Simon Oates played John Steed in the short-lived stage production of The Avengers. Best known as John Ridge in the BBC's environmental thriller series, Doomwatch, Simon Oates enjoyed a long and celebrated career in the performing arts. He made his popular breakthrough in the BBC thriller series, The Mask of Janus and the Spies, before making memorable guest appearances in The Three Musketeers and several ITC series, appearing alongside such luminaries as Jeremy Brett, Peter Wyngarde and Richard Bradford. He also guest starred in The Avengers episodes, You Have Just Been Murdered and Super Secret Cypher Snatch and, in The New Avengers, Hostage.

On Saturday 1st November 2008, Simon and his lovely wife Jaki kindly welcomed Alan and Alys Hayes of The Avengers Declassified into their home in East Sussex to conduct the following interview.

Maybe we should start off with your earliest days in acting, Simon. How did you get your big break in the profession?

"I was at Drama School and we were invited to be in a Mystery play at the Everyman with Robert Eddison. I was seeing a girl at the time who was actually a pro actress. She was working at Chesterfield for Gerry Glaister, who became a big TV producer and director, and she met me and saw this, knowing I wanted to turn pro. Her father, who was very wealthy, had arranged for her to have her own repertory company for a period of time. She said, 'I'll tell you what, you were my leading man in my company, and I'll give you a list of the plays that you did', which of course I hadn't done at all! She went back to Chesterfield, where she was a juvenile lady, met Gerry and recommended me to him. He took her word for it and so I started in Chesterfield on 18th July 1954 in a play called Someone at the Door. I went up there as a fully fledged actor only having done amateur stuff before, but I blagged my way through it and that's how I started. Fortnightly rep at Chesterfield, York, Birmingham and all over the place in various rep companies."

Did you find rep gave you a strong grounding in the business and helped you later when you came to work in television and film?

"Totally. You had a week to learn your lines and moves, then you played them. When you were playing them, you were rehearsing the next week's play. You were in rehearsal at ten o'clock until five o'clock, then on stage at half past seven. When you went home, you learned the next day's act, which used to take me until about one in the morning. It was hard, but if you could do it, you could do it. But it was, obviously, great experience for a young actor. If you've done four years or so in rep, nothing can happen on stage that you hadn't already had to deal with in that learning curve. As for television, I treated it exactly the same, except I didn't have to talk so loud to reach the back of the gallery!"

Did you have a particular approach to acting?

"I wasn't a method actor, I was a me actor. I remember doing one rep show and I went on and tried to play myself. I'd thought about all the big stars. If you saw John Wayne, you wanted to see John Wayne. When you went to see the stars, they were who you wanted to see. The character they were playing may have been interesting, but you went to see the man. So, I realised that if I'm the leading man in the rep, the audiences are coming to see me in this, playing this part, so I thought it was a good idea to play myself and as far as possible, that's what I've always done."

Has this policy ever made approaching any particular role difficult, if there were parallels with your real life?

"The one part ever where I had a hard time of it for this reason was in a Doomwatch programme. At the time, my father was dying and I had to leave for a couple of days to be with him. Coincidentally, the storyline for that particular episode replicated that situation and my character's father was dying, too. I said to the producer, Terence Dudley, that I couldn't do the scene until it was all over and asked if we could shoot that scene last. Terry understood and agreed to it. So, we shot that scene last. I did it, got it out of the way, and was cuddled away to my dressing room. I knew I couldn't have done it until then. Another Doomwatch that was tough for me was Tomorrow, The Rat. It was about mutant rats that had become super-intelligent and there was one scene where I had to go and find the woman who I'd been having an affair with, dead on the floor from all the rat bites. Again, I said to Terry that it was a scene I couldn't possibly do twice – and so we did it just the once. Certain things are so close that it's so difficult to recreate or live with them. I know I may sound like an over-the-top, farty old actor when I say that, but you know what I mean."

You've directed a very large number of productions for the stage. Did you ever entertain the thought of doing likewise in television or film?

"No, not really. I like the freedom of directing on stage and I've had dancers and singers, actors and technicians working with me. It used to get bloody noisy sometimes and I'd boom out, 'one voice and it's mine'! Instant silence! They all realised I knew more about most things than they did – even on the technical side. I knew what I was doing and I liked the control. On the stage, it's one man's view. If it's bad, you get the blame and if it's good, the cast get the credit. Well, there you go… That's the way it works, but it's got to be as seen in one man's eyes. What you put on is what you are seeing, and you can't blame anyone else for what happens. I like that very much. I've been very lucky with the things I've directed. I directed Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and played the narrator a number of times and my production is still playing today in various places. I loved it."

Click Here To Read Part Two: On The Telly

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© Alan and Alys Hayes, 2009

The Stage Show:
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Interview: Simon Oates
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Interview: Simon Oates
1. Early Days
2. On The Telly
3. Doomwatch
4. The Avengers
5. The Cockney Comic
6. Looking Back