"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


‘You’ve done it again!’ says Actor Simon Williams

Features |

Noël Coward, 1964

Going backstage? Actor Simon Williams advises you what to say to the stars – whatever you thought of the show

Going to the theatre is simple enough. Going backstage afterwards to visit one of the cast is a minefield. In his dressing room,

you’ll catch the actor with his trousers down, literally and metaphorically. Out of your mouth will flow a torrent of random adjectives. Some of them will get caught on auto-repeat, ‘So, so intriguing ... really intriguing. Just, you know – intriguing.’

You can’t stop yourself gushing – of course, you weren’t ‘overwhelmed’; quite the opposite.

Actors are taught always to favour verbs and nouns, but secretly they prefer adjectives. (I once found an actor googling the word ‘mediocre’ to check it didn’t mean what it said in the local paper.)

With the sweat still on his brow from the curtain call, the actor is in a post- coital state. This is not the time for honesty. He doesn’t want questions, either: ‘Who made you do that little jump?’ All he really wants is ‘Darling, you were wonderful!

It’s best to avoid raving about his co-star, who might be upstaging him or sleeping with her/him – or both. Don’t tell an actor he was great in Act II – or he’ll get paranoid about Act I.

Mealy-mouthed fellow actors may damn him with faint praise: ‘You made a good fist of it, mate,’ or ‘I think you got away with it.’ Others may infer they turned down the part.

Superstars are generally magnanimous when visiting lesser thesps backstage, their disposition always sweetened by a knighthood or an Oscar. So there’ll be bear hugs and, ‘A-maz-ing, darling!’

What the actor dreads most is the director revisiting his production to ‘take out the improvements’. Actors often need reminding of the aphorism ‘Less is more’. Or, as a young movie star was told, ‘Don’t just do something. Stand there.’

I once heard a director telling an actor, ‘Acting is not like justice, dear – it doesn’t have to be seen to be done.’

Noël Coward’s entourage was always eager to see how he’d dodge the truth backstage with his ambiguous exclamations: ‘My darling! You’ve done it again!’ Or, breathlessly, arms open wide: ‘What – about – you!

When I took my seven-year-old son backstage to meet Douglas Fairbanks Jr after a matinée, he told him, ‘I thought you were jolly good.’

The great star thanked him, and my son went on, ‘Daddy told me to say so.’

The dressing room is the actor’s decompression chamber. Once he’s taken the curtain call, his mind will be on supper at the Ivy. As he takes off his make-up, his toupee, codpiece and corset, real life will slowly resurface: the trouble with his agent/wife/girlfriend/ personal trainer/ tabloids/ haemorrhoids/ bookmaker/ orthodontist.

He may pause for a moment to consider if the catch in his voice in the death scene really worked, or if he overegged one of his throwaway lines.

He’s given his ‘all’ (twice on matinée days) and then, on the Tannoy, he hears the announcement that he has guests. His heart sinks; the day’s work isn’t over.

‘We thought we’d just pop round,’ they gush, as he wonders who the hell they are. Out of their natural habitat and in their best clobber, they could be anybody; a cousin, a dog-groomer, a proctologist ... an assassin. Does he owe them money, perhaps, or has he slept with one of them once by mistake? People say they never forget a face, but God knows it’s easily done.

He wills the visitors not to sit down. They inspect his dressing table, the first-night cards, the throat pastilles, the moustache pinned on its block, the picture of him with Ian McKellen... He’ll be thinking of his supper drying out in the oven at home.

As he tries to put his trousers on, they’ll ask, ‘Is that real Champagne you drink?’ ‘How do you learn your lines?’ And, worst of all, ‘Our daughter wants to go on the stage – any tips?’

Oh, Mrs Worthington – DON’T.

I’m often visited backstage by old school friends, bloated from 30 years in Canary Wharf; tyrants that I fagged for in the dark ages.

They waddle in, cocking a snook at the wine on offer. ‘Chardonnay, Williams?’ They don’t mention your performance. ‘I bet you make a pretty packet, eh? Ten K a week plus ice and a slice?’

The most comforting words I’ve ever had backstage before a performance came from the adorable Marcia Warren.

She poked her head round my dressing-room door on a first night and said, ‘Darling, just remember there are over a hundred million people in China who’ve no idea you’re doing this play.’

The backstage comment that lives for ever in my mind came from an old family friend, Laurence Olivier. He came backstage after the last matinée of an old comedy – and we were all giving it plenty.

Leaning on my dressing-room door, he cocked his head and said in that quiet, sly voice he liked to use, ‘It’s always interesting, isn’t it, dear boy, to see how little we need to do?’ Enough said.

Simon Williams played James Bellamy in Upstairs, Downstairs

This story was from December 2023 issue. Subscribe Now