Simon says: Callow on love and loss
As he prepares to narrate a Maria Callas stage show, Simon Callow spoke to Donal Lynch about grief, love, marriage and why he wears Micheal Mac Liammoir's ring
It wasn't particularly "glamour" that first attracted Simon Callow to a life in the theatre, which is lucky I think, as I wait in an unprepossessing bistro in the Holloway Road which Callow wearily supposes "will do".
He's rehearsing nearby - the taxi driver who drops me off has driven him many times and declares him a "top bloke" - but Callow's gloriously fruity tones and owlish presence seem slightly out of place in this ragged corner of London, with its pound shops and street traders.
It's perhaps not where you'd expect to find a CBE who starred in A Room with a View and, as what he calls 'The Funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral', but in latter years, he concedes, his books, plays and side projects have "sort of overwhelmed the acting" and taken him to far-flung corners.
In Belfast he's about to put on a play he's written about a visit to that city in 1968 with Micheal Mac Liammoir. This month, he provides the pre-recorded narration to Niall Morris's acclaimed stage production Callas - The Life & Music of Maria Callas, which will be staged at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre with the talented Sinead Campbell-Wallace in the title role.
"It's a remarkable show", he says. "I was lucky to see Callas herself perform and she was one of the greatest actresses I ever saw.
"While her voice was sometimes a little unreliable, the total conviction of her performance was everything. She understood the expressive power of the music and was in the truest sense a great interpreter of the opportunities within it. I think Niall has really captured the sadness and genius of her life. It's a wonderful piece."
Thwarted, brilliant women, albeit not on the scale of Maria Callas, were something of a theme for Callow in his life. He grew up in Streatham, "the Hampstead of the South". His father left when he was a year-and-a-half old, and he was left in the care of his "odd, eccentric" mother Yvonne.
"They got married to have sex and he was supposed to be quite good at it and then she fell in love with him and he fell out of love with her, and being a strict Catholic she said 'I'll never get married again,'" he explains.
"And I think there was tremendous sadness in her life; somehow it had been derailed quite early on. She got pleasure from going to art galleries but I don't feel that she had a fulfilled life."
His mother wanted him above all else to be a writer. "She wasn't particularly interested in children and used to ban baby talk and read out leader columns from the Daily Telegraph to me when I was four so that I'd get used to the logic and the cadence of the writing," he recalls.
In person his age seems irrelevant - he is 69 but still looks very much as he did as Gareth in Four Weddings in 1994 - and he seems to have been born with a slightly regal air. Even as a child, he noticed that other adults tended to speak to him as a contemporary. "One of my grandmothers was very permissive and loving, but although she loved children and the idea of children, she just decided to talk to me entirely as though I were an adult; for instance, she would discuss her sex life with me."
When he was nine his father wrote to his mother to say he had made a terrible mistake. He arranged for Callow and his mother to come and join him in Fort Jameson, in northern Rhodesia, where he had a business. It was a "disaster", Callow recalls. His father was "not a communicative man" and drank a great deal. After a month, his mother left to go back to England, taking the young Simon with her.
Because of the lack of a father figure in his life he sometimes, touchingly, attempted to 'adopt' friends' fathers as unofficial surrogates. "There were no strong men at all in our circle and when men did come into my circle I would be quite excited by this. I tried to befriend fathers of friends of mine. My best friend was Billy Brown when I was 12 or 13 and his father was a violinist in the Royal Philharmonic. He volunteered to teach me the piano. I'd drive him mad because when he tried to teach me something, I would quite impertinently say 'I know that!' and he would say 'no you don't know at all!'
Perhaps this combination of precociousness and glimpses into adult life made him regard childhood as something "to be rattled through as soon as possible". At 15 he wrote a fan letter to his ultimate stage pin-up - Laurence Olivier - which resulted in him offering Callow a job in the box office at the National Theatre at the Old Vic.
It all coincided with a sexual awakening for Callow, as he realised that in this enclosed world of theatre it was OK, normal even, to be gay.
"When I was young I had read a book called Homosexuality, by DJ West, and he described the life of gay people as being of unremitting awfulness, loneliness and illegality, and for a moment I thought maybe I should be a celibate gay person. But that didn't last too long because my hormones were just too insistent. It was dangerous, however, and we risked being arrested. I was lucky in that I was 18 in 1967 (the year of decriminalisation in England) and, so, though the act didn't usher in paradise, it did make things easier. I was also working in theatre at the Old Vic and everyone from the actors to people in the box office were gay - men and women. There was a great affection for gay people in the theatre."
He spent a short stint in Belfast at Queen's University where he met Irish theatre legend Micheal Mac Liammoir who astounded him by walking though Belfast in an inch of make-up and loudly scorning the legions of sour Presbyterians in their Sunday best.
"He was the most extraordinary person," Callow recalls of Mac Liammoir. "He was from a pre-First World War world of theatre and a great link to the past for me. It was incredible that he could live in this sort of open scandal with Hilton Edwards, but what I came to realise was that the thing that society found threatening about gay people was when they were unattached and these sort of roaming threats to heterosexual decency. If they were a couple, like Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, or (Hilton) Edwards and Mac Liammoir, that was quite OK."
Callow wears one of Mac Liammoir's rings on his left hand. "I wrote (in The Guardian) about Mac Liammoir after he died and an actor called Patrick McDonnell, who had been given the ring, wrote to me saying that it was the most truthful thing written about him and so he said to come and visit him and I went to see him in Baggot Lane in Dublin and he produced this ring."
The big turning point in Callow's acting career, on stage at least, was his acclaimed performance as the composer in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus in 1979, when he was 30. It was a life-changer for the young actor, and the 1984 film adaptation, in which he played Emanuel Scikaneder, was his first major screen role. The following year, he appeared as the Reverend Mr Beebe in A Room with a View, in which he sort of stole the film.
Despite going on to the even more popular heights of Four Weddings and the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love he did have a niggling feeling that he never quite achieved the stardom he once seemed destined for.
"I started in Amadeus in a sort of senior cameo role and that was pretty much what I continued to play for the rest of my career," he explains. "I never graduated to a leading role. People think they know what I do and that it's one thing. I can only say that Reverend Beebe in A Room With a View is as different from Gareth in Four Weddings as it is possible to get. There was a time when I was ticking along nicely without ever really rising from the level that I had started at."
His mother died three years ago and he says that it came as "almost a relief" after years of dementia which had laid waste to her and their relationship. The most damaging moment, he says, came when she denounced him for putting her in a home which he had carefully, lovingly, and at gargantuan expense, selected for her.
Did the fact that she was suffering from dementia and possibly didn't fully understand what was happening make that any easier?
"In fact she understood completely that I was putting her in a home," he replies. "And the fact that it was a very pleasant one didn't make a difference. She knew she was being taken out of her own apartment. She was unable to run her own life. It was amazing she lasted as long as she did. She had intense paranoia for years. I spoke to the doctor about it and he prescribed her tablets and when I saw her I asked her about them and she said, "oh yes, but, you know, they only prescribe those things so they can tell you they're working and extract more money out of you for the NHS. I flushed them down the lavatory".
Toward the end, he felt she was there in person but not in spirit.
"It was a nightmare but the real nightmare was that her body just wouldn't give up at all. I think even though she didn't speak any more I don't think her mind really gave up. She seemed like she was trying to solve a problem and I felt like as soon as she solved whatever that problem was, she might die." When death finally came, " I can't say I felt a great deal of grief," he says. "She had always said 'if anything happens to my mind just get a gun and shoot me'. I think about her a great deal nowadays though and I have a sadness about her life. She would have loathed the idea of being in that situation for that long".
He got married to Sebastian Fox two years ago on a beach in Mykonos. He says the reason that it took him so long was a slight scepticism about marriage as derived from his parents' example.
"My parents' marriage had been a disaster. My grandparents' marriage had been a disaster. And I knew so many others in the same boat. It just seemed this failed institution to me. Finally when I met Sebastian, I felt, this man I could marry. The word I'd use for him is steadfast: there was something so solid about him. Most of my previous relationships had been highly dramatic and with him it was nothing like that."
He says the great age gap - Sebastian is 35 years his junior - does give him pause but he sees the benefits of it. "I was thinking the other day, if I live another 20 years I'll be 90 and he'll only be 55. What will that be like, I don't know. He's up for it and I'm up for it."
The word marriage has taken on a new resonance for him, he says. "Instead of seeing it as a fight of some kind, it seemed an opportunity for a sort of subterranean development. As you would expect with two men living together, there are the usual issues with varying points of view and space and so on but, honestly, I'm hardly aware of the age gap."
He says he has no intention of retiring. Part of this might be due to what he once called a kind of "financial fecklessness" - there are bills to pay - but he also seems to gleam with genuine enthusiasm when he describes his various stage and film projects, and his writing has a wonderful energy, particularly when summoning the virtuosity of his subjects, including Dickens, Orson Welles and his old crush, Laurence Olivier. (Of Oliver, he wrote: "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.")
Could it be that after such a long and varied career, he is living out his best moments now?
"I'm not one for nostalgia but I think if I had a heyday at all maybe this is it," he says. "I'm not regretful about anything but I think I could have taken a different path, like if I'd joined a company like the National Theatre then I could have gone all the way. Though I would like to have done that, how can I wish for things to have been different? Things were as they were, and my life has been so interesting."
'Simon Callow narrates Callas - The Life & Music of Maria Callas' is at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, on Friday, September 14. Booking at www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie
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