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Noel Coward On (And In) the Theatre

Twice I saw Noël Coward in the flesh, during his last couple of years: once at the National Film Theatre, being interviewed; and once at a Midnight Matinee at the Theatre  Royal Drury Lane. His answers to questions in the NFT interview were simple and accurate and lucid; on the page they would look like nothing at all, but as spoken by him, in those infinitely imitated clipped tones, they produced gales of laughter from the audience. At the Midnight Matinée, he walked down the aisle, past my seat in the stalls, until he was stopped by another venerable member of the profession, who cried out “Darling Noël! How are you?” “Dying,” replied Coward, with a perfectly judged downward inflection, and walked briskly on. He was, too. Just in time, really: his world, and most particularly his world of theatre, was, to his dismay, rapidly disappearing.

Ironically, at the time of his death he was enjoying an ongoing revival of interest in his early work which had started with the appearance at a small theatre club in North London of a production of his 1930 masterpiece, Private Lives, continued with a stupendously cast production of the even earlier Hay Fever at Laurence Olivier’s newly established National Theatre and another, in the West End, of his still shocking Design for Living (1934). Soon there were revivals of the wartime plays, Blithe Spirit, Present Laughter and This Happy Breed. His  post-war work, however, had  seldom been successful and was never revived; nothing that he wrote in the last twenty-five years of his life – plays and musicals galore – proved to have any staying power. His fall from grace as a writer was long-drawn out and very public, accompanied by a spirited rear-guard attempt on his part to discredit the new school of theatre, which he perceived to be reducing to rubble everything he stood for.

This sour and censorious Coward, this querulous Coward,  is much in evidence in Barry Day’s Noël Coward On (and In) Theatre,  a thorough, useful and handsomely-produced compendium of his extensive writing on  the medium through which he most frequently and most effectively expressed himself. He explored its possibilities with fanatical thoroughness, writing plays from boyhood, taking in across the course of his long working life revue, musical theatre, operetta, ballet and even, surprisingly but triumphantly, historical epic in the form of Cavalcade, his 1931 account of British life in the first 30 years of the twentieth century. Throughout his career, and notwithstanding this engagement with history, he strenuously insisted that the purpose of the theatre was fundamentally to entertain; the words of his song If Love Were All have often been thought to be autobiographical: 

I believe that, since my life began,
The most I've had is just a talent to amuse,
Heigh ho!
If love were all!

Again and again in Barry Day’s pages, Coward  tells us that theatre is not a place for ideas, for probing motive, for engaging with the dark or the barely understood in human life: it is diversion, pure and simple. And indeed this may be true of his post-war output. But until then, whether intentionally or not, he had created a series of theatre pieces which are crackling and surging with wildness and irresistible urges which seem to well up out of the subconscious – examining, in Private Lives, for example, the borderline between lust and violence, or, in Design for Living (perhaps his masterpiece) the profound complexities when friendship tips over into sexual desire. At least three of his leading characters – Elyot in Private Lives, Gary in Present Laughter  and Charles Condomine in Blithe Spirit, are on the brink of or actually undergoing nervous breakdowns. Coward himself underwent three full-scale mental collapses and was prone to overwhelming sexual infatuations which deeply damaged both him and the object of his desire, all of which was very much at odds with his carefully cultivated public image of stiff upper-lipped control and command.

Along with this sense of barely controllable inner life is –  to use a phrase of which he would heartily disapprove – an  acute sense of weltschmerz, trenchantly expressed in his song lyrics of the 1920’s: “Cocktails and laughter/But what comes after?/Nobody knows”, “Dance, dance, dance, Little lady/So obsessed with second best/No rest you’ll ever find.” All this is summarised in Cavalcade’s  great torch song, Twentieth Century Blues:

Nothing to win or to lose,
It's  getting me down.
Escape those dreary
Twentieth century

Mr Day’s compendium is largely content to take Coward at his own valuation. It tends to repetitiousness – sometimes literally using the same paragraph more than once – and there is rather too much recourse to the phrase “The Master”, which cannot but feel slightly creepy. Coward’s militantly middlebrow attitudes are approvingly repeated (“There has never yet been composed a piece of classical music that was not too long”) and we quickly tire of his opinions about acting.  He had sensible things to say about it, of course, but they were not of limitless profundity. Over and over again, we are reminded of    his belief in the value of learning lines accurately before rehearsals, the importance of considering the audience and co-operating with one’s fellow actors, the inadvisability of bumping into the furniture.

He was deeply suspicious of any analysis of his work:  “They – the Critics – search busily behind the simplest of my phrases, like old ladies peering under the bed for burglars, and are not content until they have unearthed some definite, and usually quite inaccurate, reason for my saying this or that.” The truth is that he barely knew himself. Philip Hoare in his still unsurpassed 1995 biography is a revelation of a complex and often inspired artist stranded by history. He was not a great actor, but a performer of genius, a world-beating personality and a restless explorer of his medium. His tragedy was that the war destroyed the conventional bourgeois world which he had so ruthlessly satirised    and provoked. In his later years he became the articulator of the theatrically disenfranchised middle-classes and in doing so lost his unique voice. But what he wrote before then will survive as long as we have a theatre.


Wagnerism by Alex Ross

The gigantism of Wagner—the sheer scale of his output, his stupendous intellectual scope, his action-packed life, and his all but unfathomable personality—affects the works that have been written about him, and Alex Ross’s book, about his influence, past and present, is a real door-stopper. But it could not have been a page shorter. Wagner’s reach, as Ross comprehensively demonstrates, is vast, greater by far than that of any other musician in history, greater perhaps than any artist in any medium, his influence profound and continuing and by no means confined to music itself. I find myself already slipping into hyperbole, always a danger with Wagner. This is something Mr. Ross never does. One of the many beauties of this incomparably rich book is that it refuses to engage in any simplistic analysis of its subject, who emerges in his full bewildering complexity. It is one of most valuable books about Wagner I know of, compelling one to engage not merely with the composer and his legacy but with music itself, how it works on us, what it is.

Ross is a fearless writer: to have attempted a comprehensive study of the tangled and explosive story of music in the 20th century, and to have succeeded triumphantly, in his best-selling And the Rest is Noise, was a stunning coup, but it was child’s play by comparison with what he’s attempting in Wagnerism, namely to give an account of the literature, art, philosophy, and history of the last 150 years, insofar as Wagner impinged on it—which he did to an astonishing degree. Ross is candid about the scale of the undertaking:

I am conscious of my limits in both expertise and language. Nietzsche accused Wagner of dilettantism: in fact, the composer’s legacy is so multifarious that anyone who studies it is a dilettante by default. Writing this book has been the great education of my life.

The book is of such scope, filled with so many surprising and unexpected details, crammed with astonishing juxtapositions and unexpected connections, replete with searching analyses of artists in every medium who have been influenced by Wagner, that all one can possibly do, here, is—like a guide in some great palace or museum—to point the reader gently in this direction or that.

Nietzsche is a starting point: “Wagner sums up modernity,” he said. “It can’t be helped, one must first become a Wagnerian.” And he didn’t mean simply in music—he was referring to a fundamental cultural change of which Wagner was the avatar. “The composer,” says Ross, “came to represent the cultural-political unconscious of modernity—an aesthetic war-zone in which the Western world struggled with its raging contradictions, its longings for creation and destruction, its inclinations towards beauty and violence.”

At the same time, Wagner was being enlisted by conservatives as one of their own, culminating in his posthumous embrace by Adolf Hitler—despite his pacifism, his contempt for the newly founded German Empire, the proto-Marxist analysis of capitalism underlying The Ring, and his exaltation of compassion (mitleid) as the supreme virtue. Wagner held many surprising views: as early as 1850 in his pamphlet Art and Climate he pioneered ecological awareness, seeing industrialization as a “corrosive force,” Ross writes. He supported vegetarianism, strongly opposed cruelty to animals, and—completely unexpectedly—was very sympathetic to homosexuality, remarking to his wife that “it is something for which I have understanding but no inclination. In any case, as with all relationships what matters most is what we ourselves put into them. It is all illusion.”

But the self-same Richard Wagner was the author of Jewishness in Music, one of the crudest and most poisonous essays in the foul history of anti-Semitism, which reads like a tweet from hell, the unmediated contents of a poisoned subconscious. To Liszt, he breezily remarked: “this grudge is as necessary to my nature as gall is to blood.” He needed an enemy to function properly; the Jews came in very handy. He also told Liszt that he had “an enormous desire to commit acts of artistic terrorism.” Everywhere in Wagner’s life and writings, one runs up against paradox and contradiction. But it is this seemingly direct connection, for better or for ill, to his subconscious which accounts for his capacity to stir us so deeply, to get under our skins.

This is what Alex Ross confronts head-on across the whole of recent Western culture, weaving a vast tapestry consisting of hundreds of vignettes, monographs, studies, and meditations, which, all put together, amounts to a gigantic portrait of this most vexed, most baffling of composers. In turn, each different country as it discovered him and his charismatic music somehow remade Wagner in its own image.

The French were the first. Indeed, the very word “Wagnerism” is translated from the French: Wagnérisme was a term coined to describe the poets, painters, and musicians who, in the 1850s, were intoxicated by the sensuality of such fragments of the composer’s music as they were able to hear. For them, Wagner represented an escape from the decorum and cerebralism of French music: dream- or even nightmare-like, his was a royal road to the unconscious, to the irrational. Hearing the prelude to Lohengrin, Baudelaire said, “I experienced the sensation of a brightness more vivid, an intensity of light growing so swiftly that not all the nuances provided by the dictionary would be sufficient to express this ever-renewing increase of incandescence and heat.

Tristan,” says Ross, “set the course for an avant-garde art of dream logic, mental intoxication, formless form, limitless desire.”

The British, on the other hand, made Wagner an honorary Briton, praising him for his “firmness and presence of mind” and for “the middle-class freedom and intelligence of some of his characters.” Queen Victoria herself, and her spouse, Albert, were enchanted by the music, and invited Wagner to conduct at Windsor Castle. There were dissenting voices, of course: “clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded … sapless, soulless, beginingless, endless, topless, bottomless,” said John Ruskin, on hearing Meistersinger.

In an entertaining chapter headed “Star-Spangled Wagner,” Ross shows Americans trying to co-opt him into their efforts to create a national myth, though Wagner was not, says Ross, so easily assimilated: “The idea of a national mythology based on the legacies of conquered, murdered and enslaved peoples was not one for which Wagner provided a precedent.” Nonetheless, the composer seemed to answer the cry of the Southern poet Sidney Lanier—“Oh Wagner, westward bring thy heavenly art!”—insofar as the first cowboy novel, The Virginian, by devoted Wagnerian Owen Wister, betrays the influence of Lohengrin, the great loner, the knight from nowhere, whose solitary specter haunts many novels of the period, Willa Cather’s, notably. The opera itself has a very significant role in “Of the Coming of John,” the haunting penultimate chapter in W. E. B. Dubois’s great pioneering study On the Souls of Black Folk. Paradoxical as ever, Wagner took a keen interest in the work of the great black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge; and, astonishingly, barely a decade after Wagner’s death, Aldridge’s daughter, Luranah, was cast as a Valkyrie in the 1895 Bayreuth revival of The Ring.

Ross probes Wagnerian influence in the novels of George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, Colette, James Joyce, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, J. R. R. Tolkien—of course!—C. S. Lewis, and even Upton Sinclair, whose fantastical first novel, Prince Hagen, describes a young poet camping in the Canadian forest who stumbles across the Nibelheim, where Alberich is still alive, with his grandson, the prince of the title. Ross’s account of Thomas Mann—who characterized his relationship with Wagner as “an affair, sceptical, pessimistic, clairvoyant, almost testy, and yet full of passion and indescribable joie-de-vivre”—brilliantly expresses the almost traumatic ambivalence that the composer seemed to provoke in his fellow countrymen.

By 1911, Germany—fully militarized under the Kaiserreich Wagner so despised—had conscripted the now long-dead composer into active service; by 1914, says Ross, “Wagner had become part of the national arsenal.” In the French town of Saint-Quentin, which fell to the Germans in the first weeks of the war, they celebrated by arranging a concert performance of Parsifal. The very conduct of the war was delineated in Wagnerian terms—defensive bulwarks were called the Siegfried and Wotan Lines; the retreat to the former, razing houses, poisoning wells, and destroying railway lines, was dubbed Operation Alberich; the final counter-offensive, in 1918, never enacted, they called Plan Hagen.

In embattled France, Wagner fell from grace; the poet Aragon recalled policemen entering people’s apartments and stopping them from playing Wagner. In a delicious detail typical of the lightness of touch with which Ross leavens what could easily have been a harrowing haul through history, a humorist in the provisions division of the French Army, sick of the endless Valkyrie imagery deployed by German High Command, stamps the meat-delivery trucks with the image of a laughing cow, which they punningly nickname “La Wachkyrie”; out of this came the still popular brand of processed cheese known as la Vache Qui Rit.

By the time the First World War ended, Wagner seemed doomed to the museum, the modernists having turned against him. But the European and American public remained stubbornly loyal. In Germany, inevitably, it was a different matter. Wagner became weaponized. His characters, having been deployed in the drawing up of war plans, now assumed a role in explaining their failure. It was impossible for the Germans to acknowledge weakness or guilt: they had been betrayed, like Siegfried himself, stabbed in the back. But by whom were they betrayed?

Enter Adolf Hitler, who ushers us into what was inevitably going to be the dark heart of the book, with a few answers. Ross doesn’t flinch from the horrors, but he finds, perhaps to his own surprise, that Hitler’s Wagner was in many ways a fundamental distortion of both the work and the man. “The military state that had devised Operation Alberich and Plan Hagen was internalizing the ethos of hardness that Wagner’s philosophy of compassion strove to overcome … the 1848 dream of the overthrow of worldly power gave way to a cult of force: all irony was stripped from the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.” Ross brings us to the present day, where Bayreuth, no longer the temple of German supremacy, has become, instead, the forum in which Germany questions its own past—to excess, in fact. Scarcely a production fails to feature Nazis, which is now no longer a provocation but merely a convention; the booing is as ritualized as the performances themselves once were.

By the end of the book, you may not like Wagner any more than you did before, you may not enjoy his music any more than you have in the past, but you will be compelled to admit that he was an absolutely titanic figure, whose influence and traces are everywhere, in areas scarcely touched on in this review. One of the key figures in Western cultural history, and indeed in the history of the West, period, Wagner was a figure at once atavistic and forward-looking, who fundamentally remade the arts—music and drama—that he practiced, and who is so complex and on such a scale that the study of him is inexhaustible. The miracle of Ross’s book is that it is so fresh and so personal; his intellectual stamina, though prodigious, in never flaunted. In a “postlude” he writes about himself: “At the end of my college years, my life veered in a somewhat chaotic, self-destructive direction. It was at this point, naturally, that I began to fall in love with Wagner. None of this is interesting except insofar as I am a typical case. My immersion in Wagnerism has led me to realize that I had been reciting a dog-eared script of passionate ambivalence.”

Ross’s final verdict: “When we look at Wagner, we are gazing into a magnifying mirror of the soul of the human species. What we hate in it, we hate in ourselves; what we love in it, we love in ourselves, also. In the distance, we may catch glimpses of some higher realm, some glimmering temple, some ecstasy of knowledge and compassion. But it is only a shadow on the wall, an echo from the pit. The vision fades, the curtain falls, and we shuffle back in silence to the world as it is.”

Is he the Wizard of Oz, then? Is there really no one and nothing behind it all? Surely Ross is too pessimistic. After the curtain has fallen, after the echo from the pit has died out, after the vision has faded, are our heads not filled with the bewitching sounds we have heard? Are not the often suppressed emotions to which we have been stirred now alive again in us? The force of nature that he is, destructive and healing at one and the same time, will not be easily stilled.

Joan Schenkar

Joan and I were introduced by Merlin Holland, who had helped her on her first biography, Truly Wilde, about Oscar’s niece, Dolly; he thought we would get on. He understated. She arrived in my life like a character introduced into a novel when the plot is flagging, a wholly original, fully formed creation, who immediately became part of the main story. She crossed the channel so that we might meet, and when we did it was as if we were resuming a conversation rather than starting one. I don’t know that I have ever met anyone who made such a vivid impression on me at first sight. She was designed for memorability: short of stature, slight of form, dressed to the nines in a shrewdly chosen array of contrasting fabrics, her hair a helmet of brunette curls, she radiated intensely focussed energy, poised for guerrilla action. Her eyes, greyish-greenish, looked straight into the back of one’s skull, making a quick and thorough inspection of its contents. I thought immediately “One would not want this woman for an enemy,” but luckily, the brain survey successfully completed, she radiated nothing but approval: from then on, we were not just friends, though we were certainly that, but collaborators – co-conspirators, as she saw it, against a lying, cheating, shabby, pernicious, talentless world. 

The relish with which she eviscerated reputations and personalities was exhilarating. She laid all her cards on the table at our first meeting: she was, she made it clear from the beginning,  Jewish, lesbian, and very, very clever.  She had been vigorously heterosexual, she told me in an aside, but at a certain point, men had lost their appeal for her and she had switched horses – her phrase – without drawing breath. She was utterly unsentimental about every aspect of life, viewing pretty well everything and everyone with an intensely analytical and appalled fascination; I alone, she suggested, was uniquely exempted from her strictures. It was us and them, them being the entire world and us being – well, just her and me, the Joanistas. I saw clearly that all her friendships, of which there were many, must have been similarly dramatized. It was a role I was very happy to play.

I was astonished, and remain astonished, at the range of her knowledge and interests. She had read everything, not just literature but politics and history, science and psychology; she was au fait with all the reviews and an absolute mistress of gossip.  I introduced her to a little, slightly Bohemian, club to which I belonged. She was delighted  by it, immediately took out membership, and from then on it became her London centre of operations. The staff were enchanted and a little awed by her. By the end of that first week of our acquaintance, she had got to know everyone, and gave me the lowdown on all of them, people I had known for years, but clearly, I discovered, not known at all. Eventually she took out a five year membership  (no mean commitment). Those greyish green eyes missed nothing. When at a certain point things started to unravel and the management  began behaving very oddly, Joan was my guide to the whole baroque saga, predicting with perfect accuracy the subsequent course of events. Exactly as she had foreseen, things did not end well at all for the club. It was a bravura piece of detective work, astonishing but not in the least surprising. This was the woman, after all, who had ferreted out and x-rayed the lurid private life of Patricia Highsmith; it was awe-inspiring to watch her forensic talents at work on a lesser mystery. 

When I was in New York, we’d meet, and her knowledge of that city was as detailed and informed as one would expect.  We would go to restaurants known only to her, often under Sapphic management; one had a feeling of being admitted to a secret world. The pandemic turned her against the city, though: her contempt for its handling of the crisis was fathomless. She girded herself against the authorities’ incompetence with an astonishing array of self-devised protections, masks, helmets, body suits, turning her into a awe-inspiring combination of Martian and emergency room medic fully scrubbed up. She finally decided that the city was too dangerous, and contrived, by complex and not necessarily legal manoeuvres, to move – at the height of the pandemic on both sides of the Atlantic – to  the city of Light.   

I never met her in Paris, but her profound knowledge of it was on display in the marvellous dispatches she sent to The Berkshire Edge. One of them was, as it happens,  about the afterlife in Paris and contains this entirely Schenkarian sentence: “The possibility of having the time of your Afterlife in Paris is greatly enhanced by the fact that the dead here are taken as seriously as the living.” Amen to that. But her last months in the city were not happy: it and its denizens came under her unsparing lash. The last email I had from her was headed  “From Joan in virally enhanced Paris: piegée jusqu’  la fin juin” – trapped to the end of June –  and it started in full excoriating mode: “I have been here in Paris forever, cursing the French and their inability to protect each other  (and me) with any kind of Covid protocols. Never saw such bad behavior in my life –  and I’ve seen plenty. There’s a reason that France is the only country to enact a law prosecuting people for non-assistance to people in danger: the French really don’t  give a crap about anyone. So I hate them now and live among them with maximum resentment, but am hoping –  if the fourth wave of infections ever abates here (I think that’s  what we’ve  got now: hospitals full to bursting, nothing but Covid patients allowed, medical people deciding who lives and who dies, yup, it’s a wave) –  to remember why I have loved them so long.”

I have no doubt that had she lived, she would have remembered why; it was too deep a love. To those of us who loved her, the loss is profound. Unique from that helmet of hair to her luridly coloured toe-nails, she stood for pretty well everything that is threatened today: fearless and frank, she spoke the truth as she so vividly saw it without apology or modification. She faced up to the evil that lurks in the heart of man (and woman, oh my god, yes) with savage relish, with the energy and passion of a 21st century Juvenal, with the remorseless honesty of a Voltaire, with the tirelessness of a Karl Kraus – an unerring and trenchant critic of the entire species. What a terrible loss. What a wonderful piece of luck to have known her. May she rest in – not peace, that wouldn’t suit her at all – but in joyous and sempiternal turmoil.   

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends by Ash Carter and Sam Kashner. Henry Holt, 336 pp., $30.00

For practitioners of what used to be called the lively arts, Life Isn’t Everything, an oral biography of Mike Nichols, is manna from heaven, its brilliantly orchestrated polyphony bringing him, his work, and his world to vivid life. Its subject is one of the rare individuals who transcend their professions and indeed their output to become archetypal figures of their time, acquiring the resonance of characters from a novel—in Nichols’s case, one perhaps by Balzac: Lucien de Rubempré or Eugène de Rastignac, those young men who set out from positions of great weakness to conquer their worlds. Rubempré, of course, fails and kills himself, which Nichols sometimes contemplated; Rastignac rises to the very top, as Nichols so conspicuously did, first as a dazzling comic performer, then as a masterful director of theater, television, and film, earning what Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times, called “the grand slam of major American entertainment awards”: a Grammy, an Oscar, four Emmys, and nine Tonys. But he somehow stood apart from the tawdry passing scene, a twinkling grandmaster, above and beyond all the awards—or ratfucks, as he preferred to call them.

To those of us who knew him and worked with him, he was a uniquely alluring figure, radiant and lucid and infectiously amusing, but for almost all of us, he was also essentially unknowable, as Life Isn’t Everything abundantly demonstrates. The book’s title comes from a speech Nichols made when collecting one of those nine Tonys: “My love to those who have not won tonight. I just want to remind you of my motto: ‘Cheer up, life isn’t everything.’ It always stands me in good stead.”

Part of Mike’s allure was his wit, a rare commodity in Anglophone public life: we like our public men and women to be funny, but wit is considered to be just too clever by half. “There’s no comeback to an epigram,” notes John Lahr, one of the contributors to the book and author of a New Yorker profile of Nichols in 2000. “In other words, the wit completely disarms the other, and a lot of what Mike is about is disarming the other.” Or maintaining the mystery, he might have added, deflecting discovery. Life Isn’t Everything, which draws on witnesses from his earliest to his final years, ending with one of the last people he worked with, the young English actor Rafe Spall, exemplifies the mystery by offering radically contrasting glimpses of him across over seven decades. Almost everyone agrees that there was a great deal hidden behind that impeccable exterior. The actor David Hyde Pierce recalls him saying, “The art of being charming is giving away a vital part of yourself which you can absolutely part with.”

The charm was exceptional and very conscious, and was all the more charming for it. My first encounter with him was characteristic: the stage door keeper of the theater I was playing in put through a call to my dressing room. “It’s a Mr. Mike Nichols.” It couldn’t be the Mike Nichols, I thought: these great ones don’t do that. They, or more likely, their people, call the agent, the PA, the manager. But no: “Hello,” the unmistakable voice said:

This is Mike Nichols, and I have a movie I’d like you to be in. And it would help me very much if you were to say yes, because, you see, I’ve just made a personal oath never to make another film without you in it, and I don’t know what I’d do if you were to turn me down.

Immediately we were both laughing at the absurdity of this, and the laughter produced a kind of complicity, which was his essential modus operandi. By the end of the call I felt as if we knew each other very well, but of course we didn’t. The seeming intimacy, which never wavered in the quarter- century we knew each other, was a kind of conjuring trick—by behaving as if we knew each other deeply, we did, in a sense. He was from the beginning wonderfully candid about people he knew or had worked with. “You must never live in Hollywood,” he once said to me. “It’s a dreadful place. One morning you wake up and find you’ve turned into stone, or Streisand.” I appeared in two films for him— Postcards from the Edge and Angels in America —but that didn’t materially alter things. They just seemed like a continuation of the conversation we were having. There was unquestionably a sympathy between us; there were shared interests; there was a delight in language and a curiosity about life. The pleasure of being around him was intense, and he gave the impression that it was mutual. But do I feel that I knew him? Not at all.

Mike left no autobiography. Various people, myself among them, tried to coax one out of him, but his answer was always the same: he couldn’t, he said, endure the idea of a book tour. No amount of assurance that a tour was entirely optional could change his mind. Then Knopf editor Shelley Wanger, we learn from Life Isn’t Everything, tried to commission a book from him about his craft, about the work of theater and film. He was toying, he told her, with writing a book about his early experience of Hollywood; it was to be called Another Fucking Beautiful Day, which tells us all we need to know about how seriously he took it. He might also have felt a book to be redundant. From the moment fame sought him out and made him its own, his every small step was chronicled in the press, and largely in his own words.

It was, I suppose, a sort of oral auto biography. An articulate interlocutor is always a gift to editors, and Mike was for them quotability incarnate. From 1959, when he and his comedy partner, Elaine May, made their thirteenth highly successful network television appearance (and their third on The Dinah Shore Show), just after their sold- out one-night appearance at the unusual venue of New York’s Town Hall, the press was at his door. “For the Love of Mike—and Elaine” joshed the Times headline on that occasion; fifty years later, in the same paper, McGrath wrote, unkindly but correctly:

Mr. Nichols’s greatest improvisation is still himself. He wakes up every morning in his Fifth Avenue apartment, collects himself and, wearing a wig and paste- on eyebrows, plays a character called Mike Nichols.

The string of articles, profiles, and interviews continued unabated until his death in 2014.

His story was a remarkable one. He was born in Berlin in 1931 to a Russian father and a German mother. His maternal grandfather, Gustav Landauer, was the commissioner of enlightenment and public instruction in the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic; his maternal grandmother, Hedwig Lachmann, was the librettist of Richard Strauss’s Salome (and also, as it happens, translated Balzac). Then there was, in reaction to a routine inoculation against whooping cough, his dramatic and permanent loss of hair at the age of four, his escape from Germany with his brother in 1939, his unhappy childhood and adolescence, the family’s descent into abject poverty after his father’s death, his sense of isolation at school, followed by liberation on enrolling at the University of Chicago, his encounter with the theater there, and then the astonishing collaboration, rooted in improvisation, with Elaine May, which broke the mold of contemporary comedy.

“Nichols and May would seem to be among those comedians,” said The New York Times in 1959, “who come along once in a decade to register on people at all cultural levels—they have both snob and mob appeal, like Chaplin, Fred Allen, and the Marx Brothers.” When the partnership ended, he discovered his talent for directing with a Neil Simon comedy, Barefoot in the Park, on Broadway, which led to a series of slam- dunk theatrical successes, and then, with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), a seamless segue into movies, on his first outing directing the most famous acting couple in the world.

Meanwhile, Mike had been learning how to comport himself in the circles into which his new wealth and fame had propelled him. His mentor was the photographer Richard Avedon, from whom he received a thoroughly  Balzacian induction into the beau monde : “Dick was going to start teaching me all about the good life, because, remember, I was a young asshole, I didn’t know anything, I wasn’t from here, I had come from another place,” he told Avedon’s biographer in Something Personal:

Dick was instructing me on the right things to eat, such as caviar, and how to eat, and how to order in a restaurant, and how to travel, and where to travel, and how to dress. And how to get comfortable with other people, which was a big thing—he said to me, “Just ask them about themselves and they don’t stop talking.”

In Venice one night, on the way back from dinner, Mike said to Avedon and his wife, Evie, “Well, you two may like this stuff, but I can’t stand these counts and princesses, it’s too much for me,” to which Evie replied, “You’re so full of shit, Mike—you love it, admit it.” “And of course she was right—I did love it, all of it, I ate it all up.” It transpired, after both he and his tutor in savoir vivre had died, that—in true Balzacian fashion—they had been lovers for over ten years and while married to various people. He packed a great deal into his life.

After his first great explosion of work, he forged ahead with renewed energy: in 1967 he directed The Graduate, which remains a startling piece of work, both cinematically and in its social analysis. Indeed, the two are the same: the camera is as alienated as the action. It is Antonioni à l’américaine. His great avant-garde gamble, Catch­22, which followed three years later, shows a genuine desire to push the boundaries of film; he never went there again, but it was brave to have done such a thing when he had two mainstream hits under his belt. The following year, he directed what is probably his masterpiece, Carnal Knowledge, a remorselessly bleak vision of male sexual bewilderment and the havoc it wreaks in the lives of men and their partners; it is perhaps even more painful to watch now than when it came out in 1971.

Earlier, in 1967, before he shot The Graduate, he directed a play quite unlike any he had hitherto done: a modern American classic, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Again the excitement that surrounded his every move was reflected in the press: the mere announcement of the production a full nine months ahead of the opening, at Lincoln Center as part of its repertory theater season, caused a sensation warranting several column inches. A reporter was dispatched to the first day of rehearsals, where he was able to witness nothing more exciting than a semi-mumbled readthrough. The production was greeted with uncontained rapture. Clive Barnes in the Times recalled an old dream: “For the first time at the Vivian Beaumont, I have seen something that looks, moves and behaves like a national theater. . .this is in total a magnificent performance.”

All this adulation was bound at some point to provoke a backlash. It came between the hard covers of a best-selling book, The Season. The screenwriter and dramatist William Goldman took a year off to see every show on Broadway in 1967–1968 in order to paint a portrait of theaterland at that moment in time. Trenchant, witty, and nakedly biased, Goldman took no hostages, and Nichols was the biggest beast he got in his sights. The Little Foxes, he said, was another triumph in a string of triumphs for Mike Nichols, and one could leave it at that. Except that Little Foxes was different, for with the reception of this work, Mike Nichols became something rare in American life: a culture hero.

Elia Kazan had received the same accolade a generation before, said Goldman. “Obviously there were differences . . . [Kazan’s] work is passionate, serious, significant. Nichols’ work—charming, light and titanically inconsequential.” Everyone he had spoken to, he said, shared his view that the production was “atrocious,” encouraging the audience to engage with it rather than the play. “This is self-serving direction, and no one is better at it than Nichols.” But this doesn’t really matter. What counts is that there is a new culture hero in the land. And we have made him. He reflects us: our time, our taste, our needs, our wants. And what we want is Nichols. And what Nichols is, is brilliant. Brilliant and trivial and self-serving and frigid. And all ours.

It is one thing to be attacked, but to be elevated into the symbolic embodiment of everything that is wrong with the age almost amounts to flattery.

It didn’t trouble Mike in the least. He continued to work in the theater in such a wide range of plays as to seem almost promiscuous: two more Neil Simons (Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue), a pair of Chekhovs (Uncle Vanya, The Seagull ), a fierce David Rabe anti-war play (Streamers), Trevor Griffiths’s savage Comedians, a soul-searching Tom Stoppard (The Real Thing), a crude farrago of a comedy (Social Security), and the musical Monty Python’s Spamalot. He did what pleased him, and if it didn’t please the public, well, he closed it. After making six movies in short order, the last two of them financial flops, his pleasure in filmmaking was exhausted, and he abandoned film for nearly a decade. Then, inspired by his discovery of the talent of Meryl Streep, he came back to it in 1983 with the excellent Silkwood.

He made a very great deal of money. That was part of the Balzacian imperative, too. “Money!” cries Père Goriot on his deathbed. “Money is life! Money makes everything happen.” Lahr reports that in the 1970s the producer Lewis Allen overheard Mike tell Hellman that “the butterflies in my stomach won’t stop fluttering until I have thirty million dollars.” His sometime assistant Hannah Roth Sorkin notes that

there was a tension, because making big successful movies that made money, that’s what got you access to the actors you wanted, the scripts you wanted. It was, I need final cut. I need to have endless right s . . .the ability to say never, never, never. That ability comes from success.

The price of this Faustian deal became progressively burdensome.

It is much to the credit of Life Isn’t Everything that it has been edited to present a serious debate conducted among some very bright people. It ends up feeling somewhat melancholy. Mike doesn’t always come out of it too terribly well. Eventually, inevitably, he became addicted to the high life he lived. He started breeding Arabian stallions, which became a performance, too. He was aware, he told Arabian Horse World Magazine, that “it is more like my other job, making movies, than I thought.” The public sales of his steeds, which he staged like variety shows, were duly subjected to critical scrutiny. “The reviews of Mr. Nichols’s presentation,” noted the Times, “were raves.” With calculated chutzpah, one of these sales was held the same week his pro duction of Streamers opened. This is Mike playing the role of the ringmaster—elegantly, wittily, of course—for an adoring public.

Unsurprisingly, a great deal of the book hinges on Mike’s creation of himself and his deep concern with identity. It is properly celebratory and deliciously filled with his bons mots, but from its opening pages, it shirks none of the complexity of the man, acknowledging the darkness so close to the shining surface. Here is Avedon as early as page xxi:

I think he goes into every experience expecting to be attacked, armed, ready. . . . He said his dream was, he’s on an island that belongs to him, manned on the turrets by men with machine guns. People can only get in with a passport, and then only his friends.

Lahr (still on p. xxi) says, “From an early age he was always braced, he was always powerfully defended . . .you didn’t mess with him. If you did, you did it at your peril.”

David Geffen reports that Mike was reluctant to be celebrated in an American Masters program: “He was sure there were all these people who would have these terrible stories about him, which is not true at all, but that’s one of the things he worried about, be-

CC8 cause he could not forgive himself for so many things.” And indeed, in the first chapter of the book, we find Mike and Elaine planning to form an improvisation company with two brilliant colleagues from Compass Theatre in Chicago. The four pooled their money and sent Mike and Elaine to New York to look for an agent for the group. Instead, they auditioned and got taken on without any mention of the other two. Life Isn’t Everything is no whitewash job.

Again and again, it returns to the question of identity. Under the infinitely polished surface, complex things seem to be lurking. At college, Nichols seemed to others to be “like a princeling deprived of his rightful fortune.” In Lahr’s New Yorker profile he says:

I couldn’t be a person that many hours a day. I needed—still need—a lot of time lying on the bed absolutely blank, the way I assume a dog is in front of the fire. A persona takes energy. I just needed a rest from it. Not to be anything in relation to anyone else.

This sense of him as a performer of himself was somehow compounded by the alopecia that compelled him to wear false hair—a wig and eyebrows—a fact studiously ignored by everyone who knew him. Later in his life they were superbly crafted; when he was young, they were not. “When I first saw him,” recounts the acting teacher Joyce Piven, “he was in a red fright wig.” The hair, said Susan Sontag, his contemporary at the University of Chicago, “was absolutely unmentionable.” Later, after she had breast cancer, she said to him, “I just cannot accept the mastectomy. Every time I take a bath I’m horrified.” He said to her: “Susan, now you know how I felt all my life.”

The breadth of the witnesses is remarkable, as are their candor and perceptiveness. There are three notable absentees—arguably the three most important people in Mike’s life: his nightmarish mother, Brigitte; his duo partner, Elaine May; and Diane Sawyer, his fourth and final wife. Other witnesses have trenchant things to say about all three: Brigitte, who provided him with so much of the material of the comedy sketches (“Mike, it’s your mother. Do you remember me? ”); May, who, in their work together, according to Sam Wasson, “liberated Mike’s unconscious”; and Sawyer, the wife in whom he finally found a safe haven: “He just couldn’t get over her lack of vanity and her intellect,” says Candice Bergen. “He described himself as Pinocchio, who became a real boy. That’s the Diane effect. He just strove to be better, to equal her.”

Over and over, actors testify to the sterling quality of his direction, which he did as much by inference as by instruction. Streep, who revived his interest in filming after it had grown bitter in his mouth, says:

People ask me, “How did he direct you? ” And honestly, I can’t remember any piece of direction he ever gave me, except he would often say, “Surprise me.” He’d also say, “Do everything you just did, but faster.”

In my personal experience, what he gave you was extraordinary trust, a sense that you and you alone had the key to the part, that you and he alone in all the world understood the screenplay, and that your performance was a kind of secret achievement between the two of you.

An unnerving section of the book describes his six-month descent into paranoia, which brought him to the very brink of suicide as a result of his use of Halcion, a sleeping pill, which had disastrous side effects. But for the most part he kept a clear head and an even keel. The work varied in quality, but he always had a surprise up his sleeve, with, for example, The Birdcage (1996), a glorious reunion with May, who wrote the screenplay based on the French play La Cage aux Folles, and, on television, the majestic epic spread of Angels in America. He was capable of great humility. Having had a ferociously difficult time directing the first production of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly —the author eventually refused to talk to him—he went to see a revival of it, directed by Rabe himself: “we shook in our boots and were amazed to see how wonderful it was,” he wrote to me in his characteristic no- capitals mode:

much better than ours and very funny, clear and exciting. so exciting to see that rabid dave was right in our fights. so good to learn something even after many years. a brilliant ethan hawke and hilarious and even more brilliant parker posey, an adorable wally shawn and many more. they tell me they didn’t talk about it at all, just did it. sometimes it takes time to understand something. I guess.

And he ended, with a typical self-puncturing flourish, “off to more jury duty. i am ready now to stop learning and get back to complaining.”

A few years before Mike died, he submitted to the cameras when he was interviewed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. for PBS’s Finding Your Roots. He knew a certain amount about his background, but Gates was able to tell him things that astonished and moved him deeply. His family’s history was a record of persecution alternating with periods of considerable wealth; a sizeable number of his ancestors had been shot. His Jewishness, which he had always worn very lightly, now seemed central to his life: “I pushed it so far away, and once I discovered this, I had a very hard time for a long time.” He admitted to Gates that he was profoundly haunted by guilt—survivors’ guilt:

I never know what’s going to trigger it because it’s gone most of the time, and then suddenly something brings it up. Guilt, they say, is stronger than love. And that’s a horrible but true thing.

He told Natalie Portman, “I’ve been such a bad Jew.” When Gates published a book drawn from the show, under the title Faces of America, he chose a quotation from Gustav Landauer, Mike’s maternal grandfather, as its epigraph:

Our complete ancestry is within us. The individual is a result of a long chain of ancestors who are still present within us and exert power over us. Men must go inside themselves, to be connected with what they originally are.

Or to put it another way, “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” There was more than a touch of Jay Gatsby about Mike.

It is astonishing that a man who had buried his former self so deep in his psyche chose to appear on a television pro gram whose entire raison d’être was to confront the past. It may be that Mike was most able to connect to that buried self in public. As early as 1999, in an interview with Gavin Smith in Film Comment, he remarked of The Graduate, “I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin . . .who’s a dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself.” It is highly improbable that anyone who knew Mike would have used any of those three adjectives to describe him.

The last words in Life Isn’t Everything are provided by Mike’s muse, Meryl Streep:

He understood the process [of acting] more than any other director I’ve worked with . . . he trusted that if he saw the spark of something in you, he knew he just had to entertain it out of you. But I think more profoundly, he was acting all the time. Right from the beginning he was acting being an American. He was acting being a blond. He was acting being confident. He was acting being the smartest person in the room. That is actually a definition of acting: You have all these things that you want desperately to be real. And you live in them and they become you. Whatever the process is, I really don’t understand. But I know that he understood it.

The final summing-up belongs to John Lahr, who in his New Yorker pro file and in his many shafts of insight throughout Life Isn’t Everything seems to have penetrated him to the core: at the end of his interview for the profile, Mike expressed himself pleased. “I do well with the fundamentally inconsolable,” said Lahr. Mike closed his eyes for second and sighed, then said: “We get a lot done, you know.”

The Normal Heart

Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is one of those rare plays – Look Back In Anger is another, as is Ibsen’s  Ghosts – which on its first appearance transcended the theatre as art form or medium of entertainment, becoming as urgent and compelling as tonight’s news broadcast. It first appeared at the Public Theatre in New York in 1985; its European premiere was given at the Royal Court Theatre in London, followed, the following year, by a West End transfer; both American and British productions were playing while the AIDS crisis raged at its most virulent.  The play’s effect on the gay community was in equal measure shattering and inspiring. I can recall sitting in the audience at the Albery Theatre, where the play had transferred, in an audience in which gay men were massively in the majority, and sharing in the collective dread as the actor playing Felix  took off his sock to reveal to his lover, Ned,  the first tell-tale sign of the disease, a purple lesion on his foot. “It keeps getting bigger and bigger, Neddie, and it doesn’t go away.” A terrible silence descended in the auditorium. Every single man in that audience was suddenly seized with the almost irresistible compulsion to examine his own skin. Like the characters in the play, we knew almost nothing, and feared the absolute worst.

It had all happened so quickly. One day in 1984, I was lunching with Rupert Everett and Martin Sherman, author of another terrifying play about the potential extinction of gay people, Bent (1979), who had just come back from New York. Instead  of the expected news of who was in and who was out on the Broadway stage, Martin, clearly troubled, described a mystery condition which  only seemed to affect gay men and which was rampant in New York and San Francisco. Rupert and I laughed: the idea was so preposterous.  What was it, we cackled, divine retribution? Martin wasn’t laughing: too many of his friends had succumbed to this thing, whatever it was, with its plaguey symptoms, sweating, swellings, suppurating sores, sudden drastic weight loss, failing eyesight, dementia, death. No one knew what it was, or how one caught it.  For the time being, it was over there, and we waited anxiously for it to make the transatlantic journey.

This happened with terrifying speed. Suddenly it was everywhere, the grim reaper, randomly attacking the young, the middle-aged, the old; now began the grim cycle of visits to hospital, then hospice, then church, then cemetery, the landscape of our lives devastated, as one after another we tried to mourn our desaparecidos, barely able to summon up the grief, inured to tragedy on a daily basis. After an initial electrified response, in which the entire population was targeted with dire warnings, government – reassured that these new plague only afflicted homosexuals and drug addicts – scaled back its efforts, and we were thrown onto our own resources. Overnight, it seemed, gay people finally acknowledged that we were on our own, that if anything was to be done in the short term, we would have to do it ourselves. And the gay community – that entity, much described but rarely sighted – at last came into visible existence; in the face of a mortal threat to friends, lovers, partners, hitherto discreet people came pouring out of the closet to be useful in whatever way was possible.   

Much the same had happened in the USA, whose government had an even more sluggish response than Britain’s. But from the beginning the American gay community took a much more combative stand. Or a part of it did. At the heart of that agitation was a man who was a born combatant: Larry Kramer, novelist, screenwriter and film producer. His greatest achievement to date had been Ken Russell’s film of Women in Love; that had been followed by his most notorious, the novel Faggots, a scabrous account of the ever-more frenzied gay scene of the 1970’s. His ferocious prose characterised gay life as orgiastic and empty, a compulsive pursuit of carnal gratification and a determined refusal of love. This unexpectedly moralistic onslaught was received by the gay world with anger and ostracism, which brought him close to despair, but despair quickly turned to defiance. And anyway, something more important had engaged his attention: the increasing prevalence among gay men of a condition hitherto noted largely among the homeless and intravenous drug users. When this transference to the gay community occurred the condition was dubbed gay cancer, gay plague, homosexual syndrome, and then, acronymically, GRID: gay-related immune deficiency; when it became clear that there the condition was by no means exclusively – though in the US, at any rate, predominantly – gay, it became AIDS.

The government, through its health agencies, was curiously lacking in urgency in addressing the threat to these communities. In 1982, Kramer, still ostracised by his fellow gay men, roared into action on their behalf, whether they liked it or not, and created, with a number of friends including the gay novelist Edmund White, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. His turbulence, querulousness and sheer bloody-mindedness were as often as not turned on his collaborators as on the medical establishment; his invective liberally spattered over his fellow gay men, whom he denounced as sleep-walking into extinction. Kramer was regularly referred to as impossible by both sides, and so he was, as I can testify from personal experience: utterly impossible. But perhaps it takes an impossible person to do an impossible thing. And responding to a plague, as he always insisted on calling it, one about whose origins and mechanisms pathetically little was known, galvanising a frightened and vulnerable community, even if that meant  radically changing its behaviour, at the same time as tirelessly and fiercely focussing the minds of the scientists, the researchers, the equally hapless nurses and doctors, spurring them on as they reeled from the onslaught – all that seemed to many people at the time impossible.

All this is documented in The Normal Heart, which as well as being a stomach-churningly  powerful account of the unrelenting progress of HIV through the gay community, describes how a monstrously difficult individual can, by never, ever, taking no for an answer, achieve an important thing. AIDS was by no means history when the play appeared; it is an urgent despatch from the front line, written by one of the principal players. As such it is unique in the annals of political theatre – as if Dany Le Rouge had written a play from behind the barricades in Paris in ’68, or Churchill during the Battle of Britain.  

I first came across Larry when the management of the Bush Theatre in West London asked me to play Ned Weeks, the Larry figure, in the play, whose reputation had quickly crossed the Atlantic. We all saw it for exactly what it was – a play that simply had to be done, the sooner the better. Then Larry arrived, and started making conditions, prescribing exactly how the play had to be done – the design, the light, the casting. These were not suggestions: they were demands, all delivered at the top of his uncommonly penetrating voice: he was clearly, in his mind’s eye, still on the barricades.  This went on for some days, until Jenny Topper, Simon Stokes and Nikki Pallot, who were running the theatre and had been running it for some years with extraordinary success, called a halt, insisting that they must be allowed to do their jobs. This only heightened Larry’s hectoring; he became a megaphone on two legs, demanding ever more, with rising venom and hysteria, until eventually the Bush triumvirs stated their conditions: they would do the play, but only if he agreed never to enter the building until the first preview. Larry’s response was entirely predictable: he withdrew the play.  The following day, I was in the office of Peggy Ramsay, the legendary play agent who represented him, and Larry appeared, looking somewhat sheepish; Peggy was the only person I ever heard of who could get him off the front foot. “Peggy – ” he began. “Go away, dear,” she said. “Nobody wants to talk to you.” “Are you cross with me, Peggy?” “Yes, dear. Now go away.”  He did, but thank goodness his play didn’t. Not long after, it was picked up by the producer Bruce Hyman and taken to the Royal Court, where David Hayman directed it with all the raw, Living Newspaper intensity it demands; I have no idea how Hayman coped with Larry during rehearsals, but certainly Martin Sheen, as Ned, did full justice to his indefatigable querulousness, no doubt observed at close quarters.

The National Theatre’s decision to revive the play is welcome, not only for the historical record, but as a clarion call to the gay community to maintain perpetual vigilance in the face both of viral threats and societal indifference. In  2000, the RNT named The Normal Heart one of the 100 greatest plays of the 20th century. It is scarcely that, but it could well be one of the 100 most important plays of the century. At the time, Kramer was sometimes compared to Ibsen, but that is wide of the mark: he never achieved, or attempted, the impacted metaphorical resonance of the Norwegian master. The Normal Heart might better be compared to Ibsen’s French contemporary, Eugène Brieux, whose play Les Avariés – Damaged Gods in translation – deals directly with syphilis as a social problem, while Ibsen’s Ghosts takes the condition as an image of the malign inheritance of the past.

The Normal Heart is utterly central to the (fairly brief) history of gay theatre, which could be said to fall into two central categories – those by gays, for gays; and those intended for the mainstream, leaving aside those plays by, for example, Edward Albee, Terence Rattigan or Tennessee Williams, in which a gay sensibility is strongly in evidence, though there are no gay characters actually on stage. Gay theatre proper deals directly with homosexual life in diverse manifestations, very often as A Problem, in plays of the twenties, thirties and even fifties like Mordaunt Shairp’s The Green Bay Tree (1933), for example, or Tea with Sympathy (1953) or Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise (1958). With The Boys in the Band, 1968, gay theatre came right out of the closet, presenting a slice of contemporary gay life, in all its mingled sparkle and despair. Audiences, gay and straight, roared with laughter, and some may have sobbed in sympathy, but at the time it felt to many of us that it confirmed the conventional wisdom about homosexuals: outrageously effeminate, sex-obsessed emotional basket cases.  It is a bleak fact that between 1984 and 1993, five of the gay men in the original production (as well as director Robert Moore and producer Richard Barr) died of AIDS, a cruel destiny that none of the characters in the play, despairing though they sometimes were, could have imagined

In the decade after Boys in the Band, the rise of off-Broadway producing houses, and the founding of Gay Sweatshop in Britain, gave rise to an entirely different kind of gay theatre. Especially in the latter, there was a new interest in gay history –pioneers like the late nineteenth century British activist Edward Carpenter, the German Magnus Hirschfeld, the Stonewall riots. With the same company, Martin Sherman, in Passing By (1975), did something utterly radical: he showed two young men meeting, falling in love, then falling out of love, and finally parting, without any reference to their sexual orientation, their mothers or indeed Judy Garland. This was what it was to be normally gay, a thing most gay people were very familiar with, but which they had never expected to see represented on a stage. Sherman went on to write what was perhaps the first masterpiece of gay theatre, Bent, simultaneously a great gay love story and a revelation of the hideous persecution and annihilation of gay men in World War Two. When it appeared in 1978, there was offence in some quarters that the gay experience of persecution was deemed equivalent to that of other groups. We had not suffered enough, apparently, to have our deaths represented on the stage. If these critics wanted stronger proof of gay suffering, they were amply rewarded, as Larry’s play so graphically demonstrated a mere seven years later.

Since then gay theatre has flourished remarkably, with plays like Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg, Jonathan Harvey’s benevolent Beautiful Thing, Mark Ravenhill’s scabrous Shopping and Fucking, and, supremely, Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America; he, if anyone, is the gay Ibsen, forging haunting metaphors out of bare experience. The flow has somewhat subsided; there is a view that with legal equality and gay marriage all the battles have been won.  Matthew Lopez’s recent two part The Inheritance interestingly and subtly cast an eye back over what we might now refer to as the AIDS period.

Larry’s work as a dramatist continued with a play that was both sequel and prequel to The Normal Heart, but though AIDS features heavily in it, and it contains skirmishes with the medical profession (including Anthony Fauci), its subject was not that, but the author himself, as the title – The Destiny of Me – frankly avers. It is more ambitious than the earlier play, perhaps more than his dramaturgical skills could accommodate. I directed its British premiere, and played Ned, Larry’s surrogate. Larry came to rehearsals – well, he came to three days of rehearsals. Then we never saw him again. Without saying a word, the next day he took a plane back to New York; we never heard from him again. I spoke to him once more before he died, and asked him why he hadn’t stayed. “There was nothing for me to do,” he said.

The hurly-burly of confrontation was his element, and he raged to the end. When The Normal Heart was revived on Broadway in 2011, he accosted departing theatregoers with leaflets to remind them that the war was not over. The leaflet was headed PLEASE KNOW and among its bullet points were the following. Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague. Please know that no country in the world, including this one, has ever called it a plague. Please know that there is no cure. Please know that as I write this the world has suffered at the very least some seventy-five million infections and some 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen, there were forty-one.

And he ended with this intensely personal statement, which is as good a summary as any of his apocalyptic world view: “I have never seen such wrongs as this plague, in all its guises, represents and continues to say about us all.” The Normal Heart is the monument of this impossible but necessary  man. 

World Premiere of Shakespeare in Love

In 1999, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes and Simon Callow attended the UK premiere of "Shakespeare In Love." 

Read more here

JUNE 2020
Covid-19 Website Update

Please ignore the current contents of the website, which Covid-19 has made a nonsense of. When life returns to something like normal, the website will start to tell the truth again.

MARCH 2020
Pandemic Journal

Simon has contributed to this running series of brief dispatches by New York Review writers which will document the coronavirus outbreak with regular updates from around the world.

Read more here

MARCH 2020
I'm Sorry Prime Minister I Can't Quite Remember

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the razor sharp political satire Yes, Minister, the BAFTA Award winning Jonathan Lynn, one of the original writers of the hit series, has penned and will direct a brand-new stage production, I'm Sorry Prime Minister I Can't Quite Remember.

The world premiere of I'm Sorry Prime Minister I Can't Quite Remember stars acclaimed British actors Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Amadeus, Shakespeare in Love) as Jim Hacker and Clive Francis (An Inspector Calls, Les Blancs, The Crown) as Sir Humphrey Appleby. Further casting will be announced in due course.

The final hilarious chapter in the classic Yes, Prime Minister series continues its biting satire on the political classes and provides a fitting farewell to the Hacker years.

Former Prime Minister, Jim Hacker, longs to see out his days from his grand Master's Lodge at Hacker College, Oxford. The College Fellowship and students have very different ideas and eviction looms large.Can Sir Humphrey Appleby, the PM's former Cabinet Secretary, save the day one last time? Will it be Yes, Prime Minister or I'm Sorry, Prime Minister?

The production will premiere at Cambridge Arts Theatre on Thursday 18 June, with press night on Tuesday 23 June, ahead of a UK tour visiting Northampton, Oxford, Cheltenham, Salford and Malvern.

I'm Sorry Prime Minister I Can't Quite Remember is produced by Cambridge Arts Theatre. Further creatives and casting, along with additional dates and venues will be announced shortly.

Tour Dates

Cambridge ArtsTheatre 

18 June - 27 June 2020 01223 503333

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Northampton Royal & Derngate

29 June - 4 July 2020 01604 624811

*On-sale soon*

Oxford Playhouse

6 July - 11 July 2020 01865 305305

Read more here

Cheltenham Everyman Theatre

13 July - 18 July 2020 01242 572573

Salford The Lowry

20 July - 25 July 2020 0343 208 6000

Read more here

Malvern Theatres

27 July - 1 Aug 2020 01684 892277

Further dates and venues to be announced.


MARCH 2020
Once Upon A One More Tilme

Broadway In Chicago and The Nederlander Organization have announced the world premiere cast for the Broadway-bound ONCE UPON A ONE MORE TIME, a new musical set to the hits of Britney SpearsBriga Heelan ("Great News", Judd Apatow's "Love") and Justin Guarini (Romeo and Juliet, "American Idol") will star as Cinderella and Prince Charming in the musical's pre-Broadway run this spring at Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre, alongside BAFTA Award nominee Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral, "Outlander") as Narrator, Tony nominee Emily Skinner (Sideshow, The Cher Show) as Stepmother, Brooke Dillman (Superbad, "Wrecked") as The O.F.G (Original Fairy Godmother), Aisha Jackson (Waitress, Frozen) as Snow White, and MiMi Scardulla (We Are The Tigers) and Tess Soltau (Wicked) as Stepsisters Belinda and Betany.

Once Upon A Time... Cinderella, Snow White, and the other fairytale princesses gather for their book club, when - oh, baby baby! - a rogue fairy godmother drops The Feminine Mystique into their corseted laps, spurring a royal revelation: could there really be more to life than bird-made dresses and true love's kiss? With an original story written by Jon Hartmere (bare, The Upside) - set to the songs of the Princess of Pop herself, Britney Spears - ONCE UPON A ONE MORE TIME weaves such hits as "Oops! I Did It Again", "Stronger," "Toxic" and "Lucky", into an uproarious, irreverent look at the towering challenges, charms, and choices involved in finding that most elusive of endings: Happily Ever After.

Directed and Choreographed by Keone & Mari Madrid (Beyond Babel, BTS, Justin Bieber's "Love Yourself"), ONCE UPON A ONE MORE TIME begins previews at Broadway In Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre (24 W. Randolph Street) on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, with an opening night of April 30, for a limited engagement through May 17, 2020. Dates and venue details for the Broadway production will be announced at a later date.

Read more here

Simon at The Hippodrome Casino





TUESDAY 25TH FEBRUARY AT 2.00pm for 2.30pm


actor author musician writer

cinema opera theatre director

Discusses in Conversation with David Drummond


The limited admission is free but only assured  by registering a full name

with Celia Moreton-Prichard:

or Jan Lloyd :

This is the first of a series of events co-arranged with The Max Wall Society, of which Simon Callow is a patron, in which The London Hippodrome will be celebrated along with those who performed there from Julie Andrews to Pavlova, Judy Garland, Pat Kirkwood, Houdini, Evelyn Laye and Max Wall honing his skills in Pantomime and Revue.

24th March The Hippodrome Story

Told by Simon Thomas CEO.The Hippodrome Casino and

Rosalyn Wilder assistant to Robert Nesbitt creator of “Talk of the Town”

 26th May Eccentricity 

In Dance  & The Eccentrics Who Amused Us.


Country Life - Young Simon Callow

I was born in Streatham, which was pretty leafy as London suburbs go, but nothing had prepared me for the Berkshire countryside when my mother went to work as a school secretary in Goring-on-Thames. The school stood in the midst of fields, with, to the left and right of us, orchards  policed by pigs in case of scrumping; stables were attached to the school and I sat perilously on ponies. The horses exercised in a particular paddock which was enclosed in electrified fencing - we took it in turns to get electric shocks. Not far away was the Thames in all its silvery swift-moving glory; on its banks stood a great country house, Cariad, the home of Edward VII’s mistress Mrs Keppel. Nearer the school  were dappled rivulets, the water crystal clear and delicious to taste, where one paddled and splashed until the light faded and they became frightening. I had always hated the sea, but these cool hidden streams were paradise to me by day, and I came to love the multitudinous natural odours wafted on the air, the smell of the seasons - spring, summer, autumn, winter each with its own unique olfactory character. After two years I was snatched back to London, which seemed to me to be grey, cold, stinky, undifferentiated, month in and month out. I was only there  two years before I was snatched away again, this time to Africa, deep deep in the bush, where I encountered a very different face of nature under the vast treacherous skies. Then I dreamed of Goring.

My Early Sex Education

I was nine. We were living in a very small town in the middle of Africa, my mother and father about to split up again, this time for good. Was that why my mother chose to impart this baffling information? “When a man and a woman love each other, the man puts his tassel into the woman’s little slit and then  later they have a baby.” “What happens,”  I asked, “if the man wants to have a widdle?” “Then he exercises self-control,” she snapped. End of. And never again did I hear a word about sex. I found out for myself what sensations my body was capable of  and then eavesdropped on impromptu playground seminars some of the information from which even I, ignorant as I was, doubted. But then by fifth form, reality struck and properly informed reports from pioneers of what actually went on came back, and I realised that what caused my fellow students such delight was not what I had in mind. And if there was no sex education for heterosexuals, what I fancied was not even supposed to exist. So one joined the world of sex very unclear about what was what. 

Review in The Guardian of Michael Cashman

We all know Michael Cashman – or we all think we do: the charmingly fresh-faced, somehow ageless actor who played Colin in East Enders, was involved in the first gay kiss on mainstream television, became a gay activist, then an MEP and is now a member of the House of Lords. The title of his memoir tells us that his sexuality is central to his identity, and it is true that he has been absolutely fearless in proclaiming it – a particularly brave thing for a mainstream TV soap star to do in the late 1980’s,  and he suffered the scabrous abuse of the right wing tabloid press for it: “EastBenders!” the headlines howled. The  News of the World led with SECRET GAY LOVE OF AIDS SCARE EASTENDERS, attributing a story-line from the show to  Cashman himself.

Helpfully, they also published his address, which resulted in  bricks being thrown through his windows. The Sunday Mirror managed to surpass this, confronting him on the doorstep with the claim that he had just come back from the US (he hadn’t) where he had taken an AIDS test (he hadn’t), was almost certainly dying of it (he was clearly in radiant good health) and had decided to break off his relationship. He told them to tell Paul this. They already had, they said, but they didn’t mean him, they meant  another lover with whom he was allegedly passionately involved. 

All this was before the infamous mouth-on-mouth kiss between Cashman’s character Colin and his working class lover Barrie. Now the rags were apoplectic. FILTH, proclaimed  the Daily Star. “Get this off our TV now.” Tory politicians weighed in: “if the BBC can’t stop showing these perverted practices during family viewing time, then EastEnders should be banned or scrapped altogether”. The BBC stood by the series; the fundamental change in British attitudes to homosexuality over the last few decades owes a great deal to its entry into the mainstream via East Enders, and for it we owe our gratitude to Cashman, who carried the can for a long time till attitudes changed.

One of Them reveals a great many other Cashmans you might not know about: Cashman the child star, playing the lead role in Oliver in the West End during its fourth glorious year; Cashman the would-be doctor, giving up his successful television career for a year at a crammer trying to din into his unresponsive skull the elusive science qualifications he needed to apply to medical school. Then there’s Cashman the playwright, protégé of Alan Ayckbourn, taken up by the great play agent Peggy Ramsay; two of his plays were successfully performed at the prestigious theatre in Scarborough, but neither transferred or were taken up by any other companies and he moved on, sometimes returning to acting, increasingly after EastEnders becoming a spokesman for gay causes. He was often paired with Ian McKellen (“Shakespeare  and Soap”) on anti-Clause 28 platforms. He is driven to organise galas, protests, petitions. Inevitably he becomes involved in politics, becomes a dedicated and highly effective MEP. Finally he quits, but within minutes he’s in the House of Lords. After therapy, he discovers that he has an addictive personality. I think we could have told him that.

All of this is fascinating, his first-hand testimony illuminating, indispensible, often funny, written very much in his own voice, bright and breezy, lightly scattered with exclamation marks, fairly relaxed about grammar. But it is not the heart of the book.  That is to be found at either end of it, when, in the first hundred pages, he writes about his East End childhood through the eyes of his own young self, then again in the last hundred pages when he writes of the illness and death of his lover, Paul, as an anguished onlooker. In both of these long sections, perhaps because he is at the mercy of events and not driving them, he allows himself a level of detail and emotional recall that is indelible, crystallising and distilling experience into unforgettable images.

“St Vincent’s in Limehouse was a newly built estate…it accommodated around two thousand of us, all shapes, all sizes, and Josie the prostitute. In our block lived the Kamaras, the only black family on the estate and there was someone we called the ‘China’ man. Another of our neighbours, Mrs Cootes, had lost the use of her legs and travelled around on what looked like a lay-on-your-back bicycle that she pedalled with her hand.” These pages are in the league of My Early Years, Charlie Chaplin’s great account of late nineteenth century South London, graphic, filled with smells and tastes and strange encounters. In an upsetting sequence Cashman describes walking home one evening and being accosted by a man asking him if he wants to earn a shilling. It is his first, furtive, frightening experience of sex, rough, bewildering. “He told me to stay where I was, that I was to be good, then pointed his finger at me and  said he knew where I lived. I nodded and just kept nodding and trying not to cry. And I wished I’d never wanted that fucking shilling.”  

Increasingly he realises that he’s “different”, overhearing his mum tell his Aunty Eileen, “I think he’s one of them.” His talent as an actor brings him respect at school and then he’s spotted and given the job in Oliver. At the stage door one night, he’s taken up by a man who undertakes to look after him professionally; inevitably, he looks after him sexually too, pretending to landladies that he’s his son. He’s just 15. But soon enough he finds a live-in lover, Lou, twenty years his elder, and another sort of a nightmare, but it’s passionate and true between them, until he has to break away from him, finding his solace in the pre-1967 gay West End, of which Cashman here offers a precise and masterly evocation, in all its gaudy glory and horror.  “In the corner of every bar was an old queen, warning you what your future would be: ‘You’ll be old and no one will  fucking want you either, dear’”.

While he was living in this extraordinary, now long-vanished milieu, Cashman’s early career developed into TV stardom; after his abortive attempt at the medical profession, he returned to the theatre, first the RSC, unhappily, then Ayckbourn’s theatre in Scarborough. Here he met Paul Cottingham, destined to be his life’s partner. One of Them  is, from this point on, at core a celebration of that relationship which was not without its complexities, but ultimately became the centre of his life. If Cashman is less successful at conveying the full richness of that love, he gives a vivid account of the fun that they had in what was, from a very early stage, an open relationship – wide open. Foreign trips seem particularly rewarding in this regard, notably a trip to the Soviet Union, when virtually every grim-faced KGB man seems to want to jump into bed with them; it gives a whole new dimension to the phrase orientation tour.

All of this is vivaciously rattled through, but it takes a death – or rather two, his mother and then his father – to draw from Cashman the sort of deeply significant and mediated detail so compelling in the first hundred or so pages. Suddenly, we’re seeing the world through his eyes again: we’re there. And it is heart-breaking. Soon he’s facing a series of shocking and ultimately terminal medical crises with Paul. “Now I was sat in the corner of the armchair. Watching. Waiting. Suddenly I flinched and I knew. I said to someone to get the others because he was going. I watched him take a deep breath. He breathed out. And breathed in no more. I rushed towards him. ‘Go, my darling. Go!’ I shouted.

He finds among Paul’s papers the letter he wrote as a 19-year-old to Cashman after their first night. “I want to help you all I can, and so the best I can do is love you. I will love you, give you the knowledge that whatever happens to you, whatever you do I will love you and give you the security of a relationship as long as you (and I) need it. I hope that is forever, but only time will tell, and we must not love for tomorrow, but for now, for today.” In passage after passage like this, Cashman has written a great book about love, pain and the whole damn thing.

Review in The Guardian of Garry O'Connor's book about Ian McKellen

Garry O’Connor’s book about Ian McKellen is as much involved with ideas as it is with facts. It makes no claim to be an exhaustive account. O’Connor has been writing more or less experimental biographies of actors for many years, starting with his classic account of Ralph Richardson, continuing with Paul Scofield, Alec Guinness (twice) and a fine double portrait of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. A former drama critic, he is fascinated by the mystery of great acting. Of the present volume, he says, quoting Hamlet, but sounding more  like a fairground barker: “Here is the height, the presumption of my endeavour: to ‘pluck out the heart’ of the Ian McKellen mystery – how such a single being could create a monumental career of such depth and span; where the ever-charging source of his energy comes from; and how his personality and character have continued to develop and change throughout his life. All in all to make it speak as it never has before, to sound him from his lowest note to the top of his compass.”

There is a McKellen mystery, and at its centre is his duality, his paradoxical capacity to be both/and. He is simultaneously “deeply secretive, intensely private”, as his former partner Sean Mathias says, and perhaps the most open and accessible personality the British theatre has ever produced.

Even his influences are contradictory, both roundhead and cavalier: on the one hand, the Marlowe Society at Cambridge, where he imbibed the principles of rigorous textual fidelity and deep moral purpose; on the other Laurence Olivier, living embodiment of the theatrical. His approach is strikingly similar to Olivier’s. Both are great prose actors, resistant to lyricism and displays of personal emotion; both need to root everything in observed reality; both have a deep instinct for theatrical gesture.

They had opposite journeys: Olivier a beetle-browed, gap-toothed boy with huge eyes and thin lips, physically slight, a whippet who turned himself into a panther; McKellen, built like a carthorse, who, to begin with, when he was concealing his sexuality, hid his underlying power under a carapace of assumed prettiness, which made him seem rather camp. When he came out as gay, which coincided with middle-age, he stripped himself of all that and revealed his earthiness, his masculinity. Coming out, as McKellen has tirelessly insisted, is a wonderful thing: one is finally relieved of whatever mask one has been wearing and is able to acknowledge not just who one wants to sleep with but who and what one really is. And – supreme bonus – it makes for better acting.

There is paradox here, though, even on the physical plane: his sizable feet are rarely still, tracing elaborate dainty patterns across the boards. His physical transformations have been extraordinary, none more so than his semi-paralysed, proto-Mosley Richard III: utterly, chillingly credible, a real threat. But here he differs from his hero Olivier, and also from Antony Sher, both of whom, in that role, created fairy-tale ogres, figures out of nightmare, dredged, one can only presume, from the actors’ subconscious selves. McKellen’s Richard was a different kind of nightmare, the sort whose hyper-realism is what renders it truly disturbing. Olivier created mythic figures, McKellen full-length portraits. So it was with his King Lear: characterised not by mental befuddlement but by a terrifying clarity of each individual thought, thoughts unconnected but each one perfectly coherent, Nietzschean aphorisms spoken in the glare of a lightning flash.

Where, O’Connor asks, does it all come from? A remote father and a caring but not especially close mother who died early? Well, yes, but more revealing is McKellen’s remarkable comment about the autobiography he gave up writing: “I was getting too emotionally upset that I hadn’t been a good enough child, because I’d not shown enough interest in them.” A devastating assessment: but it suggests that he didn’t allow himself to be close to them because he feared their power over him, feared being hurt or rejected by them, so declared his independence of them as early as possible.

His deep amorous commitments – and there appear to have been few of them – seem to have followed a similar pattern: his first long and stable relationship became stiflingly domestic, so he left; his second, more turbulent relationship, with Mathias, was too unsettling. O’Connor’s sensational revelation is about his passionate involvement with the actor Gary Bond, one of the theatre’s grands horizontals, with whom McKellen seems to have fallen deeply in love. But that left him too vulnerable; it would have stopped him from doing what he wanted to do with his life, so it too ended. He briefly flirted with directing, he has been a formidable spokesman for LGBT rights, he has been close to power. But acting is what his life has been all about, and he has done it in an astonishing multiplicity of ways, on stages large and small, metropolitan and regional, in the great companies and in the commercial theatre, at the centre of a large cast and on his own.

Like Maggie Smith, he is, in the end, the great actor he is because it matters so much to him. Not the event or even the play but the fact that he is more fully alive, more fully himself on stage than anywhere else. It is his real life. Crucial to his art is that the audience is in it with him. No fourth wall illusions for McKellen: it is all shared with an audience with whom his complicity is very frank – “Did you see what I just did?” being the unspoken question. And in life, when he is not on the stage, he is in the wings – always ready, as actors are in the wings, to share a joke or to become fascinated by some fresh thought, while all the while waiting and ready for the heightened life under the once they step into the light. His audiences have loved him for it, though few of the characters he has played have been lovable.

It is another McKellenish paradox that relatively late in his career, and on film, he should at last have found himself playing a character who has been universally loved, in a semi-Christian fantasy filled with elaborate pseudo-profundities of the sort that would normally be anathema to him. O’Connor devotes a long chapter to The Lord of the Rings, teasing out tenuous connections between Tolkien and McKellen himself, but the simple truth is that playing an embodiment of wisdom and truth and essential benevolence has made the actor very happy (and very rich).

By the end of O’Connor’s fascinating voyage round McKellen, the author has, as he says, peeled away as many layers as he could. Sometimes strained, the book is a stimulating complement to the most factually informative account of his life – the actor’s own website,


To say that Marlon Brando is one of the greatest screen actors is uncontroversial. Many would claim that he was the greatest of them all, though Brando himself, as William J Mann in his remarkably ambitious  new biography faithfully reports, derided such judgements as absurd. What can safely be said is that he was one of the most original actors ever to come before a camera, and one of the most creative. Creativity in actors – transcending technical brilliance, personal charisma and emotional range, making at least an equal  contribution as the writer and the director – is uncommon. When it is present, the screen becomes a truly great art form.

Most of the many books that have been written about Brando take his work as a starting point. Despite a highly colourful life, including heroic sexual activity, highly publicised and sometimes effective political protest, eleven children from many different women, a son who was imprisoned for murder and a daughter who committed suicide, most of then – even my particular favourite nadir, Brando Unzipped, in which our hero is alleged to have had sex with just about everybody you’ve ever heard of, men, women and all points in between  – assume that Brando was aware of his unique gifts, cultivated them and cared about the results, at least during his glory days. From the beginning, Mann is very firm in his disagreement with this view: “In truth, nearly everybody who has written about Brando has gotten him wrong…the major conundrum any assessment of [Brando’s]  life and career must face is this: the talent that others revered in him excited very little interest on his part.” Outsider observers, Mann says, often presumed to know more, or better than the man himself. “It’s time to see his story the way he did.” Brando’s acting, he tells us, was not the most interesting thing about him. ‘we need to respect what Brando had to say and not refute it, or doubt it, or read ulterior motives into it. His story is far more interesting, valuable and relevant that way.’  

This approach has its advantages. He uses a wide range of sources, including, perhaps most illuminatingly, the transcripts of the many hours of interviews conducted by the journalist Robert Lindsey in preparation for Songs My Mother Taught Me, the autobiography finally released in 1994, which, though long, omitted a great deal of remarkably candid material. He has conducted many vivid interviews with Brando’s friends and associates, and been exceptionally thorough in his investigation of Brando’s boyhood, his family life (if you can describe it as that, with children spread across the globe and hostile relationships with many of their mothers) and his political activities. Of these  he gives the fullest and most sympathetic account yet, showing how deep-rooted was his commitment to social justice and  racial equality. Most fascinating is his membership, after 3 years of on-off small-time success in the theatre, of the American League for a Free Palestine, performing agit-prop plays by night, giving impassioned lectures by day on the rights of the Jewish people to a homeland of their own.

The structure of the books is interestingly non-linear: “I drop in at key moments of his life and get in as close a possible to understanding him and his world, then fade in and drop put a few years down the road.” This montage-like back and forth technique – the book opens in the court room where his son Christian is being tried for murder then jumps forward to his time in New York as a drama student – is by no means unsuccessful in exposing layer after layer of Brando’s life: he goes back when he needs to. Sometimes he leaves something and never returns to it, but the weaving is remarkably deftly done. The passages of reporting – like the Civil Rights march – are highly successful, dramatized but factual and credible; less convincing is his attempt  to enter into the mind of the man he invariably refers to as Marlon – never a good sign in a biographer. He muses on  Brando’s attraction to Spaniards, blacks, Chinese: ‘so different to the women he’d grown up with. So different, especially, from his mother. He had needed to get away from her. He had needed to find a world where women were not fragile, blue-eyed blondes, liable to shatter when he held them too hard. The women he desired were those who could survive in a  world of wolves and brutes, women who were strong and sturdy and different from the others.’ This takes us into the world of romantic fiction. It takes us into a sort of no-man’s land:  unconvincing as Brando’s own thoughts, it also deprives us of the voice of the author.

Mann’s uncontroversial theory is that Brando’s life was an attempt to resolve the trauma of his childhood. His family background was indeed almost absurdly,  archetypally, dysfunctional in the classic American vein, somehow interweaving The Iceman Cometh  and The Glass Menagerie. His  father was a frequently absent, aggressive, drunken philandering salesman, his mother a fragile beauty with yearnings for the theatre, driven to promiscuity, often taking to her bed with a bottle of gin. The young Brando – Bud, as he was known – took her part against his father, who regarded him as stupid, lazy and worthless. Brando accepted his father’s verdict on him. “Your dummy son,” Bud called himself in letters home. He was sent to military academy, where he failed and from which he was finally dismissed. While there he discovered his sexual attractiveness to his fellow students; sex with both men and women would always be a way of numbing his rage and sense of powerlessness. He drifted into acting; in drama school, where he encountered the great  teacher Stella Adler, who was immersed in Stanislavski’s work and the Tolstoyan philosophical background to it, he suddenly discovered a sense of meaning, a place in the scheme of things. The job of the actor, Adler told her students, was  “to lead society into a higher self’’, and that the essential element of acting was the imagination. “Your life is one-millionth of what you know. Your talent is your  imagination.” Here was a sphere in which he could stand tall.

He remained a complex, guarded, sceptical presence in the school, until  halfway through his training, playing the almost impossibly difficult double role of a school-teacher and Christ in a visionary play by Gerhardt Hauptmann, he had a breakthrough. His teachers and fellow students were astounded: he had found a way of engaging his imagination at the deepest possible level, giving himself over completely to the inner life of the character. He scarcely knew what he’d done, but no one who saw him play that double role doubted that they were in the presence of a wholly uncommon talent. Mann thinks “the key to his success was simple”. How we all wish that it were. Despite the author’s constant assertion that Brando regarded acting as a childish, insignificant activity,  the actors own words, liberally quoted, give the lie to this. He fought fiercely and constantly to take his work beyond the competent, the intelligent, the attractive. And, pace Mann, his contribution was not to make acting “natural, honest, personal.” On the contrary: he was not a naturalistic actor: he was a poet of acting who in his greatest work harnessed his subconscious, stirring us  in ways we can scarcely understand, but which leave us changed. He approached acting as an artist, striving to create images of human destiny, unforgettable visons of character. Fighting with Irwin Shaw, author of the original novel on which The Wild One was based, Brando said: “It’s my character. I play the role; now he exists. He is my creation.”

And it cost him dear. After his performance in last tango in Paris,  he decided not to be a creator in that sense anymore: it was too exhausting, he said. “I decided that I was never going to kill myself again, emotionally.” This is what he felt about acting, not that it was a childish activity, but that it was calling which demanded total and draining immersion in his own emotional and imaginative resources. Easier to dismiss it as silly than to wage the unrelenting war with oneself which takes acting to the plane of art. Mann’s book is continuously fascinating, vivid and full of new information; for anyone interested in Brando, it is indispensible. But about the central activity in his life, it is fundamentally wrong. So yet another book on Brando is still to be written.

A Review of Marley by John Clinch

By Jon Clinch
288 pp. Atria Books. $27.


“A Christmas Carol,” despite the multitudinous saccharine versions souped up on stage and screen every festive season, is a pretty damn scary thing, but Jon Clinch’s prequel to it is black as hell, outstripping even Dickens’s remorseless and painful probings of his protagonist’s soul. Wisely, Clinch has not attempted to pastiche Dickens (“The Inimitable,” as, somewhat tongue in cheek, he styled himself), finding instead a mordantly etched voice that instantly takes  us over to the dark side: “The merchant ship Marie tied up at the Liverpool docks hours ago. … The fog over the Mersey is so thick that a careless man might step off the pier and vanish forever, straight down. But Jacob Marley is not a careless man.” By some uncanny act of artistic appropriation, he  has, without imitating Dickens, entered into the phantasmagoric realm that is the great novelist’s quintessential territory, and - like the fat boy in
“Pickwick” -  he triumphantly succeeds in making our flesh creep.

But Clinch does much more than that: as in his first novel, “Finn,” with its variations on Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, he creates a penumbra of invention around the original novel ensuring — caveat lector! — that you may never be able to think of it in the same way again. Here, as there, he fleshes out characters and events often very lightly sketched in the original. “A Christmas Carol” was written at breakneck speed; Clinch endows Dickens’s snapshots with a three-dimensional, often alarming, life. Scrooge’s sister, Fan, a pallid presence in the novel (she dies young, always having been “a delicate creature”), proves, in Clinch’s reimagining, to be anything but pallid, coming to a tragic but profoundly romantic end.

His most startling and creative conception is the title character. After a prelude in which he establishes the deeply shady nature of Scrooge and Marley’s business, Clinch takes us back to 1787, to the beginning of their relationship at Professor Drabb’s brutal Academy for Boys, run on the principle of Manly Self-Determination, “whose tenets are explained in a framed broadsheet hanging upon the wall of each public room. The language employed by that disquisition is so archaic as to be very nearly Anglo-Frisian, and the logic wielded in its coils would mystify a scholar of the Talmud. … There is every chance that no party on earth, not even its ostensible author, has read it all the way through and survived.” The adolescent Marley immediately establishes a viselike hold over the newly arrived Scrooge.

In the fullness of time they go into partnership, with clearly delineated spheres: Marley the entrepreneur, Scrooge the accountant, detecting “in the progression of inked digits along closely ruled lines … something close to the music of the spheres. The numbers sing to him, and he listens with an open heart.” Neither knows anything of the other’s activities. Marley’s ways are “mysterious” to Scrooge, who perceives him to be “something of a chameleon. I have seen him become 10 different men before 10 different people.” Marley lives in an Escher-like dwelling with, of course, a very striking knocker, familiar to readers of “A Christmas Carol,” which Clinch renders newly macabre: it hangs “silent as an empty gibbet.” The crumbling house is a place of false corridors and concealed doors leading to the offices of phantom companies with phantom names: Squeers and Trotter, Barnacle & Sons, Honeythunder & Grimwig — all, of course, Dickensian appellations. Marley avails himself of similarly plundered names; when he visits the whorehouses, which is often and with brutal intent, he does so as Inspector Bucket, his alias stolen from “Bleak House.”

Marley’s operations are suddenly called into question when the father of Scrooge’s sometime fiancée, Belle, reveals that Scrooge and Marley’s company is involved in the slave trade; he will consent to the marriage only if it ceases its involvement. Scrooge immediately vows to do just that. And here the novel becomes unexpectedly affecting: we are given a glimpse of Scrooge in love, warmed to life by Belle’s decency and affection, capable of melting, of rejoining the human race. But that love is not, of course, to be. Scrooge chains himself ever more firmly to his desk in his quest to cleanse the firm of its taint. It is Marley — corrupt, murderous and ultimately diseased Marley — who becomes human, kind and loving. And his long pursuit of Fan turns into something both terrible and ultimately deeply moving, while Scrooge, as we have never seen him before, becomes a vengeful and implacable nemesis.

Clinch has done something remarkable in “Marley,” not merely offering  a parergon to Dickens’s little masterpiece, imagining the soil out of which  the action of “A Christmas Carol” grows, but creating a free-standing dystopian universe, a hideous vision of nascent capitalism in which nothing is real and every transaction is a fraud issuing from the brain of a master forger, who by the end has reduced even his own life, quite literally, to a trompe l’oeil. Clinch’s Marley is one of the farouche Gothic characters, at once frightening and dangerously attractive. His literary antecedents are to be found in the pages of Bram Stoker, with perhaps a nod toward Peter Ackroyd, but ultimately the book is all his own. Clinch saves his most original touch for the very end, where Marley finds a kind of ecstatic resolution, laying the ground for the final painfully hard-won redemption in “A Christmas Carol.” We can but hope that this masterly Gothic prequel will banish forever the Currier and Ives version of Dickens’s dark fable.

Orson Welles over Europe

When Orson Welles went into self-imposed exile in Europe, he first found stardom with The Third Man and then immersed himself in challenging films, television, theatre and bullfighting. Simon wrote and presented this documentary for the 2010 25th anniversary of Orson Welles’s death.

BBC Four on Wednesday 25th September 2019 @10:00pm then available on BBC i-Player.

Read more here

JULY 2019
Scarlett Johannson

There has been a little storm in my neck of the woods: Scarlett Johannson, one of Hollywood’s finest, has insisted that actors should be able to play any role they choose. Heresy! I hear the sharpening of knives among our present day self-appointed Committee of Public Safety, every bit as ardent as their French Revolutionary forbears; click click go the knitting needles of the grim-faced tricoteuses as they call for the head of Johannson, who has already been issued with a caution. Last year, she was forced to step down from playing a transgender man who became a gangster in 1970s Pittsburgh;  the year before that she attracted ire for playing an Asian character in science fiction drama Ghost in the Shell.

Johannson is certainly in good company. Earlier this year, a disabled actor complained bitterly that the great, glorious but able-bodied Bryan Cranston had been cast as a disabled character in the film The Upside.

There are many disabled actors, the argument went, who need the work, and who would have given a much more authentic performance than Cranston. The distinguished journalist Melanie Reid, who is herself confined to a wheelchair, briskly dealt with the issues:

Firstly, Cranston is a star and the film would not have been made without him or someone of equal box office heft.

Secondly, he is a very good actor, capable of showing in as powerful a way as possible the complexities of the character and his relationship to his own disability.

And lastly, precisely because of those  two reasons, the situation of disabled people would be sympathetically highlighted in his performance and brought to the attention of people who generally prefer to turn away. All inarguable, and forcefully put.

However, as everyone quickly understood, this local confrontation raises other, bigger issues.
The  notion that only disabled actors  are allowed to play disabled people is clearly a problematic principle which, followed through to its logical conclusion, sets an impossible requirement: only someone who has languished in a debtors’ jail can play Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, only Scottish kings – only regicidal Scottish kings, at that,  ones who frequent witches – can play Macbeth.
But I don’t want to seem frivolous: there is a serious point here. From time immemorial, disabled people have been horribly misrepresented, mocked, pilloried and demonised – not least by the theatrical profession.
But those days are long gone. 
It is hard to believe that there was anyone who, after seeing Daniel Day-Lewis’s depiction of physically challenged Christy Brown in My Left Foot, did not feel that the actor was celebrating Brown’s heroic struggle to make art - neither patronising, much less nor burlesquing him. 
Day Lewis, needless to say, does not suffer from cerebral palsy. Instead, he is bestowed with imagination, keen powers of observation and extraordinary physical discipline. He also has a passion for telling the truth. In other words he is an actor. 
Over my career, I’ve played many people, most of whom I don’t resemble in the slightest: Captain Hook (I have both my hands); Tiny Tim in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (I am 70 and sound of limb); the Virgin Mary (she was aged 16 and pregnant); and a rent boy (I was never pretty enough for that).

Al Pacino, star of the Godfather, isn’t a Mafioso gangster; Morgan Freeman, whose performance in the Shawshank Redemption was nominated for an Oscar, isn’t an escaped convict; and, as far as I’m aware, Anthony ‘Hannibal Lecter’ Hopkins isn’t a cannibal. 
What is acting? ‘Dressing up for mummy and daddy,’ said my late friend and BAFTA-winning colleague Denholm Eliot. He wasn’t wrong, but it’s only part of the story.
As actors, we give ourselves over to other lives. We stop being ourselves and start to think the thoughts of other human beings.
It takes skill and practice to do this sensitively. Even personality actors show us how one kind of human behaves in a thousand fascinating ways - while character actors like myself morph from one person to another.
The crucial thing is empathy: feeling yourself drop into someone else’s life. The actor asks: what does it feel  like to be x, y, or z? That calls for serious observation. And imagination.
When asked by German playwright Bertolt Brecht why he acted, Academy Award winner Charles Laughton answered: ‘Because I think I can show people what they’re like.’
Laughton wasn’t a sociologist or a psychiatrist. He was an actor, someone who converts their observations and experiences into a credible and – most importantly – memorable human being.
It is the connection between the actor and the character that excites an audience. Using his or her gifts of distillation, concentration and verbal brilliance, an actor manages to create something that lodges itself in your brain.
The same thing happens to painters when they create a masterpiece. They take what they have observed and, using their own language of paint, reinvent and re-order it into something both true and reimagined.
That magic zone is a place of limitless freedom and infinite discipline; in it actors paint with their bodies, their faces and their voices.
Actors represent the human race. And to do it justice, it is vital that all kinds of human beings, of every size and shape, of every skin colour and every gender, and every kind of physical challenge should be able – so long as they learn their craft –  to play as many different roles as possible.

Nobody who has talent should be kept out of the acting profession. And nobody, even including white, middle-class males, should be prevented from playing any part.
Seeing women play Shakespearean soldiers has been a revelation; seeing black actors playing preening dandies in Restoration comedies has helped rediscover the wit of the 17th century. And seeing disabled actors playing dictators and lovers has been illuminating and often full of unexpected poetry.
As a gay man, I have been impressed and moved by non-gay actors - like Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name or Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain - playing men loving other men, helping to cancel out Hollywood’s grim record of vicious homophobic caricature. “What if…?” is actor’s first question. “What if I were gay? Black? Transgendered? Short, tall, beautiful?” The imaginative leap is what makes
the performance: it is essence of the art.   

In every sphere, the world as we know it or think we know it is in uproar. From politics to culture, everything is being questioned, stood on its head, taken apart.
In my own little world - the world of the theatre, of movies, of opera - the earth shakes beneath our feet on a daily basis.
Ours is a profession that exists to reflect the chaos of life.
Throughout history, dramatists have always been at the forefront of change.

We need to rethink our profession, too. Just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of one thing: our ability to act. And, frankly: I feel cheated that I have been prevented from seeing Miss Johannson's transgendered gangster. Bring it on, I say.

JUNE 2019
On The Red Hill by Michael Parker

A moving, multilayered memoir – both exemplary gay social history and an account of the author’s quest for belonging

Simon Callow

The Guardian

Wed 12 June 2019

George Walton (left) and Reg Mickisch, who were together from 1949 until their deaths in 2011, on the beach in Italy in the mid 1960s.

George Walton (L) and Reg Mickisch (R ), who werer together from 1949 until their deaths in 2011, on the beach in Italy in the mid 1960s. Photograph: William Heinemann

Michael Parker’s extraordinary, ambitious, many layered memoir opens with a remarkable scene from 2006, a double civil partnership ceremony in the town of Machynlleth in rural Wales, only two years after such things became possible. The two couples are a fortysomething Parker and his somewhat younger lover Peredur, and Reg and George, respectively 79 and 89 years old. “Their 62 years together encompassed the full gamut of society’s attitudes,” Parker writes. “For the first 18 years of their relationship, its very existence was illegal. Yet they were together long enough to go from being outlawed by the state to being married by one of its officials.” The younger couple had become close friends with the older, but they were astounded to discover, when Reg and George died, that they had been bequeathed their grand house, Rhiw Goch, and all its contents, including their diaries, letters and photographs (many of them, says Parker, full of a “shy, sly, homoeroticism”).

Consciously modelled on EM Forster’s Howards EndOn the Red Hill revolves around the house and its inhabitants, past and present. But its scope is immense, integrating five distinct strands: the personal histories of the two couples, the history of gay men in the 20th century, the history of the area, nature’s yearly cycle and, a little more fitfully, a meditation on the nature of Welshness. It is nature that provides the metaphorical underpinning. The book’s form is striking: divided into quarters, each divided into four – an element, a season, a direction, a person – it is arranged in a series of concentric circles: crop circles, as one might say. The central thread of the narrative is the profoundly alienated author’s quest for a place in which he feels he belongs. He details his grim childhood, at first alleviated and then blighted by his discovery of the bodies of other boys; his getting drawn along with other lads into a paedophile ring; his growing body dysmorphia, seeing his physical self as somehow different from his inner self; his headlong flight from anyone who expressed too much enthusiasm for him.

In one remarkable photo, wearing the most exiguous of posing pouches, George brandishes his bicycle over his head

In his 20s, he had begun to identify Wales as the place where he might finally find peace. “Had someone asked me to imagine my improbable dream, I would have hesitantly talked of Wales, of an old stone house, of night skies, and open fires, of a man I loved and who loved me back, of a dog and walks and swims in cool green waters … ” All these things, we discover, he has achieved; but have they brought him the profound rightness of being that he craved? Only up to a point. He recognises in himself a condition that he identifies with a Welsh word, hiraeth, which seems to be the equivalent of the German sehnsucht and the Portuguese saudades – a deep and possibly unassuageable longing for his heart’s homeland.

When he was a boy tormented by what he was told were shameful impulses, he experienced, for a brief period, intense religious feelings; they soon passed, but he still feels at core a need to connect with something beyond words, beyond mere human emotion. “Whatever my faith was called, I knew from my very earliest encounters that Wales was its home.” But still there is a vein of discontent that he cannot wholly extirpate: sometimes he has nights when “restlessness and fury are scratching my innards” and he forsakes the hearth of the home that he and Peredur (Preds) have made together, and hurls himself out into the dark. “The night punches me in the innards … I see nothing but a black wall and no escape …” He thinks of the city streets of his past. “That is who I am, my brain thunders, not this, not here, not ever.”

This strong vein of melancholy is never far away: there is an unresolved quality about his self-portrait in the chapter that bears his name, as if, despite his profoundly satisfying relationship with Preds, he is still the man he was, in the grip of a neurotic promiscuity, a feeling of self-repulsion, a searing resentment of what society has done to him. This turbulent energy stirs the book out of any nostalgic pastoralism in which it might have luxuriated. His re-creation of the lives of Reg and George, ultimately crowned in happiness and fulfilment despite the constrictions imposed on them by society, is exemplary gay social history, of a kind we deeply need. It is personal and particular, and immensely enlivened by photographs of George, whose body was his temple, in various stages of undress, wiry, muscled and hairless, like a fakir. In one remarkable snap, wearing the most exiguous of posing pouches, he brandishes his bicycle over his head. In his 60s, he has become, as Parker says, “the streamlined man-machine of his dreams”.

Towards the end of the book, Parker allows himself a vision of a gay heaven, a New Year’s party, with among the guests Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter, Ivor Novello, James Baldwin, David Hockney and Lord Montagu, AE Housman, WH Auden, with JR Ackerley helping Forster to direct a remake of the skinny-dipping scene from A Room With a View. It is a touching, Blakeian scene, though owing perhaps more to Peter than to William Blake.

Reg������¢���¯���¿���½���¯���¿���½s painting of the house he lived in with George.

 Reg’s painting of the house he lived in with George. Photograph: William Heinemann

Parker’s prose is lush and vivid; just occasionally the descriptive passages are so rich that one recoils. The sense of quotidian drama is a little excluding, like listening to someone on acid – and indeed, he is a little partial, he tells us, to the odd magic mushroom. At the culmination of the book, headed “Peredur”, we learn a great deal about his qualities, the man’s depth, his innate charm, his depth, his relationship to the land, his instinctive homebuilding. What we don’t really get is a description of him – his face, his body, his smell. So this climactic chapter is ultimately somewhat impersonal. Peredur, like Reg and George, is elevated (but also slightly reduced) to an archetype.

Parker links him to his namesake, the hero of The Mabinogion, whose quest for justice is finally rewarded when he discovers Carreg y Noddfa, the stone of sanctuary. Finding the stone, Peredur is given “the fairest river valley he had ever seen”. “That too,” Parker says, in the curious, ecstatic, unresolved last line of the text, is his “for now, for never, for always”. It is a haunting ending to a book that is deep in riches and profoundly uncomfortable at heart.

MAY 2019
Truth, Beauty and Oliver Sacks

Truth, Beauty, and Oliver Sacks

Simon Callow

JUNE 6, 2019 ISSUE

The New York Review of Books

Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales

by Oliver Sacks

Knopf, 274 pp., $26.95

Oliver Sacks, May 1988

Dominique Nabokov

Oliver Sacks, City Island, the Bronx, May 1988

Readers of The New York Review, to which he was a regular contributor over many years, need no introduction to Oliver Sacks. A number of the pieces in Everything in Its Place, his second posthumous volume, which collects published and unpublished work, first appeared in these pages, as did a number of those in the first posthumous Sacks volume, The River of Consciousness (2017), which is dedicated to Robert Silvers, his editor at the ReviewEverything in Its Place is, in some senses, a slighter book than that one, which Sacks himself put together before his death. The pieces in it are generally shorter, some barely more than fragments, but this is not a mere Sacks smorgasbord: it has a distinct identity of its own and covers a remarkably wide range of topics, none of them unknown to his regular readers, but unified by a particular tone. To describe it as valedictory would be to oversimplify, and many of the pieces were written long before Sacks’s death in 2015, but consciously or unconsciously the editors have fashioned the book in such a way that we are left with an image of the author that is extraordinarily touching—not lacking in his habitual energy and driven curiosity, but somehow vulnerable, even fragile.

There are echoes here across the whole of Sacks’s voluminous oeuvre—tales differently told, glancing allusions to people encountered elsewhere, fragments of autobiography. The book is divided into three sections: First Loves, Clinical Tales, and Life Continues. The opening piece, “Water Babies,” a celebration of swimming in the author’s life, is exquisitely composed, a prose poem in all but name, and a reverie so euphonious that it might well lend itself to musical setting in the manner of Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber’s superb rendition of the opening of James Agee’s A Death in the Family:

We were all water babies, my brothers and I. Our father, who was a swimming champ (he won the fifteen-mile race off the Isle of Wight three years in succession) and loved swimming more than anything else, introduced each of us to the water when we were scarcely a week old…. We never “learned” to swim.

We see the infant Sacks already at one with the natural world. Water is his natural habitat: he sees that his father, “huge and cumbersome on land,” becomes transformed, “graceful, like a porpoise,” and he himself—self-conscious, nervous, and also rather clumsy—is likewise transformed:

Swimming gives me a sort of joy, a sense of well-being so extreme that it becomes at times a sort of ecstasy…. The mind can float free, become spellbound, in a state like a trance. I have never known anything so powerfully, so healthily euphoriant—and I am addicted to it, fretful when I cannot swim.

Sacks mentions, almost casually, something I have never read before: during his adolescence he succumbed to a skin condition that specialists could neither define nor cure. “I was covered in weeping sores. Looking, or at least feeling, like a leper, I dared not strip at a beach or pool, and could only occasionally, if I was lucky, find a remote lake or tarn.” (Very Sacks, that last word.) The condition passed when he went to Oxford, and then for the rest of his life he was a water baby again. But that period of hideous self-consciousness can only have contributed to the sense of otherness of which he speaks elsewhere, and which is no doubt the source of his uncommon capacity to engage with those who feel somehow excluded from what seems to be everyone else’s birthright.

“My father called swimming ‘the elixir of life,’ and certainly it seemed to be so for him: he swam daily, slowing down only slightly with time, until the grand age of ninety-four. I hope I can follow him, and swim till I die.” And so he did, until a few days before the end.

“Water Babies” was published in The New Yorker in 1997, when Sacks was in rude health, so any valedictory tone is deceptive, but it sounds a note that will be heard tolling gently throughout the book. The pieces collected in Everything in Its Placeintroduce us to the remarkable, odd boy that he was, as with his friends and fellow pupils Jonathan Miller and Eric Korn—young Jewish polymaths all—he ate up the scientific world. Sacks seems to have been the most single-minded of them, contriving out of sheer curiosity to get himself locked into the Fossil Invertebrate Gallery of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington overnight: “Familiar animals became fearful, uncanny, as I prowled that night, their faces suddenly looming out of the darkness or hovering ghostlike at the periphery of the flashlight. The museum, lightless, was a place of delirium, and I was not wholly sorry when morning came.”

This is an unusual boy, one who had, as he puts it, an “overwhelming sense of Truth and Beauty” when at the age of ten he saw a periodic table in the Science Museum and became convinced that “these were indeed the elemental building blocks of the universe, that the whole universe was here, in microcosm, in South Kensington.” That boy makes many appearances in these pages, and it becomes increasingly clear that Sacks was that boy to the very end of his days, engaging, eagerly and with a never-ending sense of wonder, not only with science but with its history and the people who made it: “Science is a human enterprise through and through, an organic, evolving, human growth, with sudden spurts and arrests, and strange deviations, too. It grows out of its past but never outgrows it, any more than we outgrow our childhoods.” His encounter, at the age of twelve, with the great nineteenth-century chemist Humphry Davy confirmed him, he says, on the path of science. For him, it must always be personal: he had to engage with people, whether dead or alive.

After graduating from Oxford, he applied himself to research, and it was a disaster. He found it impossible to work in the abstract; only when he went to work in a hospital as a neurologist, interacting with patients, did he begin to fulfill his potential. His natural shyness disappeared in the face of the problem to be solved—the human problem, the difficulty or the damage inflicted on the individual by his or her condition.

But he was equally fascinated by the brain itself. By involving the patient as much as possible in his own insatiable inquisitiveness about its extraordinary ways, he took some of the doom, the curse, out of the condition. “Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal,” he writes in “Seeing God in the Third Millennium,” “are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience…. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.” While open to a vast range of human experience, he firmly discounts the extraterrestrial and the metahuman, marveling less at the brain’s failures than at its attempts to adjust to loss of function, the “organized chaos” described by the early-twentieth-century neurologist Ivy Mackenzie. “The brain,” says Sacks, “comes to terms with itself, re-establishes itself, at other levels.”

In the essay “Telling,” he describes the upsetting case of the director of a hospital who, struck down by Alzheimer’s, is admitted to his own hospital. He behaves as if he were still running it, until one day by chance he picks up his own chart. “That’s me,” he says, recognizing his name on the cover. Inside, he reads “Alzheimer’s disease” and weeps. In the same hospital a former janitor is admitted; he too is convinced that he is still working there. He is given harmless tasks to perform; one day he dies of a sudden heart attack “without perhaps ever realising that he had been anything but a janitor with a lifetime of loyal work behind him.” “Should we,” asks Sacks, “have taken away his accustomed and well-rehearsed identity and replaced it with a ‘reality’ that, though real to us, would have been meaningless to him?”

It was through stories like these that Sacks became a best-selling author: they made science—particularly neurology—human. His writing is direct, transparent, accessible—too accessible for the British publisher Faber and Faber, which rejected the original manuscript of Awakenings (1973), telling him to “professionalize” it. But from the beginning, quite apart from his keen grasp of the clinical aspects of his work, he was a remarkable wordsmith. Here, too, we see the child in the man: the bibliophagous boy greedily devouring, he tells us in “Libraries,” his favorite reading: “the many volumes of Mellor’s Comprehensive Treatise on Inorganic and Theoretical Chemistry”; there are sixteen. He was, perhaps surprisingly, not a good pupil at school, “but I was a good learner…. I had to be active, learn for myself.” He accordingly spent hours in libraries, sacred places to him. Their rapid death, as he sees it, both in America and England, shocks him: visiting a campus library whose entire stock had been digitized, he “felt that a murder, a crime had been committed: the destruction of centuries of knowledge.” He longs for a physical book, “its look, its smell, its heft.” This tone of lament is often heard through the essays—a sharp sense of loss, of a world irrecoverably changing.

In a happier age, the young book-hungry Sacks sought out the library whenever he was free; there he read poetry, novels, plays, history. As a young teenager, he came across A Journey Round My Skull by the Hungarian poet and playwright Frigyes Karinthy, which describes the author’s operation for a brain tumor in the 1930s; Sacks’s masterly introduction to the NYRB Classics edition is reprinted in Everything in Its Place. The autobiographical resonance is unmistakable as he describes Herbert Olivecrona, the Swedish neurologist who performed the operation: “At intervals, the cool, kindly voice of Olivecrona broke in, explaining, reassuring, and Karinthy’s apprehension was replaced by calm and curiosity. Olivecrona, here, seems almost like Virgil, guiding his poet-patient through the circles and landscapes of his brain.”

Later, at Oxford, Sacks came across Edward Liveing’s Megrim (1873), which inspired him to write his first book, Migraine (1967). At Oxford he was thrilled to be able to handle the incunabula, the earliest books ever printed. His obsession with words vies with his passion for science—reading them, but also writing them. His childhood nickname was “Inky”; he started writing in journals from his teens and never stopped. He wrote in cafés, in bars, on his bike, even at concerts. He almost never read the journals; they were sketchpads he used to work out his themes, to find his form, to articulate his story.

For Sacks, language and science were inextricably intertwined. In the particularly vivid essay about his hero Humphry Davy (about whom he writes a great deal more in Uncle Tungsten, 2001), he celebrates the “union of literary and scientific cultures” represented in Davy’s friendship with Coleridge: “Coleridge and Davy seemed to see themselves as twins: Coleridge the chemist of language, Davy the poet of chemistry.” Davy was a great communicator, too: “He had always been eloquent and a natural storyteller, and now he was to become the most famous and influential lecturer in England…. His lectures moved from the most intimate details of his experiments…to speculation about the universe and life, delivered in a style and with a richness of language that nobody else could match.” It is not hard to see why he might have been Sacks’s hero, though there is an even earlier model to hand, as described in his memoir On the Move: his father, who chose to be a general practitioner because it would be more real, more fun, than specializing: “He knew the human, the inward side of his patients no less than their bodies and felt he could not treat the one without the other…. This intense interest in the entire lives of his patients made him…a marvellous storyteller.”

“I am a storyteller, for better or for worse,” writes Sacks in On the Move. “The act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.” For some people, this is a problem. There is, and always has been, a question about the degree to which Sacks fed off his patients’ ailments and the extent to which he betrayed their confidences. In “A Summer of Madness,” a review in these pages of Hurry Down Sunshine, Michael Greenberg’s devastating book about his daughter’s manic depression, Sacks acknowledges this problem: “The question of ‘telling,’ of publishing detailed accounts of patients’ lives, their vulnerabilities, their illness, is a matter of great moral delicacy, fraught with pitfalls and perils of every sort.”

Drawing of animals diving into a pool

Telling, of course, is what Sacks does: he tells patients what ails them and tells the world about them. Indeed, his whole enterprise might reasonably be described as telling some startling, not always comfortable truths about our lives. He concludes his essay on Hurry Down Sunshine with words that might just as well apply to his own work: “Perhaps…it will remind us of what a narrow ridge of normality we all inhabit, with the abysses of mania and depression yawning to either side.”

There is a sense, throughout Everything in Its Place and throughout all his written work, that Sacks has been on that narrow ridge himself and sometimes slipped off—notably during the alarming years of his addiction to amphetamines. But even when he is sober, there is an underlying compulsiveness teetering on the brink of mania in almost any activity he pursues. When he enters a long-distance swimming competition, the judges have to plead with him to stop after he has swum five hundred lengths—six miles. He engages in equally excessive cross-continental motorcycling marathons; as a body-builder, he makes his already large frame monumental. When he goes into the kitchen, he eats his way through a whole refrigerator of food, and when he asks his sister-in-law if he can use her typewriter to make a few notes, he is still there three days later, having written most of a book. The sheer exorbitancy of it all is hair-raising; if his thirty-five-year abstinence from sex had not encompassed the worst of the AIDS years, we might have lost him much earlier.

Perhaps it was his driven nature that led him to write with such tenderness about mental asylums, as they were originally conceived: institutions where disturbed people could find sanctuary, protected against the menaces of their fellow citizens and relieved of the burden of having to pretend to be normal. Originally, says Sacks, these were calm and beautiful places, clean and light, with gardens and agricultural lands, and the inmates were given useful and productive work to do, which grounded them and enhanced their self-respect. Eventually these institutions became overcrowded and descended into brutality and relentless discipline.

Sacks traces with fine sympathy the terrible spiraling failure of care over the twentieth century: the overreliance on antipsychotic drugs led to the building of short-stay facilities and the premature release of patients entirely unable to support themselves; then, in the 1960s, a new move to promote patients’ rights meant that they were no longer permitted to work in the laundries or kitchens or gardens: “There was now little left but sitting, zombie-like, in front of the now-never-turned-off TV.” The drugs have improved, but “the too-exclusive emphasis on chemical models of schizophrenia, and on purely pharmacological approaches to treatment, may leave the central human and social experience of being mentally ill untouched.”

Sacks finds an alternative, though it is hard to know who in the English-speaking world would try to replicate the extraordinary community he describes in the Belgian town of Geel, where mental patients are lodged on a regular basis as boarders in the townspeople’s homes. “What makes Geel remarkable,” reports the team of anthropologists who have made a study of the town, “is not the blurring of the boundary between normal and abnormal, but the recognition of each patient’s human dignity, to the extent that, for them, family and community life is given an honest chance every single day.”

This is a rare sunbeam in a book that, while rejoicing in a life lived with quite extraordinary richness, is filled with foreboding for the future. Sacks returns to Colorado Springs, forty years after his first visit when, newly arrived in America, he hoped to join the Air Force: “I was still in love with an America I had dreamed about…young, innocent, ingenuous, strong, open, as Europe had long ago ceased to be.” He was twenty-seven “and full of vigor and hope and optimism myself—that day, that vision of Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy, made my heart exalt, beat strongly with joy and pride.”

Now he stays in a great sprawling hotel called the Broadmoor, self-described as “a legendary destination resort”; he is too kind to say this, but in England, Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital in Berkshire, is a byword for the criminally insane. The resort is, he says, like Hearst Castle, “with a lake, three golf courses, fake four-posters in the bedrooms, and flunkies, charming men and women trained to anticipate your every wish and action, pulling out chairs, opening doors, offering suggestions for dinner.”

Munching on a chicken sandwich “the size of my head,” his memory of the past comes back to him with a sense of the ludicrous “as I sit here in this plush, false Eden, forty-three years later.” The piece ends, “I stir slightly in my seat, and the waiter, telepathic, brings me another beer.” This essay, with its exquisitely judged last line, is a masterly encapsulation of what it is to age and to feel the present mocking one’s past, and it prompts the thought—not for the first time—that had Sacks chosen to write fiction rather than fact, he might have followed in the footsteps of those other great doctor-writers, Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, W. Somerset Maugham, William Carlos Williams.

In “Life Continues,” near the end of the book, his despair takes hold in a big way when he contemplates the takeover of the world by technology, especially computers and smartphones:

Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.

As a neurologist he has seen many patients “rendered amnesic by destruction of the memory systems in their brains…. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.” He quotes E.M. Forster’s famous premonitory story “The Machine Stops”: “Cannot you see…that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the machine?”

What hope is there? “Only science,” he says, “aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass.” But to a large extent it was science that got us into this morass, and Sacks’s trusting expectations of human decency only show that, as he often asserts in his writing, he is fundamentally unpolitical. “Between us,” he cries, “we can surely pull the world through its present crises and lead the way to a happier time ahead. As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe in this—that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue, and that this will not be our final hour.” In a similar vein, he hopes, in “The Aging Brain,” that “if we are lucky enough to reach a healthy old age, this sense of wonder can keep us passionate and productive to the end of our lives.” Our best chance for the future, we may feel, is that there may be others among us like this uncommon, passionate, and enlightened man whose essential quality, repeatedly demonstrated not only in the present volume but across his oeuvre, is a kind of innocence—an unquenchable eagerness, a ravening curiosity, and a radiant delight in the world.

In a sense, Sacks’s entire extensive output constitutes a giant self-portrait of the scientist as artist. As he wrote in “My Own Life,” his public farewell in The New York Times, “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” Everything in Its Place is a pendant to the bigger portrait, but in one of the pieces, “Botanists on Park,” chronicling the Sunday morning activities of the American Fern Society, some of whose members wore T-shirts “which bore slogans such as ‘Ferns Are Ferntastic,’” we come close to the quintessential Sacks, swarming over the park, scratching and sniffing, in quest of “chink-finding, xerophytic ferns.” Maybe he felt like Kipling’s Mowgli, his childhood favorite, exploring the world through his senses, half wild, half human. But for this reader it was the image of Samuel Pickwick that came irresistibly to mind. Dickens seems to have anticipated Oliver Sacks by a century:

A casual observer might possibly have remarked nothing extraordinary in the bald head, and circular spectacles…to those who knew that the gigantic brain of Pickwick was working beneath that forehead, and that the beaming eyes of Pickwick were twinkling behind those glasses, the sight was indeed an interesting one. There sat the man who had traced to their source the mighty ponds of Hampstead, and agitated the scientific world with his Theory of Tittlebats, as calm and unmoved as the deep waters of the one on a frosty day, or as a solitary specimen of the other in the inmost recesses of an earthen jar.

And perhaps Dickens’s farewell to Pickwick is how we should part from Sacks, too:

Let us leave our old friend in one of those moments of unmixed happiness, of which, if we seek them, there are ever some, to cheer our transitory existence here. There are dark shadows on the earth but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light; we, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them.

In his exquisite memoir, Insomniac City, Sacks’s partner, Bill Hayes, writes of him, “Before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.” We may feel the same

APRIL 2019

Shakespeare is up for grabs again. All-female productions, productions which celebrate diversity, productions in which the text is carved up, up-ended, made to say the opposite of what  the author so clearly intended, productions in which – in the words of the Arts Council’s latest proclamation of its mission – relevance trumps quality: it’s a Bardic free-for-all. We seem to be returning to the mid-seventeenth century understanding of the Shakespearean canon as, in the words of Andrew McConnell Stott, “a wellspring of concepts, characters, and situations to be plundered at will.” A bare century later, it was all very different: Shakespeare’s supremacy as artist and thinker was widely acknowledged, his plays were held to be uniquely potent encapsulations of human experience, incomparably well-conceived dramatically, clothed in language  of matchless expressiveness.  In some  quarters, this admiration teetered perilously close to a conviction that the playwright was a quasi-divine being. Bardolatory, an exasperated George Bernard Shaw dubbed it.

Andrew McConnell Stott’s wildly exuberant new book is not the first to identify the Shakespeare Jubilee held in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1765 under the leadership of the actor-manager David Garrick as the moment at which the great  dramatist  started to head for Olympus. Jonathan Bate, in The Genius of Shakespeare, his indispensable account of the evolution of the poet’s  reputation, makes much of this moment, and  in 2001 the playwright Peter Barnes wrote a fantastical and subversive play called Jubilee for the Royal Shakespeare Company. But neither of them had the space that Stott has to reconstruct this bizarre but highly significant event in all its lunacy. Stott positively rollicks  in it, tracing it from its initial impulse from members of the Stratford council, desperate to kick-start the economy of their sleepy and impoverished town: the good burghers built a splendid Town Hall, leaving a conspicuously empty niche for a bust; there were no prizes for guessing which  of the town’s  former citizens would warrant being thus honoured.

Shrewdly, they approached Garrick, the most famous actor in Britain, and perhaps the world, who had, with his sensational performance of Richard III, nailed his  Shakespearean colours to the mast from the very beginning of his phenomenal career; when he took over the Theatre Royal Drury Lane – in  effect the National Theatre of the time – he declared it the House of Shakespeare. In the garden of his elegant home in rural Richmond, there stood a statue of the great writer, and Garrick commissioned a painting of himself gazing wonderingly at it. The Stratfordians duly invited the Bard-struck actor to celebrate the installation of a fine new bust of his idol in the empty niche of the Town Hall; flattered, he started to plan a huge, extended three-day gala in its honour. He and his self-styled Jubilee were  immediately viewed with deep suspicion by his contemporaries, and indeed by the inhabitants of Stratford, but the extensive and hugely expensive preparations for what Stott calls “a  hodgepodge, a gallimaufry of inconsistencies and contradictory motivations that featured little of the work of its dedicatee,” rolled forward like an unstoppable juggernaut.

Stott – author of a brilliantly sympathetic and evocative, if sometimes  wayward, biography of the famous clown Joey Grimaldi – follows every turn of this exorbitant festival, but also sets it in its context. He has an uncommon gift for reporting on the past as if had happened yesterday, and to him personally.   Despite his  taste for wilfully archaic vocabulary – instantiation, anyone? patulous? – his telling use of detail and unflagging narrative drive, along with a painterly capacity of sketching characters indelibly in a few unerring strokes, bring the world in which the Jubilee took place to leaping life in pages of nearly Dickensian vigour and vividness. “London in 1737 had a population of almost six hundred thousand – a tenth of all Britons – making it the largest city in Europe, choked with traffic and noise and narrow streets of stercoraceous mud touched by the slightest slivers of sunlight. The city had begun to burst its seams…”

He also gratifyingly reproduces the sheer malignancy of so many of Garrick’s rivals and enemies, of whom there were a great many. His former teacher and friend, Samuel Johnson boycotted the festival, his neighbour Horace Walpole blushed, he said, at “Garrick’s ‘nonsense’”, Samuel  Foote, a one-legged rival theatre-manager, declared that such was Garrick’s desire “to fleece the people and to transmit his name down to posterity, hand in hand with Shakespeare” that the Jubilee was  nothing but “avarice and vanity”. Garrick’s friend James Boswell was more charitably inclined, especially when he realised how useful to his reputation it might be to be seen among the actor’s many aristocratic patrons, all of whom went up to Stratford for the event.

There were pageants and parties and balls and serenades and fireworks, or would have been had the rain not drenched them all, as it flooded the floor of the ballroom and even caused the horses to race deep in inches of water. Almost nothing went according to plan, except for one thing, which somehow justified it all – Garrick’s recitation of his own Dedication Ode, a wretched piece of writing, glutinous in its sticky-fingered praise of the Bard (“Sweet Swan of Avon! Ever may thy stream/Of tuneful numbers be the theme”) which, backed by a large orchestra and chorus, caught everyone, even the detractors, unaware. The actor, whose enthusiasm for acting had been in steep decline, suddenly found his form again, and stirred the entire sodden company into tearful raptures.

The event, all in all, was felt by most who attended, to have been only fitfully successful; Garrick was darkly accused of cupidity. “It is no wonder,” growled the Ulster actor Charles Macklin, “that he should endeavour to make a god of Shakespeare, since he has usurped the office of his high priest; and he has already made money enough by it, to make a Golden Calf.” But in the mysterious way by which events become emblematic quite independent of their intrinsic merit, something in the spirit  of the Jubilee gave Britain a new hero, and led finally to the conviction that Shakespeare should be taken very seriously. In time people  even began to believe that he might have known what he was doing, and restored his texts and rediscovered his playing practices, releasing the plays in all their vivacity and veracity. Perhaps we need a new Jubilee, or at any rate, a new Garrick. Meanwhile, Stott has brought this odd and oddly resonant event to enchanting and illuminating life. 

MARCH 2019
Ben Hecht: Fighting Causes, Moving Pictures

Simon reviews Ben Hecht's: Fighting Causes, Moving Pictures in The Sunday Times

“Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad train sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts.” These words of Ben Hecht, perhaps the greatest screenwriter Hollywood ever produced, written in May 1947 at the height of the Irgun ultranationalist terrorist bombing in Palestine, instantly made him, according to the Daily Express, Number One Britain-Hater, so loathed and denigrated that films he had written had to be pseudonymously attributed on their British release; one of them carried the name of his chauffeur.   

The uproar was not confined to Britain: his fellow-countrymen were equally outraged, as, in many cases, were his co-religionists by what seemed to them to be a needless and counter-productive provocation. Hecht, as one of the first people in America to take the rumours of the Holocaust seriously – indeed, to have predicted it, even before it happened – had spoken on behalf of many people who felt that the US government, in particular, needed to be goaded into action. But this unqualified embrace of  terrorism in the name of a cause by no means universally supported provoked outrage. Why was Hecht behaving like this?  “It’s very simple,” said his friend, Herman Mankiewicz, co-author of Citizen Kane. “You see, six years ago, Ben found out that he was a Jew, and now he behaves like a six-year-old Jew.”

The present volume – subtitled Fighting Words, Moving Pictures – is part of the excellent series Jewish Lives and focuses sharply on Hecht’s always complex relationship with his own Jewishness. Born in the downtown New York ghetto, Hecht’s first language was Yiddish, but when his family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, his forefathers’ language was replaced with American English,  and the tantes and the bubbes and the bupelas receded into memory; he barely met another Jew, he said, until he moved to New York in his early thirties. When he did, he took a sharp turn down memory lane, taking a flat in the old ghetto, but after the initial enchantment, “the smell of rotting rat corpses”, according to Adina Hoffmann,  drove him and his young wife “scrambling back uptown.” 

By then, Hecht was already a star in the firmament of young American writing. Having dropped out of college after exactly three days, he had hopped a train to Chicago and within a week found himself working for a major daily newspaper. “Never get too fancy,” his first editor told him. “Be sure your style is so honest that you can put the word shit into any sentence without fear of consequences.” He plunged with abandon into the life of a reporter, learning a great deal about life and flexing his verbal muscles. “We were a tribe of assorted drunkards, poets, burglars, philosophers, and boastful ragamuffins,” he wrote. “Cynical of all things on earth including the tyrannical journal that underpaid and overworked us and for which, after a round of cursing, we were ready to die.” 

It was an ideal milieu for` him, with his anarchist-romantic inclinations: it also provided him with a subject which he immortalised in The Front Page, the play he wrote with his buddy Charles MacArthur; on screen both in its original form  and in the gender-bended version, His Girl Friday, it crystallised the myth of journalism which still lingers in the subconscious of anyone who works on a paper.  He did solid reporting, at one historic point covering the post-First World War Spartacist riots in Berlin; but he also transformed American journalism with his column 1001 Nights in Chicago, probing the real life behind the stories, somewhat in the manner of Dickens’s Boz sketches: indeed, there is about Hecht something of Dickens, if only, perhaps, the word-drunkenness of the autodidact.

While he wrote for the mainstream press, he hob-nobbed with the avant-gardists of his day – with Sandburg and Sherwood Anderson and Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound. He had also started to write novels – big, baggy, angry books, intended to express “all the venom I have stored against the human race during 28 years of much too intimate contact with it, and much too intimate a knowledge of my own not too blameless soul.” This generalised adolescent rage seems to inform a great deal of his output, right to the end – all except his movie writing, perhaps because he never regarded it as an expression of his soul. The irony, as his clear-eyed biographer tells us, is that his screenwriting was vastly better than his fiction.

It was Mankiewicz who summoned Hecht to Hollywood: “Millions are to be grabbed out here,” he telegraphed him, “and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” His first screenplay, Outlaw, won the first Academy Award ever for Original Story. Naturally, he sent it back; they returned it to him. In the end he kept it, seeing its potential as a doorstop. He was soon earning staggering sums of money. Moreover, in Outlaw (silent) and a little later Scarface (sound) “he set  forth,” as Adina Hoffmann says,  “the raw materials for nearly a century of gangster dramas-to-come.” As he did for screwball comedy, in Nothing Sacred, and psychological thriller in Notorious.

His realisation  of the reality of the Holocaust stopped him in his tracks. He galvanised his friends and colleagues into raising awareness by means of huge shows like We Will Never Die, playing to 40,000 people. His greatest obstacles in fighting for the cause were his fellow Jews; Rabbis denounced him from the pulpit, and the captains of his own  industry urged him to tone it down. It was then he converted to Zionism, becoming a man possessed, with the results we have seen. He carried on writing for Hollywood, but mostly uncredited and for half what he had earned before.

In his cast decade he wrote a wonderfully rich memoir, A Child of the Century; he hosted a bold television interview programme where his guests included Jack Kerouac,  Zsa Zsa Gabor  and Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus; it was pulled by the broadcaster when Salvador Dalí used his interview to describe a  marvellous new kind of orgasm. At the end he  was working on a book predicated on the idea that Shakespeare was secretly a Jew. Hecht’s life was extraordinary, his writing is (mostly) a tonic, his films are (in the main) dazzling, and Adina Hoffmann has caught his restless, contradictory quality in crystalline prose.  Her examination of his Jewishness is nothing short a of a revelation, and horribly timely in this epoch in which ancient grudges resurface every day.    

MARCH 2019
Ahmed Altan: I Will Never See The World Again

Simon reviews Ahmed Altan's book I Will Never See the World Again in The Guardian

To review certain books seems like an impertinence. This is one of them. It speaks for itself with such clarity, certainty and wisdom that only one thing needs to be said: read it. And then read it again. It is a short book, divided into brief chapters, some no longer than two pages long, each recounting some incident from the author’s prison experience. It is wonderfully distilled, but not sententious; even in extremis, Altan never loses the limpidity and translucence, vivid with the vividness of dreams, which is characteristic of his other writing –   as far as one can judge from the only other books of his available in English translation, Like a Sword Wound, the superb first volume of his Ottoman Quartet, and Endgame, a phantasmagorical crime story. Even the latter has, at the heart of all the violence, a dreamy, wide-eyed quality which seems to be quintessential Altan. To judge by I Will Never See The World Again, it has been and will be his salvation.

His arrest was no surprise to him. He was in the frontline. As the author of Atakurd,  a much-read piece arguing for equal status for Kurds, he had, as early as 1995, received a suspended 20 month sentence, and been fined $12,000; in 2007, he founded and edited the satirical newspaper Tara, in which, a year later, he wrote a piece called Oh My Brother for which he was charged under the draconian Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which criminalises “denigrating Turkishness”, though not, that time, imprisoned. Knowing how exposed his position was, he habitually carried a gun.

Dissidence is the Altan family business: Ahmet’s father Çetin, a polemical journalist, novelist, editor and MP, had been apprehended nearly half a century before by an earlier repressive regime. When the police came to get him, Altan senior  offered them tea; they refused it. “It’s not a bribe,” he remarked, pleasantly. “You can drink some.” The joke didn’t go down very well. 45 years later, Ahmet repeated it to the policemen who came for him; they were equally unamused. To be making jokes at all in the circumstances reveals an almost inconceivable sangfroid. He knew that there was no chance whatever of a fair trial; the sentence was a foregone conclusion.

Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, embrace my kids, meet with my friends, walk the streets…I would not be able to eat eggs with sausage or drink a glass of wine or go to a restaurant and order fish. I would not be able to watch the sunrise.

In the car which took him to prison, the guard offered him a cigarette. “I only smoke when I am nervous,” replied Altan. He had, he said, no idea where the words came from.  But they changed his life. “There are certain actions and words that are demanded by the events, the dangers and the realities that surround you. Once you refuse to play this assigned role, instead doing and saying the unexpected, reality itself is taken aback; it hits against the rebellious jetties of your mind and breaks into pieces.” This insight – “reality could not conquer me. I conquered reality” –  at a stroke gave him the strength to face what followed. He saw that this capacity was an extension of his trade as a novelist: creating an alternative reality. I Will Never See the World Again is as much about writing as it is about prison, but above all it is about freedom, a freedom epitomised by the exercise of the imagination.

His liberty and independence of thought were not effortlessly maintained: whatever your inner fortitude, prison,  by its very nature, is crippling. “In a  matter of 5 hours I had travelled across five centuries to arrive at the dungeons of the Inquisition.” The sensory deprivation was immediately disorientating: like Oscar Wilde, he discovered that time ceases to mean anything.  “The air and the light in our cage never changed. Each  minute was the same as the last. It was as if a tributary of the river of time had hit a dam and formed a lake. We sat at the bottom of that motionless pool.” Taken to court, the disorientation continues. The judges are out of Kafka, but as in Kafka, not savage or brutal, but erratic, bewildering, surreal. He finds that he has been arrested not, as originally stated, for sending “subliminal messages” in support of the attempted coup, but for having participated in it. Challenged as to the change of charge, the judge, remarked, airily: “Our prosecutors like using words the meanings of which they don’t know.”

He is released and returned home; later that evening, a new warrant is issued and he is back in prison, put into a cell marked Ladies’ Infirmary. He launches an appeal, based on the Supreme Court’s rejection of his conviction: as he waits for the verdict, he tries to dismiss “the pale flickering dreams fed by hope stir shyly in the shadowy folds of my mind”. He begins to realise as he waits that he is living out the very scene that he wrote years earlier in his novel Like a Sword Wound, where a character also waits for a verdict. “Years ago as I was wandering in that unmarked, enigmatic and hazy territory where literature meets life I had met my own destiny but failed to recognise it; I wrote thinking it belonged to someone else. I feel I  am bring dragged into a vertiginous, wuthering vortex in which novel and life are entangled, where what is real and what is written imitate one another and change places, each disguised as the other.”

The verdict is handed down: Life, without parole. “I will never see the world again; I will never see a sky unframed by the walls of a courtyard. I am descending to Hades. I walk into the darkness like a god who write his own destiny. My hero and I disappear into the darkness together.” But in time, his imagination saves him: “Like Odysseus, I will act with heroism and cowardice, with honesty and craftiness. I will know defeat and victory, my adventure will end only in death…a ship stands in the middle of the cell; its timbers are creaking. On its deck is a conflicted Odysseus.” In a heart-stopping moment, he thinks to himself: “What a beautiful scene to describe. I reach for a pen with a hand that is white in the ghostly light. I can write even in the dark. I take the ship cracking in the storm in the palm of my hands and begin writing: The prison door shut behind me.”

Put together from papers found among notes Altan gave to his lawyers, and translated – superbly – into English by his friend Yasemin Congar, I Will Never See the World Again is deeply satisfying in form. It  is not Midnight Express; it is not From the House of the Dead, and it is not De Profundis. In a sense, it eclipses all these. It is a radiant celebration of the inner resources of human beings, above all those triggered by the imagination. Its account of the creative process is sublime, among the most perfectly expressed analyses of that perpetually elusive phenomenon.  And it is a triumph of the spirit. “You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here. Because, like all writers, I have magic,” says Altan in his final phrases. “I can pass through your walls with ease.” Yes: but enough is enough. He is still in prison. 80 Nobel Prize Winners have protested, unsuccessfully.  We must move heaven and earth to spring him. 

MARCH 2019
Four Weddings and A Funeral

Four Weddings and a Funeral - by Simon Callow for The Daily Mail

Some things you remember as if they were yesterday. One day in 1992, I was in way in an aeroplane to Manchester for the launch of my production of My Fair Lady. The producer of the show and I sat side by side and I pulled out a script I’d been sent; I had to read it by that night. I showed it to my producer: Four Weddings and a Funeral, it was called. It was written by Richard Curtis, already famous for Blackadder and Mr Bean. “I bet I’m the funeral,” I said, and plunged in. I emerged at the end of our brief flight a bit shaken, and not just because I was, indeed, the funeral. “It’s brilliant,” I said. “It’s a masterpiece.” It’s not often in 35 years of acting in films that I’ve had occasion to say that. 

First of all, it was funny, from the opening sequence of “F*ck!”s, to the last lines (“And do you think not being married to me might maybe be something you could consider doing for the rest of your life?”  “Do you?” “I do”), secondly, the characters were delightful, people you’d want to be friends with the moment you met them. Thirdly, the structure, so accurately expressed in its title, was masterful, as the gang of friends went forth in search of commitment. Then there was the sheer recklessness of bringing  the plot screeching to a halt with the death of one of the gang, only to recover itself with a final botched wedding and the deeply satisfying uniting of the adorable lead couple, albeit out of wedlock. Apart from that final detail, this is positively Shakespearean. Much Ado About Nothing similarly grinds to a halt halfway through with the apparent death of Beatrice’s pretty young cousin Hero. The whole mood of the play changes: revenge and grief engulf the play until finally, thanks to many improbable twists of plot, Hero – who has only been pretending to be dead – is  revealed to be alive after all, and the play returns to its sunny, joyful beginning. 

In the case of Four Weddings, there was a funeral slap bang in the middle of the film – mine. But it proved to be healing rather than divisive. Richard Curtis had stolen a march on Shakespeare, though in this case Gareth was definitely dead, killed by a Highland fling too far. But that in itself was remarkable, yet another reason for my grateful amazement at the quality of the script. Because Gareth was gay, openly, happily, exuberantly gay, a great big burly bearded man, his wrists far from limp, his esses unsibilant, his hips stable, and he was living in a very committed relationship with a gorgeous young man. He was excessive, but not excessively gay: he conformed to no stereotype, nor did his relationship with Matthew. They were individuals, attracted to each other physically and emotionally, who happened to be two men. It was a new type of relationship on film (or on stage, for that matter), and very like most of the relationships I myself had had, or the relationships of gay couples I knew. When Gareth died, it was shocking and awful, but there was no sense in which he was being punished for his sexual orientation: if anything, it was a Government Health Warning against the dangers of Scottish dancing. 

This was very striking, because 1992 was a very sombre year for gay people. AIDS was scything its way through our lives; the ravaged corpses of healthy, vigorous young men – our friends, our contemporaries – were piling up, and film and television and the theatre were beginning to take that into account, which was only right and proper. But the ancient association of homosexuality with disease was being given new currency, surrounding us with a depressing sense of doom. So the fact that Gareth – openly, shamelessly, gay – didn’t die of AIDS was a tremendously affirmative thing. In fact, the whole gorgeous screenplay existed in the shadow of AIDS insofar as it was driven by the compulsion of the characters to find life partners – nobody knew yet whether the condition was confined to homosexuals and drug users, and a new enthusiasm for monogamy was in the air. As a final bonus to this delicious but covertly radical film, after Gareth’s funeral Charles, the leading character, muses to his posh chum Tom, that the friends were all so busy trying to get hitched that they’d failed to notice that there was a true marriage right in their midst:  Gareth and Matthew’s.       

None of this extremely welcome stuff had even a whiff of political correctness about it, any more than was the circumstance of Charles’s brother David being profoundly deaf: it was simply, like Gareth and Matthew’s partnership, a fact of life. The script I held in my hand during that short hop to Manchester was pure gold: deliciously entertaining but true, through and through, and Gareth was an actor’s dream – a 20th century Sir Toby Belch, larger than life, but instantly recognisable. Everyone has known a Gareth. I knew him absolutely, I saw him, I could almost smell him. As soon as we were off the plane, I raced to the nearest phone box (no mobiles then), called my agent and shouted “YES YES YES” down the line, and so became the first person to be cast in the film. A deal was done, a pretty niggardly one: it was an ambitious independent film, and there was no expectation of attaching any stars. I would have cheerfully paid them to play Gareth; as it was, they threw in what seemed like a nugatory percentage point or two of any possible profit. It was a British Independent movie, so that meant zilch. I didn’t care; I’d be playing Gareth. 

And then fell the silence familiar to anyone involved in  film. Calls not returned,  the trail gone cold. This can mean almost anything or nothing, but from long and bitter experience one naturally assumes the worst, and indeed, in this case, it seemed all options were off. The film was cast, but they hadn’t raised the money, and the whole project went away.  I went into mourning for Gareth, not so much cut off in his prime as still-born, and got on with my life, moodily. Some six months later – and this is not common – came a call that we were in business after all: a bankable star had been found, in the shape of Andie Macdowell, and  before long we all found ourselves around a table in, slightly surreally, the Hampstead offices of Jim Henson’s Muppet series, to read the screenplay. I have always believed that the week we spent round that table was the making of the film. It quickly became a sort of symposium on the screenplay, under the feisty chairmanship of Mike Newell,  the director, with whom I had worked before on the superb but glum film The Good Father.   This large, generous, lolloping man is a world class bullshit detector, and creates an atmosphere which is both combative and joyous, challenging both the script and the actors – “Rubbish!”, he’ll cry, amiably – which is liberating and  invigorating. You have to fight your corner. No one felt in the least inhibited about saying what they had to say, whether it was obscure, inspired, obvious or just plain wrong. We became a large and unruly family in a  matter of hours, and each  of us found our characters round  that table, so much so that the famous photograph on the poster was taken just after these sessions, before we had shot a frame, and everyone is totally inside their part. 

I knew about half of my fellow actors – James Fleet (Tom) and I had done a television film together,  Charlotte Coleman (Scarlett) and I had mutual friends,  Hugh and I had, astonishingly, done 3 films together – astonishing, because although he had already starred in a somewhat niche American movie in which he played Chopin, he was still unknown to the larger audience. The first time we worked together he appeared in the small role of Lord Burlington in a film about Handel in which I played the  composer: I remember being arrested by his self-amused, sardonic presence, commanding the room though playing a small part. Then we were both in James Ivory’s masterful film Maurice, and in The Trials of Oz on the television he played Oz’s editor Richard Neville, with throwaway brilliance, while I, as John Mortimer, defended him foxily. Round the Muppets’ table, his dry and sometimes savage wit was revealed: his performance as Charles was acting, not being, which makes it all the more remarkable.

I didn’t know Kirsten Scott-Thomas or Andie, both of whom had, in very different ways, a fascinating, slightly veiled quality – Kirsten, who had been living and working in France, distinctly Gallic, Andie still audibly from Carolina in the Deep South of America. Nor did I know David Bower, the brilliant profoundly deaf actor playing Charles’s brother David, with whom Hugh had already been working, learning to sign. Most important, I suppose, from my point of view, was the casting of Matthew, Gareth’s partner. When I met John Hannah on that first day it was clear that no acting would be required on my part: his exquisite delicacy and charm and indeed beauty made Gareth’s attraction to him  entirely explicable; more challenging perhaps was why he would be attracted to Gareth, but that was his problem, not mine. From the beginning, though, it was never in doubt – unconditional love, tempered by light irony at Gareth’s excesses, streamed out of him. He  never expressed the slightest anxiety about playing a gay man, which in 1992 was a less common phenomenon than it is now, or indeed acting with a notoriously gay actor.  

Once we started filming, our agreeably rowdy table sessions were exchanged for the grind of the schedule.  Despite the relatively poverty of the budget and the attendant hardships – four or five of us to a car, the first being picked up at 4.30 in the morning, no overnight stays and no individual cars so you were stuck on the set from the crack of dawn till midnight – the shoot was entirely pleasurable. We would  sit around on the steps of each other’s caravans, Andie for all her glamour never happier than when hunkering down and sharing a glass of wine at the end of the day, Kirsten Scott-Thomas and Charlotte Coleman, polar opposites as people and as characters, becoming fast friends, John Hannah and I talking rather intensely about acting, David Bower, locked in passionately concentrated conversations, half-signed, half-spoken, all around the set. And when we weren’t  engaged in this ongoing party, we sat pleasantly occupied in our caravans. For my part, I wrote quite a lot of The Road To Xanadu, the first volume of my life of Orson Welles, in full padding and kilt, puffing away at the Café Crème cigars which  I had elected to smoke so as not to re-addict myself to cigarettes. In the event, I started smoking twenty-five of the irresistible little cigarillos a day.

The shooting  day I recall more than any other, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the day of my death, or rather Gareth’s death. That morning I had woken with a terrible sense of foreboding which I could not throw off, and even through all the madness of the Scottish dancing,  take after take of it, reeling and leaping and twisting and turning, to the extent that it seemed that no acting would be required for a heart attack, this cloud hovered over me. Not so much so that I wasn’t able to ask Richard and Mike if a) I might change Gareth’s opening line on first seeing the kilt-filled Scottish Baronial castle in which the reception takes place. “It’s Mac-beth,” Richard had written, “it’s bloody Macbeth,”, but I volunteered “It’s Brigadoon, it’s bloody Brigadoon” instead, and they bought it; and whether b) I could deliver the line “No, but I do have his fax number,” (in response to the American matron’s request for Oscar Wilde’s phone number), in a Morningside Edinburgh accent. This Mike had resisted – “not funny” – but stubbornly I did it at the rehearsal, and the assembled company fell about,  so “you win,” said Mike, and it must have succeeded to the extent that when anybody, flatteringly, does an imitation of me in the part, they do the whole thing with a Scottish accent, though in truth, winning was the last thing I or anyone else had in mind, except in the sense of winning through to the best possible film. Anyway, after filming the Brigadoon line, on to another orgy of Scottish dancing. Finally, well-coached by the on-set paramedic on how to have a heart-attack, I died, after several takes,  to everyone’s satisfaction, and suddenly felt re-born, which is just as well since I still had a number of pre-terminal scenes to film. These scenes have, to me, a curious joyful quality which stems from my sense of having  been reprieved. 

I suppose too, I must admit that the character of Gareth is very close to an aspect of me, the life-and-death of the party side of me, which is not quite as large a component of my nature as people seem to think (though I have been Gareth for whole weeks at a stretch in my own life). The fact that I’m still alive and Gareth isn’t is a token of the gap between us. But though Gareth gave me an instant recognisability pretty well anywhere in the world, and an affectionate place in people’s hearts, it made no serious impact on my career. Once again, I was despatched to Hollywood, and once again, I padded round the sanctified halls of the studios, meeting alarmingly young vice-Presidents, all of whom greeted me with the reverence due to someone who has been associated with a Huge Hit, and an unpredicted one at that.  They spoke to me with deep deference, and when they adverted to Hugh, or Richard, or Mike, their voices hushed. Like alchemists of yore, they were trying to figure out this deep puzzle, to identify the transforming element that had turned a mere script into pure gold. They shook the film, they turned it upside down, they looked at it through squinting eyes, and in the end they  proclaimed the answer: it was Hugh. Hugh! Hugh had made it into a hit. Massive relief ensued, and they proceeded to hurl large sums of money at him, setting him up with his own company, offering him anything he liked. Much as they had enjoyed talking to me – really – they knew for sure that I wasn’t the answer. And as they sat beaming at me, it was all too clear that they were thinking “what do we have for fat bearded men in kilts?” The fact that the man sitting opposite them was neither fat, nor bearded, not kilted did not suggest to them that I might be good for anything else. They were looking for the sequel to Gareth: Gareth II. But they never found it.



Review of The Queen of Spades at the Royal Opera House

Simon review's The Queen of Spades at the Royal Opera House

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Review of Kat'a Kabanova at the Royal Opera House

Simon review's Kát’a Kabanova at the Royal Opera House

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A Song at Twilight

Simon is going on tour with Jane Asher in the play A Song at Twilight. The tour will start in Theatre Royal Bath in February 2019.

World famous author Sir Hugo Latymer is growing old, rude and haughty. In the private suite of a lakeside hotel where he lives, he is attended to by his long-suffering wife and former secretary, Hilde, and Felix, a handsome young waiter. Here he nervously awaits the arrival of an old flame, actress Carlotta Gray, with whom he enjoyed a two year love affair more than forty years ago. What can she possibly want now? Revenge for his uncharitable characterisation of her in his recent autobiography? Money, to compensate for a second-rate acting career in the States? But it turns out Carlotta is writing her own memoir, and wants something much more significant than cash…

Bittersweet, hugely entertaining and full of sharp wit and repartee, A Song at Twilightis about harbouring secrets and regretting missed opportunities. Noël Coward himself made his farewell stage appearance playing the semi-autobiographical role of Sir Hugo in the West End production of the play in 1966.

Simon Callow is an acclaimed actor, writer and director, best-known for the films Amadeus, Four Weddings and Funeral, A Room With A View and Shakespeare in Love. Recent stage work includes Equus, Waiting For Godot, Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford, and he starred in Bath in Noël Coward’s Present Laughter.

Jane Asher is one of the UK’s most accomplished actresses. Her recent stage credits include Great Expectations, An American in Paris, Pride and Prejudice, Charley’s Aunt and Moon Tiger. Her TV shows and films include Alfie, The Mistress, Dancing on the Edge, Holby City and The Old Guys.

w/c 11 & 18 February Theatre Royal Bath

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w/c 25 February Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

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w/c 4 March Cambridge Arts Theatre

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w/c 11 March Theatre Royal Windsor

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w/c 18 March Rose Theatre Kingston

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w/c 25 March Malvern Festival Theatre

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w/c 1 April Eastbourne Devonshire Park

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w/c 8 April Theatre Royal Norwich

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w/c 15 April tbc


I spoke once to a distinguished dramatist who was hesitating about writing his first novel. “I hate novels,” he said. “All those descriptions.” He went on to write a very good novel which, in the tradition of, say, Ivy Compton-Burnett, consisted largely of dialogue. Clearly Literary Landscapes will not be for him. It is to the rest of us, who cherish “the descriptions,” which create and embody the world of the novel, that it is addressed.  The present volume is the terrestrial counterpart of the highly successful Literary Wonderlands, celebrating the fantastical; offering short essays on over seventy novels,  it is rooted, its editor John Sutherland tells us, in the exploration of “thereness” and the accompanying “fluidities and meltingness that places are subject to.” The selection follows three criteria:  each book must conjure a land that exists or has existed; the books must be  rooted in historical time as well as landscape; and in them place must always  always more than setting.

The collection is divided into four chronological sections, from the 19th century romantics to the modernist period, from post-war panoramas to contemporary geographies. It is not entirely clear why the survey should start in the 19th century –   are Fielding’s or Smollett’s landscapes less vivid than those of their successors? Or Goethe’s? Or Rétif de la Brettone’s? To say nothing of Rabelais. But its range is nonetheless remarkable, considering that it deals largely with fiction and avoids travel writing altogether, however distinguished its literary pedigree. It takes in not only the self-selecting great depicters of place – Dickens and Balzac, Hardy and Joyce – but Manzoni, Strindberg, Jorge Amado, Chinua Achebe, the to-me-unknown Dutch writer Gerard Reve and his Norwegian confrère Tarji Vesaas, a whole swathe of global writers from Port of Spain, New Zealand, Kars, Henan Province, Kolkota, and the Amazon Rainforest, as well as Winnie-the-Pooh, Anne of Green Gables  and the not entirely respectable Françoise Sagan and Grace Metalious (of Peyton Place fame).

The contributions are written by some 45 different essayists – academics, reviewers, journalists, poets, translators, novelists, none of them household names. Nor are they likely to become household names since, oddly, they are not identified in the text, not even by initials: to find out who wrote what, you need to go to the alphabetical list of contributors at the back of the book and puzzle it out. Inevitably, the contributions vary in their success, attempting as they do thumbnail sketches of the author and her or his world as well as the precise nature of their relationship to the landscapes they create: the pieces on Persuasion and le Père Goriot, for example, are only mildly stimulating, but the one on Bleak House (by Nicholas Lezard) brilliantly evokes Dickens’s  charnel house London and his hallucinatory metaphorical transformation of what he has seen. The Wuthering Heights entry  (by Sutherland, as it happens) is full of illuminations: “Heathcliff,” he writes, “seems never to have been born of woman but to have been generated by the landscape in its cruellest moments.” But by its end, the novel has encompassed “the rich landscape in its possible tenderness as well as its violent excess…”

This piece is followed in the book by a  reproduction, spread over two pages, of an uncharacteristic, unpeopled Lowry, Wuthering Heights, from 1942,  illustrating, despite its essentially peaceful tone, the epic loneliness of the landscape. The picture thus adds a harmonic to the novel, which is where the book really comes into its own.  Designed by Jim Tierney, with text designed by Peter Ross,  it is, as Sutherland perhaps  immodestly claims, a sumptuous book, in which the juxtaposition of text and images is a great part of its impact.  The Age of Innocence piece is illustrated with a stunning Currier and Ives lithograph of New York City in 1870 which gives us at a stroke the circumscribed scope of the social world of Wharton’s characters; Kirchner’s extraordinary Davos in Winter, painted while he was in Switzerland to improve his health, perfectly complements W B Gooderham’s insights about The Magic Mountain. Perhaps most impressive, Strindberg’s untypically realistic island novel The People of Hemsö is accompanied by his own stupendous painting of the sea against which  the protagonist struggles and, in the end, loses.

Especially in its later entries, Literary Landscapes spreads its net wider and wider, introducing me, at any rate, to a number of obviously remarkable writers –  Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners ((1956) with its depiction of London “as an exhausting, beguiling beast” (Kate McNaughton)  and Miguel Bonnefoy’s Black Sugar, published only last year, which evokes the Venezuelan rainforest, yielding up “the spirit and culture of…pura vida,” according to Drew Smith. “In that sense it speaks for a continent.” As Sutherland correctly remarks, “no one reading this…book will be tempted to think of literary landscape as mere background.” And it is hard to think of any lover of fiction who would not to be beguiled by its beauty and frequent shafts of insight.


This is the Foreword I wrote to a book sculptures by the great theatre designer, who died last week, aged 94.

It is one of the abiding regrets of my career in the theatre that I never got to work with Ralph Koltai, either as actor or as director. I so very nearly did, which only makes it worse: some twenty years ago, an eccentric American would-be impresario had assembled a team of all the talents to put The Great Gatsby on stage as a musical. The score was to be written by the late Richard Rodney Bennett, the lyrics by the bittersweet poet Fran Landesman, the book would be by Jeremy Brooks of the RSC and Ralph was to design it. I would preside over this brilliant gang as director. But it was not to be. After our first and only meeting, the madcap producer systematically dismantled the team. I forget who was the first to go, but when Richard faxed to say he’d been given the push, I immediately withdrew; the whole thing collapsed not long after, when it transpired that the company didn’t have the rights. And so I missed my chance to work with Ralph, whose work I had keenly followed since the mid-1960’s, and whom I had known socially for a decade.

The work had electrified me from the moment I first clapped eyes on it as a teenaged theatre buff and opera lover. That most uncompromising of works, Janáček’s From the House of the Dead at Sadlers Wells, was rendered all the more terrifying and intense by the brutal, structural starkness of the setting. It scarcely seemed possible that the As You Like It at the National Theatre two years later was the work of the same designer: light, airy, playful. The  production was famously all-male, but there was nothing remotely camp about it – the ambivalence was profound, embracing the polymorphous perversity of the 60s,  and realised by Koltai in the materials and shapes of the period, above all in a radiant use of plastic – transparent poles suspended in abstract cloud-like forms, evoking forests and storms and  dapped light. It was hip and timeless all at once, a dream-world where all the varieties of love could thrive, effecting an absolute congruity between the modern world of 1967 and that of the first Elizabeth. Soon Koltai was embarking on the massive sprawling epic that Shaw mistakenly thought of as his masterpiece, Back to Methuselah, showing his range, in a kind of kaleidoscope of design idioms, realism, naturalism, expressionism, but within this highly structured sense of space that I was beginning to see  was at the centre of his approach: large objects creating a particular dynamic in relation to each other which both defines the playing space and also articulates the inner life of the piece in question. Added to this was a tremendously advanced sense of texture – the elements out of which  the design was created were  startlingly present, inescapable, in fact – plastic, metal, stone.

All of this came together overwhelmingly in The Ring of the Nibelungs at the London Coliseum for the newly named English National Opera, for which Koltai created an vocabulary that incorporated many elements of what we had come to understand as his style, but newly-minted to bring Wagner’s mythic world into the twentieth century, not by means of contemporary references, but in textures, materials, line. Wotan’s world as summoned up by Koltai was entirely true to its deep roots in the Nordic  imagination but which could never have appeared on any stage until the present moment.

And that is why I was so keen to work on The Great Gatsby with  Ralph. Fitzgerald, like Wagner, had created a defining myth, a story that distilled the quintessence of his nation’s experience. Ralph would effortlessly evoke surface the world of the United States in 1920’s but at the same time he would root out its underpinnings, the skeleton, of that society, and make us sense the spine beneath the skin. And he would do it in a form, in a visual and a physical language, which was of our world, now, today – not a recreation: a creation. Well, we shall never know what he might have created. We still might work together, he and I – at the age of 90 he is still designing for the theatre; three productions in a row this year alone. But he spends a great deal of his time nowadays making the sculptures which this book are all about. And perhaps you, like me, will be struck by how theatrically suggestive they are, these sculptures. I could stage productions on almost any of them. And it occurs to me that the opposite is true: his designs could all be sculptures. And that is what Ralph Koltai has brought to the theatre – a masterful shaping of his raw materials into significant form. His sculptures are lonely, unpopulated; his designs teem with life, offering  points of high expressive possibility to the human form. But underneath both expressions of what is in effect the same impulse is  an overwhelming sense of structure without which any work of art is flaccid. Koltai the sculptor and Koltai the designer possess an extraordinary sense of what lies behind the surface which makes him one of the supreme exponents, on the stage or in the studio, of the theatre of the soul.

Simon Callow May 2014  

The Wind in the Willows

A somewhat  longer version of the review of Matthew Dennison’s Eternal Boy that appeared in the Sunday Times on Sunday 28th October 2018.


The hardy perennials of British publishing are the so-called children’s classics, whose appeal far outlasts childhood; grown men and women regularly revert to them, surprising their offspring or their offspring’s offspring by succumbing to deep waves of emotion when re-reading them. The authors of the best-loved of these fantasias, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, though radically different from each other, were both in the grip of an obsession with childhood which is more than a little disturbing in its refusal to engage with the adult world; and Kenneth Grahame, it is clear from Matthew Dennison’s carefully meditated but curiously upsetting new biography of the author of The Wind in the Willows, is a perhaps even more extreme member of this odd fraternity.

Like James Barrie, Grahame was a Scot; his vivacious mother died when he was five and his father, a helpless alcoholic, thereupon absented himself from his family, escaping to France, when Grahame and his siblings fell into the hands of their very severe grandma, who transferred them down south to the rural idyll of Cookham Dean, in Berkshire. There they lived in a splendid rambling house called The Mount, filled with bolt-holes into which young Kenneth could escape – like father, like son – from unattractive reality. Even more enticing was the river, offering limitless opportunities for personal fantasy. Add to this a diet of adventure stories, of “kingdoms yet to discover and golden realms that await their Marco Polo…shimmering with barbaric pearl and gold”, and Grahame was perfectly insulated against reality, from which he could at any time exit into what he later described as “a fourth dimension…side by side with the other life…always there, always handy to step into.”

It made him a curiously self-sufficient boy, absorbed in his paints and crayons, expecting very little from those around him, which, given their dullness and rigidity was a sensible approach: Dickens similarly escaped from his circumstances into the One Thousand and One Nights, though unlike Dickens, Grahame never diverged from his conviction that his inner fantasies were altogether superior to real life, whose politics and passions offered, he said, but “pale phantasms”. He was thus cocooned against what Dennison describes as his “fragmented, peripatetic, orphaned and exiled childhood”; The Mount, from which the family soon moved, became a dreamland, his time there a Golden Age, and he painlessly endured what might have been terrible blows for anyone else: the death of a favourite brother, the harsh, unimaginative prescriptions of his surrogate parents (“the Olympians,” as he later, with bitter irony, designated them), a disastrous reunion with his alcoholically incapacitated father, being snatched out of his school and – worst of all – being put to work at 16 instead of going to Oxford, for which his intelligence and diligence would have been the just reward.

And so he found himself, barely out of short trousers, work-ing as a gentleman clerk – “a pale-faced quill-driver”, as he put it – at the Bank of England, where he was to remain for nearly thirty years, rising to be its Secretary, all the while pursuing a modestly productive side-line in writing, contributing essays and stories to reviews and magazines and even the subsequently notorious Yellow Book. Their heroes and heroines were a family of parentless children, embattled by absurd, capricious and stupid adults. Eventually, these pieces and others were gathered into collections with expressive titles – Pagan Papers, The Golden Age, Dream Days – which became immensely popular, on both sides of the Atlantic, including the future US president Theodore Roosevelt, with whom Grahame became a regular correspondent.

The books were much admired: Swinburne’s review described The Golden Age as “well nigh too praiseworthy for praise.” It was one of only two English-language books on Kaiser Wilhelm II’s yacht, the other being the Bible. Grahame’s graceful, slightly whimsical prose, his infectious celebration of his child heroes and heroines, along with his passive aggressive relationship to the grown-up world struck a chord in the increasingly troubled Victorian fin-de-siècle.

He was by now a regular guest at all the best gatherings, a dreamy, charming figure, who seemed, according to one sharp-eyed observer, to be “a man who had not yet become quite accustomed to the discovery that was no longer a child.” Already in his late thirties, he offered no evidence whatever of any interest in the opposite sex, or indeed any. He shared living quarters with various men of his own age, waited on by a housekeeper; they generally peeled off in due course to get married. He fell in with the magnificently flamboyant Frederick Furnivall, philosopher, lexicographer, oarsman, actor and director, and became part of the New Shakespeare Society. But the notoriety that surrounded their revival of Shelley’s The Cenci, in which he appeared, sent him scurrying off to Italy, away from any manifestation of controversy or passion. He remained a member of the Society, on the Board, but off the boards.

Such minor upheavals aside, he seemed perfectly content, feeding off his own inner life, occasionally putting his private Eden into words. But he was a fine figure of a man, and eminently marriageable, so despite the absence of the slightest manifestation of sexual curiosity on his part, various women made a tilt at him, receiving, on the whole short shrift. The admittedly rather terrifying advances of Evelyn Sharp – woman red in tooth and claw – were bluntly rebuffed: he told her that she reminded him of “a Spanish bull-fight somehow – a flash of white horns, hot muzzles, a streak of red, a jump, a shout – or a St Moritz toboggan run.” Finally, after a long campaign of attrition, Elspeth Thomas succeeded in snaring him. Their endlessly protracted courtship, violently opposed by their families on both sides, excruciating to read about since they communicated in a sort of Cockney baby-talk, ended with them getting rather glumly spliced in Cornwall; she decided not even to wear the wedding dress she had bought at great expense, instead showing up in an old muslin day dress with a daisy chain round her neck. The wedding party consisted of Kenneth’s chums, with their shared tastes, as he put it, of “boats, Bohemianism, Burgundy, tramps, travel, books and pictures.” Dennison drily adds: “he might have added bachelordom”; as if to underline the primacy of escapism, Grahame’s best man was his cousin Anthony Hope, the author of The Prisoner of Zenda.

The marriage, Dennison baldly states, was “a disaster,” two people trapped in a situation that satisfied neither, with, in this case, no discernible hope of escape. What little sex there was between them resulted in a child, Alistair, born prematurely and traumatically for Elspeth. He was blind in one eye; the other was part-sighted. His parents chose to endow him with extraordinary qualities of brilliance and charm; in truth he was a bully and a prig, beating up small girls when he met them and taunting the servants. The story of Elspeth and Kenneth’s marriage is depressing; but Dennison’s account of their child’s life is deeply upsetting. For all their doting on him, they farmed him out to various schools, where he did appallingly, dismissed from both Rugby and Eton. They, meanwhile, went on long foreign holidays. “I hear that you have taken advantage of my absence to make a bolt for Paris ,” he wrote to them, “and I have no doubt that before long you will be in Gay Paris or Monte Carlo. I am at present staying in a little island known as England, of which you may have heard.” When war broke out, he took riding lessons, despite his deteriorating eye-sight, but there was no chance of him being allowed to enlist. He began undergraduate studies at Christ’s Church, Oxford, which only resulted in further failure and more disappointment. One night he took himself off to the railway lines near the Port Meadow and lay down on them; he was instantly decapitated. His parents erected a sadly self-deluding headstone on his grave which celebrated his “noble ideals, steadfast purpose and rare promise.”

He has his monument, though. It was to Alistair, or Mouse, as he was known from infancy, that Grahame told the stories that became The Wind in the Willows. Having been let go by the Bank some five years after the startling incident in which he was shot at three times – the robber missed each time – Grahame swapped the bank for the riverbank, embarking on a new venture, in which he invokes an animal world in a pocket Odyssey. The book was slow to find a publisher, and slow to find a readership, but once it had, it exercised a grip on readers’ imaginations that has never slackened. In the wake of Mouse’s death, the Grahames left the country for over four years. Mostly they stayed in Rome, wandering, wraith-like, from monument to monument, gallery to gallery, till they knew them all by heart. Back in England, they lived the life of the gentry; he edited some books of poetry, but mostly his focus was on his inner life, and his wine cellar. He died suddenly in bed, a quarter of a century after he wrote his masterpiece.

Dennison, in his finely written book with its bedizened vocabulary (when did you last encounter the words carmilla or tracaserries?) has dug deep into some of the complex and painful truths that underpin The Wind in the Willows and which have ensured its resonance. It is, he says, “an aggressively conservative book and its targets include socialism and any form of faddishness or craving for novelty.” It is that, too; but at core, despite adventures and crises, it celebrates a quintessentially English dolce far niente, a refusal of the real, a quiescence that is almost mystical. As such it embodies the odd, half-life lived by its author, so elegantly and penetratingly described by Dennison, perhaps the most haunting of whose revelations is that the figure of Toad was inspired by little Alistair, the lost child of lost parents.

Dame Janet Baker in Conversation with Simon Callow

Dame Janet Baker, widely regarded as one of the greatest singers of all time, was joined by Simon on stage at Wigmore Hall on Sunday 30th September 2018 for a rare interview about her life in music, and the voices and people who inspired her remarkable career.

Watch the live stream here

A Christmas Carol

Following critically acclaimed, sold-out theatre seasons in 2011, 2012 and again in 2016, Simon returns to wow audiences with this tour de force performance, reimagined especially for cinema. A Christmas must see for one night only!

11 December 2018

In UK Cinemas

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Simon Callow to Return in A Christmas Carol in London

Following previous runs in 2012, 2013 and 2016, Simon will reprise his role in A Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre for a strictly-limited 5-week season this Christmas.

Using Dickens’ adaptation of the story from his own public performances, Simon has worked with director-designer Tom Cairns to produce a one-man production of the classic Christmas tale.

8 December 2018 - 12 January 2019

Arts Theatre

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Simon Callow at The Highgate International Chamber Music Festival

Simon will be reading poetry at a concert with some fabulously gifted young musicians as part of the Highgate International Chamber Music Festival. There will be a wonderful programme of Purcell, Debussy and Elgar, and Simon will be reading poems by local poets - George Eliot, A E Housman and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

7:30pm on Thursday 22nd November 2018

St Anne's Church, Highgate

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Simon Narrates Berlioz programme at Carnegie Hall

Simon will be narrating an all Berlioz programme of Symphonie fantastique and Lélio played by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

Obsession, madness, murder, and redemption are portrayed in the richly Romantic music—performed on period instruments—of Berlioz. His Symphonie fantastique is a phantasmagoric tale that depicts an opium overdose, nightmares of murder, a guillotine execution, and a terrifying Witches’ Sabbath. Berlioz called his rarely heard Lélio a “conclusion and complement” to the Symphonie fantastiqueLélio uses spoken narration, vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra—including two pianists performing on one instrument—to tell of the Symphonie hero’s awaking from the nightmare, his musings on art and criticism, and his ultimate triumph as a composer.

8pm on Monday 15th October 2018

Carnegie Hall, New York

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Tenn's Best Friend

The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin

edited by Peggy L. Fox and Thomas Keith

reviewed by Simon Callow for The New York Review of Books

The Luck of Friendship ( “Four Decades of One of the Most Unlikely Friendships in American Literature,” as Peggy L. Fox’s introduction splendidly puts it) is a most welcome addition, not simply because Williams was a world-class correspondent, but because it reveals an aspect of him that is rarely examined: his life as a working writer. Moreover, his epistolary partner, the publisher James Laughlin, was, in his very different way, also a titan—an unusually quiet one, to be sure, but unquestionably one of the central figures of American letters of the last century.

Read more here

Simon Prepares to Narrate a Maria Callas Stage Show and Speaks on Love and Loss

As he prepares to narrate a Maria Callas stage show, Simon Callow spoke to Donal Lynch at about grief, love, marriage and why he wears Micheal Mac Liammoir's ring.

8:00pm on Friday 14th September 2018

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin

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JUNE 2018
What Would Shakespeare Have Made of Donald Trump?

Read Simon's review that he wrote for The New York Times

Read the review here

MAY 2018
Opera Wire asks Simon Q & A on Being Wagner

Next to William Shakespeare, Richard Wagner is one of the most written about figures in human history. His enigmatic qualities coupled with his unquestionable genius make him someone who fascinates as much as he bewilders and antagonizes. Volumes have been written about the composer from virtually every conceivable angle, whether it be his family, his adventures, his psychology, his philosophy, his art, etc.

And yet in recent months, yet another work was added to the massive and growing oeuvre surrounding the German master. But Simon’s “Being Wagner” is no superficial look at the titan. It narrates his story from an amusing perspective, keeping the reader engaged through entertaining and ironic tone that never wavers. Those who have never read about Wagner will find this a perfect introduction while those who have Wagner books lining every one of their bookstands will still find the flavor of Simon’s writing to be incisive and ever-exploratory.

OperaWire recently spoke to Simon about his interest in writing the biography and the unique insights he acquired from the gargantuan task.

Read all the Q & A  here

MAY 2018
Simon in De Profundis at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Simon will be performing Oscar Wilde’s searing meditation on his life, in the form of a devastating letter of reproach to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas - ‘Bosie’. 

Imprisoned in Reading Gaol and forbidden from writing works of fiction, Wilde was permitted to write – though not to send – the bitter and terrible diatribe that is also a love letter which was eventually published as De Profundis. 

Adapted by Tony Award winner, Frank McGuinness, and directed by Mark Rosenblatt. 

12.30pm on 02 - 26 August 2018

Assembly Rooms - Music Hall, Edinburgh

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MAY 2018
The Wind in the Willows

Join Simon and the Philharmonia Orchestra for the adventures of four timeless animal characters in this new family adaption, for narrator and orchestra, of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved classic tale, The Wind in the Willows. Follow our four friends – Ratty, Mole, wise old Mr Badger and the irrepressible Toad of Toad Hall – as they mess about in boats, get lost in the wild wood and battle to regain Toad Hall from the weasels.

These adventures are brought to life by narrator Simon Callow, whose narration is animated by all the colours of the orchestra, composed by Richard Birchall for the players from the Philharmonia Orchestra.

2pm & 4pm on Sunday 17 June 2018

Hall One, Kings Place

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MAY 2018
The Letters of Peggy Ramsay: Play Agent

Peggy Ramsay (1908-1991) was the foremost play agent of her time. Her list of clients including Alan Ayckbourn, Robert Bolt, Caryl Churchill, Joe Orton, Howard Brenton and many more, shows her to have been at the centre of British playwriting for several generations from the late 1950s on.

Join Simon Callow, Christopher Hampton, Maureen Lipman and Colin Chambers to discuss and read some of Peggy Ramsay’s letters to her remarkable array of clients; her letter writing was notorious, marked by searing candour, both a wondrous motivation and an unforgiving scrutiny to be feared.

Revelations in the book of her letters Peggy to Her Playwrights: The Letters of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent uncover the fascinating battles behind the scenes of some of the 20th century’s most important playwrights.

‘Peggy judged by the most exalted standards and lashed her writers when they failed to meet them. Her force of personality made her well-nigh irresistible. The letters she wrote to her writers and to producers are extraordinary documents, filled with all these qualities, and indiscreet, blasphemous and saucy to boot.’ – Simon Callow

6pm on Wednesday 30 May 2018

National Theatre

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MAY 2018
Coventry Cathedral to Host War Horse: The Story in Concert

A spectacular performance of War Horse will be held at Coventry Cathedral as part of BBC Biggest Weekend.

War Horse: The Story in Concert will be held at Coventry Cathedral on Friday May 18, in the centenary year marking the end of the First World War.

With guest narrators including Simon Callow, it tells the emotionally-charged story of Joey, the young farm horse who finds himself taken from the calm of the English countryside and thrust into the horrors of the Western Front’s battlefields.

This performance features Adrian Sutton’s acclaimed score, composed originally for the National Theatre’s production of Michael Morpurgo’s tale.

7pm on Friday 18th May 2018

Coventry Cathedral

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Simon Appointed as Patron of The Dickens Fellowship

The Dickens Fellowship have announced that Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes and Mark Dickens have been appointed as Patrons of the Fellowship.  All three are well known for their love of Charles Dickens and the work they have done on behalf of the Charles Dickens Museum. 

 For more information see more here

Simon Performs A Tale of Two Cities By Charles Dickens

An Audible Exclusive production revisits one of Dickens’ most unique and popular novels: A Tale of Two Cities. In Dickens’ driving narrative we see many themes that permeate life today, as well as characters who provide a window into the past. This, coupled with Simon’s expert narration, is a treat for those new to Dickens and lifelong fans alike. The audiobook features an exclusive introduction written by Simon, whose knowledge and passion for Dickens’ shines through.

See more here

The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood And Don Bachardy

Acclaimed stage and screen actors Simon Callow and Alan Cumming, together with writer and scholar Katherine Bucknell, enliven the emotional correspondence of the two men, who shared their love through letters while daring to be openly gay in conservative mid-century Hollywood. 

David Hockney's 1968 portrait of the pair—which Callow and Cumming recreate—provides the inspiration for this loving tribute to two extraordinary men.

7.00pm on Tuesday 13th February 2018

The Met Fifth Avenue, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028

Read more here

Simon Elected BMI President 2018

It was announced at the Annual General Meeting of The Birmingham & Midland Institute that Simon was elected BMI President for 2018.

This presidency is particularly appropriate in light of Simon’s readings of Charles Dickens’ work, with Dickens himself having served as BMI President in 1869.

Image credit:

Read more here

The Emperor Robeson | By Simon Callow | The New York Review of Books

Beinecke Library, Yale University/Van Vechten Trust

Paul Robeson as Othello, 1944; photograph by Carl Van Vechten

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, Paul Robeson was much in evidence, on records, on the radio, on television. His name was haloed with the sort of respect accorded to few performers. The astonishing voice that, like the Mississippi in the most famous number in his repertory, just kept rolling along, seemed to carry within it an inherent sense of truth. There was no artifice; there were no vocal tricks; nothing came between the listener and the song. It commanded effortless attention; perfectly focused, it came from a very deep place, not just in the larynx, but in the experience of what it is to be human. In this, Robeson resembled the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier: both seemed less trained musicians than natural phenomena.

The spirituals Robeson had been instrumental in discovering for a wider audience were not simply communal songs of love and life and death but the urgent cries of a captive people yearning for a better, a juster life. These songs, rooted in the past, expressed a present reality in the lives of twentieth-century American black people, citizens of the most powerful nation on earth but oppressed and routinely humiliated on a daily basis. When Robeson sang the refrain of “Go Down Moses”—“Let my people go!”—it had nothing to do with consolation or comfort: it was an urgent demand. And in the Britain in which I grew up, he was deeply admired for it. For us, he was the noble representative, the beau idéal, of his race: physically magnificent, finely spoken, fiercely intelligent, charismatic but not at all threatening.

At some point in the 1960s, he faded from our view. Disgusted with America’s failure to address his passionate demands for his people, he had gone to Moscow, endorsing the Soviet regime. Meanwhile, a new generation of black militants, fierce demagogues, had become prominent, and suddenly Robeson seemed very old-fashioned. There were no more television reruns of his most famous movies, Sanders of the River (1935) and The Proud Valley (1940); his music was rarely heard. When news of his death came in 1976, there was surprise that he was still alive. And now, it is hard to find anyone under fifty who has the slightest idea who he is, or what he was, which is astonishing—as a singer, of course, and, especially in Proud Valley, as an actor, his work is of the highest order. But his significance as an emblematic figure is even greater, crucial to an understanding of the American twentieth century.

Robeson was born in the last years of the nineteenth century, to a father who had been a slave and at the time of the Civil War had fled to the North, to the town of Princeton, New Jersey, eventually putting himself through college and becoming a Presbyterian minister. He drummed his own fierce determination and rigorous work ethic into his children, especially Paul, who was a model pupil. Studious, athletic, artistically gifted, he was an all-around sportsman, sang in the school choir, and played Othello at the age of sixteen. At Rutgers University, despite vicious opposition from aggressive white teammates, he became an outstanding football player; he graduated with distinction. He then studied law, first at NYUand then Columbia. On graduation, he was marked out for great things, tipped as a possible future governor of New Jersey, but he gave up the law almost immediately after a stenographer refused to take dictation “from a nigger.” Instead he threw himself into the vibrant artistic life of Harlem at the height of its Renaissance, appearing in plays by Eugene O’Neill, giving concerts of African-American music, and occasionally playing professional football; he was spoken of by Walter Camp as the greatest end ever.

His fame spread with startling speed; within a couple of years, he was lionized on both sides of the Atlantic. From an early age, he was perceived as almost literally iconic. His stupendous physique seemed to demand heroic embodiment, and he was frequently photographed and sculpted, as often as not naked; the frontispiece of the first of many books about him—Paul Robeson: Negro (1930), by his wife, Eslanda (Essie)—shows Jacob Epstein’s famous bust of him. He was the black star everyone had been waiting for, the acceptable face of negritude.

His appearances in England were especially warmly received: he was seen onstage in The Emperor JonesShow Boat, and, most daringly, as Othello. His singing voice was extensively broadcast by the BBC, and he made films; by 1938 he was one of the most popular film stars in Britain. Swanning around in the most elegant circles, hobnobbing on equal terms with painters, poets, philosophers, and politicians, he felt exhilarated by England’s apparent lack of racial prejudice. He bought himself a splendid house, threw parties at which one simply had to be seen, and engaged in a series of liaisons with English women under his wife’s nose.

He had not completely given in to the adoration, though. All the while, he was being quietly radicalized. He consorted with left-wing thinkers and young firebrands, like Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, bent on overthrowing colonial rule. Touring Europe, drawing crowds of tens of thousands to his concerts, he was stirred by his audiences’ response to his music, and became interested in theirs. He was, he said, a folk singer, not an art singer; folk music, he declared, was universal, the living proof of the community of mankind. He absorbed his audience’s songs into his repertory, whenever possible in the original language; enrolling in the philology department of the School of Oriental and African Languages at London University, he began a study of African languages.

His increasing awareness of left-wing ideology showed in his choice of work—in London he played the leading role in Stevedore, a play that directly addressed racism—but also inexorably led him to Moscow in 1934. Russia grasped him to its collective bosom; audiences went mad for him, Sergei Eisenstein wanted to make a film with him as Jean-Christophe, emperor of Haiti. He was overwhelmed, declaring that for the first time in his life he felt himself to be “not a Negro but a human being”; he placed his young son in a Russian school. Fired by a sense of the coming battle to be fought, he went to Spain, then in the throes of the civil war. He sang for the Republican forces and was received rapturously, as he was wherever he went, except in Hitler’s Germany, through which he passed rapidly and uncomfortably, narrowly avoiding confrontation with Nazi storm troopers. In his speeches, he increasingly framed the struggle for racial equality as a war on fascism. In the run-up to World War II, Robeson became less of an artist, more of a moral force; less an American, more a world figure.

But when Hitler invaded Poland and the war in Europe was finally engaged, he returned to America, pledging to support the fight for democratic freedom. He saw American participation in the war as a tremendous opportunity to reshape the whole of American life and, above all, to transform the position of black people within the nation. His fame and influence rose to extraordinary heights, and after America joined the war, his endorsement of its ally the Soviet Union proved very useful.

In 1943, he reprised his Othello on Broadway, the first time an amorously involved black man and white woman had ever been shown on stage there; to this day the production holds the record for the longest run of any nonmusical Shakespeare play on Broadway, and it toured the land to strictly nonsegregated audiences. The following year, Robeson’s forty-sixth birthday was marked with a grand gala, attended by over 12,000 people; 4,000 had to be turned away. The playwright Marc Connelly spoke, describing Robeson as the representative of “a highly desirable tomorrow which, by some lucky accident, we are privileged to appreciate today.” He was the man of the future; America was going to change.

Or so it seemed for a brief moment. The dream was almost immediately shattered when black GIs returning from the war were subjected to terrifying outbursts of violence from white racists determined to make it clear that nothing had changed. After a murderous attack on four African-Americans in Georgia, an incandescent Robeson, at the head of a march of three thousand delegates, had a meeting with the president, Harry S. Truman, in the course of which he demanded “an American crusade against lynching.” Truman coolly observed that the time was not right. Robeson warned him that the temper of the black population was dangerously eruptive. Truman, taking this as a threat, stood up; the meeting was over. Asked by a journalist outside the White House whether it wouldn’t be finer when confronted with racist brutality to turn the other cheek, Robeson replied, “If a lyncher hit me on one cheek, I’d tear his head off before he hit me on the other one.” The chips were down.

From that moment on, the government moved to discredit Robeson at every turn; it blocked his employment prospects, after which he turned to foreign touring, not hesitating to state his views whenever he could. At the Soviet-backed World Peace Council, he spoke against the belligerence of the United States, describing it as fascist; these remarks caused outrage at home, as did his later comments at the Paris Peace Congress, at which he said: “We in America do not forget that it was on the backs of the white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of blacks that the wealth of America was built. And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone.” These comments provoked denunciations from all sides—not least from the black press and his former comrades-in-arms in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, anxious not to undo the steady progress they felt they had been making. Robeson’s universal approbation turned overnight into nearly universal condemnation.

When he spoke in public in America, the meetings were often broken up by protesters armed with rocks, stones, and knives, chanting “We’re Hitler’s boys” and “God bless Hitler.” At a meeting in Peekskill, New York, Robeson narrowly escaped with his life. He now found himself subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where, refusing to state whether he was a member of the Communist Party, he turned the tables on the interrogator who questioned why he had not stayed in the Soviet Union. “Because my father was a slave and my people died to build this country,” replied Robeson. “I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it.”

Before long, his passport was confiscated (a move, astonishingly, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union). Robeson was now effectively imprisoned in his own country, where he found it virtually impossible to earn a living because of FBI threats to theaters that might have hired him. But he could not be silenced: from time to time he would go into a studio and broadcast talks and concerts that were relayed live to vast crowds across the ocean. Through all of this, he kept up his criticism of the government’s racial policies, but also, despite mounting evidence of the Terror in Russia under Stalin and the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, stubbornly maintained his unqualified admiration of the Soviet Union and what he insisted was its essentially benevolent character.

James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection/Beinecke Library, Yale University

A photograph of Paul Robeson inscribed to Carl Van Vechten, circa 1930; from Gather Out of Star-Dust: A Harlem Renaissance Album, Melissa Barton’s catalog of a recent exhibition at the Beinecke Library at Yale. It is published by the library and distributed by Yale University Press.

His passport was finally restored to him in 1958, and he sped away. He based himself in England, where he sang in St. Paul’s Cathedral and in the Royal Festival Hall; he played Othello for one last season at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. He returned to Moscow, where ecstatic crowds filled stadiums to welcome him back. He made his way to Australia and New Zealand. But something was imploding within him. Back in Moscow, en route for the US, where he planned to speak in favor of the fledgling civil rights movement, he was found with slashed wrists on the floor of the bathroom of his hotel room. From there he went to London, where he received heavy sedation and massive doses of electroconvulsive therapy before being transferred to a somewhat less draconian hospital in East Germany. At last, in 1963, he came back to America and lived out the remaining thirteen years of his life as a private citizen with very occasional public interventions; there were manic interludes and depressions, but mostly he was just very quiet. When he died in 1976, most of the obituaries—even in the African-American press—expressed a respectful incomprehension.

It is an altogether extraordinary life, the stuff of epic. It has not lacked for scholars: most notably the radical historian Martin Duberman’s masterful and all-encompassing five-hundred-page life (1989). Robeson’s son, Paul Jr., offered his personal perceptions of the great man’s first forty years in An Artist’s Journey (2001), the first volume of The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, carrying the story through to its bitter end, five years later, in a second volume, The Quest for Freedom, passionate and contentious. More recently, there has been Jordan Goodman’s politically radical A Watched Man. And now—coincidentally or not—at a time of accelerating racial unrest in America, there are two new books about him, as different from each other as chalk from cheese.

Gerald Horne’s Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary is baffling. It is written with great sincerity and passion, but its constant reiteration of certain words and phrases—we learn on page after page that Robeson was, indeed, a revolutionary—hardly constitutes an argument, while the simple presentation of a narrative eludes the author completely. Horne seems unable to present a clear picture of Robeson’s personality or the world in which he lived; it is a chronological free-for-all, as we giddily lurch from decade to decade, backtracking or suddenly leaping forward. Often sentences make no sense whatever: “Though Robeson’s tie to Moscow is often derided,” says Horne, “this is one-sided—akin to judging a boxing match while only focusing on one of the fighters—since it elides the point that (by far) African-Americans in their quest for global aid to combat Jim Crow were attracted to Japan.”

The author’s analyses of world affairs and his assessments of history’s leading players are, to put it gently, crude; this, for example, is Winston Churchill: “the pudgy, cigar-chomping, alcohol-guzzling Tory.” And he takes certain, shall we say, contentious things as self-evident—notably the essential goodness of the USSR. When Robeson first saw Stalin in Moscow, Horne reports, he was struck by the dictator’s “wonderful sense of kindliness…here was one who was wise and good,” and duly held up his son Pauli to see this paragon of benevolence. Horne has nothing to say about Robeson’s comment, apparently finding no fault with it.

Elsewhere, Horne makes desperately strained attempts to force every action of Robeson’s into a political mold: of the actor’s heroic assault on the role of Othello in London—a part of immense technical and emotional challenges for any actor, let alone an untrained and relatively inexperienced one—he tells us: “Robeson’s groping as an actor in his attempt to grasp the lineaments of Othello was of a piece with his groping as a black man seeking to grasp the lineaments of capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy.” No, it wasn’t: it’s just a very hard part. Horne has evidently read a great deal and had access to some remarkable material, but it is often impossible to fathom from the book what is really happening at any one moment or what was going on in Robeson’s mind.

Horne cites any number of searing details, but lacking articulate analysis, his account is numbing and bewildering in equal measure, like being addressed from a dysfunctional megaphone. His rousing conclusion, bringing his obsession with Robeson’s linguistic gifts to a climax, is simply stupefying:

This multi-lingual descendant of enslaved Africans, whose dedicated study of languages was designed in part to illustrate the essential unity of humankind, continues to symbolize the still reigning slogan of the current century: “workers of the world, unite!”

I’m sorry to break it to Mr. Horne, but he doesn’t. And it isn’t.

Jeff Sparrow’s No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson is the polar opposite of Horne’s book, a work not of assertion but of investigation. It takes nothing at all for granted. The author, an Australian left-wing commentator, is very present in the book: it’s his journey (and thus our journey) as much as it is Robeson’s. He goes to see for himself a world that is, he admits, far from his own experience. The result is arresting, illuminating, and ultimately upsetting.

Sparrow’s starting point is a curiously moving newsreel, readily available on YouTube, showing Robeson in his early sixties visiting workers on the building site of the Sydney Opera House and spontaneously singing for them as they sit utterly rapt; here, he discovered the plight of the Australian aborigines, ardently pledging himself to their cause decades before it became fashionable. It is this sense of Robeson’s universalism that Sparrow seeks to investigate. It takes him back to Robeson’s birth, and then goes back further—into the history of Robeson’s father, the Reverend William, born into slavery, and further still into the history, or rather the experience, of slavery itself.

What, Sparrow wants to know, was slavery actually like? He goes to North Carolina and talks first to the very nice and decent descendants of slave owners who slowly, uncomfortably, reveal the reality of slavery for their families. One of their young servant girls was savagely whipped for “being slow.” “They might have been cultured and intelligent people,” says Sparrow, “they might have cared for their children and showed kindness to their neighbours, but they’d ordered a young slave girl thrashed to the bone because she dropped a dish.” As it might be in a novel, this small detail of daily and routine brutality, endlessly repeated as part of a way of life only 150 years ago, is somehow more chilling than a description of greater atrocities.

Likewise, Sparrow notes what it was that Robeson’s father, a former slave with no education whatsoever, had to do to get first a BA, then an MA, and finally a degree in theology: it “meant mastering Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, geometry, chemistry, trigonometry, mineralogy, political economy, and the myriad other components of a nineteenth-century classical education.” William Robeson, as a slave, would have had no formal education at all. This fierce—heroic—work ethic the Reverend Robeson passed on to his son. He never spoke about his experience of slavery. But the lesson was clear: the only way out of poverty and humiliation was hard, hard work—working harder than any white man would have to, to achieve a comparable result.

And then, as another of Sparrow’s interviewees, a distant relative of Robeson, tells him, when a black man has finally achieved something, a certain circumspection is necessary. As Robeson himself wrote with bitter anger in Here I Stand, his 1958 autobiography:

Even when demonstrating that he is really an equal…[c]limb up if you can—but don’t act “uppity.” Always show that you are grateful. (Even if what you have gained has been wrested from unwilling powers, be sure to be grateful lest “they” take it all away.)

Sparrow deploys this contrapuntal effect—this dialogue between past and present—brilliantly. He talks to the elegant British black actor Hugh Quarshie, a recent Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company, about the challenges of the role, and specifically about what it might have felt like for Robeson to play the part, painfully conscious as he must have been that he was “the only black face in the room.” Sometimes, says the Oxford-educated Quarshie, he finds himself talking to some patron of the arts, expatiating on “Mozart and Buñuel, and then suddenly I wonder if what they are actually seeing are thick lips and a bone through my nose.”

Sparrow never lets the reader forget how other, how fundamentally alien, black people have been made to feel in American society, and how recently unspeakable brutality and contempt were the norm. At the turn of the twentieth century, in 1901, for example, when Robeson was three years old, President Theodore Roosevelt had lunch at the White House with Booker T. Washington, the great educator and former slave, eliciting this comment from the South Carolina senator Benjamin Tillman: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they learn their place again.” This was the world into which Robeson was born.

Wherever Robeson went, Sparrow goes too: to Harlem to get a sense of its all-too-brief Renaissance; to London to see the four-storied mansion in Hampsted, in which at the crest of Robeson’s first wave of popularity he and his wife lived with five liveried servants; to Spain to see, as Sparrow’s chapter heading has it, “what Fascism was.” Going there in 1937 was a fearless, almost reckless, thing for Robeson and his wife to do, but he had to do it. He had to endorse what he felt was essentially the same fight he was fighting, the fight for human dignity and freedom. The night before a big battle, he addressed the soldiers, and then he sang, sang himself hoarse, as the volunteers shouted out their requests; when he sang “I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” the grizzled commander of the unit, reported the radical journalist Charlotte Haldane, turned beetroot red with the effort of fighting down the tears.

Sparrow shows how this admittedly splendid actor, this marvelous singer, this charismatic speaker, had somehow evolved into something more: he had for many people become the embodiment of the global longing for a better world, a juster dispensation. In the radically polarized pre-war world, this passionate commitment led him, inevitably, to Moscow, where he felt that his visionary ideas had the best chance of becoming reality. Sparrow takes us to the National Hotel, opposite Red Square, where Robeson told Eisenstein, “Here, for the first time in my life, I walk in full human dignity. You cannot imagine what that means to me as a Negro,” and sees with his own eyes why Robeson might have felt that, in the Moscow of 1935, he was in the promised land.

Sparrow interviews a young black Russian TV personality now living in Moscow who has a more complicated story than Robeson’s to tell. Her grandmother, she tells him, was a white woman who had married a black man and come to Russia because they could scarcely hope to live together in America. “It didn’t work out as we hoped,” she said, “but the idea, the idea was right.”

He pursues Robeson’s commitment to that elusive idea. Robeson, it is clear, knew that his dream was just that: that the reality was otherwise. But he had to maintain his faith, otherwise what else was there? The pressure on him from all sides, the expectation that he would somehow find a path through all these contradictions, may have led to his attempted suicide in the Sovietsky Hotel in 1961: Sparrow surmises that it may have directly stemmed from the desperate requests from Robeson’s Russian friends to help them get out of the nightmarish world they found themselves in. “I am unworthy, I am unworthy,” Robeson gasped, over and over again, to the maid who discovered him with slashed wrists on the bathroom floor. Sparrow convincingly suggests that his descent into bipolarity and the subsequent attempts to kill himself (“in 1965 there were more half-hearted suicide attempts,” he reports laconically) were part of the anguish of his having failed to square his vision with reality.

In an epilogue that must have been painful for Sparrow—a man of the left—to write, he acknowledges that Robeson’s endorsement of Stalin and Stalin’s successors, his refusal to acknowledge what had been done in Stalin’s name, is the tragedy of his life. And it is a tragedy for us, too, because Robeson had an almost unique combination of gifts that enabled him to articulate his cause in a way that spoke to all people. “Every artist, every scientist must decide NOWwhere he stands,” he had said when he returned from Spain. “He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights.”

As Sparrow describes it, it is a pitiful spectacle: this heroic figure, striving for dignity for all of his fellow human beings, robbed of his own, somehow baffled and cheated by the world. Sparrow quotes a trade unionist who having met him said: “[Robeson] stands like a giant, yet makes you feel, without stooping to you, that you too are a giant and hold the power of making history in your hands as well.” To which Sparrow soberly adds: “The disintegration of the movements for which Paul had been such an icon had left behind a profound void from which we were yet to recover. We did not feel ourselves giants; we did not feel capable of making history.” History, he says, has become meaningless. “And a figure such as Paul became almost incomprehensible.” On the contrary. Sparrow has made perfect and haunting sense of him.

Letters On Robeson

Sir—In his admirable essay on Paul Robeson Simon Callow notes the long eclipse of Robeson’s once-global reputation, from the 1960s to the present. Today, writes Callow, “it is hard to find anyone under fifty who has the slightest idea who he is”. Let it be noted, though, that some of Robeson’s British admirers kept the faith. In 2006, the thirtieth anniversary of his death, I attended the dedication of a memorial to Robeson at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, organised by the West Africanist Philip Jaggar. (As Callow notes, Robeson studied Kiswahili and linguistics at SOAS in the 1930s.) A gathering of students and others listened as the Labour politician Tony Benn discussed Robeson’s life as a performer and political activist. The Jamaican bass-baritone Sir Willard White sang a cappella versions of “Ol’ Man River”, and “Deep River”—they had been sung at Robeson’s funeral in Harlem in 1976. Most memorably, a speaker from the audience described a 1959 CND rally in Trafalgar Square, when Robeson was playing Othello at Stratford, the year after the restoration of his passport by the US government. As London traffic rumbled round the square, the speaker recalled, a succession of notables addressed the crowd from the steps of Nelson’s column. “Then,” he concluded, “Paul Robeson sang... And the buses stopped.”

John Ryle

Bard College, NY

Simon Callow's article (Feb. 8) on Paul Robeson, who was a childhood (and beyond) hero of mine, was a powerful reminder of what a great man Robeson was and how shamefully we all neglected him.  It also brought back to me two memories - the only times I saw him in person - each of which may add a little to the list of his deeds.

The first, in the mid-1940's, was when he came to my parents' home (I must have been about 10) in Brookline MA to try to raise money for the Lincoln Brigade, American veterans of the Spanish Civil War.  There were perhaps 40 people there to hear him.  My younger brother and I were at the top of the stairs, forbidden to come down but allowed to stay where we could glimpse him and hear him.  He spoke well and with feeling, with his marvelous voice and expressiveness.  And he sang a few songs (there was a piano), especially of course "The Four Insurgent Generals".  We were mesmerized, as I think the adults were, even more by his moving singing than by his powerful speaking.

The second was in April 1959.  I was hitch-hiking around England in the wet and the mud.  I came into Stratford-on-Avon, saw that Robeson was appearing as Othello, and knew immediately that this was one event that I would forever regret missing, even though I was cold and sopping wet and had no idea that this was to be one of his last appearances in that role.  The theater was sold out, but I was able to plead my way into a place standing at the back.  Robeson's performance was hypnotic.  But one aspect of it I have never seen as performed, except this time, or referred to.  As Shakespeare created him, Othello was not only black, he was aging; he was past his prime and could never recapture it; and he was aware of this sad and enraging fact.  Robeson incorporated this aspect of Othello into his performance.  His speaking stumbled once or twice, lost strength a little more.  He seemed to have brief periods of inattention.  And all of this clearly was, at the time and in memory, Othello and not Robeson, intentional as part of the role, unifying actor and role and man.

Mark A. Michelson

How A Christmas Carol Came Into Being

Charles Dickens  was more than usually angry in the summer of 1843.  He was thirty-one years old, the most famous writer in the world, with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge behind him, and a reputation for fiery and outspoken speeches on burning topics; he was married with four bonny children. And he was furious about almost everything. He was cross with his financially delinquent parents, for whom he had just bought a house outside London, in Blackheath, having recalled them from the exile to which he had consigned them in a small village in Devon; much thanks had his father shown him. “I am amazed and confounded,” he wrote, “by the audacity of his ingratitude.”  The rest of his family had behaved no better: he had recently been obliged to bail out his youngest brother Fred: “He, and all of them, look upon me as something to be plucked and torn to pieces for their advantage…My soul sickens at the thought of them.” He was still angry with the Americans, with whom he had been very disappointed on his recent trip to America, and was working out his revenge on them in the savage sections of the boo he was currently engaged upon – Martin Chuzzlewit – in which the hero is nearly destroyed by the false promises of American life. He was furious with his publishers, Chapman and Hall, for pointing out that sales for the book were poor. But above all, he was furious with society at large and the government in particular.

For nearly six months, he had been fulminating over the Second Report (Trades and Manufactures) of the  Children’s Employment Commission set up by Parliament, which came accompanied by graphic accounts of the working conditions endured by the children, many as young as seven years old, who worked 10-12 hour stints underground and in factories. Dickens was, he said, “perfectly stricken down” by what he read. “The necessity of a mighty change, I see,” he wrote. His contempt for the “sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, overfed, apoplectic, snorting cattle” of the ruling class, always simmering, boiled over.  “I never saw such an illustration of the power of the purse, or felt so degraded and debased by its contemplation.” He determined to deliver what he called “a sledge-hammer blow”  against them, in the form of a cheap pamphlet entitled “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” But already he had had an inkling of a better, more powerful way of indicting the oppressors of the weak and defenceless; as early as March of 1843, he promised his friend the Rev Southwood Smith, who had sat on the Commission, and furnished him with a copy of the report, something else: he had plans for something else. “When you know them, and see what I do, and where, and how,” he wrote Smith, “you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force – twenty thousand times the force – I could exert by following out my first idea.” This sledge-hammer blow would, he said, be delivered towards the end of the year. So he had Christmas in his sights from the beginning.

Dickens being Dickens, his creative processes were profound and mysterious, and his motives far from simple. Passionate though he was about the cause of the oppressed, and about the vicious stranglehold that  money had on society, he also needed to make a living – his wife Catherine was pregnant again – and he saw that a Christmas book might be a very attractive commercial prospect. He also saw that his sledge-hammer blow might have a celebratory rather than a simply apocalyptic dimension. He was, supremely, a story-teller. His characters took a hold on him; he was not writing, he said, simply taking dictation. As a shorthand reporter, he had  developed astonishing speeds and accuracy; but his ear and his memory worked in perfect conjunction – months later he could effortlessly transcribe whole conversations he had overheard. He was also an accomplished  conjuror: in the magic shows he put on for his children and friends, he delighted in transformations, in appearances and disappearances, in spectacular manifestations. All this he put in his books, too.  When his creative juices started to flow, they always left  his conscious mind far behind. The forthcoming film The Man Who Invented Christmas, in which I have the pleasure of appearing as John Leech, the brilliant illustrator of the first edition of A Christmas Carol, is an exuberant fantasia on the sources of Dickens’s imagination,  a living demonstration of how that all-absorbing, endlessly connecting and transforming brain of his might have worked. Here they all are, the great figures from his own life, children, wife, publishers, the poor, the rich, the powerful and the vulnerable, all rolled together in the sort of  perpetual phantasmagoria that we must conclude was the natural element of his creative mind. And nothing he ever wrote is freer or more fantastical in form than A Christmas Carol –  nor more deeply felt.

Christmas always had a special place in Dickens’s heart. Among his earliest published writings, later published in the Sketches by Boz, but originally written under the wonderfully improbable pseudonym of Tibbs, opens with the cry: “Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas. There are people who will tell you that Christmas is not to them what it used to be; that each succeeding Christmas has found some cherished hope, or happy prospect, of the year before, dimmed or passed away; that the present only serves to remind them of reduced circumstances and straitened incomes – of the feasts they once bestowed on hollow friends, and of the cold looks that meet them now, in adversity and misfortune. Never heed such dismal reminiscences.” Surprisingly, in one so young (he was just twenty-three) he acknowledges possible darkness – loss, grief, ill fortune – but offers Christmas as the salve for all these things: “Dwell not upon the past; think not that one short year ago, the fair child now resolving into dust, sat before you, with the bloom of health upon its cheek, and the gaiety of infancy in its joyous eye. Reflect upon your present blessings – of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some. Fill your glass again, with a merry face and contented heart. Our life on it, but your Christmas shall be merry, and your new year a happy one!” Even in this early piece, Christmas is not simply an occasion for a party – though there’s nothing wrong with that, he says – but is a vision of how life should be.  “Would that Christmas lasted the whole year through (as it ought), and that the prejudices and passions which deform our better nature, were never called into action among those to whom they should ever be strangers!” He lauds its “rational goodwill and cheerfulness,” which, he says, do “more to awaken the sympathies of every member of the party in behalf of his neighbour, and to perpetuate their good feeling during the ensuing year, than half the homilies that have ever been written, by half the Divines that have ever lived.” Other people had celebrated Christmas; Dickens was the first writer to see it as a paradigm of how we should live our lives. 

Only a year or two later he came back to Christmas  in The Pickwick Papers,  the book which made him world famous at the age of 25. The Pickwickians  celebrate the season in Dingley Dell, in high spirits, but part of the festivities brings forth, as was traditional, a ghost story, the story of  the Goblins who Stole a Sexton. The central figure is one Gabriel Grub: “an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow - a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself, and an old wicker bottle which fitted into his large deep waistcoat pocket – and who eyed each merry face, as it passed him by, with such a deep scowl of malice and ill-humour, as it was difficult to meet without feeling something the worse for.”  The sight of  children on Christmas  Eve merrily preparing for the morrow is “all gall and wormwood to the heart of Gabriel Grub”; hearing the curly-haired little rascals, Gabriel smiles grimly “as he thought of measles, scarlet fever, thrush, whooping-cough, and a good many other sources of consolation besides.” The Goblins spirit him away, and teach him some pretty severe lessons; when he wakes up, he is an altered man, but cannot bear the thought of returning to a place where “his repentance would be scoffed at, and his reformation disbelieved.” Here we have all the seeds of Ebenezer Scrooge, but transformed, by the time  Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, into an epic fable about self, about society, about love and about the human heart, all despatched with a brilliance, a wit, a fantasy, an inventiveness which make it one of literature’s creates conjuring tricks.

And bang in the centre of the book is the reason Dickens decided to write it in the first place:  those desperate children who were thrust down into the mines, to live out their brief half-lives, emerging sick, blind,   deformed, to die early deaths. In A Christmas Carol, when the Spirit of Christmas Present takes his leave of Scrooge, two rickety, feral children appear from the folds of the Spirit’s gown, “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.” Appalled, Scrooge asks who they are. “They are Man’s,” replies the Spirit, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” This it was that enraged Dickens, that drove him as he had never been driven before to write the book in six short weeks (while he was still writing Martin Chuzzlewit): the destruction of human lives, ruthlessly exploited by the rich and educated, stripping them of basic dignity. Ignorance is the enemy. “An inward dignity of character which once acquired and righteously maintained, nothing, no, not the hardest drudgery, nor the direst poverty, can vanquish,” said Dickens in a speech just at the time he started writing the Carol. “Though he should find it hard for a season even to keep the wolf of hunger from his door, let him but once have chased the dragon of ignorance from his hearth, and self-respect and hope are left him… my own heart dies within me when I see thousands of immortal creatures condemned without alternative or choice, not to what our great poet calls ‘the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire,’ but  one of jagged flints and stones, laid down by brutal ignorance.”

When he finished writing the book at the end of November, after effusively underlining the words THE END three times, “I broke out like a madman,” he said. Having  established for all time an ideal vision of Christmas, he hurled himself into the real one with inexhaustible enthusiasm. “Such dinings, such dancings, such conjurings, such blind-man’s-bluffings,” he wrote to Forster, “such theatre-go­ings, such kissings-out of old years and kissing-in of new one”. Dickens’s high spirits were not unconnected with the universal triumph of A Christmas Carol. The book – gold-edged, with coloured plates by John Leech, each page outlined in red – was  an instant best-seller; on Christmas Day, 1843, alone, it sold 6,000 copies. “It is   the greatest success, as I am told, that this ruffian and rascal has ever achieved.” Though there were sniffy reactions – “the book does little more than promote the immense spiritual power of the Christmas turkey” – even those who were not generally disposed to praise Dickens did so. Thackeray, a  friend, but a rival, too, wrote “Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this? It is a national benefit and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness. The last two people I heard speak of it were women, neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, ‘God bless him!’

Simon Callow Performing 6 Shows Of De Profundis In January

Simon will perform Oscar Wilde's De Profundis at the Vaudeville Theatre in January for a short run.

Adapted by Frank McGuinness, the show is based on Wilde's 50,000-word letter written while he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol between January and March 1897. It details the writer's life and experiences while being persecuted for his lifestyle and habits.

The piece will be directed by Mark Rosenblatt, in an abridged form written by McGuinness, who described De Profundis as 'Wilde's last great play'.

3 January 2018 - 6 January 2018

Vaudeville Theatre

Read more here

Simon Callow To Release Dickens Christmas album

Simon is releasing a Christmas album with brass group The Brighouse and Rastrick Band to mark the 175th anniversary of A Christmas Carol.

Simon’s one-man version of the classic was first performed last year at the Arts Theatre in London, and will be released on December 1 on CD.

Simon has recorded it alongside with some of the Christmas music that Dickens would have known and loved which helps to evoke that period.

Album released December 1

Read more here

Order here


The Rebel Series 2 Starts Wednesday 8 November

Henry Palmer may be retired but he's far from shy and retiring. Simon plays a prickly pensioner who's going to give the world a much-needed kick up the backside. Infuriated by sushi, posh coffee and all the general nonsense modern life has to offer, this retired radical has had enough... and he's about to release his inner rebel. Adapted from Andrew Birch's long-running cartoon strip in The Oldie Magazine, The Rebel returns for Series 2, new and exclusive to Gold.

Starts Wednesday 8 November at 10pm

Read more here


Peter Hall

Peter Hall and I were not close friends; I’m not sure that Peter did close friendship. His immense and loving extended family satis-fied that need. But we had a warm rapport from the start and that never faded. When I first met him, in 1979, I was thirty, a new kid on the block, with a few critical successes, and he, less that twenty years older than me, had already been through several major careers – brilliant youthful ventures, culminating in the English-language premières of Waiting for Godot and Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors; the creation of the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was 29; a brief period as a film director, an-other, shorter, as a television presenter, and an even shorter one as Head of Productions at the Royal Opera House. By the time I met him he had survived six extraordinarily demanding years at the helm of the National, four of them actually in the great sprawling building that represented government’s final reluctant acknowledgement that theatre should be honoured with an ap-propriately bold and up-to-date space – or series of spaces: by far the biggest, most demanding, most ambitious theatrical venue in Britain. I was there to play Orlando in John Dexter’s production of As You Like It and the part of Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, to be directed by Hall. I had never met Hall, much less been auditioned by him; he had never even seen my work. To my astonishment, he took my abilities on trust, something which I lat-er discovered was entirely characteristic of him. I only finally met him at the first read-through of Shaffer’s play, shortly after As You Like It had opened to muted rapture. His boyish good looks had for an unnaturally long time given him the appearance of a puer aeternus, a perpetual child prodigy; this had now been re-placed by something rather more overtly dignified, with beard of formal cut, like Shakespeare’s Justice, his fair round belly with good capon lined; his back, I noted, was slightly stooped. I ap-proached the read-through with anxiety – Paul Scofield, for God’s sake, was playing Salieri, and the author of the play had never seen me act either – but also with a certain suspicion. I had worked for Olivier at the National Theatre at the Old Vic, in the Box Office, and was fiercely loyal to that glorious period; Hall, I believed, was the opposite of everything that Olivier, with his gal-lantry and his glamour, leading from the front, had stood for. Moreover, he had taken over Amadeus from my champion John Dexter when Dexter and Shaffer fell out.

So I was a little taken aback to find that in person Hall was charming: lucid, twinkly, and full of commonsense. Here was no Leavisite Roundhead, no textual puritan. His very physique, which spoke of sensual pleasures indulged, was that of a Renaissance prince. He was an urbane, elegant, compelling speaker; his voice was uncommonly beguiling (with a few eccentricities of pronun-ciation: “English” was pronounced Eng-lish, rather than Inglish). I saw immediately why he was, and remained for many years, the spokesman of the British Theatre, arguing its corner with sanity and passion. He spoke wisely and well about the play, and prom-ised fun in rehearsing it. This was encouraging: As You Like It had most certainly not been fun. We read the play; I let rip, giving in totally to the extreme character Shaffer had written. After a few words of general enthusiasm at the end of the reading, Hall came up to me, put his arm over my shoulder, drew me to one side and said the dread words, “that was a very brave reading.” Then he said, “you’re quite right to have played it as you did, that’s what Peter’s written, but however extreme Mozart may be, I must al-ways believe, every second you’re on the stage, that he wrote the overture to The Marriage of Figaro.” This was a superb note; whatever merit my performance may have had is due to it. His staging of the play was craftsman like, skilful, above all highly musical; he was clear and decisive, but he always left room for the actors to flourish, preferring not to tell them where to go, finding out where they instinctively wanted to move. Quite often, he was absent from rehearsals – board meetings, or treatment for a pain-ful eye condition. He was happy to leave us alone with the assis-tant director and the author. He told me later that when, as a very young man, he had first worked at Stratford on Avon, he was giv-en Cymbeline to direct, with Peggy Ashcroft in the leading role. He had worked out carefully what he wanted to do. “Peggy,” he said, “move left here, please.” “No,” she said. “No?” “No, it’s not right. I can’t feel it.” “Well show me what you’d like to do.” She did, and he saw that it was better than what he had planned, and he never again worked out the moves of a production in advance. This had its pluses and its minuses. Sometimes his productions could be a little sleepy, a little lacking in the well-drilled sort of élan vital that was so typical of Dexter, say, or Zeffirelli. But in Amadeus, he was wonderful at passing quietly among the actors and freeing them up; he was often unexpectedly personal. He dis-closed one day that he was an insomniac; like his foe Margaret Thatcher, he could manage on three or four hours a night. He passed large stretches of the night devouring books. He was astonishingly well read. He read just as he ate, with a sensualist’s connoisseurship. Amadeus, I’m inclined to think, was the last and most frankly voluptuous of a long line of luscious Peter Hall pro-ductions; from his fifties, his productions became much more aus-tere, functional, almost. Was that because of something else he disclosed in rehearsal: the fact that he thought of his own death constantly? He certainly made the masked stranger’s visits to Mo-zart on his deathbed in Amadeus quite terrifying.

From the first preview, Amadeus was a knockout. There were few adjustments made during the preview period. A couple of cuts, a little re-blocking. It was unstoppable: a love affair between the public and Scofield, realising beyond Shaffer’s dreams every one of his dazzling theatrical gestures. Hall never saw the show after the first performance. Even though his office at the top of the building was only minutes away from a pass door at the back of the upper circle, he never made that short journey. I think he thought the show was on its way, it didn’t need him anymore, it was ours now. He had limitless faith in his actors; they would get on with it. He didn’t even see the show the night Margaret Thatcher came. “Mozart wasn’t like that,” she told Peter, after-wards. “With respect, Prime Minister, he was.” “I don’t think you heard me,” she said. “He wasn’t like that.” Though I stayed at the National another eighteen months after Amadeus opened, I could so easily have lost touch with him. The building was so vast, the workforce so enormous. But then, one afternoon, I performed all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in the Olivier Theatre, and he came to see it. Afterwards, he said: “You’re a very good verse speaker, but you could be a great one. We should spend a little time together.” And we did, and his coaching was wonderful: he had not yet en-tirely espoused the doctrinaire views that strait-jacketed his later Shakespeare productions. Everything he told me was about the natural stress of the line: “you have a tendency,” he said, “to fall in love with the wrong word.” I did; he was absolutely right. I marvel today that he was able and willing to give that time to an ignorant young actor. His workload was absurdly heavy – pro-ductions, board meetings, stormy associate director meetings, complex negotiations with government and funding bodies – to say nothing of the painful weekly laser treatments on his eyes. Perhaps he longed to escape from all of that. Whatever, even after the verse classes had come to an end, I found myself wandering up to his office from time to time, where, under a sign saying “God send me good actors, good writers, good directors, and nev-er, ever give me a theatre,” we would talk. After a little while, a good bottle of claret would be produced from the drawer of his desk, and he would talk – about himself, mostly. It was clear that he had very little faith in his gifts as a director, while being keenly aware of what a brilliant manager he was. He viewed this imbal-ance with resigned amusement, but one day he told me a story that suggested it ran much deeper. He and Peter Brook were near-contemporaries. Hall was acutely aware of Brook’s confidence and originality. Brook rather enjoyed this, and often taunted Hall by recounting his visits to the great sage Edward Gordon Craig. Hall adored Craig’s writings and designs, and begged Brook to take him with him. “Not yet,” Brook would say. “He’ll say when he’s ready.” One day, he announced: “Craig’s ready.” They booked their tickets on the Calais packet, heading for Craig’s home in Vence. On the gangplank, just before the boat was due to leave Dover, Hall said to Brook: “I can’t do it. I know he’ll see through me.” And he fled back to London. This was quite some- thing for the unquestioned leader of the British theatre to confide in a 30-year-old actor. Of course, it was a narrative he had re-fined, explaining his own life to himself, but it seemed to me highly plausible that his Imperial urges, his instinctive project of creating large structures around himself, was to secure himself against being seen through, being found out.

Which was absurd. He had already achieved so very much. In do-ing so, he afforded countless opportunities to directors, writers, actors, designers, choreographers. The very National Theatre in which we sat was his monument. Getting into the new building had been hell, with delayed building works and recalcitrant un-ions; he had fought heroically against both delays and strikes, making speeches, pulling strings politically, staging shows on the terraces of the new theatre in broad daylight when he was unable to get into the theatres. By the time I arrived, everything was up and running, the theatre’s output was enormous: all three audito-ria were filled with new plays and classics, each theatre under a different director and there was a huge standing company of ac-tors, just as the founding fathers of the National Theatre, back in the 1890’s, had imagined – a troupe, an ensemble of actors work-ing together. It was a job that required the special executive gifts that Hall possessed in such striking degree. Olivier, even at his height, and with all his experience as an actor-manager, could never have done it. But having established the theatre, Hall started to look around for new worlds to conquer. The single most re-markable thing that he did during my time at the National was the Oresteia, in which, in combination with the composer Harri-son Birtwistle, the translator Tony Harrison, the designer Jocelyn Herbert, and a group of remarkable actors, he explored to electri-fying and primal effect the use of mask on a scale that had never previously been attempted in Britain. That, along with The Wars of the Roses in the early sixties at the RSC, is, I believe his greatest achievement, the work of a true visionary. But Peter, I think, had difficulty believing in himself as such. Increasingly, he focussed on opera, as the combination of all the elements: the work he did in the 1980’s at Glyndebourne was radical in its lack of decora-tion, in its insistence on the dramatic essence of the work. Music was at the core of his life. He was a good pianist; I vividly recall seeing him woo Maria Ewing, in Peter Shaffer’s apartment in New York, as they played Schubert duos together. Not much later, she became his third wife.

I remember, too, the day he rushed, goggle-eyed, into the canteen at the National Theatre which was empty apart from me and said, “I have to tell someone: I’ve just got off the phone to Georg Solti, who’s asked me to direct the Ring at Bayreuth. And I know exactly how to do it: Disneyland!” He all but hugged himself, like a kid at Christmas. Alas, it didn’t work out well, but that moment of joy at the prospect of great work in store was deeply touching. He had found a new world to conquer. His productivity was astounding, characteristic of someone who needs constant stimulus. Some of it was routine, but lightning struck with remarkable frequency: the plays of Oscar Wilde, which Peter insisted on taking as seri-ously as George Bernard Shaw had, seeing them as powerful cri-tiques of society; the fierce 50th anniversary Godot at the Old Vic; a lewd and joyous Lysistrata; a dazzling Amy’s View with Felicity Kendal. Increasingly, his body took the toll of what he had de-manded of it. He carried on, determinedly, with the aid of assis-tants. It was duly announced that he would be directing Twelfth Night at the National, an 80th birthday present from the theatre he created. He asked me to play Toby Belch – “it’s the biggest part in the play, you know,” he said to me, redundantly – and of course I accepted, though with a little trepidation because I knew from oc-casional social encounters that the fabric of his mind was starting to fray; this was shockingly confirmed at a great 80th birthday bash before rehearsals started, when after a series of speeches in his honour, he was called on to speak, and he found himself una-ble to. The great spokesman, the silver-tongued ambassador of the theatre, fell silent, asking instead for questions from the floor which he answered awkwardly, until the music director crashed in with Happy Birthday to You. Rehearsals of the play of which he had long ago directed two golden productions, one just before and one just after the creation of the RSC, were inevitably difficult, but there were frequent flashes of the old Peter Hall. “Don’t fall in love with the language too much,” he said to me one day, unerr-ingly accurately; another day he told me he’d had a dream about doing the play with Patrick Wymark as his Belch, and Wymark had said something, and Hall – in the dream – had said, ‘Go away, I’ve got Simon Callow for the part’.” It was funny and it was flat-tering, and I was never quite sure whether he’d really had that dream or whether it was made up to encourage me, which would have been very PH.


I once played him in a radio play by Mark Lawson concerning the controversy over Howard Brenton’s play The Romans in Britain. It was a very fine hour for Hall, in which he publicly defended the theatre’s right to deal directly with real issues, to engender shock-ing imagery, and to question the status quo. Lawson had written a very powerful speech for Peter, rallying the troops. He perfectly caught his cadences, eloquent and lucid, passionate and pointed. My fellow actors in the studio – Daniel Evans, Ron Cook, Greg Hicks among them – and I were all suddenly very moved by what this man was, what he stood for: a champion, an enabler, an elu-cidator, an explorer, an evangelist for what is unique about the theatre. He was formidable without being in the least forbidding; shrewd – cunning, even – in the pursuit of his goals; a sensualist and a lover; human, all too human. A fighter. Above all a leader, our great lost leader.

The Rebel Starring Simon Callow to Return For Series 2

The Rebel, the sitcom starring Simon Callow as a hellraising pensioner, is to return to Gold for a second series.

Pre-production work is now underway on six new half hour episodes, with filming set to take place in Brighton.

The Rebel, which launched as a three-part series in July 2016, is based on Andrew Birch's cartoon strip in The Oldie magazine.

The TV version stars Simon Callow as the irascible Henry Palmer, a former mod who sees no reason to stop living his life by his own rules now he's in his seventies. Sticking two fingers up to authority, society and the vagaries of modern life, and of the firm belief there's no problem that can't be solved by a great tune and a quick bit of vandalism, Henry Palmer and his friends get into all kinds of misadventures in the episodes.

The Rebel Series 2 will be shown on Gold later this year.

Read more here

BBC Arts: Simon At The Edinburgh Festival

Simon discussing his life and career at Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Available to download until 18 September 2017

Download here

JUNE 2017
Britain's Great Gay Buildings

Coming up:

Simon interviews Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland on Britain’s Great Gay Buildings

Channel Four

Saturday 24th June at 8pm.

Simon Directs All-Star Philanthropist Cast

Simon will direct a new production of Oscar® winner Christopher Hampton’s most celebrated play, The Philanthropist, at the Trafalgar Studios, starring Matt Berry, Simon Bird, Lily Cole, Charlotte Ritchie and Tom Rosenthal.

The play has been delighting audiences since its premiere at the Royal Court in 1970. A biting ‘bourgeois comedy’ and a fiendishly clever inversion of Moliere’s ‘The Misanthrope’, Simon’s new production boasts some of today’s most exciting young stage and screen actors.

Set in a fictitious English University town, strongly evoking Oxford or Cambridge, the play follows 24 hours in the lives of a group of young academics. 

Previews from 3 April 2017

20 April 2017 - 22 July 2017

Trafalgar Studios 1

Read more here

Simon Callow Reads Dante's Inferno

On the occasion of the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg, Simon gives a public reading of excerpts from Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th century epic poem The Divine Comedy.

Widely considered one of the greatest works of literature, Inferno tells of Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. He witnesses a terrifying catalogue of punishments, an education that exposes him to the consequences of turning away from God’s grace.

This unique event sees Simon take to the stage to tell this dramatic story through selected readings alongside projections of Rauschenberg’s pioneering illustrations.

10 February 2017 at 18.30-20.00

Tate Modern

Read more here

A Christmas Carol With Simon Callow

Simon is deeply happy to be bringing Dickens - his compassionate heart and his wild imagination  - to London again this Christmas 

Following sell-out seasons in 2011/12 and critical and audience acclaim, Simon Callow returns in this much-lauded production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, playing at the Arts Theatre for a strictly limited season from 8 December.

Based on Dickens’ own performance adaptation, Simon Callow and director-designer Tom Cairns have created a one-man theatrical extravaganza of festive story-telling that is both heart-warming and deeply moving. A Christmas must see for 8-88 year olds!

8 December - 7 January

Arts Theatre

Read more here


Simon Callow To Make "The Mother Of All Speeches" At 2016 Soundfestival

Simon Callow, known to millions as Gareth in Four Weddings and Funeral, is to appear at the 2016 soundfestival. Callow will perform Der Tribun (The Tribune or the Mother of all Speeches), a caricature of totalitarianism by the leading 20th century composer Mauricio Kagel, on Saturday 29 October at ACT Aberdeen.

Saturday 29 October 2016 at 8pm

ACT Aberdeen

Read more here

Simon Completes Rochdale's Literature Fest Line-up

At the festival Simon will be talking about his life on screen and stage, as well as reading excerpts from his latest book, 'One-Man Band', the third volume of his new biography of cinema giant Orson Welles

Friday 21 October 2016, 8-9 pm

Number One Riverside

Read more here

JULY 2016
Simon Stars In New TV Show The Rebel

Simon stars in The Rebel as the near 70-year-old Henry Palmer who looks like a respectable upstanding Brighton resident but underneath it all he's not. For the past 50 years he has been putting his youthful past behind him; or perhaps more accurately, brushing it under the floral patterned carpet!

Starts Wednesday 20th July at 10pm

Read more here

Catch up on Now TV here

APRIL 2016
Simon Reads Seamus Heaney's Aeneid Book VI

Simon Callow presents Seamus Heaney's Aeneid Book VI, introduced by Catherine Heaney, and accompanied by uillean piper David Power.

Friday 10th June 2105.

Borris House Hennessy Granary Stage.

Read more here

April 2016
Orson Welles: One Man Band ,Borris, Ireland

Simon Callow's three-volume biography of Orson Welles summarised in one delightful hour.

Friday 10th June 2105.

Borris House Hennessy Granary Stage.

Read more here

APRIL 2016
Sunday Brunch

Simon will be joining Tim Lovejoy and Simon Rimmer on Sunday Brunch this weekend. Tune in on Sunday at 9:30AM on Channel 4

Touring my Book. Orson Welles: One-Man Band

“I  love touring plays, but every bit as much as  that, I love talking about my books in cities and towns across the country. I’ve found that people are fantastically warm and keenly interested: as in the theatre, each talk is entirely different as people react differently to the - though i say it myself  - remarkable story I’m telling.  Since childhood, I’ve been addicted to  biography: I’m fascinated by my fellow human beings and long to know what makes them what they are. Orson Welles was one of the most completely, improbably, extravagant human beings who ever lived. I’ve tried to make the reader feel as if they’d met him. On the reading tour I can convey that even more vividly, and look forward to sharing what I know about Welles with people across the country this Spring - 27 one night gigs. Coming soon to a venue near you. Warm regards Simon Callow" 

Simon Callow    One Man Band  tour   20/22/15






























APRIL 2016
Miami Herald

Remembering the work of a difficult genius

Read more here

MARCH 2015
REVIEW: Simon Callow, One Man Band, Lighthouse, Poole

Really enjoying my tour. Thanks to those who have made it out so far and to those who haven't... I look forward to seeing you soon. 

Here's a review from the Bouremouth Echo:

Read more here

The One Show

Simon will be presenting a small film about the clown service in Dalton on The One Show on Wednesday the 10th February 2016. 

Brian Pern: 45 Years of Prog and Roll - BBC

Brian Pern, Brian Pern: 45 Years of Prog and Roll, Episode 1 Link Here

Wilde's Woman

Over a century on, Oscar Wilde continues to hypnotise us. The work, though distinctly uneven, is filled with intellectual provocation and delicious fantasy and studded with scintillants, but it is the life – those action-packed 46 years with their almost Greek trajectory of catastrophe, rapid fall and pitiful resolution: hamartia, peripeteia and catharsis – which has marked him out as one of the great  symbolic figures of Western civilisation. We keep coming back to him, trying to make sense of his actions. Was he simply a victim of society? Were there inherent flaws in him which governed, or failed to govern, his actions? What sort of man, indeed, was he? In person, he beguiled many of his contemporaries, but his behaviour was by no means always admirable; often it is barely intelligible. He remains a mystery, his motives as puzzling as Hamlet’s; this, of course, only increases our fascination for him. Every aspect of his life has been pored over and over in a unending procession of books – his childhood, his family, his celebrity, his sex life, his radicalism, his formidable intellectual underpinnings, his Irishness, his illnesses, his death, all comprehensively covered. And still the puzzle remains.


Eleanor Fitzsimons is to be congratulated on finding a new and eminently profitable angle from which to approach him: the women who were so uncommonly significant in his life. His mother, first, of course,  his sister Isola whose death when still a  child devastated him, Lily Langtry, whose troubadour he affected to be, his poor utterly bewildered wife Constance, a clutch of influential lady novelists, a handful of leading ladies who appeared or, quite often, didn’t appear in his plays, a couple of stalwart middle-aged friends – Adela Schuster and the woman he dubbed “the Sphinx,” Ada Leverson – and sundry caring supporters, mostly Frenchwomen, at the end. There is no question that Wilde had a deep empathy for women. It is tempting to attribute this to his essential gayness, though he had experienced genuine heterosexual desire (as opposed to the extravagant poses of his relationship to the so-called Professional Beauties like Langtry), not least, of course, for Constance, with  whom, initially at least,  he attained something very close to rapture. Bosie Douglas, that poisonous, mendacious  nightmare, said at least one true thing in his life when he noted that women loved him because “although he was expected to talk brilliantly, he really did a great deal of listening.” 


And when, having failed to secure employment as an Inspector of Schools (a possibility which opens up startling vistas of educational reform), he became the editor of what he described as “a most trivial, vulgar production”, called The Lady’s World, he transformed it, under the new name of The Woman’s World,  into a vigorous platform for the latest thinking on the position of women –  even its stance on fashion was radical, seeking to liberate women from  the tyranny of corset and bustle. “From the Sixteenth Century to our own,” wrote Wilde, “there is hardly any form of torture that has not been inflicted on girls and been endured by women, in obedience to the dictates of an unreasonable and  monstrous fashion.” This was, interestingly enough, a cause that usually self-effacing Constance Wilde had eloquently championed in a lecture with the provocative title “Clothed in Our Right Minds.” But Wilde’s feminism was nothing to do with his wife’s views: like so very much else in his life, it derived directly from his mother.


The formidable Lady Wilde, née Jane Elgee, had, under the inspirational sobriquet of Speranza, not only written the fiery verse and essays which had made her a heroine of the Nationalist cause in Ireland, but also, no less  influentially, penned stirring polemics  on the subject of women’s rights. She was no straightforward gender egalitarian, however: “Nothing interests me beyond the desire to make him happy,” she had written on marrying the brilliant and alarming Sir William Wilde. “For this I could kill myself.” For her, women were still very much defined in relation to men – not an inferior relationship, she insisted, but one essentially of support and adornment, especially those who married geniuses. Her husband, she had no doubt, was a genius, and so, equally certainly, was her son.  She and Constance, she believed, were both “the daughters of men who wed with the sons of gods.” And this meant they had to pay attention to their appearance: “Humanity is distinguished from apes by two things: laughter and dress,” she wrote. “Nothing generates a morbid discontent like sombre, monotonous, ineffective costume.”


She attired herself in an astonishing array of fancy dress, most frequently appearing, in her younger years, as a Druidess; as time and grief – not least her husband’s trial for rape – and poverty took their toll, she wore black and held court, veiled, in rooms from which every glimmer of daylight had been banished. Guests stumbled about in the semi-dark, but they still flocked to her At Homes, mesmerised by her charisma and enchanted by the conversation. “Paradox is the very essence of social wit and brilliancy,” she decreed, as if prescribing Oscar’s modus operandi.  “The unexpected, the strange combination of opposites; the daring subversion of some ancient platitude are all keen social weapons.” This, she understood, was a dangerous ploy, but she had the antidote: “only assured celebrity makes society pardon originality.” It was not, in the end, protection enough; Wilde had perhaps taken his mother’s lessons too much to heart.


“Fathers should be neither seen nor heard,” Wilde wrote in An Ideal Husband. “Mothers are different. Mothers are darlings.” Wilde’s love of his mother, and his pride in her, was unquestionable; but it didn’t stop him from frittering away vast sums of money on Alfred Douglas in exotic watering-holes while Jane lay sick and impoverished in her dingy Paddington apartment, without, as she said, a shilling in the world.  But he was no doubt simply fulfilling the principles she had laid down before he was born” “the best chance, perhaps, of domestic felicity is when all the family are bohemians, and all clever, and all enjoy thoroughly the erratic, impulsive, reckless life of work and glory, indifferent to everything save the intense moments of popular applause.” Jane Wilde utterly dominates Fitzsimons’ book, and it is in these pages that it lights up, sometimes with a terrible sulphurous glow. “If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son; it will make no difference to my affection,” she told him in the brief moment when he could have fled the country after the collapse of his second trial. “But if you go, I will never speak to you again.” Yeats believed that it was this encounteD that kept him in the country and made jail, and the destruction of his health and his talent,  inevitable.


The book is a duller thing when Jane is not in it. From time to time Fitzsimons lights on extraordinary figures – Ouida and  Marie Corelli, for example –  whose work had a direct influence on Wilde; elsewhere, however, there is an excess of rather plodding résumé of lives that only tangentially illuminate him (four pages on the wives of his brother Willie). Even from these peripheral figures, however, Wilde  provoked exceptionally vivid responses. The actress Elizabeth Robins, for example, with whom he narrowly failed to work, remarked that it was “as if he had been stuffed with spice and caviar. Poke him and he would bleed absinthe and clotted truffles.” But his relationship with these women –   except for Robert Sherard’s remarkable observation that Wilde had in some sense modelled himself on the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt – yields little that is new.  It is still an affecting tale. The story of Constance Wilde, crushed between her husband’s appetites and his ambition, runs through the book like a heart-breaking descant sounded on a  particularly plangent oboe: “when I have you for my husband,” she wrote during their courtship, “I will hold you fast with chains of love & devotion, so that you shall never leave me, or love anyone so long as I can love & comfort.” Even after everything she had endured at his hands – the end of intimacy, abandonment, humiliation, financial ruin – and crippled by advancing multiple sclerosis she wrote “I think that we women are meant for comforters, and I believe no one can really take my place now, or help him as I can.” The persistence of love in the face of his incorrigibly rash and selfish behaviour is a tribute to an essentially delightful quality in him. As  Edith Cooper, one of the two gay women, aunt and niece, who made up the novelist ‘Michael Field’, wrote after it was all over, “now I can think of nothing but the quality that was in him – the pleasurableness.”

NMP Live

NMP Live Meets Simon Callow - Actor, Writer and Director

See video here

Observer Books of the Year, by Robert McCrum

Thatcher aside, the year’s most entertaining biography is Orson Welles: One-Man Band the third and probably final volume in Simon Callow’s study. This wonderfully vivid account of Welles’s tireless exploits in theatre, radio, film, television and even ballet is compulsive reading. Only an actor, director and writer as gifted and ebullient as Callow could have found the nerve to do this. Callow becomes Welles and, strangely, Welles almost becomes Callow. The only mystery is why, in Welles’s centenary year, his publishers waited until the end of 2015 to release such a tour de force.

The Guardian - Simon on: Why Orson Welles lived a life like no other

I understood from the beginning, though I had just one medium-sized, single-volume biography of Charles Laughton under my belt,  that any account of Orson Welles would be big. His life was so complex, his achievements so multifarious, his personality so unfathomable, the myths so pervasive, that I was sure that  if I was to understand him at all I would have to cast my net very wide, at the same time as going deep down under the surface; one volume, I knew, could never do him justice. 

Read more here

Simon Callow on Orson Welles - Belfast

Sunday 15th November 2015

15:00 - Queens Film Theatre, Belfast 

In One-Man Band, the third volume in his epic survey of Orson Welles' life and work, Simon Callow again probes in comprehensive and penetrating detail into one of the most complex artists of the twentieth century, looking closely at the triumphs and failures of an ambitious one-man assault on one medium after another - theatre, radio, film, television - even, at one point, ballet - in each of which his radical and original approach opened up new directions and hitherto unglimpsed possibilities.

Click here for more information and how to purchase tickets

New Statesman

Orson Welles: One-Man Band by Simon Callow shows how Welles was an often chaotic yet masterful film-maker in his middle age.

Read more here

The Independant

Orson Welles: One Man Band by Simon Callow, book review

Read more here

The Times

Book of the week: Orson Welles: One-Man Band by Simon Callow

Read more here

Daily Mail

Simon Callow has spent the past 25 years reliving the life of Orson Welles, his idol and inspiration. It has been a full-time occupation: this is his third substantial volume recording it.

Read more here

The Sunday Times

Orson Welles: One Man Band by Simon Callow

Read more here

Simon Callow on Orson Welles - Dublin

Saturday 14th November 2015

19:30 - Venue: dlr LexIcon Library, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin

In this, the third volume in his epic survey of Orson Welles’ life and work, Simon Callow again probes in comprehensive and penetrating detail into one of the most complex artists of the twentieth century, looking closely at the triumphs and failures of an ambitious one-man assault on one medium after another – theatre, radio, film, television – even, at one point, ballet – in each of which his radical and original approach opened up new directions and innovative possibilities.

Click here for more information and how to purchase tickets

The Seven O'Clock Show

Friday 13th November 2015

Simon is due to appear on the Seven O’Clock Show in Dublin at 18:30

Click here for more information

F is for Fake - Cork Film Festival

Friday 13th November 2015

Cork Film Festival - 11:30

Simon Callow  will attend the 60th Cork Film Festival which opens Friday night and runs for 10 days. 

Simon is also a biographer of legendary American director Orson Welles and will introduce a screening of Welles’s last major film, F for Fake.

Click here for more information

Today Show

Thursday 12th November 2015

Simon will appear on Ireland's most watched Daytime show at 16:35

Click here for more information

Screening of Orson Welles's F for Fake at Cork Film Festival

Simon Callow to introduce last significant work from auteur:

Click here for more information

Simon's Musical Autumn

Simon’s musical autumn - some concerts coming up.


October 23rd 2015 

Peter & the Wolf  Two Moors Festival Exeter

Click here for more information


October 25th 2015 

Paddington Bear  City of London Sinfonia Warwick 12

Click here for more information 


October 28th 2015 

Paddington Bear City of London Sinfonia Basingstoke 12

Click here for more information 


October 28th 2015 

Paddington Bear City of London Sinfonia Basingstoke 3 pm

Click here for more information 


October 29th 2015

Oxford Lieder Festival 6.30 pm A Shropshire Lad

Click here for more information 


October 31st 2015

Leeds Town Hall –  Flanders Symphony Orchestra Elgar Blackford Debussy

Click here for more information


November 1st 2015 

Paddington Bear   City of London Sinfonia Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden 1 pm

Click here for more information 


November 1st  2015

Paddington Bear   City of London Sinfonia  Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden 4 pm

Click here for more information 


November 3rd 2015

Flanders Symphony Orchestra The Hexagon, Queens Walk, Reading - Elgar Debussy

Click here for more information


November 4th 2015 

Flanders Symphony Orchestra Cadogan Hall London Elgar Blackford Debussy

Click here for more information 

Then Viceroy's House

Simon is off to India to play Sir Cyril Radcliffe in Then Viceroy’s House, directed by Gurinder Chabda.

Click here for more information

Alice in Wonderland

See Simon appear in Alice in Wonderland with Cellophony at King’s Place.

Click here for more information 


Simon's in Bristol to play Edwin the Magnificent in Galavant.

Click here for more information 


Simon plays himself in the film Mindthorn, directed by Sean Foley. 

Click here for more information 

The Life of Rock with Brian Pern

Simon recently filmed in The Life of Brian Pern, playing Bennett St Michael, the member of Thotch they got rid of early on, but who has dreams of a comeback.

Click here for more information

Dalston Revolution

A night of music, poetry and theatre... 

Allyson Ava Brown
Simon Callow
Maddy Hill
Rio Kai
Martina Laird
Anoushka Lucas
Ako Mitchell
Ann Mitchell
Marie Murphy
Che Walker
Roy Williams

Find out more here

Machynlleth Festival

Simon is doing a concert with the pianist Lucy Parham at the Machynlleth Festival in Wales on August 28th, 2015. 

Click here for more information and how to purchase tickets.

JULY 2015
Kingston University Honorary Degree

Simon Callow - one of Britain's most respected stage and screen stars - has been named an Honorary Doctor of Letters by Kingston University. As well as being known to millions for his acting roles in such hit films as ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral, ‘Shakespeare in Love' and ‘Room with a View' and in television shows such as ‘Doctor Who', Mr Callow is a critically acclaimed writer and director. He has been honoured for his contribution to theatre and film practice and research and also to literary biography.

Read more here

June 2015
Yvonne Callow

Simon's mother Yvonne passed away on April 9th this year. The funeral was held on June 11th at Sacred Heart Church, Quex Road, in Kilburn

Here is Simon's eulogy:

Yvonne Marie Guise was born an astonishing 96 years ago, in 1919, at the end of the First World War, just before the signing of the Treaty Of Versailles, which contained within it, as we now know, the seeds of the Second World War. So she grew up and came to womanhood in those terrible times which saw the Great Crash and the rise of the European dictators. She and her older brother Tony and her younger sister Marie, who all might have expected a decent education, were each of them at work by the age of 16, Marie at 15. Their father Jules, who was Danish, an engineer and an inventor, never worked at all during the 1930’s, at the end of which, at the age of 42, he suddenly died. Their mother, Vera, who was of German stock, had been a singer – she sang at the Royal Albert Hall at the official celebrations for the end of World War I – was, till they went to work, the family’s only breadwinner – genteelly brought up, she cooked and scrubbed in underground kitchens, she sold watches across the country,  she had a disastrous go at running a bed and breakfast establishment.

The girls, my mother and my aunt, became typists, working in a secretarial agency in Victoria, where they were brusquely addressed by their surnames and worked long and arduous hours. Both of them were clever young women – they attended the London Oratory Grammar School, which I went to 30 years later – but neither had the education they longed for. They dreamed of other lives – my mother wanted to be a journalist – but economic reality kept them down. And then, when my mother was twenty, the Second World war broke out and that defined their lives not only for the next six years, but  for ever more. Technically, they were Danish, like their father, though neither spoke the language, and  their passports were stamped Alien; for a while they were limited in what they could do, though both eventually became fire-fighters during the Blitz; their brother Tony  was called up and died in the last days of hostilities. But the war with its constant threat of instant death was a time to seize  life with both hands, and Yvonne plunged into the hectic round of parties and pleasure that her mother laid on for the boys on leave. Yvonne was attractive and witty, but very much, even at that young age, her own woman; she kept the boys at arm’s length, mercilessly mocking and teasing them.

Then, in 1944, rather against her better judgement, she married her brother’s best friend, my father, Neil Callow, a lively, sensuous, gregarious man, who was posted to Africa for the North Africa landings. While there, he fell in love with Africa, and at the end of the war she joined him there, in Freetown in Sierra Leone, and they led the unimaginably exotic lives of colonial expats – a life of comfort, of servants, of  free-flowing booze and plentiful food – until Yvonne became pregnant for the first time and returned to Austerity Britain, severely rationed and devastated by 6 gruelling years of war. Neil joined her for the birth of their daughter, Gabrielle, who was turned out to have a rare blood disease which led to her early death at 18 months old, a tragedy they overcame by having a second child as soon as possible, which was me. She was 30. Again, Neil returned to England  for the birth, but the lure of Africa and the possibility of earning good money there was too strong for him to resist and he went back. That was the end of her marriage, though she didn’t know it till he failed to return at end of his 18 months’ tour.

Her life and in some ways her personality changed as a result of that shocking rupture and the loss of a man she had come to love. Her Catholicism, always strong, became ever more deeply entrenched; she refused to entertain the idea of divorce and resigned herself to being single till the day either he or she died. Always pleasantly rounded, she now went on a severe diet which she then maintained for the rest of her life, and single-mindedly addressed the question of bringing up her child. First of all, she had to try to make ends meet. She was only fitfully supported by my father, but she successfully pursued a career as a secretary, making sure that I was fed and clothed and properly educated: she had very clear ideas about how to do things, guided by the egregious Dr Benjamin Spock and his  theories of child-raising: I was not to be indulged in any way, but was to be offered constant mental stimulation – we went on a ceaseless round of visits to museums, galleries, events – she took me down to Chartwell to catch a glimpse of the ancient Churchill, she arranged trips to National Trust properties. If we saw a film, it an improving one, like Walt Disney’s The Vanishing Prairie.  I was not an easy child to handle – emotional, exhibitionistic, uncontrollably energetic – but she stuck to her programme for me. Discipline was fierce – she was not above using a much-feared hairbrush for severe spankings – but there were visits to the cinema and very occasionally to the theatre by way of compensation. Above all she instilled in me the idea of achievement: no day should pass without something to show for it – something learned, something made, something mastered.

She took a job as a school secretary in a wildly eccentric private school in Berkshire largely because my education would be thrown in as part  payment for her services. For me it was a life-changing two years of country-living and for her an introduction to Spanish culture (the headmaster was a  passionate Hispanophile, having fought in the Spanish Civil War – on the side of the Fascists) and it led her to teach herself Spanish, toiling night after night over her Assimil textbooks and the accompanying gramophone records. When I was seven, she took herself off to Madrid  to become governess to a Spanish family; I stayed, very happily, with my rather indulgent grandmothers, for the few months she was away. When she came back, earlier than expected, we moved back to South London; she found a job working at the Nigerian embassy where she was the London  secretary of Chief Anthony Enahoro; this meant that I was kitted out with a variety of African robes and embroidered caps and the bedsit in Streatham was draped with exotic blankets and ivory carvings.

And then, when I was 9, and she was 39, astonishingly, my father got in touch to suggest that he and Yvonne should resume their married life – she and I should join him in Central Africa where he now lived. As a devout Catholic, believing that he was still her husband, though they had not seen each other for 5 years, she complied and we took the three-day flight to Kenya, where he picked us up and drove us all the way down to the tiny town of Fort Jameson in what was then Northern Rhodesia.

It was a disaster from the beginning. My father clearly had no intention of resuming his marriage: he was trying to get her to desert him, which eventually she did. With astonishing strength of  mind and and resourcefulness, she overcame the anxiety of being effectively stranded in the middle of that huge continent, and moved us to the capital, Lusaka, where she worked as a high-flying government secretary. And still she was determined that I should be mentally and imaginatively stimulated. We went off on Safari; we took trips to nearby beauty spots; she arranged for me to go up in a bi-plane with a colleague of hers, terrifying but tremendous. She bought a car and learned to drive. Or rather, she passed her driving test, having broken down in tears when she was failed, and so began a reign of terror for local drivers, as she drive into ditches and  knocked down fences. I meanwhile was packed off to school in South Africa; my father’s alimony was always  intermittent and she soon had to withdraw me, as I had been withdrawn from various schools over the years; but eventually, triumphantly, she engineered our return to England in 1962, three years after we had left it.

Back to South London we went. She secured a place for me at the London Oratory Grammar School, by dint of constant pleading, and did everything she could to focus my mind on the studies which would lead to my getting a  place at university, her single goal for me. She carried on with her secretarial career: when she worked for a shirt company, I learned the pleasures of hand-made shirts; and when she went to work for Freemans mail order, all sorts of other bonuses came my way. But these were very difficult years for us: a constant struggle with her trying to assert her authority and me become more and more wilful, less and less prepared to accept the limitations she tried to place on me.    

She was very much one her own. She had cool feelings towards her family, and was not a woman who made friends. She would go on adventurous trips with the Church, but she kept herself to herself; as long as my father was alive, she never had a relationship with another  man, and by the time he died, in 1971, it was too late. Nor would she have wanted it: her independence was the thing she prized above all else. She took herself off to concerts, to galleries, to exhibitions; she avidly watched the television – documentaries only. She had no time for fiction of any kind, which she regarded as a species of lying. She particularly had no time for Shakespeare, whose popularity she regarded as a conspiracy by an intellectual mafia of actors and directors and producers. Poetry in general, she said, was the longest way of saying the least.

She was not best pleased, to put it mildly,  when I decided to leave university to become an actor, but she said, typically, that though she would never give me  a penny in support, and though she was certain I had no talent whatever, nonetheless she thought I should do it because if I didn’t I would regret it for the rest of my life.

She knew what it was to regret.

She took only limited pleasure in my success as  an actor, cheering up a bit when I started writing books and directing, both of which she regarded as proper, grown-up jobs.

She gave up working as  a secretary at the first possible moment, when she was 60, and withdrew to the countryside. This proved too isolated for her, so I got her a flat in Croydon, sufficiently rural and within easy striking distance of London, where three or four times a week she would go, either to the latest exhibition at the Royal Academy or to Westminster Cathedral for mass or benediction:  her mother’s brother-in-law John Francis Bentley was the architect of the cathedral, though  that sort of thing – family connections – never impressed her. She went to church to further her very intense and very personal relationship with her god, in whom she believed with a simple and literal faith. God the father, that is: I don’t know that she had much feeling for Jesus or Mary or the Holy Ghost. No, it was the Old Testament God, severe and all-knowing, whom she adored, daily awaiting, as she often told me, the  day when she would die, go to heaven, and sit on his knee while he explained to her all the aspects of his creation that baffled her – why her 18-month old daughter had been snatched from her, why she had married the wrong man, why she had had to toil so unceasingly – why there was suffering, why there was injustice.

It was ten years ago that her mind collapsed, suddenly, overnight, after a long period of paranoia and fear for her life. Overnight, she lost her identity – her past disappeared like the hard disk of a broken computer. Then all the fixed points of her universe – God, the Church, me – lost all reality for her. And yet, though she increasingly lost the power of speech and the ability to function, there was a force of personality there, which impressed everyone who came across her – a huge inner force – and though she sat for hours in silence between meals, she always seemed to be thinking, trying to resolve some huge problem, it seemed to me. I sometimes thought that when she solved the problem, she would allow herself to die. She hung on and on, thinking furiously. And then in April this year, she let go. I like to think – I can only hope – that she’d finally solved the problem.

Some years ago, when she still had the power of speech, though she was not often able to make sense, she was vouchsafed one of those rare moments of lucidity that sometimes comes to those afflicted with this terrible condition. I came into the day room in her residential care home, and found her sleeping. I woke her up, and she suddenly smiled, a warm and happy smile, glad to see me. “How are you?” she asked, which was a rare question since she had disappeared into her own world. “Well,” I said, “busy – busy as you always were, working hard, as you always did.” I tried as I had so often done to bring her back to who she had been, what she’d done. “You worked so hard, you were a wonderful secretary, oh yes, I have all the glowing testimonials your bosses gave you whenever you left a job.” She smiled again, another radiant smile. “Really?” she said. “You mean I was of some worth?” “Oh, yes, I said, great worth, you did wonderfully well.” “I’ve often wondered,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t know who I was. I’m so glad.” And then I lost her again. But that moment, that knowledge of   who she was – of what she’d done - of how she’d toiled against so many obstacles – of what an honourable, determined life she’d lived – I hope that was  with her when she died. She was dealt a lousy hand of cards by life, in many ways.  But she played them to the utmost of her abilities, and she deserves our honour and respect. And love.

MAY 2015
Review of Tuesday's at Tesco's

In a bold and expert performance that makes no concessions to an actor’s vanity or an audience’s sympathy, the august British actor Simon Callow portrays — no, fully inhabits — Pauline in Emmanuel Darley’s “Tuesdays at Tesco’s.


APRIL 2015
Campaign to regenerate Legal Aid

Simon was part of the team that recorded the soundtrack for the campaign to regenerate Legal Aid


APRIL 2015
Print review for Outlander

‘Outlander’ 1×10 Recap: Put Up Your Dukes


APRIL 2015
Creditors Official Teaser Trailer #1

The official teaser trailer for the eagerly anticipated Creditors has been released, take a look here:


MARCH 2015
Tuesdays at Tesco's

We are very excited to announce that Simon will be performing in Tuesdays at Tesco’s in New York City from May 14th to June 7th, 2015. 

Click here for more info and to purchase tickets

MARCH 2015

Simon  is  going to be in HBO's pilot for Alan Ball’s new series, Virtuoso. Shooting next month in Budapest. Virtuoso is period drama set against the complex and volatile backdrop of 18th century Vienna.

Read more here

February 2015
Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway

Saturday 28th February.

Simon will be appearing on the Ant and Dec show: Saturday Night Takeaway this weekend on ITV at 7pm. 

February 2015
Golden Years

On February 26th, Simon starts filming an Indy feature called Golden Years, with Bernard Hill, Virginia Mckennaan and Alun Armstrong. Directed and written by John Miller. 

February 2015
The Flying Dutchman, The Royal Opera House

On Tuesday February 24th, Simon is presenting the world-wide broadcast of The Flying Dutchman from the Royal Opera House. 

February 2015
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

On Sunday February 15th at 3pm, Simon is doing a concert in Birmingham with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The music is by Elgar and Shostakovich.

February 2015
BBC Concert Orchestra

February 3rd 2015, Simon will be in the recording studio to record texts with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Andrews. The music is Sir Arthur Sullivan's incidental music for the tempest and Macbeth.

January 2015
Royal United Hospital

On Friday January 30th at 18:30, Simon will be giving the Awards at the Royal United Hospital's annual get-together in the Assembly Rooms, Bath.

December 2014
Guardian Review

Simon Callow pays tribute to film-maker Mike Nichols

Their first meeting, a script reading for Postcards from the Edge, felt like a reunion. Simon Callow looks back at his 25-year friendship with director Mike Nichols, who died last week


December 2014
Guardian Review

Simon Callow: The Golden Age of Pantomime

Never underestimate the power of a heavyset hero in fishnet tights. Panto has long provided the heart, soul and high camp of the festive season. How did it all begin?


December 2014
A Christmas Carol - Review

A Christmas Carol, Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, Houston, Texas — NEW review


The tradition of performing A Christmas Carol as a one-man show goes back to Dickens himself and continues with contemporary practitioners such as Patrick Stewart and Gerald Dickens. Now it has inspired a brilliant new opera by the young British composer Iain Bell, with a libretto by the actor, director and Dickens expert Simon Callow and a performance of astounding stamina and vigour by the tenor Jay Hunter Morris. Don’t expect jolly holiday entertainment, although the new Christmas Carol is amply heartwarming in its own entrancing way.

October 2014
**NEW** Diary Section Added

We have added a new section to the website. Please find 'Diary' located on the top information bar. 

Here you will find a complete schedule of Simon's appearances past, present and coming soon! 

July 2014
The Man Jesus

The Man Jesus - UK tour

The Tour

Date Town Venue Box Office
10 & 11 Sep Salford Quays The Lowry 0843 208 6000
12 Sep Horsham Capitol 01403 750220
13 Sep Bideford Devon Hall 01805 624624
14 Sep Exeter Northcott 01392 493493
16 Sep Brighton Theatre Royal 0844 871 7650
17 Sep Aylesbury Waterside 0844 871 7607
18 & 19 Sep Southend Palace 01702 351135
20 Sep Newport Riverfront 01633 656679
21 Sep Richmond Theatre 0844 871 7651
23 & 24 Sep Mold Theatr Clwyd 0845 330 3565
25 Sep Dundee Rep 01382 223530
26 Sep Musselburgh Brunton 0131 6652240
27 Sep Berwick Maltings 01289 330 999
28 Sep Lincoln PAC 01522 837600
29 Sep Bromley Churchill 08448 717 620
01 Oct Leicester Curve 0116 242 3595
02 Oct Darlington Civic 01325 486555
03 Oct Southport Atkinson 01704 533333
05 Oct Cheltenham Everyman 01242 572573
06 Oct London Lyric 0844 482 9674
07 Oct York Grand Opera House 0844 871 3024
9 – 11 Oct Guildford Yvonne Arnaud 01483 440000
12 Oct Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse 0113 213 7700
13 Oct Milton Keynes Theatre 0844 871 7652
15 Oct Neath Gwyn Hall 0300 365 6677
16 Oct Halesworth Festival 01986 872000
17 Oct Spalding South Hollland Centre 01775 764777
19 Oct Plymouth Theatre Royal 01752 267222
20 Oct London artsdepot 0208 369 5454
21 Oct Canterbury Marlowe 01227 787787
22 Oct Woking New Victoria 0844 871 7645
24 Oct Bridport Electric Palace 01308 424901
25 Oct Malvern Festival Theatre 01684 892277
27 Oct Harrogate Theatre 01423 502 116
28 Oct Bristol Tobacco Factory 0117 902 0344
30 Oct Dublin Pavilion Theatre 01 231 2929
31 Oct Coleraine Riverside Theatre 028 70 123 123
01 Nov Limerick Lime Tree Theatre 061 774774
02 Nov Cork Everyman 021 450 1673
03 Nov Northampton Theatre Royal 01604 624811
04 Nov Oxford Playhouse 01865 305305

Various dates and venues. See for details.

Ros Povey, Zoë Simpson and Seabright Productions present Simon Callow in the Lyric Theatre Belfast production of The Man Jesus by Matthew Hurt

Directed by Joseph Alford

This extraordinary play looks back two thousand years to witness key moments in the life of ‘the man Jesus’, through the eyes of the people who knew him. 

Simon Callow, one of Britain's best-loved actors, performs this fresh and moving account of biblical stories including the raising of Lazarus, the wedding at Cana and the journey to Jerusalem. His powerful portrayal of the tyrants, traitors and madmen in Jesus’ life asks people of all faiths and none: what sort of a man was able to inspire the history of the world?

Thought-provoking, thrilling and full of wit, this production premiered to great acclaim at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, and now embarks on a strictly limited UK tour.

‘Callow renews our sense of wonder at the son of man and his story.’  
Daily Telegraph

'Callow and Hurt manage to keep us gripped.’
Sunday Times

‘Callow is stunning.’  
Belfast Times

August 2014


26th to 30th of August at St. James Theatre

Directed by Simon Stokes
Adapted by Richard Quick
From a translation by Peter Green

Simon Callow does stand-up comedy – filthy, scabrous, politically incorrect – as he lambasts foreigners, plutocrats, women, gays – as delivered last in Rome AD 100.

Juvenal was one angry white middle-class male. In Juvenalia he tells it like it was. And is.

‘A comic delight … Callow comes on like a foul-tempered and thoroughly vicious Woody Allen’


‘The observation and lyricism delight and resonate’
Time Out

For tickets and information: LINK

Coming Soon ** December 2014 **
Houston Grand Opera - A Christmas Carol

Houston Grand Opera

Running from the 5th to 21st of December

A Christmas Carol 

When Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol appeared in 1843, it delighted Victorian London and still inspires imaginations today.

Iain Bell, a promising young British composer, has written a captivating score to a libretto by Simon Callow, the renowned film and stage actor. Remembered for roles in films like A Room with a View and Four Weddings and a Funeral, Callow has also played Ebenezer Scrooge and Dickens himself on the screen.

Together, they have penned a spellbinding, intensely theatrical experience for HGO's intimate Cullen Theater. The opera is a true tour de force - a one man show - with Houston favorite Anthony Dean Griffey as the narrator of this beloved fable. We will, without doubt, leave the theater with a deeper understanding of the holiday each time we say, "Merry Christmas."

The Narrator - Anthony Dean Griffey
The Narrator - Kevin Ray (Dec. 17 and 20)

Creative Team
Conductor - Warren Jones 
Director - Simon Callow
Set & Costume Designer - Laura Hopkins
Lighting Designer - Mark McCullough
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra



August 2014
The Guardian - Simon Callow: A return to Juvenalia

Phony politicians, flashy oligarchs, gay marriage. As Simon Callow takes his one-man show to Edinburgh, he explores the timeless bite of Juvenal's Satires...

Link to the Guardian article 

July 2014
The Guardian - Simon Callow: Why Der Rosenkavalier reveals the real (and racy) Richard Strauss

With its comic intrigues and double cross-dressing, as well as its longing for a vanished world, this is Strauss's most successful and satisfying opera...

Link to The Guardian article 

July 2014

Edinburgh Festival and London

Directed by Simon Stokes, Adapted by Richard Quick, Translated by Peter Green.

Riverside Studios, London

Tues 17- Tues 22 July 7.30pm

Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh

Jul 31, Aug 1-5, 7-10, 12-17, 19-25 at 3.30pm

St James Theatre

Tues 26-Sat 30 Aug, 7.30pm (matinee performances at 2.30pm on Thurs 28th and Sat 30th

Simon Callow does stand-up comedy. Filthy, foul-mouthed, viciously funny, and deeply politically incorrect. The target: immigrants, plutocrats, women, gays. As last delivered in Rome AD 100. Juvenal was one angry white middle class male. In Juvenilia he tells it like it was. And is. The Writer, Juvenal born circa ad 55, wrote sixteen satires that attacked the decadence of Rome in its heyday. Here adapted by Richard Quick we are given a view into the moral decline that is as relevant now, as it was back then.

July 5 2014

Following the critically acclaimed sell-out concert, Ivor Novello – The Great British Musical, award-winning Musical Director Ross Leadbeater and The Novello Singers return to the St James Theatre for a limited 3 performances only with a new theatrical concert celebrating the best of The Great British Musicals.

Narrated by BBC Radio 4 Just A Minute host Nicholas Parsons CBE (Friday and Saturday Eve) and Stage and Screen legend Simon Callow CBE (Saturday Matinee)  this is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to enjoy a ‘glamorous night’ at St James Theatre with Ross Leadbeater and The Novello Singers – a newly established eight-voice musical theatre ensemble.

The concert celebrates the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, Lionel Monckton, Vivien Ellis, Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, Lionel Bart, Leslie Bricusse and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and features a special First World War centenary tribute to Ivor Novello’s 1914 composition ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’.

30 June 2014

30 June 2014

Join us for a theatrical exploration of Beethoven through his music and letters. Intense emotion, psychological drama and the Academy of St Martin in the Field's signature interpretation of Beethoven provide "as edge of a seat experience as you will find", featuring award-winning screen and stage actor Simon Callow, Inon Barnatan and in a change to the previously published line-up, Jack Liebeck (director/violin).

15 June 2014

Seventy years ago, in July 1944, with the most disastrous war in history in its death-throes, a secret meeting took place in a hotel deep in the forests of New Hampshire. Bankers and economists from over forty nations met to draw up a settlement to save the world economy and secure the peace. Everything depended on two men - John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White, played in this new play by Simon Callow as Keynes and Henry Goodman as White.

23 May 2014

Featuring a star-studded array of storytellers like Harry Enfield, Sally Phillips, Richard Hammond, Sarah Solemani, Rebecca Front, Kevin Eldon, Hugh Dennis, Jessica Hynes, Sharon Horgan, Jack Dee, Stephen Mangan and Charlie Higson, this brand new and exclusive Dave original taps into a bygone age of television storytelling. But this time, instead of the cosiness of the original it took inspiration from, Crackanory is packed full of darkly funny yarns that are firmly set in the cut and thrust of 21st century life.

Each episode features two 15-minute tales narrated by some of the best names in comedy and featuring some special guests, while these unique stories are brought to life with a mix of live action and animation. Simon will be appearing in the second series, due for release later in the year.

14 May 2014

We’re thrilled to announce that Simon Callow is confirmed as the narrator for the performance of Tarik O’Regan’s Suite from the Heart of Darkness on Wednesday 14 May at BBC Hoddinott Hall.

The Suite is extrapolated from O’Regan’s opera of the same name based on the novella by Joseph Conrad.  The spoken text for the narrator is based on the libretto written by Tom Phillips.  An added bonus is the post-concert talk which will see Callow joining O’Regan and Phillips in conversation with broadcaster Nicola Heywood-Thomas.  

Full details of the concert, given by BBC National Orchestra of Wales, can be found:

30 April 2014

Simon Callow concludes Newsnight's celebration of Shakespeare's 450th birthday playing Prospero, from The Tempest.

26 April 2014

Director: Ben Cura

Producer: Cuibar Productions (ES) /Tough Dance (GB)

A love triangle is unraveled when a painter whose career and marriage are in decline is approached by an admirer and eased into making sense of his troubled relationship with his wife. The movie is based on the original play by August Strindberg (recently revived at the Donmar in 2008 in London and at the B.A.M. in 2010 in New York).

Simon plays Chloe Fleury’s literary agent John Allen. John is seen at her book-launch party on Osea Island approaching Freddie Lynch, a famous young painter. Freddie’s earlier accidental encounter with Chloe, in a remote corner of the island, has left a mark on him - which John can sense. He uses this to take advantage of a photo-op with the two - which will eventually segue, Chloe’s husband being absent, into adultery.

17 April 2014

But what about the little guys, the wasters - new to the big city, stuck in office jobs, unable to get the girls?

Plebs follows three desperate young men from the suburbs as they try to get laid, hold down jobs and climb the social ladder in the big city – a city that happens to be Ancient Rome.

The series stars Tom Rosenthal (Friday Night Dinner), Joel Fry (White Van Man) and Ryan Sampson (After You’ve Gone) as the three young men – Marcus, Stylax and their lazy slave with an attitude problem, Grumio. 

Simon will be making a guest star appearance in the second series. 

31 March 2014

Simon appeared on the quiz show's theatre special.

12 April 2014

"Rob Brydon hosts a new series in which five celebrities help contestants to guess the answers to some rather revealing questions. The famous faces in this episode are James Corden, Jennifer Saunders, Simon Callow, Emilia Fox and Louis Smith."

13 February 2014
Being Shakespeare

Simon Callow brings to life Shakespeare's unforgettable characters and the real man behind the legend in this triumphant and critically acclaimed play. 

Don't miss your chance to experience this magnificent performance from one of Britain’s finest actors, as BEING SHAKESPEARE sets the West End alight for a strictly limited run of 22 performances only. 

The show returns to the the London stage following its run at the Trafalgar Studios in 2012 and subsequent off-Broadway transfer. 

At the Harold Pinter Theatre from 26 February until 15 March 2015,

Click here to buy tickets

Space Age and Outlander

Simon is very excited about staring in the up and coming: Space Age and Outlander. 

One to keep an eye out for... 

Charity Concert for Great Ormond Street Hospital

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Sponsored by Trailfinders, the concert will be a wonderful evening for adults and children alike and will feature popular congregational carols accompanied by the Choristers of Thomas’s Battersea, the London Central Fellowship Band and the Band of the Grenadier Guards, along with heart-warming readings from a host of well-known special guest and patients from Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Simon will be appearing on Tuesday 10th of December

Click here to buy tickets

Charity Concert for Breast Cancer Care

Tuesday 17th December 2013

Join us to celebrate the festive season at the magical setting of St Paul’s Cathedral for our popular, annual Carols by Candlelight. This wonderful evening will put you in the Christmas spirit with seasonal readings from our celebrity supporters; be entertained by the world-renowned St Paul’s Cathedral Choir as they lead the carols, and enjoy spectacular performances throughout the evening.

Carols by Candlelight in 2013 will include readings and performances from celebrity guests. We're excited to announce that Jonathan Ansell will be singing at the event, and actor Simon Callow CBE will be reading. We will update this page with more guests, so check back for updates.

Gather after the service by the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral for delicious festive treats. For guests wishing to continue the Christmas merriment, we host an intimate champagne supper in the charming Crypt of St Paul’s, under the Cathedral floor. Here you’ll enjoy a champagne reception, delicious supper and the opportunity to bid in our luxury ‘auctionette’.

Click here to buy tickets

Etiquette on London's Transport Network

TFL Campaign 

Etiquette on London's Transport Network


Watch here

Inside Wagner's Head

Latest News:

Wagner's Head is at the Theatre Royal Plymouth on the 12th, 13th and 14th of December (Matinee & Evening)

Simon is currently performing a new one-man show – Inside Wagner’s Head - as part of the Deloitte Ignite festival.

‘The most surprising thing I discovered was his autobiography. You assume an 800-page biography by Wagner is going to be heavy, but it’s one of the most entertaining biographies by an artist I’ve ever read’, said Simon. ‘It shows he does have a sense of humour. It doesn’t conceal anything, it’s absolutely lousy with anti-Semitism but equally it’s full of vision and brilliance and jokes. He was a funny man!’

In creating Inside Wagner’s Head, Simon revealed he has discovered a hugely complex character – one who was fervently nationalist but who hated militarism and imperialism. The BAFTA-winning actor also spoke of reconciling Wagner’s anti-Semitism with his ability to create awe-inspiring works:

‘It’s really difficult – I think that it’s a pathology in his case. When he was being painted by Renoir he chit-chatted most agreeably with Renoir and then suddenly a five-minute tirade against the Jews, completely unprovoked, and then after the tirade back to chit-chat. It was like a Tourette’s syndrome.

‘Wagner was a delinquent by temperament… he glamorized his participation in the revolution of 1849 – he went round joining in with the general mood of danger and excitement. He was very excited by being in the presence of [Mikhail] Bakunin, the great anarchist; the most famous terrorist in the world at the time. Wagner, like Dickens, is one of those people who attracted extraordinariness to him. Wherever he went, everything became more extreme. He self-dramatized to an astonishing degree, but that’s who he was.’

Simon also spoke about Wagner’s relationship with his patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria, his revolutionary activities and Wagner’s turbulent love affairs as well as giving a sense of how he himself developed Wagner’s voice for the one-man show.

Book tickets here

Click Here to Listen to Simon speaking about Richard Wagner

Lifetime Contribution To The British Theatre

Announced As Recipient Of The Stage Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre at the 2013 UK Theatre Awards.

Click here for more information


Felicity Kendal and Simon Callow star as two people who have something in common: the affair that exists between their spouses!

Set in burgeoning 1950’s Paris, Chin-Chin tells of the often hilarious and ultimately disastrous effect of the affair, as the jilted couple rendezvous in a Paris apartment to set the world to rights, where they declare their independence in life, and in love.

But out of these undesirable circumstances, special connections are forged, and the un-likely pair soon realise that they will leave the ‘city of love’ with more than they had bargained for...

Dates and venues are as follows:

Cheltenham Mon 18th Nov - Sat 23rd Nov

Cardiff New Theatre Tue 26th Nov - Sat 30th Nov

Truro Hall For Cornwall Mon 2nd Dec - Sat 7th Dec

Click here to buy tickets

© Simon Callow 2013