20 Questions: Michael Simkins – 'It would be ill-mannered to have regrets'

The actor and writer on his stage adaptation of Roger and Charlie Mortimer’s ”Dear Lupin”, and why he’d like to swap places with Ken Dodd

1. Where and when were you born?
On the Great West Road (the A40) in Greenford, in 1957. But I regard my home town as Brighton, where we moved when I was aged four after my Dad gave up his career in the Civil Service to open a sweet shop!

2. What made you want to become an actor?
In addition to his duties as a newsagent, tobacconist and confectioner, my Dad was a semi-pro dance band musician and a bit of a dasher. Thus from a very early age I used to go and see him in various pubs and hotels, and it made me want to perform. We also had theatricals staying from time to time, and one such was the great Freddie Frinton, who was starring in The Frog Prince at the Hippodrome during Christmas 1964. It so happened my primary school was opposite the stage door so Freddie used to take me to school on his way in for rehearsals. Seeing him disappear into the stage door was very magical, and I thought, 'I'd like to be in there one day…'

3. If you hadn't become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I'd have become a teacher or worked in the Civil Service, got very overweight, joined the local Rotary Club, and done a lot of amateur dramatics.

4. First big break?
Walther Matthau said, "All a guy needs to make it in the business, is about 50 lucky breaks…" So – getting into RADA in 1978; with 4000 applicants and 21 places, there's none bigger. Then getting my Equity Card from the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. And then meeting Alan Ayckbourn, who took me into his company at Scarborough in 1980 and later on, to the National Theatre in 1985. He provided the bridgehead from regional rep into London and the West End.

5. Career highlights to date?
Working with Ayckbourn, acting with greats such as Jason Robards and Meryl Streep, and playing Billy Flynn in Chicago at the Adelphi Theatre – with a tux, a spotlight, a live band and surrounded by dancing girls, what's not to like?

6. Any regrets?
I've been so fortunate to keep working in the biz for nearly 40 years that to have any regrets would be ill-mannered. Maybe I should have stuck out for more television work, but hey, that's showbiz. I wish however I'd taken the offer of appearing in Laughter On The 23rd Floor with Gene Wilder in the West End – I decided to stick out for something better and ended up out of work for seven months.

7. What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in any of the Savoy Operas. I became obsessed with them, as did so many teenagers back then, and went to see them whenever I could for a couple of years.

8. And the last?
Posh by Laura Wade. If I could write plays like that I'd be a happy man. Extraordinary writing, great acting and brilliantly directed too.

9. Who are your acting idols?
Kenneth Sandford (D'Oyly Carte), Robert Donat, Lee J Cobb, Rod Steiger, Charles Laughton, and above all, Oliver Hardy; the greatest and purest comic actor of them all.

10. What's the best advice you've ever been given?
"It's not fair and don't be late…"

11. Why did you want to adapt Dear Lupin for the stage?
Quite apart from the chance to develop my own dramatic skills, I think it's a beautiful, understated and quintessentially English story of love between father and son. It speaks to us all, whatever our background and upbringing. Wonderful source material for a play.

12. How important was it to get real-life father and son James and Jack Fox to play the roles?
It's an enormous bonus. The chemistry and shared history between the two characters is crucial to the play's theatrical authenticity, and having James and Jack playing the two parts means you're on second base before you've even gone into bat. They have a similar intricate shorthand between them, just as with the characters, and it's a huge benefit. They're also both fine, fine actors of course.

'Intricate shorthand' - James and Jack Fox in publicity image for Dear Lupin
'Intricate shorthand' – James and Jack Fox in publicity image for Dear Lupin

13. Favourite moment/line in the show?
"Nidnod had flu and I weighed in with piles…"

14. Has Charlie Mortimer been involved at all in the play's development?
Very closely. For nearly 18 months Charlie and I would meet almost weekly, talking, reminiscing, exploring his history with his father and filling in the gaps between the letters. I simply couldn't have done it without his extraordinary generosity in opening up his own history, or without his trust in my judgement. Mind you, he's got a great ear for dialogue and a great nose for a good idea, so altogether he deserves much of the credit.

15. What do you hope people take away from the production?
A memory of a warm, witty play – and a sense of having experienced an authentic depiction of human emotions and family bonds.

16. What's your favourite post-show hang out?
The Colonnade bar in central Brighton. It's part of the original Theatre Royal building in New Road, and I have many memories of going there once I'd finished collecting autographs at the stage door. Great memories, and lovely to have a pint there knowing I'm now an actor myself.

17. How do you unwind?
Swimming, watching old British black and white crime thrillers with Wolseley police cars with ringing bells, and detectives leaning across from the back seat and shouting "Can't you make this go any faster, driver?". Also going to see county cricket.

18. If you could swap places with anyone for a day, who would it be?
I would once have said Shane Warne – the world's greatest bowler, and romantically attached to Liz Hurley. But maybe not now! Instead, let's say Ken Dodd – I'd love to make people laugh for five hours without any assistance from anyone. There really will never be another.

19. Favourite theatre anecdote?
The impresario Eric Maschwitz once went to Lewisham Town Hall to see how his production of the musical Goodnight Vienna was faring there. He asked the concierge at the door, "How's it doing?" "Well, Mr Maschtwiz," replied the concierge after a moment's thought, "About as well as a production of Goodnight Lewisham would be doing in Vienna…"

20. What's next?
I'm playing opposite Felicity Kendal In Noel Coward's Hay Fever in the West End. We did a short UK and Australian tour last year and it'll be lovely to be back with such a great group of people performing such an exquisite play.

Dear Lupin runs at the Theatre Royal Bath until 25 April before visiting Norwich, Cambridge, Malvern and Guildford