As she focuses on the future SUSAN GEORGE opens her heart for the first time about the loss of her husband and soul mate SIMON MacCORKINDALE
Tucked away in a remote comer of Exmoor with her horses and dogs around her, actress Susan George is busy – very busy. It may seem a strange time to take on such a heavy workload, but she’s the first to admit that it helps numb the pain of losing her husband and soulmate, actor Simon MacCorkindale, who lost his brave battle with cancer last October.
Just days after celebrating their 26th wedding anniversary, Simon died in Susan’s arms. He had fought the disease for five years, but when the end came it was swift and unexpected.
“It was so sudden,” says Susan, welling up. “He was such a strong and powerful person, so indestructible both mentally and physically, and in our minds he was always going to beat it. Never once did we doubt that.”
Simon was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2006, during his six-year spell playing Dr Harry Harper in the hit BBC drama Casualty. To begin with he kept his illness secret, even when, during a gruelling West End run of The Sound of Musk, he was told that the cancer had spread to his lungs. Only after that exacting role was over did he finally go public in an interview with HELLO!.
“He never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him. He just wanted to lead a normal life and be himself,” explains Susan, 60, with her beloved Irish setter Tenor at her side. “Simon’s oncologist used to say, ‘If I didn’t know physically what was going on, I would never believe anything other than that you’re an incredibly fit man.’ It was astounding how he remained so strong.
“There’s a saying, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans’… and we had so many,” says the actress, whose own acting career has spanned five decades and saw her co-star with Dustin Hoffman in the controversial 1971 film Straw Dogs.
“All I can do is try to deal with what has happened and try to come to terms with it.”
And that’s just what Susan is doing. As well as running Georgian Arabians, her successful Arabian stud farm set in 50 acres among the rolling hills of the West Country, she’s organising an exhibition of equine photography this summer, expanding her range of aromatherapy products for horses, and continuing to write her autobiography. Not to mention reading film scripts and fielding acting offers from the US. As she prepares to face the future alone, Susan opens her heart to HELLO! and shares her determination to make a go of her business: “It was Simon who gave me the support and encouragement to make my dream come to fruition. I’m not going to let him down.”
It was a brave battle that you and Simon fought together. How are you coping now that it’s over?
“When people ask, ‘How are you doing?’ the truth is, I don’t know. I think I’m doing quite well, but it’s an impossible question to answer.
“I have my moments when I’m so together, I feel I am moving forward with strength and clarity and beginning to adjust a little to life on my own. Other times, I fall apart, and it happens in a trice. Just at the mention of his name… like now… and I feel so broken.”
You both explored every possible treatment of his disease. Did you ever imagine he wouldn’t be cured?
“Never once. We were determined and totally believed that he would get better. We did everything. But there’s a part of you that wonders, ‘Could I have done more?’ It’s a question I ask myself constantly.”
Has it changed you as a person?
“At the moment, yes. I sometimes feel as if I’m outside myself, looking in. I’m usually very instinctive, someone who just goes and does, but for the first time in my life I am giving things more consideration.”
If there were any positives you could draw from the traumatic years of Simon’s illness, what would they be?
“There is nothing positive, in light of the outcome. But I saw such wonderful bravery, courage and tenacity in Simon. His spirit was indomitable. There were times when he suffered, but he never complained. The respect I have for his dignity and determination is beyond compare.”
Is there any resentment that life should be so cruel?
“I used to say we were lucky for what we had in each other, the unlucky part was getting the disease. Not for one moment did we resent it though, we just knew that that was the way it was, and we had to deal with it Simon and I had a love that most people only dream about finding. I feel that I’m the luckiest person on this earth to have shared 26 years with him.”
Why did Simon choose to keep his illness secret for so long?
“It meant he was able to be himself and not feel that anyone was saying ‘poor Simon’. He was such a positive person and, in our minds, was going to beat it”
When did you notice his health start to go downhill?
“It was all so sudden. It was our 26th wedding anniversary on 5 October, and Simon had booked a beautiful hotel for us. The Horse of the Year show – of which I’ve been honorary president for 13 years – was on, and he’d suggested coming with me to make it fun for us both. He’d had bouts of illness over the years, which twice resulted in pneumonia, but he was always fantastically brave about it. He’d go into the London Clinic and, three days later, he’d be out of hospital full of energy again. That night in the hotel he became poorly and we were scared – and the next morning I drove him straight to the London Clinic.”
Did you realise how serious the situation was?
“Typically, when we arrived at the hospital, he made light of it and we thought he’d be in for just a few days, as did his oncologist. The staff were incredibly upbeat. He had another respiratory infection and needed to be there, but that was all. He was adamant that I should go to the horse show and do my job as president – he had a strong sense of duty and never let anybody down in his life. So I went back and forth.
“In the week that followed I was with him every day, but things were going wrong, horribly wrong and on 14 October, in the night and in my arms, I lost him. It’s so unbelievably cruel. There’s no explanation. There’s no point asking questions. Everybody did their very best”
Has your faith helped to carry you through?
“Absolutely. We always believed we walked with God and He walked with us. I thank God that he let Simon go in the way that he did – without fear and feeling that he was still strong and was going to recover. He left this Earth the man he was.”
Did you ever discuss what might happen in die future?
“People ask me incredulously, ‘But didn’t you ever talk about this day?’ The answer is no, never. When something so gigantic and painful happens to someone you love, you don’t ever talk about it going wrong, you don’t go there, you have to believe and talk about the future and getting out the other side.”
Living out here on Exmoor with your horses and dogs, do you take comfort in the fact that this was where you lived and loved?
“Completely. I’m secure in the fact that Simon is right here beside me. I live alone, but I don’t feel alone -1 feel that Simon is with me. We were lovers, best friends and soulmates. Every decision we made, we made together and I make sure that we still do. I talk to him. I ask a question and I get the answer. At the moment I don’t want to be far away from our home, and that’s a bridge I know I eventually have to cross.”
Have you gained anything from the experience?
“I think I’ve gained strength of character. Maybe I always had it, but recently it’s come to the fore. I have to forge a path to the future – I have no option. I know Simon would have wanted nothing more in the world than for me to laugh, be happy, get on with my life and continue to make him proud.”
Will there be a memorial service?
“Definitely, but I haven’t yet decided on a date. His funeral was small and very personal and if I could have, I would have had it alone with just him and me and Tenor. But you have to think of other people and their grief, and he left surrounded by friends. I want his memorial service to be a celebration of his life, all that he was and gave to this planet. He was, for me, a one-in-a-million husband; there will never be another Simon.”
You’ve built up your business around Arabian horses. Was Simon into horses as much as you?
“When I met Simon, he’d never even put a head collar on a horse but, like everything in life, he threw himself into it 100 per cent. Georgian Arabians was originally my passion and creation, but it also became his, and the breeding programme has taken years to come to fruition. He took such pride in all we had achieved. Ten foals are due in the next few weeks, all from home-bred stallions.”
You seem to have a real affinity with horses…
“I communicate with my horses and they seem to respond to that. They understand me and I understand them: the trust is implicit. I am hoping this year to organise some events introducing Arabian horses to children with disabilities, as I know how they can help open up communication. These horses are so responsive, and whatever they receive they will give back in spades.”
Tell us about your other projects…
“In recent years I discovered a flair for photography and it has grown into Susan George Photography, a business specialising in equine images and etchings. I’m self-taught, totally untechnical, but I love to capture the moment, the movement, the eyes, the heart and the soul of my subjects.
“Simon was a huge believer in my work and had plans to market it on a grand scale. We’d already had several exhibitions and there’s another planned in London for this June. I’ve also been invited to exhibit in South Africa next January, and after that in America. Then there’s my equine aromatherapy company Susan George Naturally, which has been going for many years in the UK. Recently, I’ve been in talks about setting up franchises and selling our products worldwide.”
What about reigniting your career as an actress?
“Extraordinarily, I’ve had a lot of phone calls over the past weeks and a lot of interest from America. Acting always brought me tremendous happiness and when the right piece comes along, I’ll be there.”
Simon always spoke of his desire to see you finish your autobiography. How’s it coming along?
“If it had been done last year as we’d planned, it would have been smiles all the way, with him at my side. He loved to listen to the hilarious and sometimes catastrophic stories of my years in Hollywood, and wanted the world to hear them too. I have picked up where I left off. and although it’s a daunting task, I write from the heart and I love to do so.”
You have said before that when God closes a door He opens a window. Has one opened for you yet?
“Yes, definitely. It’s just a small gap at present, but it’s opening a little bit each day. There are difficult times ahead, but I know I have to move on. I hate the phrase ‘move on’ because I’m not moving away from something, I’m moving with something. The hurt is at times indescribable, but I think it’s important people know that I’m not hiding under a bush somewhere unable to cope. Because I am coping, whatever that means.”