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A TRIBUTE TO DOOMWATCH ACTOR SIMON OATES 1932-2009

Actor Simon Oates, best known for his role as Doctor John Ridge in Doomwatch, 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 adventure series, including The Avengers. He even played John Steed, Patrick Macnee’s signature role, on the stage. 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 an interview. The text reproduced below with full permission focuses on the part of the talk that dealt with Doomwatch. The full interview can be read here

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 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.”
Doomwatch is probably the series for which you are best remembered today. It was a popular series, often uncompromising and challenging. Did you enjoy working on the series and did you realise then just how ahead of its time it was?

“It was a total delight. The creator, Kit Pedler, was a genius. Doomwatch was science fact, totally science fact. Obviously, we told stories, but they were always based on what could and often did happen in the fullness of time. I can remember one where we had a man out in space at the same time as an American astronaut was actually zooming around up there. We’d do a scene, then go down and put the radio on and listen to what was going on. It was practically happening at a parallel to what Kit had written – and then our one died and we got a bit worried. Was this an indication of what was going to happen to the real one? Of course, it didn’t happen and he was alright, but that was very close to reality. Kit Pedler saw so far ahead in some of the things that he did, he was practically clairvoyant. A brilliant mind… I trusted him implicitly – in fact, we all did. He was a lovely, lovely man. Very clever and very nice. You felt safe in his hands. We had a very strong team too – John Paul, Robert Powell, Joby Blanchard and others. Doomwatch was a joy – and that really was when you couldn’t go out in public! Sure, it was nice to be well known – of course it was nice! People often say that they get so bored with being recognised – not me. I was delighted!”

Did the attention ever turn nasty or unpleasant?
“Only about one per cent of the time. I’ve always treated everybody I met as a friend. You get what you give in life, I say. It’s always seemed to work for me, and that’s how I’ve been through life. I’ve not had many confrontations at all.”
Dr. John Ridge, your character in Doomwatch, had what would today be called a character arc. It developed throughout the series, culminating in Ridge becoming mentally unhinged and threatening the world with phials of anthrax. The series creators, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, distanced themselves from this storyline, claiming it had moved too far from the series intent. Do you remember the controversy and how did you view these developments?

“There was conflict between Terry Dudley and the writers at that time. I think the storyline went a little beyond credibility. It was leaning a bit more towards Doctor Who than Doomwatch really, and I do remember thinking, that’s it, it’s going to go into fairyland quite soon. When people run out of ideas, they start looking for hooks to hang things on and that’s what they did. I was so proud of what we’d done in Doomwatch that I didn’t want to be involved with something that might be going a little bit under-par.”
Despite that, the storyline prompted your face to be emblazoned across the cover of Radio Times magazine. How was it going into the local newsagent’s that week?
“It felt marvellous. I mean, can you imagine, walking in and there you are, everywhere. It’s got to feel good, hasn’t it? Let’s be honest. It was lovely. A bit of a shock to the system, but part of the game. You get lucky, you get the front of the Radio Times once in a while. Not many people have done that. I did once get a letter from Who’s Who, asking if I wanted to be listed in their publication. I jokingly sent them a letter back. I couldn’t resist asking them, why, why?”
Shortly after the series finished, a feature film of Doomwatch was produced, but your colleagues and yourself were relegated to cameo roles. How did this come about and did you find it a disappointing experience?

“I didn’t want to do it. I hadn’t seen a script or anything like that, but I didn’t think it would work. I was actually working around about that time, in any case, so I said I couldn’t possibly do it. They then came back and offered me silly money to be in it. Not long after, I realised that we’d been shafted. They’d cast Ian Bannen – a lovely man, who I liked very much – to play what was basically my part. It cost them… but I was ashamed that I gave in to the money. I should just have said no, because it was a terrible film - a really crap film. But I did. No, not one of my most favourite episodes. We were shafted, basically.”
Looking back on your career, what would you pick out as the highlights, the roles that meant the most to you?
“Obviously, I liked Doomwatch for what it did, and I enjoyed working on The Spies and The Mask of Janus. Many other things, too. But my favourite was definitely the stage show, Privates on Parade. That was beautiful. I played Captain Terri Dennis and I absolutely, totally, totally loved it. I would say that if I wanted to be remembered for anything, that’d be it. Yeah. That was me. No, I’ve had a life to die for. I’ve had ups and downs personally, just like anyone, but I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying life than the one I’ve had in theatre, television and film. I’ve been so lucky and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity.”

At the time of this interview, Simon was undergoing treatment for a long-term serious illness. Sadly, Simon succumbed to cancer a mere six months later, on Wednesday 20th May 2009. Simon was a delightful, witty and above all, generous and kind man, and the world is worse off by far without him. Our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Jaki and their family and many friends.

Thanks to Alan and Alys Hayes courtesy of The Avengers Declassified for allowing us to feature this interview and to Zac Crockett for the illustration and Anthony Brown for the exclusive photograph.


Simon Oates Interview
by Anthony Brown (circa 1992)


Career Start

“I did the conventional thing. I started in rep and did four years solidly, came back to London and, concisely, I got into the West End and then television. I was lucky; 1 got into leading roles quite quickly. I did The Vortex with Ann Todd, then The Mask of Janus for the BBC, which went on to become The Spies. They were continuous series, they just changed the name, in which I played the Head of Intelligence, a very square character in a suit, and Dinsdale Landen was the footman, going out and doing the legwork.”

The producer of The Mask of Janus, which began in September 1965 and ran for twenty-six episodes, was the late Terence Dudley, who remembered Simon when he needed someone to play a rather different spy in a new series called Doomwatch.
“Ridge, the character in Doomwatch, was basically me. I was in the Intelligence Corps, you see, and a lot of the lines were mine too. Terence Dudley gave you a fair amount of leeway in the way scenes were played, and of course Robert Powell and I got on terribly well. We didn’t quite adlib because the cameras were on us, but the lines were loose and they knew Bob and I were going to get there, hit the marks and say most of the lines, so they were ready to pick up things which went on.
“Ridge was an interesting character because he was sardonic, he was arrogant, he had a sense of humour, but he was possibly too aware. He let things get to him too much, but I think that was me coming through.”

No Acting Required


“One could almost say there was no acting required, which is stupid, because they were such wonderful parts to play, with wonderful bits like the end of Tomorrow, the Rat. I refused to rehearse that scene where I come in and find the body because I wanted it to be completely real. I’d never gone into that room before, I didn’t know where the body was going to be, I didn’t know what I was going to see.” That episode is one of four available on BBC Video, and having now seen them again, Simon is impressed. “I hadn’t thought of them for some time, but I’m amazed the BBC haven’t repeated them. The stories are so interesting and tightly written.” Watching the series through again, Simon was struck by one point: “In Tomorrow, the Rat I was surprised to see, when (‘Toby Wren) is sitting on the stairs waiting, he lights a cigarette. That wouldn’t happen today. People lost their bottle in television, and it’s easier to say, ‘No, people don’t smoke’ rather than, ‘Some people do smoke. I smoke, that’s life, for good or for ill.”

Halfway through recording the first season, the opening episode was transmitted, to an astonishing response. “It was a shock to the system. I’d done The Spies and been recognized, but we started to record these and had some in the can before they went out, and there was suddenly a massive reaction. It all hit the papers and, because of the character I was playing, the ladies man, if I had coffee with someone I was having an affair with them. I got fed up with that, being a universal product.”

Toby Wren

The success of the series made it clear very quickly that there would be a second season, but while Simon Oates had signed for two years from the start, Robert Powell had only ever intended to do one year. Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis decided to write out Toby Wren with shocking finality. “Nobody could believe that they would actually kill off one of the leads of a series. The impact of that was enormous, it was like seeing Patrick MacNee get shot, and I got letters about it. I sometimes wonder at the intelligence of people who watch television, because they’d ask me (Simon Oates, not John Ridge) ‘Why didn’t you save him. You shouldn’t have let him be there on his own’. Personally I was extremely distressed that Robert, as a friend, wasn’t going to be around, to have laughs with in rehearsal, to get drunk with and play snooker. We got on terribly well and after that, although I didn’t lose interest in the series, I did feel it had lost an enormous dynamic. His character’s diffidence and rather scholarly attitude, not quite approving of my character, gave a lovely edge to the series. I felt as if somebody had taken a crutch away.”
The second season opened with You Killed Toby Wren (also available on video) which dealt with the aftermath of Toby’s death. “I was able to use my feelings about Robert leaving in that. I could entirely visualize how I would have felt had he been blown up, and it wasn’t difficult for me - though I loved John Paul dearly - to direct that at Quist as a character. I think I threw a chair at him at one point, and that certainly wasn’t in the script.”

Downhill Slide

Unfortunately the scientific idea behind that episode wasn’t as well conceived as it might have been, and this became a common failing in the remainder of the second series, eventually leading to Pedler and Davis’s departure from the series. “You’ve put your finger on one of the reasons why I left the series. I remember some stories were brought before us, I don’t remember which, but they really had little to do with the conception of who we were. They didn’t gel with what we were supposed to be doing as a Doomwatch team, They started to scratch around for ideas a bit. You had to have Kit Pedler - he was an essential for the series. His mind was incisive, he knew what he wanted and he wrote what he wanted. “I’m not saying that Dennis Spooner is a run-of-the-mill writer because he’s not, but you can’t just say to a writer, ‘There’s this government organization, these are the parameters of what they do, write me an episode’. You’ve got to have seen it, you have to know what these people are like. They weren’t writing for us, they were writing for characters called John Ridge, called Quist... You were in the awful dichotomy of trying to fit what you knew you were into what you were given. In the first season there may have been some stories which weren’t as good as others, but the characters were strong. It was when you had to fight a change in your character to make the story work... I couldn’t compromise, and that is why I left.”

The Film

Shortly afterwards the film version of Doomwatch was made. Until recently this was the only example of the series which could be seen outside of conventions, but it is hardly typical Doomwatch, with the television cast sidelined or omitted in favour of Ian Bannen’s Doctor Shaw. Simon Oates’ opinion of it is blunt:
“I was ashamed I ever did it. I really should have said no, but they offered me so much money.”

Simon was persuaded, however, to return to Doomwatch for four episodes of the final season. Driven mad with frustration, Ridge threatens to destroy London with phials of Anthrax unless the government starts to take the ecology issue seriously. “They were finding a way to make a decent exit for the character, so I had to be fighting the establishment even more than I was before.”
After leaving the series Simon almost found himself playing another spy, in the form of James Bond. “I was more than a possible for the part. I was told that I was going to do it, but then Sean Connery came back and said he’d do it if they gave his fee to (the Highlands and Islands, and when it came up again I was doing something else. I don’t regret it that much — I’m very happy with the way my life has gone.” Instead he was asked to play John Steed in the ill-fated stage version of The Avengers, alongside Kate O’Mara, Sue Lloyd and Doomwatch co-star Wendy Hall.

Playing John Steed

“I didn’t go up for that. They asked me to do it, and I asked them about Patrick MacNee. I phoned Patrick in America and said, ‘They want me to do The Avengers on stage, why aren’t you doing it’. He said that he wasn’t really in shape at that time, but was happy for me to do it. After that I agreed; I wasn’t prepared to do it until I had heard from him personally, because if they were going to do that without asking him, they could have found another person to do it. It wasn’t a bad show, but it was accident prone - the number of times I had to push that bloody Bentley off the stage, ad-libbing as I went, and then the helicopters didn’t come down... I really ad-libbed my way through the first night, there were so many things that went wrong I was amazed we ever finished it, but the audience were with us — I think they understood we were fighting a rear- guard battle all the way. I was so grateful for having been a stand-up comic before then because you needed to be, but it was great fun.”

Simon was approached as the obvious person to play the stage Steed before even a director had been appointed, and was in fact given a veto over the eventual choice. “I wanted Peter Hammond to direct it. I’d done The Three Muskateers with him (and with Jeremy Brett and Brian Blessed) and we got on like a house on fire, and as he’d directed The Avengers on television I wanted him to do the stage play, but he was busy doing something else.” Instead Leslie Phillips was chosen. though he proved a little difficult to work with. “Being an actor, he wanted to play all the parts himself.”

As the only ‘other’ Steed so far, Simon suspects that it’s still too early to revive the series without Patrick MacNee, but if a revival were made... “Of course, if they did it now, Pierce Brosnan would be the ideal choice. I did a Remington Steele which was never shown over here, and there was a possibility that I might have been his father. He was very funny.”

Nowadays Simon Oates’ work in dinner theatre in the United States has left him comfortably off, und he can afford to let work come to him, though he sometimes worries that his attitude puts producers off. “I don’t go, ‘Oh gosh, it’s a wonderful part... I say, ‘Tell me about it’ and as I don’t gush I think they think I’ m going to be difficult, and difficult I’ve never been.” In recent times he has appeared in an episode of Bergerac and the BBC play Gas and Candles, hut one role in particular would interest him — playing John Ridge in any Doomwatch revival. “You try and stop me!”


Simon Oates
Photographed at his Country Cottage  in June 1991 - © Anthony Brown




Filmography
Simon Oates
Born 1932 - Died 20th May 2009

Simon Oates was an English actor best known for his roles on television.He was born in Canning Town, East London, and subsequently moving to Finchley in his teens, Oates trained as a heating engineer for his father's firm, before becoming an actor. Working in theatrical rep during the 1950s he was leading man at York Theatre Royal for some years, before getting a big break in television in the science fiction series Doomwatch as Dr. John Ridge, for which he is perhaps best known. (Co-stars included John Paul as Dr. Spencer Quist and Robert Powell as Toby Wren). He appeared regularly as Anthony Kelly in the 1960s espionage series The Mask of Janus and its spin-off series The Spies.

His many guest appearances include: The Avengers, Man in a Suitcase, Department S, Jason King, The New Avengers, The Professionals and Bergerac.
Oates also appeared as John Steed in the stage adaptation of The Avengers with Sue Lloyd and Kate O'Mara. He worked extensively in theatre in Great Britain, the West End and indeed, the world throughout his career, both as an actor and a director, and lived in Canada for some time where he had a touring theatre company.

In tandem with his straight acting career, Simon also appeared many times as a stand-up comic and compere, working with such stars as Tom Jones, Sandie Shaw, and The Who. He also appeared at the London Palladium with Dorothy Squires. He directed Woman in a Dressing Gown, starring Brenda Bruce at The Vaudeville Theatre. He also directed many musicals and straight plays on the touring circuit.


 




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