Interview: Simon Callow on Dickens, Peggy Ramsay and being gay

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He’s a celebrated actor, theatre director, writer and biographer, renowned for his mastery of Shakespeare and Dickens. His film credits include Amadeus, A Room with a View, Maurice, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love and The Phantom of the Opera. He came out in 1984, four years before Ian McKellen. Laurence Watts meets the multitalented Simon Callow.

Simon Callow announced his homosexuality to the world in his 1984 book Being an Actor. By doing so his statement preceded that of Chris Smith, Britain’s first openly gay MP, and Ian McKellen who came out roughly four years later.

“I think I probably was the first well known actor to voluntary come out,” Callow tells me, “as opposed to being arrested in a public lavatory. Amadeus, in 1979, was my first experience of being widely interviewed by the mainstream press. I had to decide there and then whether I was going to tell the truth. I very strongly believed, I always have done, that the only thing that can really hold gay people back is living in fear.”

His public lavatory comment references Sir John Gielgud, who was arrested in 1953 in just such a circumstance. Callow’s desire to be open about his sexuality was however not the end of the matter.

“The press wouldn’t let me come out. When they did interviews with me they’d ask, “Do you have a girlfriend?” and I would say, “No, I’m gay,” but they would never write it down. One woman from the Mail on Sunday, after a lot of meandering, said: “Now, I gather you’re bisexual?” I told her: “That’s an absolute calumny, I’m not bisexual, I’m entirely homosexual,” but it never appeared in the interview. So it was only by writing the book that I could finally come out.”

“There wasn’t a flicker of controversy about it,” he says. “What caused a lot of controversy were the attacks I made on directors. Lots of people thought I’d never work again. When I told my agent I was coming out she said: “Well if you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it.” It would have been different if I’d been a matinee idol, but I wasn’t. I was a young character actor and I thought, well, if I can’t act because they won’t let me act then I’ll do something else. I’ll write or I’ll direct.”

Callow turned eighteen in June 1967. The following month The Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. I ask him if his process of self-discovery enabled him to be aware of this milestone.

“I was very aware of it,” he says. “I knew I was attracted to other boys when I was something like eight. A lot of people don’t of course, but I did. When I was eleven or twelve and very clear how I felt, I started reading books about it. The books were a bit daunting. There was a famous one called Homosexuality by D J West, who was apparently a psychiatrist, and he painted the most dismal prospect of gay life. Homosexuality had an aura of grime and disease about it, although it also had another dimension to it as well: the gay entertainer. Everyone was aware of the likes of Noel Coward and Danny La Rue. After repeal, people carried on much as before.”

In his lifetime Callow has witnessed being gay made legal, an equal age of consent, the introduction of civil partnerships and a gay man become First Secretary of State, Deputy Prime Minister in all but name.

“Ian McKellen and I were at Alan Cumming’s and Grant Shaffer’s civil partnership at Greenwich’s Old Royal Navy College a couple of years ago. At one point Ian and I looked at each other as if to say, is this really happening? I never, ever thought it would. What one did think growing up was that, well, I’ll probably lead the kind of life that I knew the people at the Old Vic lead: an excitingly naughty, transgressive life; partly to do with cottaging, which never had any appeal to me; partly to do with dragging up, which again held no appeal; and partly to do with bars and clubs, which did appeal to me.”

“There were codes and secret language. One of the particular things I’m afraid I remember was: “Do you like Campari?” It had its own glamour, its own charm and its own fun, but it’s not a situation I could tolerate. I understood the many reasons why people didn’t want to come out, but there was an awful lot of lying: people saying, “I’m still trying to find the right girl,” or “my partner’s very shy and doesn’t come out,” and all the rest of it.”

Callow claims that the first time he met gay men in any quantity was at The National Theatre, where he worked for a time. He obtained a position there after writing a letter to then Director, Sir Laurence Olivier.

“I wrote the letter because I had no idea what to do with my life. I was 17 or 18, and I went regularly to The National when Olivier was running it. It was wonderful, so unbelievably gorgeous. Everybody in the organisation seemed to work together and I suppose I, like a lot of gay people, was looking for an alternative family. For me The National was so clearly it. I wrote a long letter, but I didn’t say at any point, “Can I have a job?” nor did I say, “I think you’re the tops.” I didn’t mention him at all. I didn’t dare to. I did end by saying, ‘It makes one proud to be British,’ which, of course, was the sort of thing Larry loved to hear. He wrote back and asked if I’d like to come and work in the box office.”

Having found his alternative family and after observing actors at close quarters Callow began what would become a long and hugely distinguished career. Just over a decade later, in the summer of 1980 Callow began an eleven-year friendship with theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, which later became the subject of his book Love Is Where It Falls. I tell him I became aware of Ramsay through Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of her in the 1987 film about Joe Orton’s life, Prick Up Your Ears.

“She bore no resemblance to Peggy Ramsey, at all,” Callow tells me. “When Peggy was in the grip of Alzheimer’s, I told her I’d just been in America directing Vanessa in a film and she said to me: “Didn’t I play her once?” and I said: “No, she played you.” To which she asked: “Was she any good?” and I replied: “Well she played you like an angel.” “Oh,” said Peggy, “has she ever met me?” Peggy was remarkable even in her dementia. She had a beautiful, voluptuous voice and the vocabulary of a sea captain.”

Since Ramsay represented Orton, I tell Callow it’s a shame Orton died thirteen years before he met her. Orton was murdered by his erstwhile lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in 1967.

“Funnily enough a friend of mine in the box office at the Old Vic was their best friend. I remember vividly the day Orton died. It was a fantastically shocking day. Immediately afterwards, though it was purely coincidental, I went on holiday to Morocco with some school friends and visited their house in Tangier. Paying homage, as it were.”

At the time of our interview Callow is appearing at London’s Arts Theatre in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Callow has appeared in works by and played Dickens on a number of occasions. He is clearly enamoured with the Victorian novelist. I ask him why he thinks some people find Dickens heavy going?

“The problem is vocabulary to some extent because he makes it up. He was a great neologiser. You really have to give in to the fact that the person writing isn’t whispering in your ear, but full on acting it out. When you know that Dickens was an extraordinary actor and you get the idea that he is performing his novels, they really come alive.”

Although arguably the second greatest writer in the English language, does he think Dickens is underappreciated?

“Not enough people read him, do you mean? Well, not enough people read, full stop. I think people find his books a bit daunting because they’re long. It’s a shame, because people just need to learn to pace themselves and not be stimulated by a lot of noise. Then they’ll find they get sucked into his novels. It takes a little bit of work initially, but what doesn’t?”

I wonder if he’s aware of any snobbery among classically trained actors when it comes to different media. While some actors seem to prefer stage or radio work and look down on film or television, Callow has a career that incorporates them all.

“I don’t think there’s any great distinction any more,” he tells me. “I mean, Ian McKellen appeared on Coronation Street; Maggie Smith appears in Downton Abbey. If anything I feel slightly the opposite. I would love to have had a stint on EastEnders because soaps like that are, in a way, the stories of our time.”

There’s one final topic I want to cover. It only recently occurred to me how political his 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral was. Not only did the film equate gay relationships to married, heterosexual ones, it also showcased gay men as both ordinary and happy. Or at least it did up to the point where Callow’s character dies. The film established a trend for including mainstream gay characters, which subsequently appeared in films like 1997’s The Full Monty and My Best Friend’s Wedding.

“It was just wonderful,” says Callow. “I remember reading the script on a plane to Manchester where I was directing My Fair Lady. I was with the producer and I showed him the title: ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.’ I said to him, “I bet I’m the funeral.” And I was! After reading the script I thought, this is going to be so f**king wonderful. I was so lucky. I was the first person to be cast.”

“The film made a big, big difference, in my view, to the way gay people are perceived in this country. I got all kinds of peculiar letters from people saying things like: “I didn’t realise gay people had emotions.” It was made at the height of the AIDS crisis when once again gay men and disease were being associated in the public mind, with ghastly, morbid, weepy films like Philadelphia coming out. Flying in the face of all that, here was an incredibly vigorous gay man, in love, who died not of AIDS, but of an excess of Scottish dancing.”

Simon Callow is appearing in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at The Arts Theatre, London until 14th January 2012.