One of the leading actors of his generation, Simon Callow has had a long and fruitful relationship with Charles Dickens, as his audience at The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth discovered, on 7th February 2012 – the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth, less than a mile from where the theatre stands.
From his first encounter with Dickens at the age of 7 via A Christmas Carol – a story which admittedly frightened him white – Dickens always impressed.
However, it was chickenpox that reintroduced the 13-year-old Callow to the diminutive giant of English Literature, when he was laid up in bed with the virus. “That mediaeval torture was unbearable, with the need to scratch and scratch,” he told his audience. And scratch he did, until his grandmother intervened by placing a copy of The Pickwick Papers in his hands. “After that,” Callow announced with a theatrical flourish worthy of Dickens himself, “I scratched no more.”
At the beginning of his talk, Callow announced that he had been invited to attend a service at Westminster Abbey, and a dinner at Mansion House – but there was nowhere he would rather be than here, on Dickens’s birthday. Which of course, got the Portsmouth audience cheering, no end.
Callow went on to describe his connection with Dickens in his early years as an actor. He recalled how, as a 27-year-old appearing in A Christmas Carol in Lincoln, he got to play both Fezziwig and Bob Crachitt. He described unexpectedly disappearing down an unsecured trapdoor dressed as Fezziwig, and after losing his wig in the 14 foot fall, re-emerging in front of a stunned and somewhat confused audience of children as Bob Cratchitt. He talked of finding out about Dickens’s punishing reading tour, which eventually contributed to the writer’s early death, and brought his tale right up to date with his talk of his appearance as Dickens in an episode of Dr Who alongside David Tennant and Billy Piper.
Of Dickens’s theatrical obsession, his stage-struckness, his am-dram performances put on at his home, attended by Queen Victoria, the Lord Chancellor and half the Cabinet – Callow spoke eloquently. From his first flirtation with the theatre before he went on to become a clerk in a law firm through his performances of plays such as The Frozen Deep, co-written with his friend Wilkie Collins, his work as a director of plays and his invention of ingenious gas lighting effects to recreate the dawn, and of sound effects produced by ethereally playing a piano several rooms away – Dickens’s obsession with the stage was total.
In fact, Dickens’s whole life seemed to be dominated by his need for public performance, and it was his forcing himself to appear at his readings against his doctor’s advice that eventually led to his dying of, essentially, overwork.
It was perhaps surprising that Callow, whose life has been so intimately wrapped up with Dickens, had never before been to the city of his birth. But he made up for it, was fulsome in his praise of the City’s vibrant and spontaneous approach to the bicentenary -and at the end of his talk, the audience reciprocated – continuing to applaud until he took to the stage again, and bowed – not with the theatricality of Dickens, but with something that was very much more Simon Callow: a slight, humble bow.
Simon Callow’s new book “Dickens” is available from Waterstone’s, Commercial Road, Portsmouth, and other good booksellers, and online.