Actor and star of Heartbeat

Born: November 17, 1940;

Died: June 21, 2019

WILLIAM Simons, who has died aged 78, was a promising child actor, who lost his confidence when he developed debilitating acne as a teenager and trained as a stage manager, only to later resurrect his acting career and appear in more than 350 episodes of the police drama series Heartbeat between 1992 and 2010.

Simons played PC Alf Ventress on the light-hearted drama, which was set in the 1960s in the fictional Yorkshire village of Aidensfield and the nearby town of Ashfordly.

It was originally adapted from the Constable series of novels by ex-policeman Peter N Walker, writing under the pseudonym Nicholas Rhea, and was developed by Yorkshire Television as a vehicle for former EastEnders heartthrob Nick Berry.

Berry left in 1998, after seven series, but his departure certainly did not spell the end of the show. It evolved into more of an ensemble drama and was attracting an audience of almost 14 million in 2001. It eventually ran for 18 series, with Simons appearing throughout the run.

His character was unambitious, lethargic and often rather grumpy, but he had an encyclopaedic local knowledge, which often proved invaluable. He retired in Series 13, but continued in a civilian role.

A lawyer’s son, Clifford William Cumberbatch Simons was born in 1940 in Swansea, where he spent the first few years of his life before the family moved to London.

He showed an early talent for acting, singing and dancing, and made his film debut at the age of nine with a small role in No Place for Jennifer, a 1950 drama starring Janette Scott as a girl distraught at the break-up of her parents’ marriage.

He then landed a major role in Where No Vultures Fly (1951), starring Anthony Steel as a game warden, with Simons as his son. It was shot on location in Kenya and Steel and Simons reprised their roles in a sequel West of Zanzibar (1954).

He also had a starring role in the 1954 BBC TV adaptation of the children’s book A Castle and Sixpence by Margaret Joyce Baker. With appearances in other series, he seemed almost ubiquitous on children’s television for a while. Then came the acne that brought his acting career to a grinding halt.

“I developed acne so bad, I just wanted to run away and hide,” he said in an interview in 2013. He once compared himself to The Elephant Man and various medical procedures were attempted to try to alleviate the condition. It left him pock-marked and scarred.

For several years he worked as a stage manager, before concluding “it felt like too much hard work”. Although he realised he was unlikely to land many roles as a romantic lead, he thought he might be able to get work as villains and heavies.

He joined the Stables Theatre Company in Manchester, which was financed by Granada Television, and many of the plays were adapted for TV. He played Abel Garland in a BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop (1962-63).

Numerous other guest roles and one-off appearances followed. He was Rita’s violent and often-absent boyfriend Harry Bates on Coronation Street in 1972, he had a regular role as the lawyer Martin O’Connor on Crown Court (1973-83) and he was the leader of an underground resistance group in the Doctor Who story The Sun Makers in 1977.

Having played a series of villains in his early years as an adult actor, he subsequently landed a string of roles as policemen. “I had my first police role as a beat bobby in Emmerdale in 1976,” he recalled.

“I started to get recognised more after playing Constable Thackeray in the Victorian detective series Cribb… I was also playing another policeman called Inspector Fox in the BBC's Inspector Alleyn Mysteries while making the first two series of Heartbeat.”

Simons enjoyed making Heartbeat so much and it took up so much of his time that he and his wife bought a cottage in Goathland, which served as Aidensfield on the series.

But Heartbeat became so popular that it brought thousands of fans to the picturesque village and Simons lamented that he could not step outside without being stopped by fans. He eventually moved away.

Another challenge was that PC Ventress was a chain-smoker, whereas Simons did not smoke. He smoked herbal cigarettes for the role.

"Heartbeat gave me enormous pleasure because everyone got along so well,” he said in one interview. But it was well-known that he and co-star Bill Maynard did not get on. Maynard spoke about the rift publicly and suggested that Simons was jealous because Maynard was getting more money and had his own caravan, whereas others shared caravans. Simons refused to be drawn into a public squabble.

He was a patron of Changing Faces, a charity that supports people with disfigurement. His first wife Janie died in 2002. He remarried and in later years spent much of his time in France. He is survived by his second wife Jackie. He did not have children.