Obituary: William Simons – In-demand child actor who became an admired and reliable character actor
William Simons was already a familiar face on television when he became a household name as PC Alf Ventress in ITV’s hit nostalgic police drama Heartbeat. Alongside Derek Fowlds, he was the only actor to stay with the show for its entire 18-year run from 1992, appearing in all 355 episodes.
Born in Mumbles, South Wales, the family moved to London after the war where Simons showed an early interest in acting, making his screen debut at the age of eight in the 1950 British film drama No Place for Jennifer. In the following decade he became an in-demand child actor, taking lead roles in A Castle and Sixpence (1954), Pinocchio (1955) and Jo’s Boys (1959).
His early theatre ambitions were curtailed when, as a teenager, he developed severe acne, the experience later prompted him to become a long-standing patron of the facial disfigurement charity Changing Faces.
After a four-year spell in stage management, he returned to the stage in Marghanita Laski’s first play, the post-nuclear holocaust drama The Offshore Island at the Arts, Cambridge in 1958.
An admired Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1966, he was a mainstay of Giles Havergal and Philip Prowse’s tenure at the Palace Theatre, Watford, where memorable roles included Fluellen (Henry V, 1966), Lord Henry (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1967) and Aramis (The Three Musketeers, 1968).
In the late 1960s he also made several appearances with Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, and with the Stables Theatre Club, Manchester.
Later stage outings included Anthony Minghella’s Two Planks and a Passion at York Theatre Royal in 1985, Sue Townsend’s Are You Sitting Comfortably? at Farnham Redgrave, in 1987, and as a brutal, jackbooted spiv alongside Bernard Hepton’s titular tatterdemalion soldier in Walter Acosta’s adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ No One Writes to the Colonel at the Lyric Studio, Hammersmith in 1991.
On television, he proved a reliable character actor, appearing in Coronation Street on three occasions, and found his niche as a policeman in a long run of programmes including the Victorian-era Cribb (1980-81), Juliet Bravo (1985), The Bill (1989) and Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn Mysteries (1990-94). His Heartbeat character was also seen in the spin-off hospital drama The Royal (2003-04).
Clifford William Cumberbatch Simons was born on November 17, 1940 and died on June 21, aged 78.
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