theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
SIMON CALLOW, actor, writer, director and self-confessed lover of expansive characters – certainly one himself – is currently appearing at the Palace Theatre as Count Fosco in The Woman in White. And he’s rather enjoying the particular disciplines required of musical theatre, he says, finding it “quite liberating and quite energizing”. This may be his musical theatre debut but it’s not the first time he has played Fosco for he was cast as the Count in the BBC’s 1997 serialisation of Wilkie Collins’ perennially popular Victorian thriller. I met the actor at his private club, tucked away next to the Coliseum in London’s narrowest alley. Georgian in origin, twenty years ago the premises housed “a very louche, gay club called The Festyval Club with a ‘y’,” Callow confides with some delight. “Very louche, it was, very sleazy”.
First of all, I’d like to ask you about your ‘Manifesto’ for actors and directors at the end of your 1984 autobiography, Being an Actor. Do you believe that directors’ theatre is still too prevalent today?
I think the book articulated what a lot of people were feeling. Attitudes of directors have changed somewhat. I think the buccaneer directors are probably a thing of the past, now, but it does remain absolutely true that most directors have all the cards in their hands. And they exercise it more delicately, maybe, than they used to do, but I think they still have that power and we, accordingly, are disempowered and somewhat impaired in terms of our initiative.
The whole point about the book, really, and the manifesto, was not to say directors are evil bogeymen but to say actors, just be aware that you aren’t functioning as you might be able to because you wait to find out what the director thinks before you bring anything to the table; understandably, because you think, well, there’s no point in my doing all this work if he’s just going to say bollocks, this is my concept.
But I do think there was a tendency – may still be a tendency – for actors to see themselves a little bit as carte blanche rather than to come with huge amounts to offer. I think it’s a very bad idea for an actor to come to a first read-through knowing exactly what his or her performance is going to be. But I think you do need to come having immersed yourself profoundly in the work and in the character and be ready with a hundred alternatives.
One of my favourite remarks about acting ever was Brecht’s remark that an actor is someone who knows how to stir his tea in fifty different ways. We should be extremely acute observers of life and equally of ourselves, and we should bring an awful lot. The other obvious thing is to say that what you see on the stage is never ‘the character’ – what you see is the encounter of the actor and the character. There’s no such thing as the character; the character is a construct of words on the page. You then have to inhabit that and what you have to do is to bring yourself to it. And there has to be a ‘self’ to bring.
Do you think, perhaps, that the younger generation of actors are concentrating too much on acting and the ostensibly glamorous peripherals, rather than living and observing life, which can only help but inform their acting?
I think that something that happened in the 1970s and the 80s is that everybody became much more commercially orientated and everybody started to think about how one might get employed and become much shrewder about that, about what the market was and what they had to offer the market. Obviously, that’s an attitude that’s practical and sensible and no doubt should be part of everybody’s thinking but I have much less of a certainty that actors – in a sense rather arrogantly – are coming to the stage and saying ‘this is me, this is what I have to offer, this is my unique view, my unique contribution; rather, they tend to say, hope you like this – it’s what you tend to like, I hope you’ll like this version!
Of course, I had my training just at the end of the 60s, and a very radical school at that [Drama Centre], when we had a view that our job in the theatre was to change the world, not to tickle the world’s underbelly, not to stroke the world. I’m sure people do still believe that, but they’re much more—. You see, then, we went off into reps which mostly, in those days, in the early 70s, were filled with young people like us who did think that the Nottingham Playhouse was a very, very exciting place to be or & – it wasn’t like second best, it wasn’t like, oh god, I’ll have to go and work in rep, it was: with any luck, I’ll get to the Nottingham Playhouse with Stuart Burge or Richard Eyre, or whoever it was, because Trevor Griffiths was writing plays, and David Hare and Howard Brenton were writing plays there and you would set the place on fire.
I have a feeling that everybody, just as the reps had to circumscribe their own activities and had to say, well, we can only really put on shows that we can guarantee will get an 80% house and so we can’t really afford to do more than one play a year with more than five people in it, the actors similarly were cutting their cloth to—. They were, as it were, realistic about the possibilities. And that’s the world we live in.
When you were at The Drama Centre, was there still that new fizz about the place from its inception in 1963 by the breakaway teachers and students of Central School of Speech & Drama?
I was group nine at The Drama Centre, a full decade after the breakaway, although it was still a very recent memory, the great revolt. And the people who had been in that breakaway group, like Frances de la Tour and so on, were prominent; they’d all done very, very well indeed. There were a lot of Drama Centre actors out there. The school was still as it was until two years ago, working in that funny little church in Chalk Farm and with Tony Hopkins, who wasn’t at the Drama Centre but was a great fan of Christopher Fettes and Yat Malmgren, and had just written a cheque to buy us chairs. We had chairs for the first time, proper chairs. And it was very much like that. And we were still very classed as the New Model Army of the theatre.
It was exciting, partly thanks to the extraordinary charismatic quality of the three men who founded it – John Blatchley, who was charismatic in a different kind of way, and then Yat Malmgren and Christopher Fettes who were truly visionary and electrifying personalities, you know. That was very thrilling. And at that moment in time when most of us were feeling that all sorts of new changes were possible in the world, they were both radical in the sense of wanting change but also very profoundly attached to the origins of the theatre and the meaning of theatre, the ritual element in it, and so on. So it was both very modern and in some ways very ancient, the school.
How’s your musical theatre debut turning out?
It’s going great. It’s going really, really well and it’s one of the hardest of things I ever did because I’ve not ever sung on a stage and am very unconfident about my ear. My voice is okay but my ear has always been rather frail in that regard, in terms of pitch. But with a lot of help from a lot of people, including, not least, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was always convinced that I would be right to play Fosco, because indeed he offered it to me before he offered it to Michael Crawford. But I turned it down because I was frightened, basically.
I realised quite quickly that this, what is essentially a Victorian melodrama, is a form of theatre in which you can’t be too big. I suppose I’ve very often been criticized in the past [for expansive gestures] but it’s thrilling to actually be able to fill the Palace Theatre and to fill the wonderful part. It’s a great, great role and it has a great journey which is always, I suppose, the most exciting thing, isn’t it, for an actor, when you start as one thing and you end up as something almost completely different, and getting there and taking the audience with you. It’s just a wonderful opportunity. And, of course, music does add another whole dimension to it.
But also, the thing which is so wonderful, exhausting and so difficult at first is that there is a pre-existing structure which is the music, and the rhythm and the melody, and you have to live within that, whereas we, as actors, provide our own orchestration, really. We have a text, of course, which has a rhythm, but we can be very flexible and bend it and go fast and slow according to our impulses. But with this you’re under the command of someone in the Pit and someone before him who actually wrote the music, and you’ve all got to be together. There is a certain freedom and flexibility but basically you have to just live within that and, funnily enough, that is quite liberating and quite energizing. You know, you hear that intro coming up and it gives you a sort of buoyancy.
What made you accept Count Fosco the second time it was offered?
In the meantime I’d seen Crawford do it – brilliantly, absolutely brilliantly – but thought it is brilliant but if I were to do it, I would do it totally differently, absolutely radically differently. That always gets your juices going. Eventually, when I heard that Anthony Andrews was leaving the cast, I actually went to them and said, look, I’d like to have a go. But I made sure that I sang for Andrew before I accepted or, indeed, was offered the part. He’s always been fantastically encouraging, you know, and the composer of the show, and many other hugely successful shows; he also owns the theatre and is a force, I think, for considerable good in the theatre. I think he’s done remarkable and generous work and restoring theatres and all the rest of it. And I like him immensely, actually. I find him very engaging and very funny and he couldn’t have been more willing to change anything that wasn’t working, which is wonderful.
You write biographies of larger-than-life actors like Orson Welles and Charles Laughton and I wondered whether you are drawn to such personalities because of who you are or whether it was something less obvious that attracted you.
I’ve always just loved scale. I like things constructed on a grand scale. Given a choice between St Paul’s Cathedral and a Lady Chapel somewhere, I would choose St Paul’s Cathedral! I think a lot of that stems from my grandmother who was a very, very big personality. She was a showgirl, very, very briefly. She got very frightened once: she shared a bedroom with one of her fellow chorus girls, a young lady who laid a hand upon her! But she was a singer, a wonderful singer, but paralysed by nerves; it is quite interesting that such an expansive personality would have been actually frightened of large audiences. Because with a small audience, she was grand. And my great-grandfather was a clown, yes.
It’s true that, for whatever reason, as a child, I was completely besotted by Oscar Wilde, partly because he was gay but more because of this breadth of [work]. It always seems to me an ideal that someone should have the generosity of personality. My grandmother was what you might call ‘a personality’ – she dispensed her personality generously to all. It infuriated her daughters, one of them my mother, who thought she was just a prima donna – she drove them mad. But for me, it was just fabulous; it was like being in the room with Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry and whoever, all rolled into one. She would sing to me but she wouldn’t just sing, she’d really perform. She’d perform at parties. She’d suddenly go round the room, fuelled with a little gin, you know, just enough to release—. So that’s, I suppose, yes. Also, I must say that almost everybody I’ve ever admired has been of a certain girth except for Dickens, but his personality was so dynamic that he must have been a spontaneously aerobic personality. He ate it all up, you, know, he consumed everything about theatre. He was a great theatre man till the day he died.
How would you compare your incarnation of Dickens in The Mystery of Charles Dickens, to that of Emlyn Williams in his famous one-man show? And is there a chance you’ll be doing yours again in the near future?
Mine is very different to Emlyn Williams. He was a much more, shall we say, delicate performer than I am. I think Dickens is a bit more visceral than Emlyn. Emlyn was so wonderfully literate and whimsical – a wonderful sense of whimsy. I won’t be doing it again soon, certainly. I would like to do it again because it was just so enjoyable and there’s still a demand for it, as it were, and people are always asking me to do it, but I’ve got to work on the next one-person play, which will be about Shakespeare. But it’s hard, it’s really, really hard to get the format for that. But when I do that, I’ll then revive the Dickens as well and do them in tandem.
Tell me about the influence on you of the self-styled Irish actor and director, Micheál MacLíammóir.
He was another one, just a huge personality. People are very divided about his quality as an actor. I only saw him doing The Importance of Being Oscar. That’s his ring [points at finger]. It’s designed by MacLíammóir. He didn’t give it to me. He left it to an actor in his company who then decided that I was the person that should be wearing it. I put it on my finger rather like Cinderella and her slipper! It’s a Celtic love motif.
He had a huge influence, huge, huge. Partly because in himself he embodied something of the Edwardian and almost Victorian theatre because he’d played Oliver Twist to Beerbohm Tree’s Fagin in 1911. And he’d seen the Ballet Russe in London when he was a boy. He was a star, he was a child star. He’d met Sarah Bernhardt – he was a link to the past. The past has always mattered to me a great deal. It’s always been very alive to me.
And your great-grandfather was a clown?
I wish I’d known my great-grandfather. I didn’t, although there are pictures and so on. But the most delightful thing that I have – he was first a clown [at the Tivoli in Copenhagen], then a ringmaster who married my great-grandmother who was a bareback horse rider, and then he became an impresario and it was then that he must have met Sir Oswald Stoll because he came over to England to work eventually for Stoll. But when he first came here, he was in charge of a troupe of midgets that was called Dr Zenard’s Lilliputians. My grandmother, his daughter-in-law, who happened also to live next door to that family, remembers them coming for tea all immaculately turned out: carriage after carriage after carriage. But unfortunately the alcohol got the better of him and delirium tremens set in and Sir Oswald tore his contract up into a thousand small pieces.
From time to time people get grumpy about these acting dynasties like the Richardsons and so on. But that’s what the theatre always was. It’s a family business, for the most part.
Simon Callow was talking to Sarah Vernon. Following The Woman in White, he will be appearing as Abanazar in Aladdin at Richmond Theatre with Christopher Biggins and Patsy Kensit.
Sarah Vernon © 2005
Originally published on R&V 11-11-05
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