Simon Callow: ‘Dickens is as big a presence in my life as any friend I’ve had’

14:17 13 December 2016

Simon Callow

Simon Callow

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BRIDGET GALTON talks to Simon Callow about bringing Dickens’ festive ghost story back to the stage

It’s the time of year when Charles Dickens’ festive tale A Christmas Carol seems to be everywhere.

The story of a miser who is taught what Christmas really means by a trio of ghosts has been retold in every way imaginable with animation, puppets, Muppets and probably even on ice.

But anyone who wants to return to the spirit of the Victorian original should see it enacted as Dickens himself did, as a one man show.

And who better as raconteur than the novelist’s biggest fan Simon Callow?

“He is as big a presence in my life as any friend I have had,” says the 67-year old who has penned a book about Dickens and played him multiple times including in an episode of Dr Who written by his Islington neighbour Mark Gatiss.

“At first I said ‘absolutely not, they (Dr Who) will want to send him up,’” says the Four Weddings And A Funeral actor.

“But on the contrary, It was wonderful, especially for kids who have this idea of Dickens as a series of inpenetrable books on a bookshelf, to know something about the man - just as Shakespeare in Love did for Shakespeare.”

Callow’s 90 minute show is modelled on the version that Dickens himself toured - minus “an awful lot of lists and endless descriptions of food which can go on for pages.”

After early success with Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol at the age of 31 in response to a parliamentary report on the employment of children in the mines.

“It shocked him to the core that such things could go on. The price of Great Britain and its wealth was child labour and he was determined to strike a hammer blow in protest.

“Initially he thought it was going to be a speech but it became A Christmas Carol.”

At its heart the much loved festive favourite is a moral tale, says Callow.

“The core is not so much turkeys and yuletide mirth but the terrifying scene at the end of Christmas present when Scrooge sees two feral hungry children hiding in his robes.

“He tells him ‘these two are called want and ignorance they will damn mankind’, that’s the core of the book. It isn’t normally featured in adaptations but we give due prominence to it.”

The moral though is a positive one: “You can get a second chance however badly you have lived your life. If the will is there, you can become a contributing member of society. That idea of redemption is very powerful.”

Of course it’s also a ghost story and Callow points out that throughout literature ghosts have come back to haunt the living and remind them of their duty.

“He set out to write a ghost story. He loved ghost stories. I think ghosts emerge from our subconscious at a time when we are in need of them. Why is Scrooge especially chosen? Why can’t he just go to his grave like Marley an unrepentant capitalist? Why his desperate visions?

“I think that inside of him there have been seeds of discontent. Even at the beginning there are cracks in the carapace of Scrooge’s life. a longing for some sort of human life.”

The scene where Scrooge peers through the window to see the Cratchits’ Christmas is probably the best known and Callow still finds it affecting. “Dickens has the extraordinary gift of sanctifying the ordinary.

“The Cratchit’s Christmas dinner is ordinary but he makes it seem magical. Somehow it becomes a mythic and glorious thing.

“It always moves me the way he says there was nothing of high mark, they were not a handsome family, not well dressed but they were happy with one another and grateful for the season.

“Not many people have the gift to celebrate like that. Dickens doesn’t sentimentalise his story except for Tiny Tim. There is an identification with the broken children in his literature; Little Nell and Tiny Tim.

“With all his characters he articulates in a non intellectual way the feeling that our wealth, huge power and influence came at a terrible cost and who was paying? Not the people at the top getting richer or the middle clases getting grander houses, it was those at the bottom of the pyramid.

“Dickens forges great popular fables out of that with warmth, humanity, energy and humour, which have endured for the obvious reason that he tells them so well.”

There’s also the issue of whether Callow will be growing a beard for the run at the Arts Centre.

“A small but telling detail is that when Dickens wrote a Christmas Carol he didn’t have a beard. He wasn’t the idea of the great patriarch he’s depicted as. He grew the beard for a part and kept it for the remaining 15 years of his life.”

Callow’s performing goes hand in hand with his writing including a book on composer Wagner and three on Orson Welles. As a lover of biography Callow equates getting into the mindset of these figures with “an actor’s instinct”.

“I am fascinated by people’s lives. I try to think the thoughts of a character that I am writing about.”

But there’s no chance he’ll give up the stage.

“Once you are in front of an audience, their longing to hear a story and my desire to tell them is so great it’s just delightful. It’s a wonderful source of energy, how could I possibly tire of it?

“The business of theatre is another whole story: careers, getting work, putting yourself in the way of people who may be able to help. It’s just horrible.”

Luckily he’s had a good year. After splitting with long term partner Daniel Kramer and selling his house in Camden Town, he met 33 year old management consultant Sebastian Fox and the pair married in Mykonos in June.

“It was everything you would hope a wedding would be,” he says. “Profound and infinitely moving. After all, committing yourself for the rest of your life to another human being is not just making a promise to my husband, but it’s in front of everybody. That’s the point.”

Callow, who as patron of Hampstead charity WAC Arts took part in their annual fundraiser on Sunday, has also contributed to a National Portrait Gallery book Speak its Name writing about how far the LGBT community have come in his lifetime.

He came out in his 1984 book Being An Actor: “Everybody told me it would be fatal to my career but I am not a good enough a liar to pretend. I was able to say it in the book without interference and the roof didn’t fall in. I can’t judge whether I missed out on parts as a result but I didn’t stop working and it’s one of the things I am proudest of in my life.

“As the first well known actor to voluntarily say I was gay, people like Ian McKellen suggested it gave them the courage to do it themselves. I am not a political activist of any sort but I am proud I made that contribution.”

A Christmas Carol With Simon Callow Runs at the Arts Theatre, West End from December 8 to January 7.

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