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Michael Simkins - who "captures life for those who aren't above the title"

Philip Fisher meets Michael Simkins, actor, writer and cricket lover.

The typical theatrical autobiography is very predictable. After a few pages detailing how the hero or heroine had been a child prodigy starring on stage before they could walk, the name-dropping starts. There are tales of upstaging Larry or John on the way to a knighthood, richly deserved as recognition of a sparkling career.

For some reason, Michael Simkins, whose book of memoirs What's My Motivation is published on 4th March, has completely lost the script. In it, he practically fails to mention almost a year starring as "the lead dad" in Mamma Mia! ("the most fantastic life affirming evening but it ain't subtle. I've never seen people so ecstatic in a theatre in my life"), appearing in the Mike Leigh film Topsy Turvey and his impending role in Michael Frayn's Democracy, as it transfers to the West End.

The book also looks like being a roaring success. It has already been chosen as Radio Four's Book Of the Week, is currently being serialised in the Daily Mail and rumour has it that its author will be on Start the Week before too long.

After reading What's My Motivation and meeting this likeable man, the conclusion that one reaches is that he might just be a typical if slightly old-fashioned Englishman. Simkins is built like a fast bowler and his love of cricket, dry sense of humour and self-effacing modesty are quintessentially English. He could easily have fallen into company with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and felt at home.

The slight difference is that, while they were passionate about their cricket, it is unlikely that they would have described seeing Sussex win the County Championship as "like a girl saying yes".

It says something about his outlook that rather than Stanislavsky or Brecht, his ideal theatrical book is Michael Green's The Art of Coarse Acting.

As he expresses it, "the bad times are funnier - the greatest compliment that I have had from any actor is that it captures life for those who aren't above the title". The impression that this gives, despite pleas from his actress wife, Julia Deakin (the psychopathic granny from Coronation Street), to glorify himself, is that here is a jobbing actor whose career has had few high points. Don't believe a word of it!

Simkins is clearly a happy and fulfilled man and a measure of the success of his career is the fact that in over 25 years, he has never spent a period of more than five months out of work. Considering that it is generally recognised that only 10 per cent of actors work at any one time, this makes him something of a superstar.

As well as acting, Michael Simkins is also known to readers of the Guardian as the columnist who has pens An Actor's Life, the always witty and sometimes surprisingly deep thoughts of a contemporary thespian. The Guardian connection is doing him proud as he appears at the Cottesloe Theatre on 12th March for a platform interview with its critic, Michael Billington, who is not only a kindred theatrical spirit but also a fellow cricket lover.

Simkins' job at the Guardian exemplified the kind of fortune that, added to talent, keeps a man in work. About fifteen years ago, he tracked down the last survivor from Britain's worst ever train crash that took place in 1916. The 92-year-old had been on a train at Quintishill on which 255 soldiers were killed.

As Simkins explains it "I wanted to tell his story and interviewed him. Fifteen years later the Guardian took it up and printed it on the 85th anniversary of the tragedy". The same evening, somebody happened to mention that it was at the Guardian Spring party and invited their newest contributor. There he met Ian Katz, the paper's features editor, who signed him up to write a regular column.

He contrasts writing with acting very simply. "When you are writing, nobody can tell you what to write. There are no directors or producers". Having said that, he is clearly a man who relishes appearing on stage and happily puts up with the foibles of those arranging things on the other side of the curtain.

His first steps into theatre were taken at RADA where he was in the same generation as Timothy Spall and Juliet Stevenson. It is interesting that subsequently, each helped him into roles that have been some of the most fulfilling in his career.

Knowing his love of Gilbert and Sullivan, Spall suggested that he contact Mike Leigh, a fellow G and S devotee, who cast him in Topsy Turvey while Miss Stevenson introduced him to Lanford Wilson's Burn This, in which they starred with a smouldering John Malkovich at Hampstead and then in the West End.

The continuous work started almost immediately after graduation. In fact, he did something like 80 plays touring around the country in the next six years, a lot of them good quality. Fortuitously "most of my really terrible stuff happened when nobody was there to see it except the Harrogate Advertiser".

The next step up was courtesy of current National Theatre director, Nick (they are good friends) Hytner. In 1984, he asked Simkins to do The Scarlet Pimpernel at Chichester with Donald Sinden. In passing, it is worth noting that the cast included a callow Michael Grandage, now leading the Donmar.

From then onwards, Simkins has almost never been out of either the West End or the National Theatre. Perhaps the highlight was his appearance alongside Michael Gambon as Marco, the huge Italian brother in Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge at the National. This was in a famous production directed by Sir Alan Ayckbourn, a man with whom he worked in Scarborough for 18 months during his formative years..

This is generally recognised as one of the twenty best productions at the National Theatre and for a period was the hottest ticket in England. For his performance, he received a best supporting actor nomination.

Running it a close second as highlight at the same theatre in his eyes, was his appearance next to Ian Holm's King Lear directed by Richard Eyre

Like Burn This and Company, these productions "Gave me that special feeling of being briefly at the centre of things. I have had this a handful of times in my career but very few actors ever get that experience even once".

He got something similar when he appeared for six months in the London production of Chicago. As he puts it "if you're playing Billy Flynn and Denise Van Outen is on your knee every night, you know that there are millions of men who would pay for that".

Perhaps his other favourite director is Michael Grandage's predecessor at the Donmar, Sam Mendes, a personal friend. While they worked together on Company, they have worked even more closely together on the cricket field.

Like his friend Gary Oldman, with whom he once shared a double bed in Rotherham digs during a run of Dick Whittington in which Oldman played the cat, Michael Simkins is deeply in love with theatre in every guise. He sums up his career by saying "I really don't regret going into acting at all. I would have liked to get into TV sooner and it would have been good to live in Hollywood now with beauties all around me but ...."

Do read What's My Motivation. You will learn a lot about An Actor's Life or at least the bad and the funny times. Amazingly, there is very little that overlaps with the content of this profile of a very successful man.

Michael Simkins is interviewed by Michael Billington at one of the RNT's Platforms on 12th March. We have two tickets to be won in a special competition.

You can also read Philip's review of the book and buy it from our Bookstore.

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©Peter Lathan 2004