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Authors: Simon Callow

My Life in Pieces

BOOK: My Life in Pieces
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This book is dedicated to my very dear friend, Vernon Dobtcheff,
who, it can safely be said, has – across many decades and several
continents – seen, relished and remembered, in dazzling detail, more
actors and acting than anyone on the planet.

A word about the title. It may seem to suggest a certain degree of disintegration. The opposite is intended, though the possibility, of course, is always there.

I’ve been writing for newspapers pretty well continuously for thirty years (unless you count – which I don’t think you should – a piece knocked off forty years ago for the student newspaper of my university). I have written features, weekly columns (for the
Independent
, for the
Sunday Express
and, under the nom de plume Autolycus, for
Country Life
), a monthly column for
Gramophone
magazine, travel pieces, book reviews, restaurant reviews. As well as newspapers, national and local, I’ve written features for magazines, theatre programmes, in-house journals; and I have written introductions and forewords and articles for books. I have written about many, many things, but most of my writing by far has been about acting and the theatre. Looking at them again, these literally hundreds of thousands of words, I seem to have been in the grip of a virulent form of logorrhoea. The fact is, my overriding ambition, through all the years of my childhood, and long before I had any notion of being an actor, was to be a writer. I have always had a compulsion (noted on many school reports) to communicate in words – audibly, normally, and in class, to the intense irritation of my teachers. But even then, in those garrulous days of childhood, I was writing: mostly what in America is called journaling, which even I could see was a hiding to nowhere. I had no subject other than myself. So at a certain point, bored and disgusted with that self, I put my writing on hold.

When I found the theatre, I knew I had my subject, and I started writing again. I felt like an anthropologist who has had the good fortune to discover a lost tribe.
Being an Actor,
my first book, published in 1984, was the culmination of nearly fifteen years of writing about this new world I had discovered and which had proved so hospitable to me. No one, of course, had read what I wrote, though occasionally it would spill over into letters. Then, in 1981, the
London Evening Standard
asked me – to be precise was cajoled by desperate publicists into asking me – to write about the play I was in, and from then on I have been asked on a pretty regular basis to commit my deathless thoughts on the subject to print. I’ve been at my happiest celebrating actors and acting, directors and writers. Sometimes this has taken the form of interviews, sometimes profiles, increasingly often obituaries.

It will be evident to anyone who so much as dips into the book that, like my hero, Kenneth Tynan, I am a bit of a hero-worshipper. My luck is that I have encountered so many people whom I could admire. Taken together, the celebration of performers, directors and writers amounts to a view of acting and the theatre; in some pieces, I have spelled this view out. I have sought to fascinate the reader with those aspects of the life of the theatre (and of film) that have fascinated me. Like another hero of mine, Laurence Olivier, who said he wanted to interest the public in the art of acting, I have tried to spark a debate about it, to alert people to the fact that there is no single truth in this art, and to the possibility of gloriously different modes of expression within it. I am also writing for those who, like my fifteen-year-old self, are doing their theatre-going in their rooms at home. I am aware that to a large extent, I am writing about a theatre which no longer exists or will soon cease to. The theatre constantly remakes itself. Perhaps this book might sow a seed, encourage a few people, not to turn the clock back, but to take note of what heights the theatre and acting has from time to time attained, and strive to match it.

Put together, the pieces form an account of my relationship, over more than fifty years, to the theatre and, to a somewhat lesser degree, because I have been rather less involved in it (and over a much shorter period), to film. I’ve arranged them, not in chronological order of composition, but as their subjects came up in my life, so I suppose they amount to a sort of alternative autobiography, or at the very least, a growing narrative of my theatrical preoccupations. I have written about my career as such
in
Being an Actor
and
Shooting the Actor
. Here I write about my passions, my concerns and my dreams. Theatre has been at the centre of my life for four decades, so to that extent, this book is the story of my life.

My background was, I suppose, theatrical, but in the unimaginable past
and swathed in myth: my Danish great-grandfather Jules Guise had been
first a clown, then a ringmaster, then a theatrical agent: his star clients
were a fourteen-strong troupe of midgets called Dr Zeynard’s Lilliputians.
His French wife Thérèse, whom he met when she was riding bareback in
the circus of which he was ringmaster, came from a long and distinguished
line of circus equestrians; her grandfather had opened a hippodrome in St
Petersburg, and when he left, the Tsar, who had grown fond of him, gave
him, as a farewell present, Napoleon’s horse, Splendid, which he then
showed off in the capital cities of Europe for the rest of his life. Jules and
Thérèse had a son, also Jules, whose wife, my maternal grandmother, was
a gifted singer, and had briefly been a chorus girl on tour, until she ran
away, she told me with characteristic candour, after an unwelcome
advance of an amorous nature from one of the other girls. I was seven
years old when I received this baffling piece of information. My father’s
mother, who was French, had memories of the divine Sarah Bernhardt
coming to their house in Lyon for tea; her father was teaching Bernhardt
the role of Hamlet. Less sensationally, she had been best friends with Lil
ian Baylis’s Box Office Manager at the Old Vic, Miss Clarke.

This ancient history was of purely romantic interest to me. We did just
about as much theatre-going as any normal middle-class family, no more,
no less: in other words, we were not really theatregoers at all. The annual
season of
Peter Pan
at the now long-demolished Scala Theatre was more
or less
de rigueur
, however. I wrote this piece about my visit to it for
Snowdon’s Christmas edition of
Country Life
in 1997.

I am standing in a queue in a London street on a cold dark November night in 1953 with my Uncle Maurice and my grandmother. I am four years old and howling with all the considerable power of my infant lungs. My fingers and toes are frozen and I don’t know why we’re here, lined up with all these other people. The bright lights on the front of the building are getting closer as the queue shuffles forward. I howl louder and louder, not in the least mollified by assurances that I’ll love it when we get inside. We pass through the front doors and into a sort of hallway and then on into a vast room with rows and rows of seats covered in red velvet. At the end of the room is a huge curtain, with gold tassels and braid in figures of eight down the sides. I am more upset than ever, only wanting to be back home in familiar suburban Streatham. Then music starts, and the lights go out. Terror. The great curtain goes up, and there before me is the inside of a big house filled with beds and children and their nanny, who happens to be a dog. And my jaw drops and I immediately stop howling. And then a boy in a green costume flies in at the window, looking for his shadow, which turns out to be in a drawer, and a fairy flickers around the stage, and soon all the children fly out of the window as the music surges up. And my eyes open so wide it hurts, and I don’t want to go back to Streatham; in fact, I never want to go back to Streatham again. I want to fly out of the window, I want to fight pirates and rescue Indian maidens, I want to clash swords with Captain Hook, I want a twinkling fairy of my own. And I want to do it to the roars of approval and disapproval that well up from the hundreds of children in the theatre that evening.

In short, my destiny has been fixed. And throughout my childhood, I am haunted by Peter Pan, moved by him in ways I don’t understand, and captivated by Wendy, and Nana the dog, Tiger Lily, Smee, and Noodler, colouring them in in my copy of
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
; above all, I am haunted by the ringleted, saturnine ex-Etonian Captain Jas. Hook, sardonic, dashing, and bad to the core. I too might have cried out with the little girl who, on the very first night of the play, in November of 1908, shouted during the terrible scene in which Hook poisons Peter, ‘I love that man!’ But as time passes, I forget
Peter Pan
; Shakespeare replaces Barrie, and I have left the Mermaids’ Lagoon and the Wendy House far behind.

Until 1982, that is, when, purely out of curiosity, I go the Barbican Theatre to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of this funny old
play, this dim memory of my childhood, and sitting there sceptically in that unlovely auditorium, the moment the chrome drawbridge that replaces the curtain is raised, and the Darlings’ nursery is revealed, my heart is in my mouth, and when Nana the dog appears, I feel my eyes opening wide. The whole first scene passes in a sort of blur of emotion for me until, to Stephen Oliver’s glorious ascending theme, Peter and the Darling children fly out of the window, and I find myself sobbing. I squint sideways to see if anyone else has been similarly afflicted, and sure enough, down the cheeks of my fifty-something neighbour, large tears are trickling as he tries to assert control over his twitching facial muscles. The children in the audience, meanwhile, are craning their necks, staring up, their jaws locked open as Peter and Wendy and John and Michael (‘I flewed!’) soar above their heads on the way to Never Land, and now the babble of childish voices from the auditorium threatens to drown the music. And all the other locations, and the other characters, produce this same dual effect, stirring the children to wonder and the adults to intense and ineffable emotion, painful and tender, and so it has always been, from the very first performance. Barrie produced, out of his own longings and disappointments, a story which is both a stupendous
divertissement
and a potent myth, which, at least for Anglo-Saxons, seems to speak to some very deep places of the human heart, more so even than its close relation
Alice in Wonderland
– also the product of a man who became obsessed by the offspring of others and strove to glorify and immortalise their childhoods.

   

My parents had broken up when I was eighteen months old; my father
lived in Africa. I began to form romantic and complex ideas about his life
there. No doubt the transformation of Mr Darling (the sort of father I
would very much like to have had) into Captain Hook, who hated chil
dren and wanted them dead, had deep resonances for me; certainly the
father who was so unimaginably far away figured in my imagination as
both frightening and hugely exotic. The photographs I had of him showed
a piratical figure, bearded, with a fierce brow. He had, I had been told, a
metal kneecap, and in my favourite photograph of him, which showed
him on the bonnet of the racing car he drove as an amateur, surrounded
by trophies he’d won, his leg was indeed stretched out rigidly ahead of
him. He has a devil-may-care look in his eye. I took great pleasure in
colouring in with my crayon Hook’s black locks in my picture book of 
Peter Pan
, going over and over them till they were three-dimensional; to
fill in his cruel, leering mouth I used my mother’s lipstick. The vividness
of my feelings about Captain Hook must owe a great deal to the fact that
in the production I saw, the part was played by the late Sir Donald Wolfit;
no doubt my entire subsequent development as an actor owes a great deal
to that formative exposure.

When I was five, my mother uprooted us to the country, taking a job as
school secretary at an unusual establishment called Elmcroft School in
the village of Goring-on-Thames, run by a schoolmaster with the highly
satisfactory name of Birch. Run as a normal prep school in term time,
during the vacation it became a crammer for Spanish students going to
Oxford or Cambridge. My education was thrown in as part of my
mother’s salary; the teachers were horribly overstretched, so the task
fell to the headmaster’s mother. This turned out to be one of the best
strokes of luck of my childhood, perhaps of my life. This wonderful
woman it was who taught me to read. When I ran to find my mother to
inform her of this (rather late) development, she said, with impressive
gravity, ‘Now you have a key with which to unlock the riches of the
world.’ I wrote this piece for the programme of a show I did in Stratford,
Ontario, in 2008.

   

I’m six. My mother is the secretary of a school deep in the Berkshire countryside. The headmaster’s mother, Mrs Birch, a hirsute, full-breasted old Cockney whom I adore, and on whose breath there is always the sickly sweet scent of Madeira, gathers me up onto her hospitable lap one afternoon and switches on the radio. Eerie music. The announcer says, in his crisp cut-glass accent, ‘
Mecbeth
,
A Play by William Shakespeare.
’ It was scary and very strange, this
Mecbeth
, and thank God for Mrs Birch’s ample bosom into which I could sink for comfort. I realise now that this was the first play I ever saw. I use the word ‘saw’ advisedly. The images conjured up, of battlements and blasted heaths, of witches and kings, of children murdered and dead men walking, augmented by the sound of wind and rain and marching feet and haunted by the music of the words, most of which I could barely understand, imprinted themselves on my brain and have never faded from it. A certain landscape, Shakespeare’s landscape, entered my consciousness, like a dream that is more vivid than experience itself. Scholars talk of the Shakespeare Moment, meaning the
moment in time, the crossroads – historical, linguistic, theatrical – at which Shakespeare stood; but my personal Shakespeare Moment was then, in that cosy room in Goring-on-Thames, on that familiar lap, enveloped by the scent of that sweet warm breath. Ever after, I craved the poetry, the power, the sense of history, of great conflicts, and of the other world – the overwhelming atmosphere, in a word – that this astonishing writer purveyed.

   

What my mother had said was true. Learning to read seemed to unleash
in me a passion for language which became insatiable. Above all, I loved
to read out loud, a compulsion more or less indulged by my family. It was
the sound of the words rather than their sense which captivated me: they
had a magical, incantatory quality which intoxicated me, put me under a
spell. And in my family, beauty of speech was highly prized. My grand
mother, who was a fine singer, had an infinitely melodious speaking voice,
caressing and beguiling. Her daughters had not inherited that, any more
than they had, to her chagrin, inherited her perfect pitch, but they had
vivid, crisp, eminently audible voices. I was told from the earliest age that
speaking well – correctly, audibly, articulately – would open all doors. It
was a Shavian proposition, one I accepted wholeheartedly. My grand
mother had a further mystical belief in the power of personality. Being
herself endowed with vast quantities of this precious commodity, and very
little else, she naturally placed a high premium on it, one I found I rather
agreed with. Sometimes perfectly pleasant people would visit the house,
and when they left my grandmother would deliver the damning verdict:
‘Nice, but NO PERSONALITY.’ It was if they lacked a limb or an organ,
and in a way, I suppose they did.

Theatre still barely featured in my life. My mother and I returned to Lon
don when I was seven. I remember
A Christmas Carol
in-the-round at
Croydon; and panto at Streatham Hill Theatre. Beyond that, nothing that
I can recall.

I was nine when, quite out of the blue, my parents attempted a reunion,
and my mother and I found ourselves in September 1958 taking a huge
aeroplane to Africa, three long days in unpressurised cabins, landing every
twenty-four hours to refuel in, first, Rome, then Wadi Halfa. It was an
epic adventure; tossed about in the air, sucking fiercely on our anti-emetic
boiled sweets, we felt as though we were intrepid pioneers. Waiting to 
meet us in Kenya was Captain Hook in person, my father, who, with his
heavy limp and his fiercely staring eyes, scared me rigid, though his words
were kind and his body warm. We drove all the way from Nairobi Airport
through Tanganyika (a country seven times the size of Britain) to the tiny
township of Fort Jameson in what was then Northern Rhodesia, stopping
overnight at various watering holes, awakening every morning to the roar
ing dawn chorus of crickets chirping. When we arrived in Fort Jimmy, as
it was known, we were introduced to the sharply appraising colonial com
munity. To my huge relief, and as if to prove my family’s convictions, I
immediately scored a big hit because of my accent, which reminded
everyone of ‘back ’ome’, as they pronounced it in their almost impenetra
bly thick Rhodesian brogue. I was made to stand on the table and say
things. Anything, really, would have done, but the words of the National
Anthem proved a particular success. There were approximately two hun
dred white people in this village in the middle of Central Africa, so one
might have thought that any hope of seeing theatre was absurd – except
that, as if in token of the unstoppability of the theatrical impulse, I have
a vivid recollection of an amateur production at the Victoria Memorial
Institute of a Whitehall farce called
Simple Spymen
, which knocked me
dead with its wit and brilliance. One of the characters was called Forster-
Stand. Whenever anyone new came on stage, he would introduce himself.
‘I’m Forster-Stand,’ he would say, to which the newcomer would invari
ably reply, ‘Oh, I am sorry.’ I think this deathless exchange got me through
three largely miserable years in Africa, as my parents’ reunion foundered,
and my mother and I found ourselves alone and adrift in the vast alien
continent, scheming how to get home; by night I dreamed of Streatham
High Street.

BOOK: My Life in Pieces
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