What The Dickens!

21 August 2012 | 6:15 am | Paul Ransom

"I shall try to stick to the best bits; although the trouble is they’re all pretty good. Typical Dickens really."

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It's not often you interview an author/actor/director and have them not talk about themselves. Cue Simon Callow, the man who starred as Gareth in Four Weddings & A Funeral and also appeared in Shakespeare In Love and Angels In America. Apart from a stellar and varied career on screen and stage, he is also a renowned writer and unabashed fan of Charles Dickens. Indeed, the great 19th century scribe is the principal focus of Callow's current Australian tour. True, Callow's speaking engagements here will serve to promote his latest biography, Charles Dickens & The Great Theatre Of The World, but they will also throw considerable light onto Dickens' lifelong obsession with the thespian arts.

“I love the scale of his characters,” he says of his subject. “I love the bigness of his characters, his comic invention and compassion, the enormous canvas on which he paints. All of that captured my interest from when I first read Pickwick Papers when I was twelve. And then of course I've had this collaboration with him as an actor.”

Callow has appeared as Dickens on a number of occasions, including his two cameos as the great man on Doctor Who. No surprise then that he has written a book that brings Dickens firmly into the world of the theatre.

“He was absolutely besotted by the theatre. He wrote his first play at the age of seven,” Callow explains. “When he was in his teens he went to the theatre every single day for three years. He imitated all the actors of his day and he even applied to audition for the Covent Garden Theatre; but it so happens that he fell ill on the day.”

Before Dickens could make it back to the rearranged audition he had landed a job as a parliamentary reporter and his career path veered off in an altogether literary direction. “But all the while he was writing plays, although the truth of the matter is they are terrible beyond belief. More than terrible, in fact, because they aren't the least bit Dickensian.”

Even after becoming the most famous novelist in the world, Dickens remained stagestruck and started mounting amateur productions, gaining a reputation as a director and, finally, as an accomplished actor. Queen Victoria even regarded his turn in The Frozen Deep as the finest performance she had ever seen. “He loved to do public readings,” Callow notes, “but they weren't just readings; he'd do all the characters, the voices and so on. They used to sell out. They were the kind of the rock concerts of their day.”

That theatricality, Callow argues, is deeply embedded in his novels and goes some way to explaining the ease with which his work translates so readily to stage and screen. “The only thing you miss with the adaptations is the author's voice, which of course is so clear and strong. There is also a tendency with adaptations to be realistic but Dickens was anything but that. In fact I would describe his books as being more like magic realism.”

Callow is clearly enamoured. At one recent appearance he spoke for three hours on the topic. Australian audiences, however, will get the abbreviated version. “Yes, well, I shall try to stick to the best bits; although the trouble is they're all pretty good. Typical Dickens really.”

You can catch Simon Callow On Dickens & The Great Theatre Of The World on Sunday 26 August, 7.15pm, Sydney Opera House or Thursday 23 August, keynote address Melbourne Writers Festival, 7pm, Town Hall; Friday 24 August, The Actors Life, 10am, BMW Edge.

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