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John Simm: The Actor on Grief, Clubbing and his Northern Soul

The Times
Georgina Roberts
11 May 2022

Pictured: John Simm

John Simm | Photo Credit: MATT HOLYOAK/CAMERA PRESS

Actor John Simm, 51, was born in Leeds and started out playing in a band with his musician father. He is best known for starring in Life on MarsDoctor Who and Mad Dogs. He is now playing DS Roy Grace in ITV’s Grace. He lives in Brighton with his actress wife, Kate Magowan, and their son and daughter.

Hiding behind my guitar was like hiding behind a mask. I grew up watching my dad play working men’s clubs in the Seventies and Eighties. I started doing them with him from 13, when I learnt guitar. Those audiences are notoriously hard. It made me grow up really quick. I was very shy and would just stare at the floor. My dad was constantly nudging me and telling me to smile and move.

I found it hard being myself in front of an audience. I had to pretend to be somebody else. Maybe that’s why I became an actor.

Abattoirs are horrendous. The smell and the noise. It was difficult filming a Life on Mars scene in an abattoir, then being served beef sandwiches. It took a while to get over that. I’m not veggie and I apologise to the world for that.

When someone dies, you’re left with this huge black hole in your life [Simm’s father died in 2015]. People say, “You’ll get over it,” but I don’t want to get over it. I always want to remember my dad. I’ve still got his number in my phone. Every so often I see something on TV that I think he’d like and I pick up my phone to text him, still. What I find with grief is if I’m driving and I hear a song he taught me that we used to play in the clubs, I’ll have to pull over. It hits me like a ton of bricks. It’s like a punch in the stomach.

In my twenties, I scratched all the itches. I was 20 in 1990. To be in London at that time was great. Once I left drama school, I was out in the big wide world, working and having fun. I’d go clubbing and enjoy the whole scene. It’s not as if I wasn’t functioning properly. I was just having a good time – up until Human Traffic [a film about club culture] came out, which, ironically, put an end to my clubbing life. That and having a child. It was fun while it lasted.

My parents’ divorce messed up my world. I was 13 and it was a strange time for me. I was doing the clubs with my dad, so I was very close to him. I had to go off and live with my mum and sisters, which I didn’t want to do, but he said, “You need to go and look after them.” I used the divorce as an excuse to escape. Soon after that, I left home, went to college and became an actor. They ended up getting remarried, so it was all fine in the end.

Being from the north was fashionable in the late Eighties. I played on that when I came down. I was a chippy northerner who thought, I’m not losing my accent. I’ve been here since I was 18 and I’m 51 now, so inevitably it has watered down a little bit.

We actors subject ourselves to a weird frisson of fear. When you’ve got to go on stage, that feeling is absolutely terrifying. But it’s the reason we do it. The longer you leave it, the more terrifying it becomes. Every single time I do it, I look at myself in the mirror and think, “Remember this feeling. You never need to put yourself through this again.” But you always forget.

Looking back on interviews I’ve done makes me cringe. I’m not sure I was ever young and cool. But I’m not as mouthy any more, I hope.

Grace season 2 is on ITV at 8pm on Sundays and on the ITV Hub

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