Past/Present/Future for … Simon Callow
Dickens wrote the two stories at the height of his popularity and presented them himself at some of his public readings, but they’ve rarely been seen or heard since - Dr Marigold has not been performed for 150 years. At Riverside, they’re billed as having all the elements necessary for a perfect one-man show from Callow: “dwarves, giants, toffs ... even a walk-on appearance by the Prince of Wales”.
Callow has been seen on stage most recently opposite Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket. His many other credits include Amadeus, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Holy Terror, Through the Leaves and The Woman in White on stage, and the films Shakespeare in Love, A Room with a View, Howard’s End and Four Weddings and a Funeral. His books include the autobiographical Being an Actor, and biographies of Charles Laughton and Orson Welles.
PAST: When I was in the sixth form at school I started going to see plays at the National Theatre, in the days when it was at the Old Vic and being run by Laurence Olivier. I was completely struck by what I saw, not only because they were wonderful productions, but by the fact that everyone in the theatre seemed to be working together for the same purpose. That was exactly what I wanted to do with my life, be part of something that had a purpose and a vision and was bigger than me.
So I wrote Laurence Olivier a very long letter, explaining to him what a wonderful theatre he was running, and he wrote straight back and said 'well in that case you'd better come and work for us'. So I went to work in the box office at the age of 18, and became part of the working life of the theatre. It was only then that it hit me that I might possibly become an actor. I had no reason to believe I had any talent as I hadn't really done any drama at school. I was a compulsive show-off, but that's not quite the same thing.
I'd heard that a lot of actors had gone to university and got into the industry that way, so I went to Queen's University in Belfast, and they gave me an acting role immediately on the strength of my job at the Old Vic. I played the lead in The Seagull, and soon realised how absolutely dreadful I was, even though I felt that I quite like the whole process of acting. So I applied to the Drama Centre and got a place. It was a tough three years but I got a job as soon as I left and have been extremely lucky in that I haven't really been out of work since then.
Getting cast as Mozart in Amadeus (1979) really changed my position within the industry. I wasn't unknown at that stage, but to be in a play like that, written by Peter Shaffer at the height of his powers and co-starring Paul Scofield at the height of his, was incredible. It became such a huge success and an absolute must-see – you couldn't face anyone over a dinner table if you hadn't seen it.
I was also lucky in that my co-stars were Paul Scofield and Felicity Kendal. Paul refused to give interviews and Felicity had already been interviewed a great deal because of her television work, so I was the only person left to talk to. As a result I talked a lot to newspapers around that time, which also helped my profile.
On the film front, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) certainly improved my audience numerically, and I still get recognised almost wherever I go because of that role. I think it was revolutionary in that it was probably the first completely sympathetic portrayal of a gay couple in a major film.
During my lifetime I think we've come an awful long way in that gay people are now able to absolutely be frank about their orientation, and as far as I know being gay is not a bar to any profession or occupation. There's a danger that homosexuality becomes associated with some form of rebellion against society, which it isn't at all. It's a perfectly normal thing, and it is not an inherently radical or revolutionary thing – you can be gay and of any political persuasion. It's not a protest. We'll never wipe out prejudice altogether, and the recent surge in the number of people contracting HIV is a huge concern, but generally I think we're still moving forward.
PRESENT: The first I knew of Charles Dickens was when I had chickenpox as a boy, and I was given a copy of The Pickwick Papers by my Grandmother. Chickenpox is the most miserable condition – a form of medieval torture inducing scratching and writhing and all the rest of it. But The Pickwick Papers completely took my mind away from it and I never scratched again. So Dickens had a tonic effect on me then and has continued to have such an effect. What I loved about him then and have continued to love was his exuberance and his comedy, the breadth of his canvass and the madcap adventures of the characters.
It wasn't until I was approached to reconstruct Dickens' public readings for television that I began to read about Dickens the man, and I kind of fell in love with this strange, driven, brilliant and endlessly funny and complicated man who really gave his life over to the disadvantaged. His passion for social justice is constantly inspiring to me. He celebrates the values of community and human interconnectedness in way that I find deeply moving.
Mr Chops is a cautionary tale about a dwarf who wins the lottery and goes into society, where everyone makes a great fuss of him until he runs out of money and they boot him out again. Mr Marigold is an extraordinary, epic story about a travelling salesman who bids for everything in his life, including his wife. Both stories are infused with a huge sense of the power of positive individual action. Dickens didn't believe you could fob off your personal responsibilities on to the state. He wasn't in many ways politically progressive, in that he didn't believe in democracy as it existed in those days, he also didn't believe in a welfare state, but in absolute direct human action.
Doing a one man show is just one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done. People, as soon as they feel they're in safe hands both with the actor and the writer, just give in to the spell of the narrative in the most wonderful way. The silence in the theatre, and of course the laughter, is just fantastic. Their submission to the process of being told a story is very exciting. I love it.
FUTURE: Sadly I couldn't go back to Waiting for Godot, as I'm at the Riverside until the end of January. But it was a wonderful experience, a lovely company. And it was fantastic working on Beckett, who was such an extraordinary genius, in the league of Shakespeare I'd say – maybe not in breadth, but certainly in depth.
After Marigold I'm getting on with my third volume on Orson Welles, which is long overdue – I can't wait to get that man out of my hair, great and fascinating as he's been to work on. Writing has become my mainstay – it's what I wanted to be before I became an actor and it's what I've become.
Assessing the state of theatre at the end of another decade it strikes me more than ever as an indestructible medium. As long as people are alive they'll want to go into public spaces and watch other people telling them stories. It keeps changing – a year ago people were moaning about the lack of 'proper' plays in the West End and now there are dozens of them.
I think it's going to be tough over the next few years, because the whole public sector is going to contract desperately, and I think institutions like the National and the RSC will feel the pinch. The money that they get is just about enough for them to do what they're doing, so how on earth they're going to keep doing it I've no idea. But times are very good at present, and of course I pray that continues.
- Simon Callow was speaking to Theo Bosanquet