‘When Thatcher came to see Amadeus nobody looked at the stage; only to her

Celebrity interview of English actor, musician, writer and director Simon Callow – Getty

Born in Streatham, South London, Simon Callow spent three years of his childhood in Africa before returning to the capital to attend the London Oratory School. From there, he studied at Queen’s University Belfast before dropping out to train at Drama Center London.

Following his stage debut in 1973, he appeared in a number of successful stage productions, including the 1979 premiere of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, where he played Mozart (he later made his screen debut as Schikaneder in the Academy Award-winning comedy film in 1984), and the one-man show The Mystery of Charles Dickens, one of several times he portrayed the Victorian author. He went on to act in films including A Room with a View, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love and Notting Hill.

He has also written a number of bestsellers, including his 1984 autobiography, Being an Actor. She lives in London with her husband, Sebastian Fox.

The best childhood experience?

The day I returned after living in Africa for three years. I lived in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, from nine to twelve years old, and it overwhelmed me. I was a fat little kid from Streatham, and it was just too much. I had been dreaming of going home and the moment I landed in England, I was hugely relieved. I remember being greeted by my father’s mother at Victoria station: she gave me a bag of Murray Mints and it made me cry. It meant coming home.

The best day of your life?

I was writing a book about one of my favorite actors, Charles Laughton, and went to Los Angeles to try and talk to novelist Christopher Isherwood about him, as the two were neighbors. He declined, saying, “Talk to Mrs. Laughton instead.” I had a copy of my first book with me, so I left it at Isherwood’s house and wrote it: “With gratitude, but absolutely no incentive to talk to me.”

Not long after, Isherwood died of cancer and I realized that was why he didn’t want to talk to me. A year later, I returned to Los Angeles and spoke with his partner, Don Bachardy, the painter, who told me, “Christopher took such pleasure in your book that he was reading it for the second time when he died.” . This remains one of the most extraordinary things that has ever happened to me.

Best first night?

Amadeus, at the National Theater. It was a new comedy and it just put people sideways. The combination of the show and the music, and of course especially Paul Scofield as Salieri, created something of a yearning in the audience for the event. There was almost a physical craving for it.

It was an electric experience every single time we did it except on one occasion when Margaret Thatcher came to see. She sat there, sitting upright in the seat, leaning forward, welcoming it. No one looked at the stage; they just looked at Thatcher.

Later, he said of [director] Peter Hall: “Mozart wasn’t like that”. Peter said: “With respect, Prime Minister, it was.” And she said, “I don’t think you heard. Mozart was not like that.

Best moment on a movie set?

Turning almost continuously Room with a view. It was so perfectly cast, so exquisitely written, shot in such an amazing setting – Florence and, indeed, Kent – ​​that there was this wonderful feeling of rightness about it. It fell into place perfectly. It was similar with Four Weddings and a Funeral. It only happens when there’s a particular chemistry. Even from reading both movies, we all knew we were part of something special.

Simon Callow films A Room with a View, Four Weddings and a Funeral (pictured), Shakespeare in Love and Notting Hill - Alamy

Simon Callow films A Room with a View, Four Weddings and a Funeral (pictured), Shakespeare in Love and Notting Hill – Alamy

Best advice you’ve ever been given?

Having written extensively about him, I was very inspired by Charles Laughton and his idea that an acting was a work of art, like any other. Like a painting or a symphony. This has always been a big inspiration for me: to make something that is a creation. Something you brought into the world; something very particular to you and very expressive of the work and its world.

Worst childhood memory?

Having my tonsils in the hospital at about age four. I was told my mother would come and pick me up and take me home. Then the doctor checked my temperature, found it was a bit high and said, “I think you should stay for another night.” And my heart broke. I remember that awful feeling of being so close to going home and getting better and just then being doomed to another night in the hospital.

Worst feature?

If I’m a little annoyed by little things, I can be pretty mean. In restaurants, for example, if a waiter makes a mess, instead of being sympathetic, I can be quite dismissive. It’s partly my family. They were all a bit like that. My aunt was famous for going to the greengrocer and when she didn’t get immediate attention, she would say to the person behind the counter, “Do you work here or are you purely ornamental?”

Worst moment on stage?

I was doing Single Spies with Alan Bennett, who also wrote it. I was directing and playing Guy Burgess. I was supposed to come and give a witty speech, but in this afternoon performance, my gaze moved to a stage where I saw my understudy.

I started thinking, “He hates me. She thinks I’m doing it all wrong. Then I walked away from him and back into the audience, where I noticed Peggy Ashcroft’s radiant features and thought, ‘She can see right through me too.’ At that point, I started mumbling gibberish for what felt like a week, but was probably 30 seconds. I lost my trust and had to work incredibly hard to regain it.

Worst advice you’ve ever been given?

I’ve definitely had arguments with directors in the past. When I was younger, I often felt like they were trying to suppress me. They thought I was maybe too extravagant, and I probably was, but I didn’t like hearing that. My usual response was something sarcastic like, “Well, I could do that in the dressing room if you prefer.”

The worst moment of your life?

In 1994 my partner at the time committed suicide. I learned the news from a voicemail. I was doing a show and had to keep going; that was my salvation, in a way. Then the show came to an end.

I felt like I had to go somewhere, and someone said, “Capri is pretty deserted, you can go there.” And I went to Capri and cried for days on end. Then I had to come back and do the play again, because we had moved it. So, there was this kind of structure, which kind of held me together.

But I never really processed the pain. I didn’t think it was possible. To be honest, I think you shouldn’t be able to process that kind of pain. I think you should keep it. It’s like something that appears on the horizon and never quite goes away.

The worst personal or professional mistake?

I’ve made spectacular mistakes, but I have the temperament of Edith Piaf: I don’t regret things. I almost never, ever come back to things and say, “Why didn’t I do that?” Which I think is ultimately probably very healthy.

Worst role ever played?

An orchestra conductor asked me to narrate Facade [poems by Edith Sitwell recited over music by William Walton], which is for two speakers and a small ensemble. I knew the piece well and liked it immensely, but I always thought, “This is very, very difficult, because you have to speak very strictly in time.” The host said: “No, it’s easy. All right. It won’t be a problem at all.

So I went to the recording studio and even though I had worked really hard, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t good enough. It’s the only time I’ve done that, but I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that” and walked away. I told them to hire Richard Stilgoe, who I knew would be absolutely brilliant – and he was.

Simon Callow’s latest film, ‘The Pay Day’ is available for digital download on 5th December

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