Obituary: Simon Ward, actor
Born: 19 October, 1941, in Beckenham Kent. Died: 20 July, 2012, in Somerset, aged 70
Simon Ward made a major impact when director Richard Attenborough cast him in the classic 1972 film Young Winston, which captured the early years of the future war leader. Ward gave a performance of dedicated skill, providing a deft balance between Churchill’s grand upbringing at Blenheim Palace and at Harrow school, and the drama of his years as a war correspondent in South Africa. With much cunning Ward was able to conjure up the impression of the young Churchill without relying on an over- emphasis on his voice or mannerisms. Ward’s youthful appearance, his fair hair, bright blue eyes and clear-cut vocal delivery made him ideal for the role.
Yet as an actor, Ward was never confined to aristocratic roles. He played with some relish a country vet, a Nazi, was in several Hammer Horrors and a homicidal maniac in Simon Gray’s first stage play Wise Child. His last stage appearance, in 2010, was in Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III which toured Scotland.
Simon Ward was the son of a Beckenham car dealer and was determined to become an actor. From his early teens he trained with the National Youth Theatre while attending Alleyn’s School and then joined London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, finding work in the mid-Sixties in various repertory companies. One notable appearance was at the Nottingham Playhouse opposite Judi Dench in a little known Alfred de Musset play called The Firescreen, directed by Frank Hauser. Ward gained further recognition when he played the juvenile lead in the first revival of Joe Orton’s controversial play Loot in 1966 in the West End.
That led, the following year, to him being cast in Gray’s first play, Wise Child, alongside Alec Guinness. It was again a controversial play in which Guinness appeared in drag throughout; the sturdy Scottish actor Gordon Jackson played a rapacious, God-intoxicated homosexual and Ward was a mother-fixated wimp. Guinness and Ward became close friends and Ward and his family often visited Guinness at his home.
The filming of Young Winston was a considerable undertaking. Not only did it include the battle of Omdurman but Ward had to portray Churchill’s hazardous escape from a train carrying prisoners on the Veldt. Ward captured the glamour of the Churchill character with a down-to-earth practicality – thus giving him a definite charm and fascination. Ward was careful never to allow the character to become stereotypical or predictable.
In the movie Ward starred alongside Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins and Robert Shaw. Some critics found the film something of a biopic but they all praised Ward’s commanding performance. Not only did he physically resemble Churchill but he reproduced his voice – both as a youth and in later years – with an unerring accuracy. Ward narrated the film with passages from Churchill’s own writings and invested the author with a growing humanity.
Other major films followed, and he played a good Nazi opposite Guinness’s tormented Hitler in The Last Days of Hitler (1973), the Duke of Buckingham in The Four Musketeers (1974) and again starred opposite Hopkins in the original film of All Creatures Great and Small (1975). In 1992 he was cast as Linton with Ralph Fines as a domineering Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. It was also the first time Ward appeared on film with his daughter Sophie.
In 1987 Ward was attacked in north London by a man with a shovel. He underwent major brain surgery but no-one was charged as there were no witnesses. Ward developed the blood disorder polycythaemia, which leaves sufferers prone to heart attacks and strokes.
Showing typical resolve, he continued to work, although he and his wife, Alexandra, moved to Somerset more than a decade ago. In 1995 he took over at very short notice the central role in Gray’s Cell Mates when Stephen Fry mysteriously left the show after a week.
Ward was often seen in Scotland in major tours. Well remembered are Beyond Reasonable Doubt, An Ideal Husband and The Thirty Nine Steps. His extensive appearances on television included Roads to Freedom, An Inspector Calls and Lovejoy. He also was a regular in both BBC TV’s Judge John Deed and The Tudors.
But his increasing disability forced him to cancel a scheduled appearance as Alfred Doolittle in a revival of Pygmalion last year.
Ward preferred to maintain a private life and avoided the limelight – especially after his move to the West Country, spending as much time as possible with his family and grandchildren. He recently commented: “I’ve never desperately wanted anything, neither fame nor riches.”
Simon Ward is survived by his wife Alexandra, their daughter Sophie Ward, who appears as a character in the TV series Holby City, and his younger daughter, Kitty who is married to the comedian Michael McIntyre.