When Simon Oates saw his photograph on the cover of Radio Times, he knew he had found fame after almost 20 years as an actor. This plaudit came at the height of his run in Doomwatch (1970-72) as Dr John Ridge, one of a group of government scientists monitoring unscrupulous activities such as chemical-waste dumping, pollution and the commercial misuse of deadly toxins.
Ridge was the pin-up secret agent style scientist who could sweet-talk women and had a quip for every occasion. He was out in the field – along with Tobias Wren (Robert Powell) in the first series – working for Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), the brusque but brilliant head of the semisecret Department of Measurement of Scientific Work, codenamed Doomwatch. Colin Bradley (Joby Blanshard) and Barbara Mason (Vivien Sherrard) were also among the original team.
Oates was enthusiastic about the drama series, which was devised by the scientist Kit Pedler and the dramatist Gerry Davis, who previously created the Cybermen for Doctor Who. It was a “green” programme years ahead of its time, capturing the public imagination in almost as big a way as Quatermass had two decades earlier.
“Doomwatch was totally science fact,” said the actor. “Obviously, we told stories, but they were always based on what could and often did happen in the fullness of time. I can remember one where we had a man out in space at the same time as an American astronaut was actually zooming around up there. We’d do a scene, then go down and put the radio on and listen to what was going on. It was practically happening at a parallel to what Kit had written.”
Arthur Charles Oates was born in Canning Town, east London, in 1932 but was evacuated with his family to Derbyshire during the Second World War. They later returned to north London, living in Finchley, and he attended Christ’s College, Finchley. During National Service in the Intelligence Corps, Oates became the Army’s heavyweight boxing champion. He trained as an actor at the Arts Educational School but left before completing the course, having secured a job at Chesterfield Repertory Company.
Under the name Titus Oates, he made his professional début there in the play Someone at the Door (1954). Stints followed in York and Birmingham, by which time he had changed his professional name to Simon Oates.
“I wasn’t a method actor,” he recalled. “I was a ‘me’ actor. I realised that, if I’m the leading man in the rep, the audiences are coming to see me in this, playing this part, so I thought it was a good idea to play myself and, as far as possible, that’s what I’ve always done.”
In the West End, he acted Floyd MacDuff in a revival of Fiorello! (Piccadilly Theatre, 1962) and appeared in the Francis Durbridge thriller Suddenly at Home, (Fortune Theatre, 1971). He also performed on Broadway in Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's short-lived play Rockefeller and the Red Indians (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1968, starring Frankie Howerd).
During the 1960s, Oates supplemented his acting work with a standup comedy routine as “Charlie Barnett, the Cockney Comedian” in pubs and theatres, as well as in Dorothy Squires’s London Palladium show. He was also compère for the Rolling Stones on tour.
Oates first appeared on television in a BBC production of the Robert Ardrey play Shadow of Heroes (1959).
Then came appearances in Armchair Theatre (1961) and the crime series No Hiding Place (1964), and the regular roles of the spy boss Anthony Kelly in the espionage drama The Mask of Janus (1965) and its spin-off, The Spies (1966), and the Duke of Buckingham in a serialisation of The Three Musketeers (1966-67).
He continued taking one-off parts in popular series before the success of Doomwatch. When it was made as a 1972 feature film, Oates – along with John Paul and Joby Blanshard – made only cameo appearances, with the leading role going to Ian Bannen. He later regretted his decision to accept “silly money” to appear in the picture, describing it as “terrible”.
Fame in Doomwatch also brought Oates other opportunities. He was one of a number of actors considered for the part of James Bond in the 1971 film Diamonds Are Forever – but Sean Connery was eventually persuaded to play it, for the final time.
Oates did land the role of John Steed in a stage version of the hit television fantasy series The Avengers (Prince of Wales Theatre, 1971), but the production received a critical mauling.
His later television appearances included guest roles in The Professionals (1980), Remington Steele (1985) and Bergerac (1991). He also directed plays on tour and the West End show Woman in a Dressing Gown (Vaudeville Theatre), starring Brenda Bruce. The actor Justin Brett is Oates’s son from his second marriage, to Jaki Eastoe.
Arthur Charles Oates (Simon Oates), actor: born London 6 January 1932; twice married (one son, one daughter), plus one son with Denise Shaune; died Eastbourne, East Sussex 20 May 2009.
Some of the quotations used in this piece were taken from Simon Oates' interview with The Avengers Declassified website. The original six-part article can be found by clicking here.