Simon MacCorkindale not only looks the part of Captain Von Trapp in The Sound Of Music, but he can empathise with the life of a military man more than most actors, finds Caroline Bishop.
Simon MacCorkindale is struggling to find an up-to-date photograph to accompany his profile in the programme of The Sound Of Music. It is a Thursday afternoon, he has just finished his first rehearsal on the stage of the London Palladium and is chatting to the company manager in the empty auditorium. He doesn’t want to give the audience a nasty surprise, he jokes self-deprecatingly, by using a photo that shows him years younger than he is.
But it shouldn’t matter too much, because when Captain Von Trapp steps out on the London Palladium stage on 25 August, anyone who has caught a glimpse of long-running hospital soap Casualty in recent years will recognise the face of MacCorkindale, aka Senior Consultant Harry Harper, who kept the corridors of Holby shipshape for six years.
Leaving the drama in March this year, 56-year-old MacCorkindale has swapped one patrician widowed father for another to make his musical debut in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music, playing a role he seemed destined to occupy from the beginning.
“It actually came about – and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say this – when it first opened; it did actually get discussed then,” he tells me, as we leave the auditorium behind and sit in a plush room somewhere in the rabbit warren bowels of the London Palladium. “I was due to come out of Casualty for a sabbatical in the November, and I just thought very seriously about whether there was any way I could somehow fit it in, whether it would work. And then it became quite apparent that with my Casualty schedule and everything else it just wasn’t going to be possible.”
Instead, MacCorkindale used his break from Casualty to re-enter the theatrical waters with a tour of Agatha Christie thriller The Unexpected Guest, before returning to finish his contract on the television soap. Two cast changes later, The Sound Of Music producers asked him again. “They were rather flatteringly determined that they would try to persuade me, and they managed to do so. I’m immensely flattered that they went to such trouble to try to convince me to do it. I’d always had a hankering to do it. I did kind of go, d’you know what, I missed out once, maybe I’m not supposed to miss out on this.”
"They were rather flatteringly determined that they would try to persuade me… and they managed"
It is not surprising MacCorkindale was pursued for the role, because his face just fits. Tall and tanned, with a strong brow which gives his eyes a dark intensity and an upright, confident posture, MacCorkindale looks every bit the off-duty military man – especially given he is wearing a suit and tie to rehearse in.
He certainly paints a vivid picture of the sort of man Captain Von Trapp is. “Here is a man who is clearly heading to the top of his tree within the Austrian navy at a time when the Germans took over the Austrian seaboard, so there was no navy left, so effectively he was a man who lost his job and his calling in life. And then he loses his wife. And as soon as that happens he’s devastated, because he’s lost two things; he’s lost his purpose in life, his job, and he’s lost his right arm in his wife, and he’s got these children. And so he’s reverted back to type in terms of the only way to run a house is to run it like a ship.”
Speaking rapidly, he continues to describe in great detail the back story of the Austrian naval captain and father of seven, so much so that it is clear the actor has a great empathy for the character. In fact, he says he understands a lot of the background of what Von Trapp would have been feeling because he experienced the military life himself. His father was in the Air Force and the young MacCorkindale grew up in that disciplined environment. Unlike other airmen’s sons, he took to it happily and never rebelled.
It is ironic then, that instead of following his father’s footsteps into the military, MacCorkindale decided to become an actor, a decision which must have been considered a major act of rebellion in itself. “In a funny way,” says MacCorkindale, reminiscing, “the discipline I learned from him as an airman, and subsequently going to public school with the same disciplines carrying through, the nomadic existence of the Air Force and the nomadic existence of an actor, actually all of that was preparation for the kind of road [I was] going down.”
Despite being shocked by his son’s decision, his father said he would support him financially to go to drama school rather than university, but the pair made a pact, says MacCorkindale, that if his acting career wasn’t going well by age 25, his father could “exert some parental pressure” and make him “do something sensible”.
“Effectively,” continues MacCorkindale, “what I didn’t know until some years later was that the next year was very, very tough for him. He found it very, very hard to relate to what I was doing at all. In a way I had emasculated him, I had emasculated my father clearly on the basis that his son and heir was going off to do something that he could not help me with, he didn’t understand it.”
"I had emasculated my father clearly on the basis that his son and heir was going off to do something that he could not help me with, he didn’t understand it."
The actor is clearly still emotional when he thinks back to his relations with his father at that point in his life. He says the turning point came at the end of his first (and only) year at drama school in 1972, when he appeared in a George Bernard Shaw play for two nights at a festival in Shaw’s birthplace, Ayot St Lawrence. His parents came to the first night. “[I] felt a little bit of a barrier breaking down with Dad, but I wasn’t even quite so aware of how bad the barrier was,” he says. But the defining moment for the young actor came on the second night, when he once again saw his parents in the audience. “What Mum told me later was that they had been sitting at about four o’clock in the afternoon at home, and Dad suddenly said, ‘Simon’s doing the play again tonight isn’t he? I think we’ll go’.
“I always remember that, it’s a very emotional moment. I never can talk about it without actually really feeling that that was the day that Dad came on side.”
His father never did have to enforce their pact, as by age 25 MacCorkindale had been cast in the 1978 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot whodunnit Death On The Nile, a part of a star-studded cast that included Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury. Screen success followed, both in the UK and US, with roles in films The Riddle Of The Sands and The Quatermass Conclusion, the latter alongside John Mills, whom MacCorkindale introduced to his father. “Sir John was just a pillar of society… So dad said, I’m actually sitting here with a real gent, who has a perfectly normal life; it’s perfectly possible for my son to not end up on skid row.”
MacCorkindale’s screen career flourished in the 1980s and 90s, with roles in television series Manimal, Falcon Crest and Counterstrike, alongside Christopher Plummer – who played Captain Von Trapp in the original 1965 film of The Sound Of Music – and numerous other television appearances until the show he is now most recognised for, Casualty, came calling in 2002.
Theatre, then, has featured less in his career until now, and indeed one reason MacCorkindale was keen to leave the hospital soap after six years was to get back onto the stage. “I love the theatre. I love that space and I love the feeling with the audience and I hadn’t done it for a long time. I just felt it was very important to me to get back in to do it,” he says.
As well as The Unexpected Guest, MacCorkindale starred in a tour of Sleuth directly after leaving Casualty. The two productions have allayed the slight fear he had about theatre that “I would actually be too frightened to do it”. He adds: “That proved not to be the case. I was delighted, I went back on and I just took to it again and I loved it.”
"You’ve got to go back and get that one-on-one connection with an audience, because if you want to make people laugh or cry you’ve got to get the immediate feeling"
There were other reasons, too, why MacCorkindale felt the lure of the stage. “There was also the side of it that said you’ve got to go back to your roots, you’ve got to go back and get that one-on-one connection with an audience, because if you want to make people laugh or cry you’ve got to do it and see it and get the immediate feeling, because on television and film you don’t. It’s really important for an actor to have that feeling.”
A further, more business-like reason was that after six years on location in Bristol filming Casualty, MacCorkindale was feeling out of the loop. Already, he says, since being in London he has bumped into actors and directors he knows, had business meetings in town and started to resurrect projects for his long-running production company, Amy Productions, which has been on the backburner during his time in Bristol. “Once the play starts running and I have the days, I’ll be in Soho and I’ll be doing all sorts of things that I want to do, and people will be much more aware of what you’re doing, which actually, in a funny kind of way, they weren’t. I thought I need the business to be aware of where I am and what I’m doing.”
So, though he “had a great time” in Casualty, and though it brought him public recognition, MacCorkindale feels it did not raise his professional profile in the same way. “I think, to be honest, if you want to get nice parts in the movies that come through you need to be working in the West End and you need to be working in higher end television perhaps. So I just thought theatre would be a nice place to go. And I would love to have the opportunity to do some cracking play with a Maggie Smith or a Judi Dench or whatever and I didn’t think necessarily that the phone call would come by just sticking around in the television show.”
I get the impression that MacCorkindale needs to have lots of irons in the fire. Does he ever switch off? He pauses and thinks. “No, I don’t,” he laughs. “I like achieving things.” Even when he is at home on the stud farm in Exmoor that he runs with his wife, the actress Susan George, he can’t stop doing things. “Going home and sorting things out and putting things away and getting the place looking nice, I find that relaxing, but by equal terms I also find it very unrelaxing,” he smiles, before adding. “I don’t even know what bored is. I haven’t been bored for as long as I can remember! I do need to work on the work-life balance just a little bit better I think. But we are so blessed. One does hear it from artists every now and then, to actually think that we do this and get paid for it. It’s what fuels us, and it’s great.”
One person who must understand that sentiment is George. MacCorkindale’s wife played little Brigitta in the 1962 London stage production of The Sound Of Music. “It’s kind of emotional for her, going back to what is such an important part of her life,” he says. George will be in the audience to see her husband playing Captain Von Trapp, as will MacCorkindale’s mother, who is a big fan of the show. But the real military man in the actor’s life won’t be there; his father passed away last year. The emotion comes back to MacCorkindale’s face as he smiles and concludes “I think he would have liked it”.