Actor goes from stage to page as he plays a new part in the great Dickens explosion

Simon Callow in Dr Marigold and Mr Chops at the Lyceum Theatre, Nov 29-Dec 3 2011
Simon Callow in Dr Marigold and Mr Chops at the Lyceum Theatre, Nov 29-Dec 3 2011
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Simon Callow has played Charles Dickens on stage and for TV and now he’s written about the great Victorian novelist. He talks to Chris Bond.

CHARLES DICKENS is everywhere at the moment.

He may be as dead as a doornail, but in the run-up to the bicentenary of his birth (on February 7) sales of his books have soared thanks, in no small part, to the BBC whose recent adaptation of Great Expectations, in which Gillian Anderson stole the show as Miss Havisham, attracted six million viewers. They followed that with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’ final novel, which also proved a hit with TV audiences.

It’s not just the Beeb that are celebrating his life and work, though, the Museum of London is hosting a Dickensian exhibition and a slew of books have hit the shelves recently including Claire Tomalin’s excellent Charles Dickens: A Life and John Sutherland’s The Dickens Dictionary – An A-Z of England’s Greatest Novelist. Now the actor, writer and director Simon Callow has thrown his hat into the ring with Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, which comes out this week.

So what made Callow add to “the swelling tide”, as he puts it, of Dickens books out there? “I’ve been working very closely with the life of Dickens in one way or another for the past 15 years and I felt I had something different to say,” he says. As someone who has played Dickens himself, including a cameo appearance in Dr Who, there can’t be many people better placed to write about him. In The Mystery of Charles Dickens, a one-man show written by Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd, Callow played the Victorian author and last year he completed a UK tour with Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, a one-man performance of two of Dickens’s short stories.

Callow was intrigued by his theatricality and the certitude of his voice. “I wanted to explore the notion of Charles Dickens as a performer and the conscious degree to which he was supremely confident as a performer. He could talk to the public and speak about his books in a way that would captivate audiences,” he says.

“If you read his novels he has an extreme presence in his books. Your are very conscious of Dickens himself, of his voice, and there are times when it’s almost as though he’s reading the story to you. You’re very conscious of the author whereas Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen don’t have that presence.”

Callow is appearing at Barnsley Civic on Thursday when he will be reading excerpts from his new book and discussing Dickens’s characters as well as the man himself. His obsession with Dickens started early and has never left him. “I went to watch A Christmas Carol as a child, when I was about seven or eight, but the moment I really became hooked was when I was 13 and suffering from chickenpox. It was utter misery and I was constantly scratching, but then I was given a copy of The Pickwick Papers by my grandma, who took pity on me, and the scratching stopped. I was captivated by these comical characters and the crazy situations and madcap activities,” he says.

The Pickwick Papers was his first book and in a way it set out his stall, it was like he was saying, ‘I’m going to write on this great canvas, I’m going to paint great pictures and evoke worlds for you’ and I love that. But not everyone does. Some people don’t like Dickens, they want to be drawn quietly and softly into a novel with characters that have carefully calibrated minds, and Dickens doesn’t do that.”

Given the impending anniversary, Dickens is, not surprisingly, enjoying a resurgence right now although Callow believes he has never been out of fashion. “There have been some majestic biographies but I would say he’s never really gone away, he just happens to be even more popular at the moment.” The fact there are so many adaptations of his novels, he says, is down to his consummate talent for character and drama. “Theatricality is in his nature, you have these wonderful words and scenes and these fantastic characters that transfer so well from the page to the screen.”

Callow himself has an impressive CV. As well as playing the ebullient Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral, he’s had roles in major films like Shakespeare in Love and Amadeus and been a stalwart of the RSC and the National Theatre.

But it was writing, rather than acting that he felt was his true calling. “Writing was my dream. I wanted to be a writer but I soon realised I didn’t have anything interesting to write about, at least nothing that would be interesting to other people, and I wasn’t so egotistical that I thought my life was worth writing about.”

Since then, he has carved out an impressive literary career, writing nearly 20 books, winning the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography along the way, and has no intention of stopping any time soon. “Once the third and final volume of the Orson Welles biography is finished I will finally get round to writing fiction which I’ve never done before,” he says.

“I only write about people who are flamboyant, larger than life characters, I wouldn’t write about a quiet person. I write about people that I would have liked to have met and what it was like to be around them.” But of all the people he has written about, including Charles Laughton, Orson Welles and Oscar Wilde, he says Dickens is the one that impresses him the most. “He is the titan among them for his sheer energy, ambition and brilliance.” Even more than Shakespeare, another of his heroes? “Shakespeare wasn’t like that, his life was much more circumscribed, he was eyes and ears rather than mouth. Dickens would be reading speeches in the town hall while Shakespeare would have been editing a newspaper.

“The drive Dickens possessed was extraordinary, Shakespeare didn’t climb mountains or travel to Niagra Falls like Dickens did.”

Callow’s book focuses more on the man than his novels. “If you want an in depth analysis of the work then I’m not your man. I try and imagine what it must have been like to be Charles Dickens, that’s the art of my biography, which I concede has its limitations,” he says.

Why, though, does he think Dickens has remained so popular? “There are some people who have that vitality and you just can’t keep them down. Dickens was hugely popular during his own lifetime, but so was Lord Lytton, just as many people read his books, but he has largely been forgotten while Dickens has stood the test of time.

“It’s not just about his relevance today, the works of Dickens are so pulsating with life, they are bursting with energy and innovation. If you stand back from the page you think ‘what is this man on? Where does it all come from, these crazy, surreal, fantastic edifications of the human spirit?’ You have to admit it is pretty remarkable stuff.”

Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, published by HarperPress, is out on Febuary 2.

Simon Callow is appearing at the Civic, Barnsley, also on February 2. Tickets cost £16. Box office 01226 327 000.