If you don’t like Simon Callow, you probably don’t like the theatre either. He is as theatrical as a box of wigs. Who else would bark ‘come!’ when someone knocks on his dressing-room door? There he is with a glass of wine, a boom of good cheer, having peeled off his side whiskers after his lushly enjoyable one-man show based on two rediscovered Dickens stories, Dr Marigold and Mr Chops.
But that tour is now over and Callow (probably still best known for his part in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral — the funeral was his) is going straight into another Dickens, his new version of A Christmas Carol. The actor-writer who has cornered the market in Dickens works likes Dickens. He has a book coming out next year, his 13th. It’s a full-length biography, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, published to coincide with the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth on 7 February.
Callow, who actually doesn’t look or sound like Dickens at all, has played him more than anyone else alive. He starred in Peter Ackroyd’s show The Mystery of Charles Dickens. He even appeared once in Doctor Who as Dickens. He is consumed by the little-known life of the unhappily married Victorian novelist, who was an avid performer of his own work, giving readings to mesmerised audiences of 2,000 to 3,000 people a time. It is thought that the demands of his gruelling reading tours (Nancy’s murder by Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist left him limp with emotional exertion) hastened his sudden death in 1870 at the age of 58.
Callow was asked by the BBC 15 years ago to reconstruct those public readings. So he put on the tails and the bow tie and stood behind a lectern. ‘I did them more or less as Dickens would have done.’ But how do we know what Dickens was like as a performer? ‘Ah, we know very precisely because such was his fame that people followed him around annotating every inflexion. There was even a form of shorthand for the pauses, rises of voice, and so on, so you can recreate the way he phrased every sentence. He was an electrifyingly good performer. His inner circle thought he was perhaps most remarkable at comedy as he was such a brilliant mimic.’
Theatricality runs through Dickens’s novels like a river, as you might expect from a novelist who as a child was plonked on pub tables to perform. He adored amateur dramatics and claimed that he went to the theatre every night for three years solid. He was such a good performer that an old stage hand once said to him, ‘What an actor you would have been, Mr Dickens, if it hadn’t been for them books!’
Callow hopes A Christmas Carol — directed and designed by Tom Cairns with a slick production team — will have as much social urgency as it has bread sauce. ‘The book which is for ever associated in our minds with plum pudding and Tiny Tim and turkey had its origins in Dickens reading the parliamentary report on the employment of children in mines. This was the book he wrote out of that anger. He said “a blow must be struck”.’
It is said that at the time of publication (1843) nearly half the funerals in London were of children under ten. That is the grisly context Callow wants to bring home as Scrooge goes on his voyage to redemption. ‘In a way, the central characters are the two feral children. One is called Want and the other Ignorance, and the Spirit of Christmas Present says these two will destroy civilisation unless they are checked. What could be more topical today?’
For Callow, Scrooge is no lovable Victor Meldrew-like grump. ‘He genuinely means it when he says, “Every idiot who goes around with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” It’s not that one wants to underplay the fun of the book and the warmth and generosity of it but we do want to de-yo ho ho it a bit.’
But is it full of specifically Christian cheer? Of course it is. ‘This is the man who wrote The Life of Our Lord and read it to his children every Christmas. He said his prayers every night of his life and he deeply believed that Jesus was the most completely remarkable and wonderful person that ever lived. Dickens is urging us to extend the good feelings we have at Christmas to the rest of the year.’
So which bit in A Christmas Carol does he love playing? Scrooge’s bah-humbugging? ‘Well, in a funny way, the thing I love most is being the narrator — being Dickens. It’s the sheer surrealism of his imagination. There’s a wonderful moment when he’s describing Scrooge going home. He writes: “He lived in a building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again.” You think what is this man on? What drugs was he taking?’
Callow reckons that A Christmas Carol is not Dickens’s greatest book but ‘it’s the book that most buttonholes the reader and it was also the book that made the public utterly adore him. He really felt of his audience as friends — and they felt the same about him. It was as if every instalment that flopped on to their doormat was a personal letter.’
Callow has the sonic ripeness and projection to reboot the one-man storytelling theatrical form. He wouldn’t hear a word against his doddery Malvern audience, which, he told me, were ‘really very sweet’. He gets that from Dickens. ‘I think, you see, he quite genuinely loved his audience. He was thrilled to see them. Whatever was happening with his relationships at home, it was the one with his audience that truly mattered.’
A Christmas Carol is at the Arts Theatre, London WC2 until 14 January.