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20 Questions With…Simon Callow

Actor, director & author Simon Callow – who makes his stage musical debut this month playing Count Fosco in The Woman in White - praises the great Paul Schofield, ditches the fat suit & issues an apology.

By • West End


Simon Callow started his theatrical career as an actor with early repertory seasons in Lincoln and Edinburgh. He made his London debut in the Traverse Theatre production of CP Taylor’s Schippel, which transferred from the Edinburgh festival to the London fringe and then on to the West End, where Harry Secombe starred under the new title The Plumber’s Progress.

Callow’s many subsequent stage credits as an actor - in the West End, at the National, the Royal Court and elsewhere nationally and internationally - have included Fanshen, A Mad World My Masters, Epsom Downs, Titus Andronicus, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, As You Like It, Sisterly Feelings, Galileo, Total Eclipse, Restoration, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthasar B, Single Spies, The Alchemist, The Destiny of Me, Faust, The Relapse, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, The Chimes at Midnight and Through the Leaves.

He’s also appeared on stage in several one-man shows including The Importance of Being Oscar (about Oscar Wilde) and The Mystery of Charles Dickens, which he took to Broadway and Australia after its success in the West End.

In 1979, Callow created the role of Mozart in the premiere stage production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus at the National. When the piece was filmed in 1984, he appeared as the impresario Schikaneder. His many other screen credits have included A Room with a View, Maurice, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, Postcards from the Edge, Bob the Butler, Thunderpants, Bedrooms and Hallways, Jefferson in Paris, Soft Top Hard Shoulder, Angels in America, Bright Young Things and The Phantom of the Opera.

Callow made his directorial debut with Snoo Wilson’s 1983 play Loving Reno and went on to helm numerous plays, musicals and operas including Jus' Like That, Shirley Valentine, Die Fledermaus, La Calisto, The Consul, Carmen Jones, The Pajama Game, Les Enfants du Paradis and his own translations of Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (with Maggie Smith) and Milan Kundera’s Jacques and His Master. On screen, he directed The Ballad of the Sad Café, with Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Carradine and Rod Steiger.

In addition to his theatre writings, Callow is also the author of several works including his behind-the-scenes account of Being an Actor; his memoir of his friendship with agent Peggy Ramsay, Love Is Where It Falls; and biographies of Charles Laughton and Orson Welles.

This month, Callow makes his stage musical debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White. He plays the flamboyant villain Count Fosco, a part he previously played in a 1997 non-musical television adaptation of the Wilkie Collins novel.


Date & place of birth
Born 13 June 1949 in London. Lives now in
Camden, north London.

Training
Drama Centre London.

First big break
There’s no doubt about that. It was Schippel which we did at the Edinburgh festival and then transferred to London, to the Open Space in Tottenham Court Road. Harry Secombe came to see it, fell in love with it, bought the rights and invited most of us to join him in doing it in the West End (where it was called The Plumber’s Progress). So 18 months after I started acting, I was in the West End.

Career highlights to date
There have been so many. Creating the role of Mozart in Amadeus was a really extraordinary experience. I’ve never quite known responses from the audience like that play provoked. Outside of theatre, I had a long and intense experience with the playwrights’ agent Peggy Ramsay – it was a major event in my life knowing Peggy. Someone else who changed life a lot for me was John Dexter, who cast me in Amadeus. Also, I owe my career to Laurence Olivier. When I wrote to him in 1967 and told him what a great theatre I thought the Old Vic was, he said, “if you like it so much, why don’t come work here in the box office?” That was the beginning of my association with theatre and I knew it was the place I was supposed to be. Olivier was exceptionally charming to everyone who worked for him. Off stage, he appeared to be a rather bumbling sort of bank manager from Esher; on stage was quite different.

Favourite production you’ve ever worked on
Kiss of the Spiderwoman which I did with Mark Rylance for three weeks at the Bush. It was perhaps the best performance I ever gave. The Mystery of Charles Dickens was very satisfying to act in. I really did feel that I’d brought the man to people. Dickens’ life was quite as extraordinary as his work, but no one except specialists knew much about it. It was harrowing playing 37 characters in the course of an evening but profoundly satisfying. And I loved touring with it.

Favourite co-stars
I’ve worked with lots of remarkable people including Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. But the most exciting person I’ve ever acted with is Paul Scofield (who played Salieri in Amadeus). He is the single most remarkable actor I’ve stood on the stage with. His relationship with the audience, the complexity and power of what he did has no parallel on the modern stage. He created such excitement in the theatre. I think we’ll come to think of Paul as the last of that generation of really great actors, starting with Edith Evans and ending with Paul. Of course, he’s still very much alive. I often write and talk to him.

Favourite directors
I particularly enjoyed working with David Hare, the dramatist, who gave me a job early on in my career, just after Harry Secombe. I loved his clarity, incisiveness and – again, this is very important - his sense of excitement. If we’re not excited about what we’re doing, it’s very hard for an audience to get excited. David’s a brilliantly witty, fast-thinking guy. My great great friend Patrick Garland, who directed The Mystery of Charles Dickens, is the opposite in a sense. He’s also witty and fast-thinking but tremendously affable – he makes everything seem effortless. I wanted to direct because I’d thought a lot about plays and acting and staging – of course, you do if you’ve been around for a bit. It so happened that my friend Snoo Wilson lost the director for his play Loving Reno at the Bush so he asked me to get involved. I discovered I had an enormous appetite for directing.

Favourite playwrights
Like pretty well every actor, Anton Chekhov’s plays are very very close to my heart. I’ve never acted in one - except at university when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing – but I would love to. The work of Shakespeare is sublime. They are the best plays ever written.

Favourite musicals
I’m not very keen on showbiz musicals. I like character-driven musicals. For example, I would adore to direct a production of Fiddler on the Roof or Gypsy (though that’s set in the showbusiness milieu, it’s very much about character). I would not direct The Producers and I certainly was not the man to direct The Pajama GameCarmen Jones, I deeply enjoyed directing that. And I would love to direct Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella. I keep telling people that so maybe I’ll get the chance.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Once I’ve done The Woman in White, I’m playing Abanazar in Aladdin at Richmond Theatre. I’d like to have another crack at Falstaff. There are many characters in Shakespeare I’d like to play, like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. The subsidiary characters are often richer than the leads. I’ve never had any feeling for the military types. I’m damned if I’ve I’m going to do a sword fight at 11.00pm every evening.

What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the first?
I’ve been out of the country a lot. The last thing I recall was the Russian company, Mali Theatre, who did Uncle Vanya on tour recently. It wasn’t their very best production, but I was still absolutely enchanted. They are such remarkable actors. The thing I love most of all in theatre is good acting. Jane Krakowski gives a glorious performance in Guys and Dolls. She is sensationally good. She’s got something very special, it’s to do with utter confidence. The first thing I remember seeing was Peter Pan when I was five. It was at the Scala Theatre off Tottenham Court Road, which is now pulled down. I was an impossible, noisy, extroverted, hysterical child. I was screaming and screaming because it was too cold, the queues were too long and so on. But the moment I stepped into the auditorium, I was silenced. I was a goner.

What would you advise the government – or the theatre industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I actually think that British theatre – well, the subsidised theatre, that is, the West End will always be what it is – should be completely reorganised. I wish there was a huge network of regional theatres, like a great arterial complex in which there were exchanges of productions. As it is, great productions just die after four weeks. I also do wish there was one, just one, true ensemble theatre in England - a group of actors who commit to staying together for ten years. But all of that costs money.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I would have joined the navy - just to see the world.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I once imagined I’d like to be Oscar Wilde but I don’t think that anymore. It would be wonderful being Shakespeare or Mozart, having all that flowing through you.

Favourite holiday destinations
Mykonos in Greece. I go there every year - except this year because I was too busy.

Why did you want to accept the role of Count Fosco in The Woman in White?
I played the part on television in 1997. It’s a wonderful character. Andrew (Lloyd Webber) and Trevor (Nunn) originally asked me to play Fosco when they first staged The Woman in White. I couldn’t do it at the time but, when I went to see it, I thought it was the most wonderful piece of work. I think Trevor has done a fascinating job and it’s Andrew’s best in many a show. Michael Crawford played Fosco in a most dazzling tour de force of a performance. But I thought I could play him quite quite differently. Michael wore a huge fat suit and had a sort of cartoon-like presence and he did it exquisitely - the man is a master. But I won’t be wearing a fat suit, I don’t think that’s inherent in the character. I’m more interested in his power, his danger, his foreignness and glamour. That’s very much the way he’s written in Wilkie Collins’ book and Andrew has written music perfectly matched to that.

How do you feel about making your stage musical debut?
Extremely nervous. I have never sung anywhere in public. The only singing I’ve done has been on soundtracks, a little on Amadeus, a bit more on James and the Giant Peach and a great deal more for The Phantom of the Opera. I’ve never had the courage to sing in public. I’ve always told myself that I’m not a singer and as a result have turned down lots of parts over years, including Pooh-bah in Jonathan Miller’s original ENO production of The Mikado. My grandmother was a singer. She had a perfect pitch and wouldn’t tolerate the sound of her children singing around her so there was no singing when I was growing up. I’ve had to work very hard to train my ear. It’s funny to me because I’ve directed many operas and musicals, telling singers what to do. Now that I realise how difficult it is to sing, act and walk at the same time, I’d like to apologise to them.

Have you been taking singing lessons?
I’ve been taking singing lessons with Sam Kenyon – everybody should know that name, he’s wonderful. In terms of rating my ability, I’d say think Domingo, a bit of Abba and the last years of Maria Callas.

What’s your favourite number from The Woman in White?
The great comic number is “You Can Get Away with Anything”, but I’m particularly fond of Fosco’s earlier number, “A Gift for Living Well”. It’s beautifully written for the voice, just gorgeous.

Would you like to do more musicals?
Who knows? I enjoyed every second of rehearsals. It’s a very different experience to doing a play because in a musical there’s this extraordinary thing called the score and all of your rhythm and sense of timing emanates from it.

What are your future plans?
Next year, after The Woman in White and Aladdin, I’m going to do a concert in Chicago to mark Mozart’s 250th birthday. I’m also hoping to direct Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. It should open in Bath in February, then do a long tour and then London.


The Woman in White is at the West End’s Palace Theatre. The press performance for Simon Callow takes place on 19 September 2005.


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