Simon Callow: We meet Mr Versatile

PUBLISHED: 13:23 08 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:31 20 February 2013

Simon Callow: We meet Mr Versatile

Simon Callow: We meet Mr Versatile

The actor and writer is appearing at Cheltenham Music Festival this weekend. Katie Jarvis went along to meet him.

Simon Callow is appearing in Cheltenham Music Festival this month. Indeed, music has always played a central part in his life, as he explains to Katie Jarvis

Simon Callow will meet you in a Turkish restaurant in Islington, just down the road from the church where hes rehearsing, Im told. And so it is that I embark on the sort of journey Eric Newby would have turned into a witty travelogue, involving trains, more trains and automobiles, before arriving, dusty and stained but in admirably comfortable time for our 1pm rendezvous in the London-equivalent of the middle of nowhere.

I order a large sparkling water, two glasses, and sip as the restaurant fills with a global assortment of busy office workers devouring forkfuls of sumptuous Tavuk Kanat with one hand, while urgently chatting on mobiles clutched in the other.

At 1.15pm, after several fruitless visits from the kindly, patient waiter, I panic and order hummus, and begin to phone my contacts to see if they can track Mr Callow down. At 1.25pm, despair sets in: the feeling now is less Eric Newby, more Scott of the Antarctic.

Suddenly, at 1.30pm, Simon Callow walks in slightly apologetic; slightly harassed. Im so happy I could kiss him (a prospect which, were he aware of it, would undoubtedly help him with timekeeping in future). Without preamble, he orders tabule and chicken shish kebab (I had fish yesterday) from the waiter, who clearly knows him, while I pipe up, Ill have the same, anxiously imagining from his staccato notes that my interview time will be more motet than symphony. Not a second to lose.

But as the bulgar-wheat salad arrives - green with mint and parsley, piquant with lemon juice he relaxes into the familiar Simon Callow: rich rolling vowels, an occasional fruity laugh; his distinctive voice so plummy that, on a childhood sojourn with his estranged father in Northern Rhodesia once, he was called on to sing the national anthem to delight homesick expatriates.

It will be his turn, soon, to travel to us. Ah, Cheltenham, he reminisces. I always love it there. I once played in the Pump Room - a most unlikely place because we were doing a rather radical play called The Speakers, which we played under the chandelier. There was a wonderful bookshop at the time that went on forever: room after room, all filled with books... I love that hotel, too, whatever its called: the one on the square. Though the last time I went to Cheltenham, I noticed a pound store, which seemed very incongruous.

Its not theatre that summons him this time: hes appearing at Cheltenham Music Festival in Steven Isserliss homage to the strange and tormented love triangle between Brahms, Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara. Isserliss script focuses in on the last years of Schumanns life when madness possibly the result of syphilis - and a failed suicide bid led to his confinement in a mental asylum in Endenich, near Bonn. Interwoven with music played by Isserlis and fellow musicians, Callow reads extracts from their letters, juxtaposed against the harsh reality of medical reports from the asylum itself.

Its a heartbreaking story, Callow says; the saddest of all, I think, in music. Lots of composers died young but Schumanns case was particularly awful because it impaired his powers as a composer - though a lot of the music written in the last years is a great deal interesting than given credit for.

Schumanns friend Joachim [the violinist Joseph Joachim] and Clara thought they were doing him a service by suppressing his later music which, they considered, represented a terrible, sad decline. In fact, so much of that music is just remarkable. It has an entirely different tone and quality to almost anything else deeply affecting.

It was Joachim who effected a meeting between the Schumanns and the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms in 1853, who amazed the couple with his playing. He became a close friend, advising and helping Clara after her husbands death. Their letters make it clear that Brahms was head over heels with her, but it seems unlikely their relationship was ever physical. Though, I suggest, perhaps thats hard to judge from a 21st century perspective.

Really? Callow asks. I wonder if people change that much. I think people are always falling in love with the wrong people.

I bow to superior judgement, for the talent that makes Simon Callow such a remarkable actor is his vivid ability to get beneath the skin of a character. One of the fascinations of reading his beautifully-written autobiographical tomes is the way he sets out his attempts to capture the essence of his stage personae. When playing Lord Are in Restoration, he asked the playwright Edward Bond, What animal is he like?... A peacock? It is, it seems to me, an interesting way of approaching acting.

I just needed a sense of the man, he explains. I was really probing Edward for something that connected, though what he said to me was insanely unhelpful. He told me something like: hes a six-wheeled carriage on a broken glass. If hed said: he is an elephant and not a flamingo, then I would have got something.

Is it not quite singular? To think in metaphors like that?

Its not so much metaphors as sensation. Absolutely anyone can rise to the idea of being a flamingo rather than a camel. If you thought about being a flamingo, youd change your shape, wouldnt you?

Maybe not. But thats one reason why Im not a famous actor and he is.

Hes probably best known for playing Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral though even that popular comedic role has its deeper side. Callow, who voluntarily came out as gay in his 1984 autobiography Being an Actor, once wrote, I received a number of letters from apparently intelligent, articulate members of the public saying that they had never realised, until seeing the film, that gay people had emotions like normal people.

Its noteworthy how many of his roles revolve around music (even Gareth dies after over-exuberant dancing). Hes directed opera, as well as the musical My Fair Lady; hes sung in the film Phantom Of The Opera, and played Mozart in the Royal National Theatres production of Peter Shaffers Amadeus. In his theatrical memoir, Love is Where it Falls about his passionate friendship with the play agent Peggy Ramsay, music features constantly as a backdrop to many of the important events in his life. Does music have a Proustian effect on him?

It certainly does. I cant hear the beginning of the Overture to Tannhuser without thinking of my grandmother. She had been a singer and had a fantastic collection of 78s. My mother and I lived with her at some point.

Her next-door neighbour was a man called Andrew Brown who was in the second violins in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Rudolf Kempe, and I often went to his concerts. He talked about music most wonderfully. The RPO, in those days, were the Glyndebourne pit orchestra, and he would describe lots of the operas to me and his son, Billy, who was my best friend. He was the most vivid storyteller.

At one point, he started to teach me the piano but he got fed up because I was such a know-all. I wanted to play the piano, deeply, desperately, but my mother wouldnt let me have piano lessons; I hadnt revealed any particular talent for music so I would only be taking time away from my academic studies.

He was, indeed, a studious child, brought up by his mother and grandmother in Kennington, South London. It was Laurence Olivier who gave him his first break in theatre after the 18-year-old Callow wrote to him. Not quite the break he was looking for, though: Sir Laurence invited him to join the National Theatre company box office. After a spell there Callow left, briefly, to study for a degree at Queens University, Belfast where he marched for equal rights for the Catholic population and ended up in hospital with peritonitis. It was while recuperating that he determined to leave academia and complete his education at the Drama Centre in London.

His lack of a degree has hardly held him back. As well as his theatre work, he is an accomplished writer and currently at work on the third volume of a biography of Orson Welles. Its his writing that both keeps him in London and, contrarily, makes him long to leave. Increasingly Im getting rural longings: I find it so hard to write in London - interruptions and the sense of the city going on outside; and the fact that its so easy to say: Come for supper; lets go and see a play. The diversions are endless. Whereas if youre in the country... he pauses and sighs in a flash of self-knowing. Actually, the problem is that the moment I went to the country, Id form a whole group of friends and start again.

I suppose the truth of the matter is that, in order to write I need to engage; but its very difficult because in writing biographies, I have this ton of materials that have to go everywhere with me.

And, of course, hes rehearsing currently in an Islington church for a new Jonathan Bate play: Shakespeare, The Man From Stratford, which will include Bath, Oxford and Malvern on its UK tour. An attempt to track down the man behind the legend, it brings the Bard, as well as his characters, to life.

So Callow obviously subscribes to the view that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?

He laughs. Theres a clue in the title.

I genuinely find it baffling why people think he didnt. Its inconceivable that anyone could get away with anything like that for over 30 years in a tiny community like the theatre.

Well, I venture; if you look at many great achievers, they had the advantage of independent schooling. Maybe thats why people are sceptical that a provincial grammar-school boy...

But Ben Johnson didnt go to university, he leaps in, emphatically. He went to Westminster School for about a year. Charles Dickens, whom whole university departments spend their lives sweating over, had about two years education. This is a rather hilarious conceit that you can only be bright if youve gone to university.

(Not that Id mentioned university, interestingly.) All I was saying, I try again, is that - on average - if you look at British prime ministers, for example...

Thats a social phenomenon; it doesnt apply to the theatre. Also the Earl of Oxford, whos currently the favourite of having written the plays, never wrote an interesting word in his life, though weve thousands of letters from him and poems that he published. Did he pretend to be a bad writer in life in order to bring off this fabulous confidence trick?

It is precisely because Shakespeare led an ordinary life - but with a genius for expression - that he was able to show us what it was like to be human. If hed been an Earl or a soldier or one of the many things people like to think he was, he wouldnt have had the breadth of experience to write as he did. But he brought up three children in a tiny house in Stratford. He knew all about them mewling and puking.

He was an observer, not interested in himself but in you. Your accent became his accent and even the things you were doing your gestures (if you do something a little odd with your finger when you pick up your cup) - hed be trying on for size, like an actor.

He was supposed to have been a bad actor, wasnt he?

No, nobody said that. All we know is that he played small parts; but then I have an explanation for that. It might have been that he couldnt have played larger parts because they would have upset him too much. The emotion would have got to him. So he played very mild parts like Adam in As You Like It.

Are you like him?

I do watch and I do listen but Im not at all like him.

So what is he like, then, Simon Callow? What metaphor would he employ to describe himself? Nothing ordinary, surely. An orchestra playing to a thousand fireflies in a dissolute Maharajahs palace? A mirror reflecting a matchbox full of multi-coloured marbles? A lone, long-necked flamingo?

No; its simpler than that. The versatile Callow is a man who can be whatever he wants to be, on a stage in a roomful of people.

  • Simon Callow appears in Isserlis and Schumann 3: Brahms, Robert and Clara at Cheltenham Town Hall, 7.30pm, Sunday, July 11; for more on Cheltenham Music Festival, taking place from July 2-17, visit or phone the box office on 0844 576 8970

  • For details of Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford, which visits Malvern Theatres on July 20-22, log onto

  • Simon Callows latest book, the autobiographical My Life in Pieces, is out on July 5, price 20, published by Nick Hern Books

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