The actor Simon Williams remembers happy, carefree days in Paris with Jane Birkin, the actress and singer who's just died at 76
Andrew Birkin, Jane Birkin's brother, and I were illicit smoking buddies at Harrow. His mother, Judy Campbell and my father, Hugh Williams, were West-End stars. Judy sang A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square – perhaps it was from her that her daughter Jane learnt the subtle skill of not-singing.
We had plenty in common. Best of all, Andrew had a sister, Jane, who I fell in love before even meeting her. I too had a sister, Polly, and we soon became a foursome. It was a special time – we were innocents halfway out of childhood - we played it cool, we jived and blew smoke rings; we played kick-the-can.
One Easter holiday, Andrew wrote a short film, a tragic story of a toff who falls in love with a working-class girl who is incurably ill. We spent the Easter hols filming in Chelsea and on the Downs – it involved endlessly chasing – me grossly anguished in pursuit, and Jane breathless, pitiful and then dead in my arms.
Andrew very sweetly wrote in a love scene to be filmed on the boating lake in Battersea – a blissful afternoon of licensed kissing with many retakes. When they showed a clip of the film on my This is Your Life in 1986, Jane spoke from the heart about our precious childhood days.
The atmosphere in the Birkin household in Chelsea was not unlike the home of the Bliss family in Hay Fever. I would pitch up in my tweed jacket and sit gazing at Jane – not easy as I always whipped off my National Health glasses. It was puppy love, of course – never really reciprocated – but she wasn’t averse to being worshipped even then.
On one occasion, I arrived to find Jane and her father, the heroic David Birkin, drinking champagne and giggling – a charming scene, but I had no clue what they were celebrating. Years later, Jane told me the celebration was for her first period – she had been the last in her year to get it. She would take me up the King's Road pointing out all the astounding swinging people – long-haired beatniks, everyone in bright colours determined to forget the war.
We went to see Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story. Darling Jane had tears pouring down her cheeks and I loved her with a terrible ache – very slowly I put my arm round her. There’s always been a gamine quality of Audrey Hepburn in Jane – gauche and elegant at the same time.
During termtime, she’d send me little sketches of herself lolling about at home. I’m looking at one now of Jane with hair back-combed lying on a chaise longue with her parrot beside her, the walls covered with trendy pics.
When Jane first went to (and fell in love with) Paris, she was living en famille. I would hitch-hike up from Tours where I was supposedly studying, and we’d spend hopeless afternoons wandering along the Seine trying to work out how to become movie stars. I gave her a Françoise Hardy LP. She was inexplicably attracted to Jean-Paul Belmondo at the time.
She had a 7pm curfew and I told her I was staying with friends and spent my nights in the waiting room at Gare Du Nord. In the morning, I’d wait outside the gates of her house with two pains au raisin. In my heart, I knew I was tilting at windmills. In terms of romance, we were in no-man’s land. I had no idea how to move things forward and we lapsed into an on-off friendship that’s lasted ever since – founded mostly on nostalgia.
Jane went to improv classes at the Royal Court and became enthralled with the avant-garde. She was cast in The Passion Flower Hotel, the grooviest musical in town, while I was stuck playing the juvenile in drawing-room comedies. I would see her across the dance floors of West End nightclubs with men I never imagined to be her type – she was the beauty to a variety of beasts.
When she auditioned for and got a part in Blow-Up, Jane was nervous about the nudity required of her. ‘My tits are just miniscule,’ she laughed.
I had dinner with her after her first day’s filming in the nude and she was bubbling with liberation. Once she’d taken her dressing gown off, she said it was a piece of cake – 'I walked about all day totally naked and nobody seemed to even notice.' I bet they didn’t.
I’ve watched and marvelled at the variety of Jane’s life, the extraordinary choices she’s made of projects and partners, and the way she tapped so easily into the zeitgeist of Paris life and became an icon, a rebel with many causes. But she never lost her waif-like innocence or the ability to not take herself too seriously – she never lost the giggle of the teenager I had worshipped.
The newspapers say that she eventually gave up on love and was perfectly happy living alone. Maybe not. I remember her once quoting the famous Tennyson line: “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
We shook our heads - we weren’t so sure about that.
Simon Williams starred in Upstairs, Downstairs