REVIEW: AN AFTERNOON WITH JOSETTE SIMON OBE

On Sunday 2 October, Cygnus Alpha Events hosted 'An Afternoon With Josette Simon OBE' at The Lost Theatre, Wandsworth, London. Josette was interviewed on stage by Ian Kubiak about her extensive career and charity work. Our roving reporter Annie Worrall was there to witness it.

Excitement and trepidation; that's what I feel sitting in the appropriately named Lost Theatre, waiting to greet Dayna. Josette Simon has been lost to the convention circuit for thirty odd years and now, unexpectedly, she is ready to meet her fans. Will she disparage the show I love so much? Will she unexpectedly announce that she is ready to return to the role of Dayna with Big Finish Productions? I fear and hope in equal measure.

Then she appears, as lovely and elegant today as she'd been all those years ago, commanding the stage with her luminous sincerity.

She starts by revealing that she stumbled into acting to help out a friend. Encouraged by Alan Rickman - they bonded while performing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat - she ditched University for the Central School for Speech and Drama at the eleventh hour to the dismay of both her family and head teacher. Blake's 7 came next, but we're not going to talk about that, are we? Oh you tease, Ian Kubiak. She then spoke about her casting by Sir Richard Attenborough (another close friend) as Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, in the film Cry Freedom. The film incensed many black South Africans but she won them round by researching and rehearsing for the role until she became the woman she was playing.

Josette spoke about her recent television appearances in Casualty (above) and Death in Paradise. She loved them both as they involved playing strong females and, in the case of the latter, a trip to the Caribbean. This was "so much nicer than the quarries of England" where she'd cut her acting teeth. Quarries? Were we now getting to talk about Blake's 7? No we were not. Instead we move on to Josette's appearance in Merlin which led to her being mobbed at the gates of her daughter's school! More seriously, we learn how important it is to Josette to be seen as an actress who is black, rather than a black actress. Warned at Drama School that her colour would be an obstacle to securing classic leading roles, she refused to let this limit her ambitions and her hard work has gradually won her recognition. We are thrilled to be told that next March she takes on the role of Cleopatra for the RSC. Notes for our diaries, people. (See below for more details.)

Josette also spoke movingly of her role as a Patron of the Alzheimer's Society. She explained that Alzheimer's is not just about forgetting; it is a different and terrible way of living. She illustrates this with a moving account of her mother in the grip of the disease, perceiving the swirly patterns on her carpet as deadly snakes every day until her death. Seeking something positive from this experience, Josette offered her services to the charity and is now a trained Ambassador for the illness, aiming to increase our understanding and sympathy for those struggling with it, whenever she gets an opportunity. A further "wow" moment ensues when she reveals her talent as a signer, having mastered sign language up to the very difficult third level in order to converse fluently with her best friend's son. She is a patron now of five separate societies but, unsurprisingly, isn't planning to take on any more!

And so to the elephant in the room. Is it true that she is ashamed of her role in Blake's 7? Had she and the other actors disliked each other? Why has she shunned the convention circuit? She recently completed two Doctor Who audio adventures with Big Finish (with Paul McGann and Tom Baker!) will she now undertake a Blake's 7 adventure?

It is immensely heartening to hear that Josette has fond memories of being Dayna and of her fellow actors. Paul was a terrible tease, Jacks was motherly, Steven was a good friend and they all loved working together. Phew! But we are saddened when she tells us she does not plan to return to the role. Josette feels the series belongs to a time which is over for her and she prefers to undertake new creative challenges. Well, fair enough. But then, faced with our obvious disappointment, she tells us she won't say she will NEVER reprise Dayna. So fingers crossed everyone, there's still hope!

As for not going to conventions, she explains that this is because she finds them too stressful. Josette is a fiercely private person and having to account for Dayna all day is not something she enjoys. (Possibly because, as the affectionate anecdotes she shares with us reveal, she only half remembers events that happened while she was still at drama school.) Hopeful of changing her mind, we all pour out our love and appreciation in a standing ovation.

Meeting Josette Simon was a privilege. Friendly, relaxed, generous, straightforward, her integrity shone both in the interview and in her interactions with the fans. She is, we all agree, an inspiration; her heart and spirit as magnificent as Dayna's; her motto, "always do the thing you find most terrifying," a stirring challenge.

Cleopatra is a role she was born to play.

Ann Worrall

You can book tickets to see Josette in Antony and Cleopatra here:

https://www.rsc.org.uk/antony-and-cleopatra/tickets

The event was organised to help raise money for two fantastic causes - Parkinson’s UK and The Alzheimer's Society. Find out how you can help using the links below:

https://www.parkinsons.org.uk/content/donate

https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents.php?categoryID=200123

Find out more about Cygnus Alpha Events here:

http://www.cygnusalpha.org/


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