Simon Callow: 'When Thatcher came to watch Amadeus nobody looked at the stage; just at her'

English actor, musician, writer, and theatre director Simon Callow celebrity interview - Getty
English actor, musician, writer, and theatre director Simon Callow celebrity interview - 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 abandoning his degree to train at the Drama Centre London.

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

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

Best childhood experience?

The day I returned from living in Africa for three years. I lived in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, from the age of nine to 12, and I was overwhelmed by it. I was a small, fat child from Streatham, and it was just too much. I’d dreamt of returning home and the second I touched down 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 that made me cry. It signified being back home.

Best day of your life?

I was writing a book on one of my favourite actors, Charles Laughton, and I went to LA to try to speak to the novelist Christopher Isherwood about him, as the two used to be neighbours. He refused, saying: “Speak to Mrs Laughton instead.” I had a copy of my first book with me, so I dropped it off at Isherwood’s house and inscribed it: “With gratitude, but absolutely not an inducement to speak to me.”

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

Best first night?

Amadeus, at the National Theatre. It was a new play and it just knocked people sideways. The combination of the play and the music and, of course, above all Paul Scofield as Salieri, created a sort of lust in the audience for the event. There was almost a physical yearning for it.

It was an electric experience every single time we performed it – except for on one occasion, when Margaret Thatcher came to watch. She sat there, back erect in her seat, straining forward, taking it in. Nobody looked at the stage; they just looked at Thatcher.

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

Best moment on a film set?

Almost continuously filming A Room with a View. It was so perfectly cast, so exquisitely written, filmed in such astonishing surroundings – 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. That only happens when there’s a particular chemistry. Even from the read-through with both of those films, 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 piece of advice you've ever been given?

Having written about him quite a lot, I was very inspired by Charles Laughton and his idea that an acting performance was a work of art, like any other. Like a painting or a symphony. That’s always been a great inspiration for me: to make something which was a creation. Something you brought into the world; something very particular to you and very expressive of the play and its world.

Worst childhood memory?

Having my tonsils out in hospital aged about four. I was told that my mother would be coming to collect me 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 near to getting going back home and being better and just then being condemned to another night in hospital.

Worst characteristic?

If I’m a little riled by small things, I can be pretty nasty. In restaurants, for example, if a waiter messes up, instead of being sympathetic, I can be quite snide. It’s partly my family. They were all a bit like that. My aunt was famous for going into greengrocers and when not getting attention immediately, saying 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 had also written it. I was directing and playing Guy Burgess. I had to come on and make a witty speech, but this one afternoon performance, my eye strayed up to a box where I saw my understudy.

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

Worst piece of advice you've ever been given?

I’ve certainly had fights with directors in the past. When I was younger, I often felt they were trying to tamp me down. They felt I was perhaps too extravagant, which I probably was, but I didn’t relish being told that. My usual response was something sarcastic like: “Well I could do it in the dressing room if you prefer.”

Worst moment of your life?

In 1994 my partner at the time killed himself. I learned the news from a voicemail. I was doing a show and I had to carry on; that was my salvation, in a way. Then the show came to an end.

I felt I had to go somewhere, and somebody said: “Capri is pretty deserted, you can go there.” And I went to Capri and I wept for days on end. Then I had to come back and do the play again, because we’d transferred it. So, there was this sort of framework, which sort of held me together.

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

Worst personal or professional mistake?

I’ve made spectacular mistakes, but I have the Édith Piaf temperament: I don’t regret things. I almost never, ever go back on things and say: “Why didn’t I do that?” Which I think in the end is probably very healthy.

Worst role ever played?

I was asked by a conductor 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 conductor said: “No, it’s easy. It’s fine. It’ll be no problem at all.”

So I went to the recording studio and though I’d worked very hard, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t good enough. It’s the only time I’ve ever done this, but I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this” and I walked away. I told them to employ 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 December 5