June 15, 1949– Simon Callow:
‘I’m not really an activist, although I am aware that there are some political acts one can do that actually make a difference and I think my coming out as a gay man was probably one of the most valuable things I’ve done in my life. I don’t think any actor had done so voluntarily and I think it helped to change the culture.“
Simon Callow is a top-drawer English character actor of stage and screen, the sort of actor that you might grapple for a name, but you know the face. He is also a superb writer and director. He is not Simon Cowell or Stephen Fry.
He is also a director of films and plays, and a talented musician and conductor.
Callow is in a large percent of some of my top favorite films: 1984’s Amadeus (he was the original Mozart in the play’s stage premier), A Room With A View (1985), Maurice (1987), Postcards From The Edge (1990), Howards End (1991), Shakespeare In Love (1998), Angels In America (2003). Not a traditional leading man, like his friend Sir Ian McKellen, Callow is an out gay actor who has successfully made the transition from respected theatre actor to sought after film star without much ado about his sexuality.
Callow is also a prolific writer: four volumes of memoirs and highly readable, but scholarly biographies of Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, and Oscar Wilde. His two volumes of Wells bios are considered the very best source of information and smart anecdotes on the famed director/writer/actor.
“I told interviewers I was gay in the 1980s, they never printed it. So, I thought: ‘I’ve got to get this out in the open air’ and I wrote Being An Actor (1984). Many people were concerned on my behalf about the consequences, but as it happens, it was using the book to attack the power of the directors in theatre that might have had the biggest consequence. Some directors probably said: ‘That actor will never work again’.“
There are still not enough LGBTQ-themed films, but back in the 20th century they were quite rare, and back then most movies featuring queer people were “important” Oscar-nominated films such as Philadelphia (1993), or Brokeback Mountain (2005), sad stately affairs. I tend to appreciate the films with less agenda, where LGBTQ characters are more nonchalantly part of the world at large. Callow has a role in what is one of the my top gay-themed films, Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994). With a smart, sly screenplay by Richard Curtis, neatly directed by Mike Newell, Four Weddings And A Funeral features Callow as Gareth, a flamboyant but not camp chap who doesn’t fit neatly into any stereotype. He does not die of AIDS, which during that era is remarkable. In fact, Gareth dies of Scottish dancing. At the funeral of the title, Gareth’s partner Matthew recites the poem Funeral Blues (“Stop all the clocks…”) by the gay poet W.H. Auden. It is a scene that requires having Kleenex at hand.
“There was an unfortunate consequence of my character’s eccentricity; it stuck in people’s heads. Some people think I am like Gareth in real life, or think that particular acting style, which I call ‘the life and death of the party performance’, is all I can do, which certainly isn’t the case.”
When I read the script, it was immediately evident that this was a new kind of a gay character in films: not sensitive, not intuitive, kind and somehow deeply sad, nor hilarious, bitchy and outrageous, but masculine, exuberant, occasionally offensive, generous and passionate. He was also deeply involved with his partner, the handsome, shy, witty, understated Matthew. In the original screenplay, they were glimpsed at the beginning of the film asleep in bed. In the final cut, the filmmakers removed this sequence, in order to allow their relationship to creep up on the audience. They were right to do so: before they knew it, viewers had come to know and love them individually and were hit hard, first by Gareth’s death, then by Matthew’s oration (with a little help from another splendid bugger, W.H. Auden).“
Callow is working on a new play he has written to be performed at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast when we have theatre again. It is about his student days and he reveals that the title was inspired by abuse he received 50 years ago when he was campaigning for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland. He was told to go back home to England as he handed out leaflets, along with famed activist Bernadette Devlin.
“I was in Shaftesbury Square politely asking people to take a leaflet. One woman clearly didn’t approve and on hearing his English accent told him: ‘Go home sonny, it’s not your problem’.“
Callow said the “indelibly marked” confrontation with “the very nice” woman sprang back into his mind as he worked on his new play:
‘I reckoned Go Home Sonny would make the perfect title.“
Always busy, Callow is recently starred in the British television comedy series The Rebel, which ran for three seasons. He also has a recurring role on Death In Paradise, a very popular crime drama television series on the BBC.
In 2018, he played composer Giacomo Puccini in the lush film Victoria & Abdul directed by Stephen Frears, about the real-life relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim. Along with Callow, it stars Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Michael Gambon, and Eddie Izzard.
Not always keen on the idea of Marriage Equality, in 2016, Callow married his longtime partner Sebastian Fox on a Greek island after changing his mind:
“I had my doubts for many years. It was not exactly that I thought, as some of my friends did, that gay marriage was a mere aping of bourgeois norms. It was rather that in my family, marriage, my parents’, for one, had not been very successful. But slowly I began to understand that it was, or could be, a very public symbol of a profound and challenging commitment to a life shared at the deepest level.
And as these thoughts formed in my mind, I met the first man with whom I had ever wished to embark on that heroic undertaking. And, to my surprise, marriage, a boon in itself, has fundamentally changed my feelings about myself as a member of society; I now feel quite differently connected to it. What was merely private has become an integral and manifest part of the body politic; my love for my husband makes a contribution to the commonwealth.“
To me, he will always be Mr. Beeb in A Room With A View, my favorite of his roles in a favorite film.
Callow is certainly an actor who is more than the sum of his parts.