A letter to Simon Cadell - for his birthday on 19 July

This week, on 'My Teenage Diaries' on BBC Radio 4, I talked a bit about my oldest friend, the actor Simon Cadell (1950-96).  We met at school in the 1960s when we were both teenagers and were something of an odd couple - as you will discover if you read my diaries at greater length - still in print and published under the title 'Something Sensational to Read in the Train: The Diary of a Lifetime' - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Something-Sensational-Read-Train-Lifetime/dp/1848543115   Simon won an Olivier award for his last stage appearance, in 'Travels With My Aunt', but was best known for his work in television comedy, ranging from 'Blott on the Landscape' to 'Hi-de-Hi'.   In my diary, I wrote a letter to him on New Year's Eve at the end of 1999.  After Tuesday's broadcast, some people got in touch to say they'd like to read the letter in full - so here it is, revised in the run up to what would have been his 68th birthday next week, on 19 July.

Dear Simon - How are you?  Stupid question, of course.  You’re dead.  All the same, I wanted to write, both to mark what would have been your 68th birthday on 19 July and to think through why - more than twenty years after your death - I still miss you as much as I do.


You will be pleased to know that you have not been entirely forgotten by the wider public.   Predictably, it’s not for your stage work that they remember you: your Mercutio, your Hamlet, Oswald in Ghosts, that archetypal silly-ass in Tons of Money at the National, Elyot in Private Lives (those would be my top five), not even for your award-winning performance in Travels With My Aunt.  No, your immortality, such as it is, seems to rest on your portrayal of the holiday camp manager in the TV sit-com Hi de Hi.   It could be worse.  When the great Sir John Gielgud died, one tabloid ran the headline: ‘Dudley Moore’s Butler Dead at 96’.

Because for so long you were one of the masters of the commercial voice-over - at your peak earning a quarter of a million a year at the craft - you still crop up in unexpected places.   The other morning I stepped out of the London Underground at Bank Station and, suddenly, over the loudspeaker system, I heard you booming at me: ‘Mind the gap!’   It’s not much of a line, but I must say you do it brilliantly.  (Stanislavski: ‘There are no small parts, only small actors.’)

I stood on the station platform and let three trains come and go just to listen to you.  I could picture you in the recording studio: a small cigar in your right hand, left hand cupped behind your ear, your lopsided mouth close to the microphone, taking such pleasure in pitching it so perfectly.   It was good to hear that voice again (crisp, energetic, fruity, lived-in), a voice I heard most days, off and on, for thirty-five years.  You were my best friend.

You will recall that we met at Bedales, the ‘progressive’ coeducational boarding school in Hampshire, where, as a rule, it is the parents (from Oscar Wilde to Laurence Olivier), rather than the children, who turn out to be the achievers.   I was fourteen and you were twelve.   On your third day at the school, I sought you out.   My settled life-plan was to run the newly-created National Theatre before going into politics, becoming prime minister and running the country, and I had heard that your father was a theatrical agent (star client: Donald Sinden), your grandmother was an actress (Jean Cadell), and that you had been the all-singing all-dancing sticks-out-a-mile star at every play, performance and Christmas concert at the junior school.   I nabbed you for the lead in my end-of-term production of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  It was love at first sight.

This was the early 1960s, the dawning of the age of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but you and I (bless us) were living in another world.  Our heroes were Gerald du Maurier and Jack Buchanan.   I played you my Noel Coward records: you played me your Flanagan and Allen.   We spoke of Sir Ralph and Sir John, Sir Michael and Dame Peggy as though we knew them - and, as it happens, one day we would.  We took that for granted.

I see now what a quaint couple we must have seemed: an absurd pair of prematurely middle-aged teenagers who thought they knew it all.  In fact, while I had long sensed (at least since I was seven) that I understood everything - absolutely and completely - when I met you I had to concede that, in terms of sophistication and a thorough understanding of the ways of the world and the pleasures of the flesh, you were the undoubted master.

At thirteen you could blow perfect smoke rings (at that stage you preferred Gitannes to Gauloises); at fourteen you could tell the difference between a Chablis and a Montrachet at a hundred paces; at fifteen, girls would do things for you that the rest of adolescent Britain could only dream of.  (Do you remember that brief dalliance I had with the nurse in the sanatorium?  I suppose I was seventeen and she was 23.   It seemed to me to be the most thrilling thing that had happened in the long history of desire - until I gave you the graphic details and you explained to me, quite kindly, that, by your standards, my tentative kissing and cuddling was very thin beer indeed.)

Why did our friendship work?

We had common interests and shared values.  We were equally narcissistic, self-absorbed, ambitious, but never in competition with one another.   We were never critical of one another either.   In time, our wives might tell us to spend less, drink less, improve our posture, hold our stomachs in, but we simply accepted each other, exactly as we were, without qualification, without question.   Neither of us was ever judgemental.   If you had reservations about my politics (which you did) you never said so.  If I had reservations about your women (and the assortment was varied) I never spoke a word.

Our friendship may have been profound, but our conversation wasn’t.  We avoided introspection. We didn’t discuss our feelings, ever, not even when you were dying, possibly because we were middle-class Englishmen of a certain vintage, but perhaps, too, because, instinctively, each knew how the other felt and there really wasn’t any need.  We never had a cross word - not once in thirty-five years. 

Our relationship was totally secure and wonderfully uncomplicated.  There was no jealousy, no envy, no confusing desire.  That’s the joy of friendship: sex never gets in the way.   A love affair is fun, thrilling, (the highs so high), but it’s unsettling, dangerous, exhausting too; and, if you’ve been around the block, you know it always ends in tears.   Marriage (I think I understood this better than you) is magnificent - fundamental, essential, and, when it works (thank you, Lord), a blessing like none other - but it isn’t easy.   Living a lifetime with your lover/husband/wife calls for energy, staying power, infinite care, eternal compromise.  Ours was an altogether easier lot.  A friendship that begins in childhood is simply a favourite cardigan: you don’t need to keep it in good repair, you simply need to slip it on.

We were good companions, you and I.   We made each other laugh (without fail), telling the same stories in the same funny voices, year after year.   We had awarded ourselves a special licence (irrevocable) to quaff (the best champagne), to scoff (the finest caviare), to gossip until dawn.

We both went along with the Noel Coward line that ‘on the whole work is more fun than fun’.  That doesn’t mean to say that we didn’t take our pleasures where we found them.  (Do you remember the menu gourmand at the Hotel du Cap at Antibes?   Our wives said, ‘Eleven courses and a different wine with every course?  You can’t!’  We did.)    But, essentially, we were defined by our work rather by than by our family lives or our relationships.  Our careers came first.  Yours was more satisfactory, of course, because you never had any doubt about what you wanted to do.  Being an actor was your life: you were most alive in a studio or on a stage.  You relished and understood your craft.  (You were also very ready to share your experience.   When I was an MP and a government whip, you and I discussed John Major’s distracting way with words, his curious sing-song speaking voice and his annoying way of saying ‘want’ as ‘wunt’.  You suggested I suggest to the PM that you give him some help with his pronunciation.  Did I tell you that I did?  Mr Major was not amused.)

There was an unspoken conspiracy between us, wasn’t there?   It was our world and whatever we wanted of it could be, would be, must be ours.  Do you remember one summer turning up in the South of France at the villa your parents had rented and finding the sky hopelessly overcast?  You opened a bottle of champagne and stood there, glass in hand, glaring at the heavens, commanding the clouds to part.  Of course, they were happy - they were honoured - to oblige.

We thought we were invincible and then, one day, we had our come-uppance.   On the morning of Saturday 11 September 1993 I was standing in the kitchen at home, squeezing the breakfast orange juice, when the telephone rang.   ‘You are going to have to be brave,’ you said.   ‘I’m in the Harley Street Clinic.  It’s not good news.  I’m riddled with cancer.  It could be just a matter of days.  I’ll want you to do the address at the service.  We must talk about that.   And the music.  I think a combination of Charles Trenet and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, don’t you?’  

In the event, you struggled on for two and a half years, with such grace and style and indomitable joie de vivre.   John Wells (who appeared with you in Travels With My Aunt and then followed you all too quickly to the grave) put it perfectly: ‘Simon showed us how to live and then taught us how to die.’   You were very funny to the last.   A young nurse (she was very pretty) whipped back the bedclothes to give you an injection.  ‘Just a little prick,’ she said.  You looked at her indignantly: ‘Darling, there’s no need to be insulting.’ 

You will be happy to know you are still remembered - with love by your family and affection by your fans.  They've just repeated Hi-de-Hi - again.  And a complete stranger got in touch wanting to write your biography - so your story is now in print.  Your sons are all grown up and, you may be relieved to hear, neither has gone into the business but both are doing you proud.  Happily we see your mother now and again: she is 96 and struggling on valiantly.  Your brother (Patrick) is in top form.  Your sister (Selina) is a star - currently at the Old Vic. 

And how am I?  I’m fine.  I lost my seat at the 1997 general election (a relief really).  I’m a hack of all trades now: doing radio, TV, journalism, books, shows - the usual mix.   It’s fun.  I’m well paid.  I travel the world meeting interesting people.  I’ve lost weight.  I've given up drink.  I became a vegetarian at Christmas so I’ve given up the pate foie de gras, too.  It’s all okay.  It’s really very good.  I want for nothing and I surround myself with famous, funny and delightful people.  Oh yes, there’s still laughter at my end of the table - but, old friend, let’s face it: without you it isn’t quite the same.

 Yours ever, Gyles

Gyles Brandreth