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.