Friends with Prince Charles. Wed to Susan George. New Star of The Sound Of Music . . . it’s not easy being Simon MacCorkindale
Simon MacCorkindale will, I suspect, make a rather good Captain Von Trapp; not least because he appears to share some of the characteristics of The Sound Of Music’s famously stern Austrian paterfamilias.
There’s the brisk, martial manner for starters, a certain lack of levity and an absolute absence of sentimentality.
Simon, who takes over the captain’s role in the hit West End musical on Monday, is rehearsing the part with his habitual fastidious attention to detail when I arrive at the London Palladium to meet him.
I imagine all but the flintiest of hearts would be touched when they hear him sing Edelweiss. Does he find the song moving? ‘Structurally the piece is well-placed,’ he says. ‘It is a very well-constructed emotional moment.’
Yes, but did it make you cry? ‘I’m in an analytical phase. I’m in the process of working through the production so every bit is being scrutinised,’ he says, as if carrying out a forensic examination.
So you’re not easily moved to tears then? ‘Um, no. I like to be in control. Period.’ It comes as little surprise to learn that Simon toyed with a military career before hitting on the notion of acting. His late father Peter, an RAF group captain then station commander, encouraged his son’s early aspirations for a career in the Services.
Simon favoured the RAF, but when he failed an eyesight test, he veered off in a wildly different direction and settled on drama school instead.
His father was initially horrified. ‘In Dad’s perception, actors spent a lot of time unemployed,’ he says. ‘Then, of course, there were all the stories about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Which,’ he adds hastily, ‘are for the large part not true.’
In fact, far from a riot of hedonism, he sees many parallels between the acting profession and life in the Armed Forces. ‘Military life is all about order and discipline, which are very much the qualities you need as an actor,’ he says.
‘You have to marshal your mind and body, and coming to work is a discipline. Punctuality, preparation and dedication are all vital. You can no more take time off from a show for your mum’s birthday than you could if you were on secondment to Afghanistan with the Army.’
So we can rest assured that Simon’s attention will not be deflected from the task in hand. He will be staying in London for much of the duration of his run in The Sound Of Music, as a four-hour commute to his home in Exmoor, Somerset, is untenable.
This means that he will miss the company of his wife Susan George, the actress-turned-horse-breeder, who held the enviable title Sexiest Woman In The World in the Sixties.
He finds such separations difficult. ‘I miss not being at home enormously,’ he says. ‘It’s the tough part of the job. But you relish the time you have together more.’
So, protracted absences keep the flame of passion alive?
‘Of course, they do! Such things make life richer.’ He warms to this theme. ‘You enjoy everything more when you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone to get it; if you strive or wait, it’s that bit more satisfying.’
Work has enforced other separations. When Simon, now 56, played dashing medic Harry Harper in BBC’s enduring hospital drama Casualty for three series, he kept a pied-a-terre in Bristol, where the production is filmed.
Susan, meanwhile, stayed on the farm caring for the 50 Arabian horses from which she breeds. But her first profession was acting – she made her name in the controversial Sam Peckinpah movie Straw Dogs – and I wonder if she hankers after it.
‘The jobs I’ve been doing have been very time-consuming,’ explains Simon. ‘It’s made it hard for me to be available to look after the farm. But we’ve never been professional competitors. I don’t think Susan believes that what she’s doing is a compromise. She was an internationally recognised movie star. Now she wants to be recognised as a world-class breeder of Arabian horses.’
Another thing Susan is celebrated for is having dated Britain’s then most eligible bachelor in her youth. Prince Charles invited her to his 30th birthday party, a brief romance – about which she has remained silent – ensued and they have remained friends. Was the Prince a hard act to follow?
‘That’s irrelevant,’ says Simon, a touch peevishly. ‘Prince Charles is an exceptional human being and it’s a great privilege that we’re friends. He’s a man who cares very deeply about so many issues – and he’s done a great job bringing up his kids.’
So do Simon and Susan drop by for tea at Highgrove? I jest.
‘One does not “drop by” for tea with Royal people,’ he replies, as if correcting a genuine social solecism. ‘We do not seek any kind of acolyte attachment. We get on with our lives and we are very pleased when we are invited.’
I wonder if, what with Susan’s Sexiest Woman title and a clutch of celebrity suitors including George Best and Jimmy Connors, Simon ever felt it would be a challenge to keep her?
‘It never crossed my mind,’ he says. ‘You go into a relationship because you believe in each other.’
Certainly, the marriage has endured. Next year, he and Susan celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. ‘We always mark anniversaries and we will do something special for that one,’ he says. Will they grow old together? ‘Yes! This show will run and run,’ he says. ‘Who better to grow old with than your best friend? We’re very compatible.’
The secret of their marriage’s longevity is that they are ‘best mates’ he says. Indeed, they were friends for five years before they began a romance.
Simon was married to, though separated from, the actress Fiona Fullerton when he met Susan. He’d married Fiona when he was 24 and had yet to achieve career success.
However, within two years of marrying he earned international acclaim in the 1978 film Death On The Nile, for which he won a Most Promising Film Actor award. After his marriage to Fiona began to crumble, and lured by Hollywood, he left to pursue a career in the U.S. for six years. He once remarked that he regretted his decision to ‘cut and run.’
Today, he says: ‘We were two young people who got on very well, but the evidence was that the marriage wasn’t going to last, so I left. It wasn’t a mistake. I don’t believe in mistakes. Sometimes you just move on.’
Aside from acting, he has a parallel career as a TV director and producer and he and Susan have their own production companies, Anglo Films International and Amy International Artists. So what with the horses as well, life must be pretty busy.
They have not had children, neither were there any from his first marriage. ‘It just didn’t happen. There’s nothing to talk about,’ he says, perhaps a little too quickly. ‘But now I’ve got dozens,’ he says, referring to his von Trapp role. ‘It’s great. I have all the nice bits, then they go home to their mums and dads.’
Has it awakened any latent paternal feelings? ‘No more than anything in acting. No more than playing an 18th-century pirate awakens a desire to be a swashbuckler. I’m very realistic. I don’t hanker after things I don’t have. I live pretty much in the moment. This is what I am. This is what I have.’
Here he goes again, sounding just like brusque, no-nonsense Georg von Trapp as he was at the start of The Sound Of Music. But, as we all know, the widowed sea captain has a tender side, too. (It just has to be exhumed by a scatty ex-nun called Maria with the voice of an angel.)
There are hints that Simon, too – while not enamoured of a singing nun – has a softer side beneath that stiff-upper-lip exterior. For years he and Susan cared for her elderly parents, then for her ailing sister, all of whom have since died, at their home.
‘Families should look after their sick and elderly parents,’ he says. ‘People farm them out to homes, but they should stick together.’
It is such sentiments that speak of his genuine kindness. He laments, too, the loss of his own dad who had Alzheimer’s and who died, aged 83, last year.
‘It was not a distressing decline in so far as he was very calm and happy,’ says Simon. ‘His awareness of things around him was negligible, but he was never fretful.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that can leave people in a miserable state, but he was very well nursed and he had a joyous spirit.’
There is much, however, to celebrate. His mum Gill is still bright and independent, and since he passed the watermark age of 50, Simon’s career has burgeoned. It has encompassed theatre, film and TV – from Shakespeare to U.S. soaps – and he believes it ‘arrogant and smallminded’ to dismiss the latter as ‘mediocre art forms’.
He draws the line at some things, however, notably Big Brother.
‘It’s like throwing Christians to the lions: the final stage of decadence, the last stop before oblivion. I despise it. I feel very strongly that TV has a moral responsibility not to fill the airways with this vacuous stuff.’
He also has misgivings about the TV talent shows that propel unknowns into the limelight. One such show, indeed, discovered Connie Fisher, the first Maria in this acclaimed production of The Sound Of Music.
‘Connie was, for me, pretty much a hands- down winner from the start,’ he says. ‘But on some of these shows, you hear these guys singing week after week. You know where they came from; what they had for breakfast. Their whole life is eclipsed into a 12-week series, so they’re almost as well known as your own family by the end. There are no surprises left.’
His own Maria is played by Bonnie Langford’s niece Summer Strallen – she took over the part from Connie – whose route into the show was unconventional. As part of a sophisticated publicity campaign Summer was ‘planted’ in the teen soap Hollyoaks as the character Summer Shaw who was also vying for the role of Maria.
Just as the fictional Summer won the part, the real-life Summer made her debut in the London stage production.
How does her co-star view her unusual entrance into West End stardom? ‘I love to see people with such talent getting an opportunity,’ says Simon. ‘Summer was given the part and she plays it exceptionally well. I have no problem with the process by which she got here.’
As Simon takes over the role immortalised by Christopher Plummer in the 1965 multi-Oscar winning film, I wonder what memories he has of the movie.
His answer is a surprise: he must be one of only a handful of people in Britain who hasn’t actually watched it. ‘I don’t know if I ever saw it,’ he says vaguely.
‘I’ve a feeling I might have seen bits of it. I’ve some images from it in my mind. But that’s it.’