Simon Callow, Part 5

By Samuel L. Leiter

April 24, 2020: This is Part 5, the last installment of my long-lost interview with the British stage, film, and TV star, Simon Callow, also renowned as a writer and director. It was conducted in his London home in 1993, twenty-seven years ago, but has never before been published. For background on the circumstances of the interview and why it’s first being published now, please check the introduction to Part 1. 


By Samuel L. Leiter

April 24, 2020: This is Part 5, the last installment of my long-lost interview with the British stage, film, and TV star, Simon Callow, also renowned as a writer and director. It was conducted in his London home in 1993, twenty-seven years ago, but has never before been published. For background on the circumstances of the interview and why it’s first being published now, please check the introduction to Part 1. 

Part 5

In Shooting the Actor, Simon Callow describes his struggles with writing a script for a film version of a book called At Freddie’s. The project subsequently was scrapped because of financing problems. But Simon is teeming with projects, one of them, also mentioned in the book, being a prospective film about controversial psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich, concerning whom Dusan Makavejev himself made a provocative film, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), a subject in which I confess my wife and I have long been interested. Simon has even written an unproduced play about Reich. 

The movie, for which he hopes to play Reich (as he said he would have to do to demonstrate his film acting abilities), is quite alive [note: to my knowledge, nothing appears to have come of it]. Simon says his interest in Reich came about after he “just stumbled upon his name and his life.” 

A longtime interest in psychoanalysis and its history was stirred up by the break when Reich broke off from Freud on the issue of the death instinct and insisted that the whole of human behavior could be understood in terms simply of the healthy function of the sex drive and that by Freud introducing the notion of the death principle, the Thanatos principle, he was predicting a fundamentally pessimistic view of the human organism, which was basically a destructive and negative approach. I found something very heartwarming about this idea that everybody can be put right. And then I found it just breathtaking when he started to go off into his closer analysis and his identification of orgone energy, and then it became magnificent when he started to bust the clouds and to cure people of cancer—as he may or may not have done—it’s still very unclear about that.

Simon mentioned that Kenneth Tynan had written an unpublished book about Reich, which Tynan’s widow, Elizabeth, a friend of Simon’s has been promising to let him see [note: again, the outcome of this offer is uncertain].

I’m sure it’s wonderful because to Ken, as to Dusan, Reich was just a prophet of sexual liberation full staff. But there’s much, much more to it. It’s an extraordinary life, encompassing the Communist Party in Vienna, the biological experiments in Norway, and then the cloud busting in the States, and finally being prosecuted by the FDA and dying in prison in Pennsylvania.

Simon laughed at the suggestion that his multifaceted career may lead him, like Kenneth Branagh, to be considered a “new Orson Welles.” “I don’t think so,” he answered, noting that he doesn’t identify with Welles, whereas he does with Charles Laughton, the subject of his well-received biography.

I have a very troublesome relationship with Orson. We argue all the time. All the fucking time. You know, I’m sitting at my word processor, I’m just screaming at him. But with Charles, I was moved, terribly, to uncover this complicated and in many ways rather tiresome man who was, I think, an absolute artist. We’re not talking about terms like genius, we’re talking about someone who labors to create something which is both true and beautiful. That moves me very much. I was very excited about Charles’s teaching, in Hollywood, Los Angeles.

Simon would himself like to have a group—a company, preferably—with whom he could dig deeply “into the possibilities of human expression.” The director he holds up as an ideal of this type of work is Ingmar Bergman, especially for his ability to “create a circle of concentration” for a group of actors, both on stage and in film, so that “they could develop themselves.”

I don’t think there’s ever been in the history of the cinema a finer repertory company than his players. What I begin to understand, as I grow up, eventually, is that you have to create the right conditions. If you’re going to have a garden you have to make sure that the soil is good. You have to allow plenty of time. You have to put your bulbs in the earth at the right time. You have to sit and wait for something to happen. Don’t expect them to shoot up out of the ground. You have to make sure that everything is rooted, deeply, and there’s a chance that your garden will grow. But in this country, particularly, at the moment, starting with the blessed Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the notion of state nurture, what we have in our little garden—the English theatre—is a lot of cut flowers in vases, very pretty, but there are no roots going down, there is no nourishment of the soil.

In Simon’s opinion, the major subsidized companies, the Royal National and the Royal Shakespeare, “do very honorable work,” but are more “big producing organizations” than real companies. They “gather together groups of actors for certain periods each year to do certain plays and certain projects but they aren’t really and truly working on themselves to make themselves richer in expression.” 

To find English examples of what he was talking about, he had to go back three decades to the National under Lord Laurence Olivier, from 1963 to 1970, whenthe company was constantly challenged. For example, they were going to do a Feydeau play (A Flea in Her Ear) and they were determined to open up the whole range of world drama. If they were going to do a Feydeau then they got Jacques Charon [of the Comédie Française] to come in, and the actors gave themselves immeasurably. He couldn’t speak very good English but they learned from his very presence in their midst and they learned how to work on themselves. 

At the National Theatre at that time there were compulsory movement classes which, of course, Olivier attended. There were very, very successful voice classes, and so on. And there was a tremendous sense of examining the progress of all the actors in the company so that they were able to develop—this is the point that I was getting at—to develop—they were obliged to dig deeper into themselves to fill these roles.

What Simon emphasizes here is that the work at the National was only possible because its leader was an actor, unlike other companies, where the artistic leader is usually a director. The excitement generated by Olivier’s daily presence in the midst of his troupe was incalculable. 

“He was sixty by the time I worked at the National Theatre at the box office and he was everywhere.” This excitement didn’t carry over into the Peter Hall years, Simon believes, since Hall, unlike Olivier, simply was not “up there every night,” guaranteeing the level of work, despite the agony of Olivier’s having to perform during a period of serious physical ailments and formidable memory problems.

Somebody told me a wonderful story about him that I had not heard, that when they were playing Othello in the repertory, and, after the play was not produced for a week or something like that and the actors were going to have a word run to refresh their memories, he apologized for this. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m very sorry for this but I’m going to have to give the performance full out (during the word run) because if I do anything less than that I’ll begin to think that I can get away with it and I’ll start to learn bad habits, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to do it up to that level.” I mean that’s an attitude in life which is sort of irreplaceable. I’m afraid a director can’t really give that. I’m always, you know, rallying the troops as a director and setting up these great ideals and so on but there’s nothing like demonstrating it, is there?

Stories of professional dedication that go beyond the call of duty deeply move Simon. One of his favorites is about American stage star Katharine Cornell, who played Juliet when nearing middle age, and would stand in the wings before her entrances with her arms raised to drain the hands of blood, “because the hands give you away, more than anything else. I was particularly moved to think that nobody in the audience could have seen it. It was for herself so she wouldn’t be contradicted in her belief in her own youth.

Simon, who professes to enjoy directing opera more than theatre, and whose raison d’être as a director is to one day do The Magic Flute (“all the others have done it wrong”), wrote in Being an Actor that his conception of directing (or rehearsing) is “messing around, trying things out, following strange impulses and seeing what happens.” [Note: He eventually directed The Magic Flute for Holland Park Opera in 2008.] He compares the rehearsal room to “a kitchen where you combine ingredients as they come to hand, testing, tasting.” 

When he became a director soon after, he did work this way, having learned it from working with a French director named Jean Jourdheuil, under whom he acted the part of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the English version of Jourdheuil’s Paris one-act, “Melancholy Jacques.” The director spoke no English, requiring Simon to rehearse in French (which he speaks fluently) for a role he would play in English. 

Simon was fascinated by the lack of conventional notes he received. “What he was doing, all the time, was to articulate the style of the play, in other words, to say, this is the way this works, this is what we’re dealing with, this is this piece. It needed some articulating because it’s a very curious piece.” Rather than relying on physical means to convey his thoughts, Jourdheuil provided allusive but stimulating actor-oriented images.

He gave me one wonderful note. I wish I could remember it more precisely, at this moment. He said Rousseau must never be with the public on his own, he must always be on his own he must always be on his own in front of the public. It was things of that kind, when he was trying to define the nature of Rousseau’s relationship to this things. 

For example, in this play, there is Rousseau sitting on a pile of books, remembering being in Geneva, where he lived for a while, you know, and he had a little gas stove, so it’s partly anachronistic and partly not, and Jean was very good about saying, you know, it’s really the actor who’s making himself a cup of coffee, not Rousseau. It was that kind of constant articulation of who I was supposed to be and so on, rather than him saying move there, sit there, say that louder, whatever. He believed that if you got the articulate style everything else would fall into place. I do believe that.st

For example, shall we say, what one keeps stressing, when you’re directing actors in The Infernal Machine, you have to keep saying, “This is a dream, it’s a dream. The play comes from a dream-like brain and we have to find our way to that.” Now, I can suggest ways to do that but it would be better if the actors could get that into their minds.

When the actors don’t, then the director gives suggestions, “because the director must be all things to all people. Some people work one way, some another way. The director must always come with at least three alternatives for everything. That’s part of the job.”

Simon declared how important it is for the director to establish the style of a play. His obsession with style led him to discuss farce acting, about which he holds very specific views, and which he clarifies by comparing it with light comedy “in which everything hinges on the way in which you say it. Whereas in a farce, everything depends on the intensity of the objectives and the people just have to be completely taken over by their needs.” 

To Simon, farce has to do with physical things, to do with the ability to become; it’s the abolition of subtext, it’s the ability to become utterly single-minded and then [snapping his fingers] to change your focus totally, whatever. It’s the kind of acting that needs Ben Jonson. One of the reasons why Jonson doesn’t quite work in England is because people keep trying to humanize Ben Jonson and you can’t do that. The idea of the humor is the same thing as farce acting. You have one prevailing characteristic and you just live it. 

Confronted by his avowal in Shooting the Stars that “a genuine farce actor is a rarity on the English stage,” with only Leonard Rossiter given as an exemplar, Simon was willing to open the gates a tiny bit and allow in two more names, John Quayle, recently seen in the West End’s Don’t Dress for Dinner, and the late Alastair Sim. Only the latter is likely to be familiar to Americans, however, and mainly for his role as Scrooge in the best-known, prewar movie version of A Christmas Carol.

The topic of farce versus light comedy brought up Simon’s work on the popular solo play Shirley Valentine, which proved to be a combination, a kind of standup comic act and some sort of classical piece where her journey was the all-important, overriding consideration. There was a danger that Pauline [Collins], a wonderful actress, Pauline, that she, being a light comedienne, wanted to dwell on little moments that she wanted to create up there, whereas the all-important thing was that we saw those stories in the way that comedians—everything depends on the audience seeing what they’re talking about.

Simon didn’t direct the movie of Shirley Valentine, whose director had already been hired before the play opened. He found the film “perfectly pleasant” but was a little disappointed that, unlike the play, where the unseen husband is pictured as a sort of comic ogre, the movie turned him into “just a very nice, if slightly grumpy, little publican.” The casting of Tom Conti as Shirley’s Greek lover was “surprising” to him because “we had cast, in our minds, all those characters she speaks of, so she really had someone to think of, very specifically, and the person we cast was a really short, fat, hairy little restaurateur we knew up the road.”

Playwright Peter Shaffer shocked Simon many years ago by telling him that he had to be carefully looked after, for he was “one of the successors.” “Well,” says Simon, frankly, “somehow I didn’t become one of the successors.” Yet, when one contemplates the breadth and depth of his continuing contributions to the worlds of theatre and film (not to mention opera), both in performance and in writing, and the scope of what lies before him, it would be foolish to conclude that Simon may not one day fulfill Shaffer’s prophecy or that, for all his disavowals, he, too, may one day be a “new Orson Welles.”

[The above conclusion was written in 1993. Readers familiar with Simon’s subsequent extraordinary career: what think you of Shaffer’s prophecy?]

Click Here to Read Simon Callow Part 1

Click Here to Read Simon Callow Part 2

Click Here to Read Simon Callow Part 3

Click Here to Read Simon Callow Part 4