It is most odd, but we in England are bad at honouring our artists, in particular those who have the temerity to be multi-taskers, those renaissance men & women who act, direct, write - and often still more. Kenneth Branagh has come in for much cynical disapproval from lesser talents (critics, mainly) as has Antony Sher and, when he was alive, even the brilliant Peter Ustinov - whose multi-faceted genius is given a few pages of loving endorsement here. Or we allow a few short years of uncriticised success, then: the backlash! It happens in the pop music business as well as in other branches of the arts. It is to our shame. (The lazily dismissive modern synonym for actor - `luvvie` - is symptomatic of our two-faced attitude to thesps in the UK.)
I have been privileged this year to have had the opportunity to read two masters of English prose at their peak, in two not so very different books, either of which could be said to be its author`s magnum opus. One is Clive James`s great `summing-up` of a life`s thought and reading, Cultural Amnesia (which I`d recommend to anyone with a pulse and a few functioning brain cells) and the other is this unputdownable `alternative autobiography` of the great and good Simon Callow.
I first was aware of this often undervalued actor just before he made his name (as Mozart in the National`s Amadeus), in Brecht`s Arturo Ui. I realised then that we had a vastly dynamic, full-blooded, resourceful actor-entertainer in our midst. (Even then, 30 years ago, he was being touted as a future KBE, and I fully expect him to join the ranks of theatrical knights before long, deserving of that honour a little more than not a few recent recipients.) The years have shown how little we knew of this ebullient man`s talents and enthusiasms - and what an Enthusiast he proves to be in this wonderful book - as he has become essayist, book reviewer (those for the Guardian in this capacity are marvels of concision as well as the generosity that seems to be in his spirited nature), memoirist, biographer (of Laughton & Welles, both perfect subjects for Callow`s almost Dickensian pen), librettist, not to mention theatre and opera director.
How very un-English it all is. Tut-tut, we can`t have that.
If you can have that...then this is an unmissable pot-pourri of autobiography, thoughts on acting, memories of and tributes to other actors and artists - often in the form of published obituaries - and much else. Try his short but fascinating, as well as timely, essay called Actors and Their Bodies (pp364-367) or his obituary of the peerless Paul Scofield which closes the book.
Callow has hit upon a simple yet effective format, which is to intersperse already
published pieces with his own memories, autobiographical fragments, and portraits of colleagues - such as the famously prickly, regularly abusive director of genius John Dexter, the madly disruptive wunderkind Victor Henry, the eccentric visionary director Milos Forman or the indiscreet yet `saintly` John Gielgud.
Along the varied walks and byways of his seemingly charmed life and career Callow has found several mentors and kindred spirits, and it is a mark of this national treasure - sorry, but he is! - that he tries to be as generous, or at least as forgiving, to those he has loved as to those who have quite obviously driven him up the wall.
He will send you back to such disparate bedfellows as Dickens, Beckett and Peter Shaffer with renewed respect; he might make you re-evaluate the whole `Method` acting phenomenon, at least the somewhat humourless American version of it. He may even get the unconvinced into an opera house.
What continually elevates this nicely-packaged 400-page labour of love above most books by artists is that Simon C is, quite simply, a born writer. He loves language, using it with irreverent respect and a fulsome engagement with each and every subject that interests him - and many things interest him; hence this glory of a book.
Let us celebrate, not denigrate, our great enthusiasts; our `big` characters. As the afore-mentioned Clive James once said of one of Callow`s heroes: `Olivier didn`t overact, he was just over-alive`.
Simon Callow here shows that he is alive, kicking, and writing up a storm.