the end of the day doing that.
Youve been a judge, a bishop and now a king where do you go from here?
Well Ive already been Jesus and Ive been the devil in a film with Kirk Douglas. The devil wasnt such hard work as Jesus because that was in the York Mystery Plays. To be crucified eight times a week in front of 3,500 people in the open air in early June at midnight in Yorkshire is quite tricky. It was cold and sometimes it would rain. As the devil I got to wear some wonderful Italian white suits, always looking as innocent as I could be. So where next? I dont know. Kings are good, its good to be king. Never in my life have I known whats going to happen next.
Is family life important to you?
Yes. Weve got three children and six grandchildren and we see them as much as we can.
Your daughter Sophie Ward followed you into acting are you proud of her work?
Yes. Shes an extraordinary girl. She not only acts but does a lot of academic work and she keeps getting these degrees. She brings up two boys and seems to be on the television an awful lot, and she makes films all the time, and shes just finished the tour of a play and at the same time gets honours in philosophy I really dont know how shes done it. Shes obviously not inherited my laziness gene.