It’s one of the hazards of an actor’s life: that people think you’re the same off screen as you are on it. Because the actor Humphrey Bogart often played “tough guys” in his films, in real life he was constantly being challenged by men who wanted to prove that they were tougher than he was. He had to learn to joke or charm his way out of these annoying situations.
At a lower level, actors who play villains in soap operas may find themselves being shouted at on the street – or worse – for things that they’ve only done on screen. A lot of people find it hard to distinguish between fantasy and reality. And even if you know the difference, it can be difficult to feel it. A good actor can make the character he plays seem real, so that it’s hard to remember that the actor has a life of his own.
Take the British actor Jason Watkins, who was widely praised for his performance in the two-part docu-drama The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies. He portrayed a retired school-teacher who was wrongly accused of murder. And his acting was so good – so convincing – that he won a BAFTA. And he’s gone on to have other successful and widely-watched roles. Each time he’s convincingly become another person, so that it’s hard to remember that he has a life of his own. But he does. And with life comes loss. He and his wife Clara Francis has suffered one of the most painful things any human being can suffer: the loss of a child.
Their daughter Maude was only two-and-a-half when, at the beginning of 2011, she died suddenly and unexpectedly. She had been ill with a cough and breathing difficulties, but the doctors who examined her didn’t think it was serious – just a minor infection. She was sent home from hospital and her parents thought, yes, she’s getting better. They put her to bed in her cot. A few hours later her father went to check on her. She was dead. The infection wasn’t minor but very serious: it had triggered an over-reaction from her immune system, which had begun attacking the very organs it is designed to protect.
The condition is called “sepsis” and the two bereaved parents are now campaigning for greater awareness not just among the public, but also in the medical profession. This is one way in which they are trying to cope with the pain and loss they still feel six years after their daughter’s death. Out of the very bad thing that happened to them, they want some good to come for others. Perhaps their campaign will help another parent to spot the danger-signs of sepsis or prompt a doctor somewhere to think again about what appears to be a minor illness. And then a child who might have died will get the right treatment and live to grow up, have a family and enjoy a successful career.
Jason Watkins and his wife might never hear that their work has saved another child, but they know that they are doing something positive in response to their devastating loss. They also know that their work isn’t just helping strangers: they have a living daughter called Bessie for whom they want to be the best possible parents. The loss of Maude caused them so much pain that it would have been easy to be paralysed by it and think of nothing else, neglecting the world and their continuing responsibilities there.
They couldn’t allow that to happen: Bessie still needed them. Their campaign about sepsis has been one of the ways in which they pulled their minds away from their bereavement and back to the lives that hadn’t ended and that they wanted to keep safe. It was the right thing to do for themselves, their living daughter, and the dead daughter whose memory they are honouring and whom they will never allow to fade or pass from their minds.