Simon Callow talks to PR ahead of his first visit to New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion

Posted on 21 March 2016
By Chris High
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Simon Callow is, unquestionably, one of Britain’s finest stage, TV and film actors and directors. His CV boasts some of the widest ranges of performance, too, from pantomime to Shakespeare and all points in between. What may not be quite so well known, though, is that Simon is also a somewhat prolific biographer, with subjects including seminal work on Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Charles Laughton.

His latest project – one that has taken some 25 years to complete to its current stage – examines the life and work of possibly the most influential film actors and directors of all time, Orson Welles, with the third of his four books, Orson Welles: One Man Band (Jonathan Cape), published thirty years following the great man’s death aged 70.

In union with the third volume, Simon is also undergoing an extensive 27 night, one man touring show which arrives at New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion Blue Lounge on March 30th, during which Simon will be talking about Welles and the book.

“What’s surprising is that it is still a work in progress and I never dreamed that it would take 25 years to get only part way through,” Simon explained. “I always thought it might take three volumes, although the publishers said that I could only write two, which I agreed to, I then realised it was quite unworkable. I’ve written other biographies in between the Welles books and I have to take a deep breath before starting on the next instalment; it is very detailed and very complex because you have to go deep into Welles’ character and mindset in order to get the slightest an inkling of what made him tick.

“The third volume coming out on the thirtieth anniversary of his passing galvanised the process, in many ways, inasmuch as it provided its own deadline. I earn my living as an actor, not simply as a biographer of Orson Welles, so having that as a target certainly helped the writing process.”

The disciplines of acting and directing, in comparison with the solitary nature of writing, couldn’t be more different and it is this that Simon says he enjoys. “There aren’t too many crossover aspects between the two. Even though you have editors and publishers, writing remains very much a solo activity. I’ve also employed researchers in the past, but I don’t find that very satisfactory either because I think it is important that you discover for yourself the facts about the subject you are writing about. Very often the most interesting thing you discover isn’t actually the thing you are looking for, but rather the thing that is next to it. That’s how you make connections.

“Acting is obviously a much more collective activity, even in a one man show such as this, as there are directors and lighting designers and sound engineers all making the sum of the whole. With writing I have sole responsibility and I like that very much. It really is down to me to get it right. It is constantly being in a dialogue with myself that I enjoy. When I look at something I have written that isn’t particularly right or good, you have to ask yourself how you can make it better and I love the challenge of finding ways to improve. I haven’t made this stuff up, it is all based on research. My job as a writer then is to make the book as accessible and vivid and impactful as I possibly can.”

Accessible and vivid writing shine throughout the three volumes thus far, but this did not come about without overcoming more than a few challenges. “I hate flat, academic writing that doesn’t communicate but rather add layers of obscurity. In my writing, I try to introduce overtones and echoes and resonances. The first obligation of a writer is to communicate, but you can do that subconsciously through your choice of words.”

Research was obviously important and Simon gave himself over to it a long time ago. “Back in 1989, when this project started, I took six months to interview everybody I could think of who was still alive that had a connection with Orson Welles,” Simon smiled. “I also plundered everything I could find that had been written about him, spending a lot of time in Bloomington, Indiana, where the great Welles archive is based.

“However, when I came to sit down to begin writing, there were an awful lot of things I still didn’t know. No matter how much research you have undertaken, you – the biographer – may not have been there to see a particular production. This meant that I pretty much had to go back and fill in the blanks with a Dictaphone and speak to those who were, or read the comments from those who were witnesses. Research is the raw material that you faithfully catalogue, but you never know where any of it is actually going to fit until you sit down and start writing and make those connections.”

Simon also came across one great advantage and disadvantage in almost the same package. “Although Welles loved talking about his work, it very much depended on to whom he was talking at any particular time. He could say precisely the opposite thing to two different interviewers in the space of a week. For instance, in one interview he said that image is grossly overrated in cinema and that everything starts with the words the actors are given, whereas days later he says that people paid too much attention to the words and that it is the image that is most important. We are all capable of such somersaults, admittedly, but for the biographer you have to try to work out why he was saying what he was saying at a particular time.

“The most surprising thing was his insecurity as an actor. I didn’t quite believe it at first, but this became quite overwhelming the more I discovered, especially as it was self-generated in a lot of ways; the more anxious he became the less he took steps to prevent the insecurity. Quite often he’d fail or refuse to learn the lines, for example, which would obviously give an actor more confidence. I also think he felt terribly self-conscious as an actor and liked to put on a voice or a mask behind which to hide. That’s why Harry Lime in The Third Man is so great because that is Orson Welles without a mask.”

Orson Welles was very much, literally and metaphorically, larger than life. Married three times, he is renowned for his charm as well as some of his more outspoken political views. As a biographer, this is manna from heaven so, if there’s one question Simon could ask Welles, what would it be? “That’s particularly difficult but, I guess, why did you divorce Rita Hayworth would have to be up there somewhere,” he laughed.

Having written so many biographies now, there couldn’t possibly be a better person to ask advice from than Simon Callow as to how to go about writing them. “Following your nose is important and keep asking questions of yourself all the time. Why did this person do this? What was it like being them at this time? What were they up against? It is not unlike, in a strange way, playing a character from history because actors have to unearth the person they are playing in order to get underneath the skin of that person. This is really important when writing a biography, too.

“Now, I don’t pretend to have solved everything about Orson Welles and really don’t think you can solve absolutely everything about anybody you write about. However I believe that I have managed to convey a little of how it might have felt to have been him, how complex a man he was and how much at the mercy of the impulses he had he was. I think getting under the skin of the subject as much as possible is a must for all biographers.”

Simon Callow will be appearing at The New Brighton Floral on March 30th. Although he appeared in Being Shakespeare at The Liverpool Playhouse in 2010, he has never appeared on stage in a dramatic production on Merseyside. “Yes, I think that was the only time I’ve ever acted in Liverpool but I feel a sort of affinity to the city through Willy Russell when I was working on Shirley Valentine. I’m very much looking forward to coming up that way again, particularly as I see this show as being an extension of the art of being a storyteller which I absolutely love.

“To be able to spin out another’s life is just a joy. Orson Welles to a lot of people is just a name and I’ve stopped being surprised by the amount of people who haven’t seen Citizen Kane, but I don’t think that anybody can be failed to be astonished by the life he led, the impact the scale of his personality had on acting nor, indeed, the legacy he’s left behind. It is a great show to do and I hope the audience who come along will not only learn something but also have a good night out. There isn’t any technology involved in this either so, as Charles Laughton once said about one man shows: ‘An actor and his audience … now that’s a very bold thing, isn’t it.’”

Simon Callow will be performing Orson Welles: One Man Band at The New Brighton Floral Pavilion Blue Lounge on March 30th at 7:30 pm. For Tickets: or call Box Office on 0151 666 0000.