From CAT scans to cat and mouse
Casualty star Simon MacCorkindale tells Alison Jones why he has packed away his stethoscope and returned to the stage.
It is always a challenge following in the footsteps of an actor who has become irrevocably associated with a part.
Particularly if that actor casts as long a shadow as the late Sir Laurence Olivier.
In the recent film remake of the thriller Sleuth, director Kenneth Branagh rather cleverly got round the problem by having Michael Caine swop roles.
In the 1972 Joseph L Mankiewicz version, Caine played Milo Tindle, the upstart young lover of Olivier’s wife who is unwillingly drawn into an elaborate battle of wits.
In 2007 it was Caine’s turn to play the vengeful, cuckolded husband (Andrew Wyke), with Jude Law repeating another Caine role after already starring in Alfie.
For the stage production currently doing the regional rounds, comparisons to Larry are avoided by the fact that Andrew, played by Simon MacCorkindale, has effectively been aged down and Milo, played by Michael Praed, aged up.
“There is actually only about eight years between myself and Michael,” says Simon.
“I’m playing it sort of my age (he is 56). Historically the part has been played by somebody 65 and upwards, I am not there by a long chalk.
“There have been plenty of actors who have played it Michael’s age (Praed turned 48 yesterday) but normally opposite someone 20 years older.”
The benefit of this is that the two duellists are more equally matched in their twisted game.
“It makes it more about Marguerite going off to a man who understood her rather than somebody who was just younger and more virile,” says Simon.
And then of course there is the Larry factor. “People do know it as Larry’s role,” agrees Simon.
“If you are an older actor and a bit more of a curmudgeon it fits.
It is a challenge to not copy Olivier, particularly as the material was very much what was written by Anthony Shaffer. It wasn’t like he invented the character. So anybody playing it is going to be a little Olivier-esque.”
The Shaffer play was as much about class as it was the old being usurped by the young.
Wyke, the mystery writer and country squire, appears quite happy to offload his wife, particularly if he can wriggle out of paying alimony. However, he is furious she has been having an affair with “a jumped up pantry boy who doesn’t know his place.”
“Andrew is a snob and a bigot. He’s prejudiced about everything non-British,” says Simon with relish. “He says in the play ‘You are not one of me’ that is about as arrogant as you can get.
“Andrew is very boisterous, slightly barking, slightly camp, very florid. Milo is a pawn for the whole of the first half and then the worm starts to turn and by the end he has started to take control .
“It is a beautifully constructed piece and it does lend itself to two actors really getting their armoury out and going to work.”
Although the two men are engaged in what literally becomes a fight to the death, the play is richly veined with humour.
“You don’t go to Agatha Christie and expect to have many laughs but this is actually hysterical, it verges on farce,” Simon reveals.
“I directed this play in 1982 and I don’t remember it being quite as funny as we have got it. It might be because Michael and I are closer in age and it feels less like an older man bullying a younger man and more of an evenly matched mental contest.”
The fact that a new Sleuth was released in cinemas before the tour began was a coincidence, but one it was initially thought it could benefit from as it put the piece back in the public eye.
“Bill Kenwright (the play’s producer) had wanted to do this again as these sort of classics tend to come round in 12 to 15 year cycles.
“I think that Jude Law’s company had decided this was going to be a good (movie) vehicle for him.
“We felt it wasn’t going to hurt us, although I am not entirely confident of that now the film hasn’t been successful. It might have a negative effect because people might think the material is not very good. But they completely re-wrote it and it bears absolutely no resemblance to what goes on in the theatre.”
Fortunately, the stage tour seems to be doing solid box office and Simon is hopeful that it could even transfer to the West End.
The positive response from audiences has reassured the actor that he was right to give up the steady pay cheque of his role on Casualty and start looking elsewhere for roles.
He played the consultant manager turned MP Harry Harper on the popular medical soap for six years. He filmed his final scenes in January and started rehearsals for Sleuth the day after.
“I felt it was my time to come out. There is always a danger that you might dry up or lose your enthusiasm and I had this other opportunity that I wanted to explore.”
The level of his commitment to Casualty meant that he had been commuting to and from Bristol while his wife, the actress Susan George, ran their stud farm on Exmoor.
“Now I am freer we are looking at what she might do because she really wants to get back to acting. She is wasted on one level not being out there.
“The farm has got a reputation based on her credibility as a horsewoman and it was her passion in the first place, I just came on board and supported it.
“But with the support structure which we have now got in place she can do it a little bit more from a distance.”
Simon’s own acting career evolved somewhat by accident. He went to drama school with the idea of learning how to act so he could become a better director.
Realising he needed to learn on the job he started accepting parts. Consequently he has jumped between the two, as well as running several production companies – including Amy International with Susan – writing scripts and even composing music.
Suavely good looking without being overly wholesome, Simon often found himself cast as the handsome villain, this working to particularly good effect in Death on the Nile, which boosted his profile internationally.
In the 90s he enjoyed a long run in the glossy American soap Falcon Crest, opposite Hollywood legends Jane Wyman and Gina Lollobrigida. He also starred in the cult series Manimal, as a shape-shifting crime fighter.
His looks and background meant he was often cast as an English aristocrat. Simon chose to embrace the stereotyping rather than resisting it.
“You start with what you have got. If you have one leg you’re a one-legged actor aren’t you?
“I was a public schoolboy with a middle class, services background (his father was an Air Force pilot), that is what you bring to the table in the first instance.
“Early in my career I took a view that I wanted to be Spencer Tracey not Clark Gable, more of a character actor. Michael York said to me when we worked together on The Riddle of the Sands ‘go to the market place, make yourself well known and then change the product’.
“What he meant was go out there, get known for what you are, build a reputation then, when the time comes, make a twist or a turn and do something slightly different.
“I see this role in Sleuth as being that. I am 56, still what would be deemed to be a leading man. Andrew is verging into the realm of character role.
“I have always thought that my career would take off when I got older. I was always slightly heavier of voice when I was younger. Your young leading man is generally a tenor and I was more of a baritone.
“The best roles I think are yet to come. I’d love to get into that vein of nice supporting roles, the type that Tom Wilkinson or a Jim Broadbent might have got.
“I have always thought of myself as sort of a young Christopher Plummer really, of course Christopher is a far better actor than I will ever be.
“I am just putting myself out there and it is up to employers and the public if they think I am worthy.”