Sunday, 6 November 2011

Simon Callow - A Dickensian Life

Simon Callow can’t get away from Charles Dickens. When he arrives
onstage at Edinburgh’s Kings Theatre tonight to perform Dr Marigold and
Mr Chops, it will be a continuation of Callow’s lifelong fascination
with one of the figureheads of world literature. These two stories,
adapted here by Patrick Garland, were staples of Dickens’ repertoire as
he toured theatres to give energetic renditions which one suspects were
on a par with Callow’s own all-encompassing presentations.

First presented at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms in 2008, Dr Marigold and
Mr Chops finds Callow transforming himself first into a travelling
salesman who adopts a deaf and dumb girl; then into a freak-show turn
who wins the lottery and makes his way through a well-heeled society he
becomes increasingly repulsed by.

“I really feel quite like actors of yester-year,” Callow admits,
clearly revelling in his bravura performance. “These stories were last
seen onstage a hundred and forty years ago, with Dickens himself giving
thrilling performances in these huge, three thousand seater
auditoriums. They were the rock concerts of their time, and now as well
people are quite floored by them. People who think they know their
Dickens have never heard of these stories and can’t believe their luck.
Alistair McGowan came to a matinee, and he said there were people in
the audience who were actually crying.”

Callow’s creative relationship with Dickens began as a boy when his
imagination was fired by reading The Pickwick Papers. As an actor,
Callow played Wilkins Micawber in a 1986 TV version of David
Copperfield. Callow has also played Dickens several times on stage and
screen, first in another one-man show, The Mystery of Charles Dickens,
then providing his and Ebenezer Scrooge’s voice for an animated version
of A Christmas Carol. An Audience with Charles Dickens featured Callow
giving Dr Marigold and Mr Chops a small-screen airing, while he again
appeared as the author in Hans Christian Anderson: My Life as a
Fairytale. Most recently, Callow brought Dickens to life in the
regenerated Dr Who series.

With a biography – Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World –
pending, Callow’s affinity with his subject appears to hold no bounds.
“There’s a generosity of spirit in his work,” he enthuses, “a bigness
of imagination, a recklessness and a kind of vivacity that’s utterly
contagious. There’s a buoyancy and a dangerousness there, even though
he’s fundamentally flawed as a writer. Some of his work is sentimental,
but there’s a scope and a vitality to what Dickens does that’s
irresistible.”

The last time Callow was in Edinburgh was at this year’s Festival
Fringe, when he appeared as a transvestite in another solo show,
Tuesday At Tescos. It was towards the end of the show’s run that this
newspaper chose to honour its star with a Herald Archangel award for
his considerable body of work in Edinburgh that began with his very
first professional appearance in the 1973 Assembly Hall production of
The Three Estaites.

Callow, alas, was unable to attend the Saturday morning Herald Angels
awards ceremony due to extensive preparations for Tuesday At Tescos
lunchtime slot, which included applying a full wig and make-up
ensemble. Things aren’t quite so extreme for Dr Marigold and Mr Chops,
although Callow still takes his job very seriously indeed.

“About five O’clock I have to block out everything that’s not to do
with the play,” Callow says. “You have to put your heart and soul into
the piece. You have to get into that orphan’s brain by various means,
and feel that it matters. You’ve got to live in that land as a citizen.
That comes with maturity, when you realise what the job actually is.
When you’re younger you run on adrenalin and giving it loads, but being
on the stage involves entering into that landscape completely.”

Callow’s acting career began in the heady days of the 1970s, where, for
every bread and butter bit part as an uncharacteristically well-spoken
copper in The Sweeney, Callow found himself working with grassroots
theatre collectives such as Gay Sweatshop and former Traverse Theatre
director Max Stafford-Clark’s Joint Stock company. Coincidentally, two
other of this year’s Herald Archangels were given to Stafford-Clark and
Heathcote Williams, whose book The Speakers was turned into Joint
Stock’s debut production. Callow’s connection to both speaks volumes
about the debt today’s theatre owes to such socially aware pioneers. In
this respect too there are clear links with Dickens’ own artistic
concerns.

As Callow points out, “He was incredibly generous, and I’m deeply
impressed by his commitment to the disadvantaged and those who suffer
injustice. Dickens had this remarkable self-identification with Jesus,
and he was always on the side of those who suffered.”

Having acquired mainstream fame in the film, Four Weddings and A
Funeral, Callow is a CBE these days, with stints in Andrew Lloyd Webber
musical The Woman in White as well as a more recent tenure as a judge
on TV talent show, Pop Star to Opera Star. The influence of his
theatrical breeding ground as much as his love of Dickens, however,
remains.

Even so, Callow admits that “I’ve always been very politically
agnostic. I’ve always voted Labour, blah, blah, but I’ve never been an
activist, although I always feel that it’s important for theatre to
give people a voice. So I’m committed to theatre as much as to social
change. When these two combine, I’m all for it. If theatre was for
change in the 1970s, it was about political change, but then it all
became a bit rigid. Even in Gay Sweatshop, which started out making
theatre by and for gay people, but which I think lost some of its
political vitality.

“Of course, Dickens despised all politicians without qualification, and
indeed the democratic political process of his time. He believed in the
power of the people, and he was a demagogue in a way. He wasn’t a
socialist. He believed what people should strive for was self-respect.
He believed that people should never be passive. I think he would’ve
loved what The Big Issue’s done for homeless people.”

As a keeper of the Dickens flame, Callow’s enthusiasm for performance
is boundless.

“If there is a point of connection between me and Dickens, it’s to do
with his desire to communicate. Not just in writing. He wanted to be in
direct contact with fellow human beings. That’s what you don’t get in
films. You can do fantastically subtle things there, but you don’t have
that sense of give and take between a performer and their audience.
Every actor knows how much that influences things.”

Given his stature, it would be quite easy for Callow to coast his way
through Hollywood or the West End if he chose to. As it is, as well as
forthcoming appearances in yet another Dickens show, A Christmas Carol,
Callow will be making appearances with the London Philharmonic
Orchestra. Once his book on Dickens is out, he’ll also be embarking on
a reading tour of his own.

“That’s just greed,” Callow admits. “I find it hard to turn things
down. If someone asks me to write a book on Dickens, then I’ll say yes,
then only once I start it will I realise the scale of the task I’ve
taken on. I’ve always been a girl who can’t say no.”

Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, November 1-5
www.fcct.org.uk

The Herald, November 1 2011

ends

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