Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Simon Callow: ‘I’m financially feckless, so my career is a constant juggling act’

Callow in Inside Wagner’s Head at Linbury Studio Theatre in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It’s not just that Simon Callow likes to keep busy. When you look at what he has achieved as an actor, director, teacher, dramatist, journalist and biographer, you see a man with a strong affinity to Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit – dapper, determined, always on the move, always chasing a deadline. So I feel rather pleased to have tied the polymath’s polymath down to lunch at the Turkish restaurant Gem in Upper Street, Islington – a favourite location, even if it is only an hour’s break from rehearsals for A Christmas Carol, which he and director Tom Cairns are bringing back for the third time in four years.

Unlike opera singers who revisit past roles and performances all the time, actors rarely get that opportunity and it is clearly something Callow relishes. “Each time I do A Christmas Carol I get something different out of it,” he says. “You can tease things out you hadn’t noticed before, and the beauty for me is that Dickens’ voice is always present.”

Simon Callow in The Mystery of Charles Dickens at the Comedy Theatre in 2000. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Simon Callow in The Mystery of Charles Dickens at the Comedy Theatre in 2000. Photo: Tristram Kenton

While he loves his Shakespeare, Callow is a passionate and lifelong Dickensian. “My grandmother thrust a copy of The Pickwick Papers into my hands when I was in bed with chickenpox aged 13, and I never scratched again. I was enthralled.”

In his 2012 book Charles Dickens and the Theatre of the World, Callow examines and celebrates the great writer’s relationship with the theatre, concluding that his thwarted ambition to be an actor informed much of his writing. “As a young man, Dickens’ appetite for theatregoing was insatiable. He said that for a three-year period during his young manhood, he went to the theatre every single night. As a performer of his work, I find there are always layers of emotion and experience in Dickens waiting to be dug up. He didn’t always know how deeply he was touching things within himself. He was a complex person, in denial about so many things. In his lifetime nobody knew his father had been in prison, nobody knew he’d worked in a blacking factory as a child. These things only emerged in [John] Forster’s biography after he died.”

Perhaps spurred on by Dickens, the young Callow’s first ambition was to be a writer. “Although I was a terrific show-off as a child, doing impressions of the whole of the cast of Coronation Street in the playground, it never occurred to me that I could become an actor. We went to the theatre occasionally, like any other middle-class family growing up in London, but we didn’t know any actors, so it wasn’t part of my childhood world.”

His father left the family home in Streatham, south London, when Callow was three. He grew up, an only child, surrounded by strong, charismatic women. Did he feel the absence of a male role model, a father figure?

“You don’t know what you’ve never had. I can’t honestly say, looking back on my life, that there has been a quest for a father figure. Occasionally as a child I’d try to adopt someone as a father figure, like my best friend Billy’s dad who was a violinist with the Royal Philharmonic, but it never amounted to anything.”

What about his enduring fascination with those alpha male performers – Olivier, Laughton and Orson Welles, all of whom he has written about at length? Role models all, surely?

“I think what I loved about them was that they were all larger than life, although I certainly identified with the characters of Quasimodo (Laughton) and Richard III (Olivier). I felt deeply unprepossessing as a child, even though I knew I was loved. Apart from my grandmother, the women I grew up with mocked me in my teens and made me feel unattractive and ungainly. They called me ‘a fat little creature’. It’s very deep-seated. I’m not sure I’ve ever entirely come through that. I never had any therapy. I always thought it was better to try to work these things out for yourself.”


Q&A: Simon Callow

What was your first non-theatre job? Assistant in a bookshop in South Kensington.

What was your first paid theatre job? Appearing in Woyzeck with the Young Lyceum Company in Edinburgh in 1973.

Who or what was your biggest influence? My grandmother, Vera.

What advice do you wish you had been given when you started out? I’m not sure I listened to any advice when I was young, but I remember Graham Crowden saying to me, after I’d done the Plumber’s Progress with Harry Secombe, “You shouldn’t do any more comedy for five years, otherwise you’ll get typecast”, which I proceeded to ignore.

If you hadn’t been an actor, director or writer, what would you have been? I might have joined the navy to see the world.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Be yourself as comfortably as you can.

Do you have any pre-show rituals or superstitions? None.

Knowing he was different from an early age – “I seemed to be the only gay in the playground” – and feeling uncomfortable with it, can’t have helped his growing sense of alienation. He writes about it with characteristic eloquence in his introduction to the recently published Speak Its Name! Quotations By and About Gay Men and Women, published by the National Portrait Gallery.

It was only when he landed a job in the Old Vic box office in 1967, having written an imploring letter to Laurence Olivier, that he finally began to feel at last he’d come home, both personally and professionally. “I began to see how I might fit into the scheme of things,” he recalls in Speak Its Name! “I made the surprising discovery that both actors and gay people were just like everyone else.”

A gay Irish actor he encountered during a subsequent and rather short-lived spell at Queen’s University, Belfast, Micheal MacLiammoir, was most definitely not like anyone else. Callow requested an interview for the student newspaper and finished up acting as MacLiammoir’s dresser for two performances of his legendary show, The Importance of Being Oscar, in Belfast. “He was a figure from another age, almost another planet. He’d acted with the great [Herbert] Beerbohm Tree in 1908, so for me it was like a thrilling switchback ride to an Edwardian cultural past.

“He wore several inches of make-up and a ridiculous toupee at all times. We’d be walking along the street in Belfast and he’d say, ‘Who are all these fucking people?’, and I’d say brightly ‘It’s the Ulster Sunday,’ to which he replied, very loudly, ‘Fuck the Ulster Sunday!’”

The big turning point in Callow’s acting career, on stage at least, was his acclaimed performance as the agitated, hyper-active composer in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1979 when he was 30. It was the National’s first monster hit after moving to the South Bank, and a life-changer for the young actor. (I was hoping to press Callow on his impressions of the current revival, so radically different from Peter Hall’s production, but he says he hasn’t seen it).

“Everybody came to see Amadeus, so at the curtain call you’d see people like Robert Redford and Ava Gardner on their feet cheering and applauding, which was thrilling. I’ve always thought if I’d taken it to New York that would have made a big difference to my career, but Paul [Scofield] didn’t want to go, so they decided to leave me behind as well.”

Apart from a brief clip of Scofield as Salieri on YouTube, there is no record of their performance on film. Today, it would undoubtedly be preserved for future generations. Does Callow approve of live streaming of theatre to cinemas? “I’m glad people are being awakened to the idea of opera, ballet and drama who wouldn’t otherwise get to see it, but I fear it will not necessarily translate into people going to live theatre to see things, partly because going to the cinema is so much cheaper than going to the theatre. I can’t afford to go to the West End any more myself. I find the idea of paying £100 to see a four-hander bewildering. I can’t believe it has to be that expensive.”

Having steered into the choppy waters of ticket pricing, Callow returns to the question of digital versus live: “The big difference with live theatre is that you, the audience, can change the performance with your reactions, and likewise the actors can change you. There is a real chemistry going on, and that doesn’t happen in the cinema. It only happens in the theatre, because that performance is a one-off and the next night it will all be different.”


Simon Callow on…

… Peter Pan:

Throughout my childhood, I was moved by Peter Pan in ways I don’t understand. But as time passes I forget Peter Pan. Shakespeare replaces Barrie, and I have left the Mermaids’ Lagoon and the Wendy House far behind – until 1982, when purely out of curiosity I go to the Barbican to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of this funny old play. The whole first scene passes in a sort of blur of emotion for me until Peter and the Darling children fly out of the window and I find myself sobbing. I squint sideways to see if anyone else has been similarly affected, and sure enough, down the cheeks of my 50-something neighbour, large tears are trickling as he tries to assert control over his twitching facial muscles.

… directors:

Control and bullying can take many different forms. It’s the foot soldiers, not the stars, who have the most trouble with the kind of director who comes into rehearsal with a fully conceived idea of what he or she wants. My preferred way of working, as an actor or director, is to evolve the thing together with the actors. The more you can harness the creative voice of your actors, the better.

… Olivier:

It is pretty well impossible to convey in words the physical impact of Olivier’s presence in the flesh as an actor, the sheer sexual energy he unleashed into the auditorium. Only rock stars or great singers and dancers can compare. He bent every muscle in his body, every note in his voice, to ravish the audience, to take us – by force if necessary. It was a seduction on the grandest and most aggressive scale, perilously close to rape. Above all, it was dangerous.

… theatre buildings:

Now that the 1960s conviction that red and gold auditoriums were elitist and alienating has quietly died, audiences have voted with their feet on the subject. The theatre building should be an entertainment in itself, an environment out of the usual run, an invitation to the world of the imagination.

(Some quotes courtesy of My Life in Pieces, published by Nick Hern Books)

The playwright David Hare once said of Callow that, such is his eagerness to seize the day, he would jump at the offer of a place in the Olympic slalom team given half a chance. However, there is only a certain amount of accomplishment you can cram into a day, or indeed a life. He regrets not doing more “classical” acting and cites his friend Antony Sher as an actor who has had the kind of career he would have chosen for himself.

“My career has been a constant juggling act – acting, directing, writing. Part of me has always wanted to just play all the great Shakespearean roles, but after I left the National in 1981 I started diversifying and doing all sorts of other things – teaching, directing, TV, writing books, journalism. I’ve always been financially feckless so I’ve never been in a position to afford not to earn a certain amount of money.

“People have asked me to play classical roles in the past but it just hasn’t been possible for one reason or another. I’m tremendously pleased to have done all the one-man shows I have [The Importance of Being Oscar, The Man Jesus, Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, Being Shakespeare, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, Inside Wagner’s Head], although I feel a lot of people in the theatre don’t think of them as proper acting for some reason.”

The fact is that the well executed solo show is a very different animal to the finely balanced ensemble. Callow’s bravura style of acting, combined with a gift for mimicry and a Dickensian passion for storytelling, makes him uniquely well suited to playing multiple characters on stage alone. He commands the stage effortlessly and seductively. He becomes, to all intents and purposes, larger than life, just like those acting heroes of his youth.

With another weighty biography, Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will, due out in January, and the third volume of his titanic Orson Welles biography still to come, there seems little chance of Callow devoting all his time to the stage any time soon. Nor are we likely to see him morphing into some kind of media pundit, something that was expected to follow on from his frequent forays into arts journalism. Don’t expect to see him eating witchetty grubs in the jungle or scraping out a blender on Celebrity Masterchef.

Paul Scofield and Simon Callow in Amadeus at the National Theatre in 1979. Photo: Nobby Clark
Paul Scofield and Simon Callow in Amadeus at the National Theatre in 1979. Photo: Nobby Clark

“Everybody says to me, ‘You know so much about everything, you should do these game shows,’ but I’m terrible at them. I fell at the first hurdle on Celebrity Pointless (with Imogen Stubbs). I don’t think Imogen will ever forgive me. I know a lot about particular things, but I haven’t a clue about the things everybody knows about, so-called popular culture. I don’t watch television. It’s not snobbishness, it’s just time. With all the things I want to get done, something has to give.”

How he is perceived by the public is clearly not something he spends a lot of time fretting about. When I observe that he comes across as rather scholarly, he guffaws so loudly that other diners around us are stopped in their tracks. Yet he appears to be in two minds about his image. “I’ve never really thought much about it,” he says, adding, “I suppose it has occasionally crossed my mind to hire a PR person to help define me.”

Defining Simon Callow. Now there’s a PR challenge if ever there was one. Just keeping up with his protean industry is hard enough. Attempting to steer him in any particular direction would be nigh on impossible. Despite the zigzag nature of his career, he is clearly a man who ploughs his own furrow with ferocious singularity.

“I do get nostalgic for acting when I’m immersed in my books, and the other way round when I’m not. Whatever it is you are not doing seems much easier and more wonderful. Each of those disciplines had its own special charm and anxiety, so it is easy to be longing to be doing something else.”

CV: Simon callow

Born: 1949, London
Training: Drama Centre, London
Landmark productions: Theatre: Amadeus, National Theatre (1979), The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, Duke of York’s, London (1981), Kiss of the Spider Woman, Bush Theatre, London (1985), The Importance Being Oscar, Savoy Theatre, London (1997), The Holy Terror, Duke of York’s (2004), Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, Riverside Studios, London (2009), Waiting for Godot, Haymarket Theatre, London (2009), Being Shakespeare, Trafalgar Studios, London (2011), A Christmas Carol, Arts Theatre, London (2011), The Mystery of Charles Dickens, Comedy Theatre, London (2000, then reprised in 2012), The Man Jesus, Lyric Theatre, Belfast (2012), Inside Wagner’s Head, Linbury Studio, London (2013)
Film: Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
TV: Chance in a Million (1984-86)
Agent: Simon Beresford at Dalzell and Beresford

A Christmas Carol is on at the Arts Theatre, London, until January 7. Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will is published by Collins on January 26

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.