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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews



I wasn't expecting to begin this review with a declaration of interest, but when I got to page 359 I found that Simon Callow cherishes the review of his performance in The Holy Terror by “the legendarily witty Rhoda Koenig.” (Not out of vanity – I wrote that it was more embarrassing than anything I had seen in the past or would in the future.) Callow says I write for the Guardian rather than the Independent, and slightly alters what I said, but he got the important part right – assuming, that is, that he didn't mean, by the adverb, that the belief in my wit has no basis in fact. (Actors have nothing on critics when it comes to paranoia.)
Anyway, this anthology forms a chronicle of Callow's professional life, to any serious actor the more important one. His personal life and any work not covered in the reprinted pieces are dealt with in new material that links them, providing many details of his lonely childhood in England and Africa, almost none on his adult love affairs, thank goodness. We learn that his parents broke up before he was two, his father being, as his mother put it, “a sexual beast,” and that he might have become a Catholic priest had the Church's abandonment of Latin for English not made the role seem thoroughly tacky. Playwrights, actors, productions and theories are covered with intelligence and insight, the reader wanting a discussion of the influence of Stanislavsky as well catered for as the one who wants funny stories. Callow has plenty of the latter, including the time he and an actress simulated sex on the radio, accompanied by a stage manager who simulated a dog. There are also odd and touching facts: Alec Guinness “vomited in shame” on seeing himself on screen in A Passage to India, and Reading Gaol, today a prison for young offenders, gives them, on arrival, a copy of the poem.
While the book will provide many hours of pleasure for anyone interested in British theatre, it would have been improved by giving us somewhat less to delight in. Callow is a wonderful writer, but his abilities are much better shown in his biographies and books on acting, which have enough room for his generous mind and expansive style. Too many of these obituaries and book reviews sound alike, with the predictable classy-sententious phrases and rhythms of upper-middle-class lit-chat: “Richard Eyre's book is a superlative record of a theatre, a man, and a time;” “these climatic vagaries apart…;” “the witty, wicked waif;” “New York is scarcely going to be New York without him.” One can smile at the sentence that praises the editor's “unerring identification of error” but contains a misspelling (nothing like tempting fate); someone, however, should have pointed out to him the meaning of “enormity” and “fulsome” and known that the play on which Oklahoma! is based is not The Grass Is Greener but, of course, Green Grow the Lilacs.
But if the book coasts when Callow's rich, creamy-port prose turns him into an intellectual Sebastian Cabot, it flares into life when a piece is taken over by some eccentric or mad dictator, such as Milos Forman, who I always thought was nice. ”Violent explosions and uncomprehending abuse” are, it seems, his style. Directing Callow in the film of Amadeus, Forman told him, after one reading, “There were two or three lines where you sounded almost like a human being.” Exasperated by an actor with too many ideas, he finally laid down the law: “There will be NO ACTING in my film!” 


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