Admiration for energy of Dickens from live-wire actor

Simon Callow
Simon Callow
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Actor, director, author – there are many titles to which Simon Callow lays claim. He talks to arts correspondent Nick Ahad.

The aspect of Charles Dickens’s character that impressed Simon Callow most was his titanic energy.

“The drive he had, the capability to achieve things, was simply staggering, quite extraordinary,” he says.

One wonders, then, if he regularly stands in front of a mirror admiring himself.

The actor, author, director, has an energy that, even though it might not match up to that of Dickens, one suspects would deeply impress Callow were he to view it in another.

“The truth is we all waste a great deal of our lives,” says Callow, enunciating the way only a classically trained ac-tor might.

“I find it quite a challenge to switch off my mind completely – except for those times when I am on stage performing, then I am entirely focused on a single thing. But apart from that I find it very difficult to just switch off,” adds Callow.

Bafta-nominated actor, award-winning director, author of 20 books – and the winner of the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography, he puts the impetus behind his creative pursuits in different fields down to being “just greedy, really”.

Although perhaps still best remembered as Gareth, the ebullient gay character in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Callow has a wide-ranging CV.

As well as roles in major movies like Shakespeare in Love and Amadeus, roles with the RSC and on the stage of the National, it includes several one-man stage shows and a number in which he either plays, talks about or performs the work of Charles Dickens. Others include The Man From Stratford, in which we learn about Shakespeare, and recently Tuesdays at Tescos, his hit show the Edinburgh Fringe this year in which he plays a transvestite in a play about gender politics.

The subject to which he continually returns, however, is Dickens. He has played the writer in Doctor Who, written about him, performed his works on stage and on TV: with Callow, Dickens is an obsession that has lasted almost a lifetime.

“It all started when I was about 13 and I had chickenpox,” he says. “It is the most awful thing, you are constantly scratching. When I was in the throes of this terrible condition, my grandmother gave me a copy of The Pickwick Papers – and I never scratched again.”

In The Mystery of Charles Dickens, a one-man show written by Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd, Callow played the Victorian author in a production which had West End seasons in 2000 and 2002 and toured the country extensively. He is in the middle of a UK-wide tour with Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, a one-man performance of two of Dickens’s short stories in a show that is as theatrical as it is entertaining.

On Sunday, Callow comes to the Ilkley Literature Festival – not to perform his one-man show, but perhaps even more impressively, simply to talk about Dickens and, one assumes, thrill his audience with tales of the writer.

He will also read from some of Dickens’s works and even discuss his biography, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, which is due to be published by Harper Press in February 2012.

He says: “From the moment I began to read his work when I was a child, what amazed me was the sheer exuberance that came bursting off the page. It was absolutely thrilling.”

To the world that only knows Callow from his film work, it may be a surprise to see him appearing at a literary festival. Even the theatregoers who know him well, he says, might not know of his writing.

“People may know me from movies, but not know me from theatre, and they might not know me for my books,” he says. “The world of books is much smaller than the world of movies.”

The truth is that it is not so unusual – Callow’s natural home may be a literary festival even more than a stage, as he reveals the written word is actually his first love.

“It was always my ambition to be a writer, long before I wanted to be an actor,” he says.

“When I was younger I wrote all sorts of junk – mostly about myself, which was a very limited subject. It was only when I started to act, that I had something to write about. I have always found there is something very exquisite about writing.”

In My View: Simon Callow on Charles Dickens, Ilkley Literature Festival, October 16, 7pm. Details on 01943 816714.