Susan George, who made her name as a sex siren in Straw Dogs, lost her husband, actor Simon MacCorkindale to cancer last year. Here she shares her advice on dealing with widowhood, and explains why she’s ready to start living dangerously again
THERE IS A NOTICE STUCK TO THE FRIDGE DOOR in the kitchen of Susan George’s rambling Exmoor farmhouse. From memory, it is the only thing on any surface in an otherwise immaculate room. Handwritten in capitals, it instructs: ‘Drink a glass of water every hour. Essential’ I mention it and Susan’s huge, dark eyes fill with tears. ‘I put that there to remind Simon’ she says. ‘And I will never take it down’ Simon is Simon MacCorkindale, her late husband. An internationally acclaimed actor, best known latterly for his long-standing role as consultant Harry Harper in BBC One’s Casualty, he died in her arms of cancer last year. He and Susan had been married for 26 years – he was admitted to the London Clinic for the last time straight from the luxury hotel room he had booked as a surprise for their wedding anniversary.
Theirs was an enduring love – a rare thing in showbusiness. They met at an Ella Fitzgerald concert in 1977, started dating in 1982 and married in 1984 when both were riding a wave of glamour and acclaim. He had been one of the first British actors to make it big in Hollywood. She starred as Amy Sumner in Sam Peckinpah’s astonishingly violent Straw Dogs. It made her name internationally as an actor and a sex siren, Britain’s own answer to Brigitte Bardot.
Susan is now 60 and the siren is still there, masking at first glance the widow inside her. She is tiny: slim but curvaceous in her blue jeans, brown leather riding boots and white and grey T-shirts, tightly layered.
In October it will be a year since Simon died and, although she no longer feels as if she is outside herself, looking in on her grief, she still struggles to express it, fiddling with her sleeves, playing with her signature long blonde hair as she searches for words.
We always believed we would beat this. A close friend said shortly after everything had happened, did you never think about things going wrong? And my answer was, when something like this happens in your life to someone you love, you never talk about anything but things going right and the future, hope and positivity, getting through it and out the other side. We believed we were going to win through.’
The couple told no one of Simon’s cancer, when he was diagnosed in 2006, not least because they were assured that once the diseased areas had been removed, he would be fine. Even when the cancer spread to his lungs and he was given five years to live, they kept believing. He continued working, even taking his first singing role as Captain von Trapp in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sound of Music.
‘Don’t think I don’t ask myself the question, “Was the work too stressful?” I think it was too stressful, but he loved to work. He wasn’t a workaholic, just adored his job and achievement. He worked harder than any other person I have ever met. He never took a day off sick, he thought illness was something you didn’t think about, you just got on with it.
‘I will never know why this cruel thing had to happen, but one thing I have to remind myself of constantly is that it would have been horrendous for Simon to live his life in any way as an invalid. He would have hated that and seeing his pain would have broken my heart into tiny pieces.’
The end was mercifully quick. Simon was leading a full life until that night in the hotel. At the hospital they thought he had another infection. ‘We had been here before and his doctors were confident and positive, assuming it was another blip, as we called it, and he would soon get better.’
He insisted Susan do her duty and attend – as planned – the Horse of the Year Show, as its Honorary President. She journeyed between it and his bedside, then, on the Sunday night drove down to Exmoor to pack the clothes in which to bring him home.
That night the clinic rang: her husband was asking for her. ‘He was struggling to breathe… I drove like a maniac. He started to relax as soon as I got there, but unbelievably it just got worse, every day, for days, it just got worse.’ Susan’s voice is a hoarse whisper. ‘I stayed with him every minute and I never let him know we were in trouble. He was always the unselfish one, always putting me first. Now it was my turn’
When she left the clinic, instinct drove her home to Exmoor, to the farm she and Simon had bought 10 years before and built up into a successful Arabian stud. The house is long and low and whitewashed, with beautiful views over meadows and the moor. ‘I love this place. I feel warm here and I know he is here with me’
It was instinct, too, that told her to take her time preparing the funeral service, choosing the songs and readings, making sure it expressed all that she felt, arranging for one of their beloved stallions to walk before the car. ‘Everything we did together we tried to do to perfection. I wanted that day to be perfect for him and it was. It was the most awful day of my life but it went perfectly’
It was just close friends who were there that day: most had last seen Simon at the party he and Susan threw for their 25th silver wedding anniversary only the year before. She shows me a silver-framed photograph of the occasion, with her husband, apparently in rude health, ruggedly handsome in a kilt. They remembered him just as he was, full of love and laughter on that wonderful night of celebration – he would have loved that’ They both had a firm Christian faith and in the days and weeks after Simon’s death, Susan spent a lot of time talking to God. ‘I talked to Him and to Simon and between the two of them they got me through. I do believe now that there is somewhere else in this universe, there has to be. I’d always been afraid of dying but Simon wasn’t and I’m not any more, because I know when my time comes he will be there’
In those early days she found ‘tremendous closeness in letter-writing to Simon. She wrote often through the first awful Christmas. Susan has no children (asked if she regrets this, there is a brief pause before an answer centering on the fact that she has 60 Arabian horses). Her father, mother and only sister – 12 years older – all died before Simon. Her closest relation now is her mother-in-law ‘Mrs Mac’ and she, together with ‘some really close friends’ saw Susan through the day.
It was the first of the bridges she has had to cross in widowhood. Another has been learning that she can live alone. ‘I had no option,’ she says. ‘Life will never be the same, I know that. Somehow I have to accept that’ The demands of Simon’s acting work meant that although they both abhorred separation, they were used to it. Susan was used to running the stud – Simon always referred to her as ‘the Boss’ – to being independent, to getting on with life. ‘Having him there at the end of the phone made it possible for me to be the most courageous girl on the planet because when I needed him he was just a phone call away’
Now, despite her ‘family’ of staff members for the stud, despite her friends, she is really on her own. ‘Had I ever contemplated it, I would have found the thought terrifying, but now my mind is so full and everything is so demanding that sometimes I am grateful for time in my own company’
She found the administration that follows a death almost overwhelming. Simon was extremely organised – it was a standing joke that his desk was always meticulous, while hers was organised chaos. Susan says that over the years though, she has learnt to follow his lead. The fact that he kept everything in our lives in beautiful order has been the most enormous help, but obviously there have been mountains and mountains to deal with.’
Like so many marriages, hers was equal until it came to handling money. ‘He really shielded me from the financial aspect of things. I hate figures, I hated mathematics – it was my worst subject at school. I never had anything to do with it – he did it all. Now the ball’s in my court and gosh, have I had to grow up a lot. Not that I wasn’t a grown-up, but I’ve had to change. My life used to be a lot more frivolous and playful, but I have become much more businesslike – I’ve had to. I have to make this business work now.’
There are in fact four businesses. Most obvious is the stud. Susan takes me to see the immaculate stables, this year’s foals (a poorly one is monitored from her desk on CCTV), the show horses, the stallion still prancing after his day’s work. She has pulled on a quilted jacket and with it a new persona: the proud breeder striding through her yard. I find myself scurrying to keep up.
The horses have produced two spin-offs: the Susan George Naturally collection of salves, balms and shampoos, designed by her for horses, tested on humans. To date the formulas have been blended at the farm but Susan intends to start production in America and the range will go worldwide. So will her photographs. Her Spirit of Equus exhibition is showing in London now at the Brompton Quarter Brasserie and next year she is taking it to South Africa and California. She is working on a second collection, The Colours of Oman.
There is also her production company, Amy International, as well as P3, a company pioneered by Simon and formed with producer friends of them both, primarily to back television projects that she hopes to see flourish.
‘Simon so wanted me to write my autobiography; he believed that my life had to be shared and he begged me to do it. I have to fulfil that promise to him and have again begun the process of writing.’
She is keen to act again, something Simon also vehemently wanted her to do. “You know the re-make of Straw Dogs is coming out in September? It’s hard when someone tells you they are doing a re-make. The first thing you think is: they can’t possibly do that without me, how dare they? But time moves on, you have to accept that.’
She has done some consultancy for the director Rod Lurie and spoken with leading lady Kate Bosworth. Susan says she had made bold choices in her interpretation of Amy and ‘if I was to do it all again, I would make the same choices’.
As she talks there is the smallest pang of envy in her voice about the new film. ‘I would love to have as much power and impact in something new today,’ she admits. ‘I’d enjoy the challenge. An American producer asked what it would take to bring me back to the screen and I said “danger, something courageous, jumping off a bridge without a safety net”. That kind of part would get me back. So that’s the mission.’
She feels ready. ‘Don’t force yourself to do things you are not yet capable of. That doesn’t mean don’t try – you must try all the time – but recognise the right time. The moment will come.’
She recently backed out of a charity ball she was due to attend: ‘Instead I went for an eight-mile ride on Exmoor, and I know that was the right decision.’ But she forced herself to attend the opening of her London exhibition. It was a great success and boosted her confidence on all sorts of levels.
‘Before it, I had no idea how I was going to cope, but I felt strong, stronger than I have for a while. He was everywhere that night, my Simon, and I know he would have been truly proud of me.’