Who’s Simon Callow? His name is familiar to some, his face to a few more, but it usually takes the following reminder to really tweak the memory: in Four Weddings And A Funeral, he was the funeral.

It’s a shame in a sense, because Callow’s career is a lot more impressive than his over-the-top performance as gay Gareth. I’ve been a fan for years, having relished his roles in films like A Room With A View and enjoyed his autobiographical works Being An Actor and Love Is Where It Falls.

Admittedly part of my admiration lies not just with his skill as a writer and actor, but with Callow’s attitude to his sexuality. Before Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Ian McKellen came out, Callow was happily forging a career out of the closet, playing gay and straight roles on stage and film. He’s just completed playing a role in the film adaptation of Angels In America with Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, quite a leap from his early stage roles with Gay Sweatshop in the 70s. Callow happily notes that times have changed.

It’s become perfectly possible to represent all sorts of varieties of gay life on screen and on the stage in a relatively mainstream kind of a context, says Callow. Before, it was just out of the question, you could only ever represent gay people as tragic, doomed and weirdly amusing people -¦

[With Gay Sweatshop] it was a very, very liberating thing for the audiences to actually come to see specifically gay plays, stories about gay people’s very lives -¦ That doesn’t happen now, it’s no shock any more, [now] gay people go and see gay people accurately portrayed.

Callow is in town to play straight, however, in the biographical one-man play The Mystery Of Charles Dickens, devised by biographer Peter Ackroyd and starring not only the rakish Dickens but over 40 of his characters. The fictional beasts were easily tamed, but Dickens himself was trickier.

There is a huge amount to know about him. Peter Ackroyd’s biography is over a 1,000 pages long -¦ It’s not as if he was an unknown man, but he’s unknowable, that’s what’s fascinating about him, says Callow.

But I think people become increasingly moved as the play goes on about his extraordinariness, his generosity, his passion and sheer exuberance.

We chat further about everything from dream roles (Henry Higgins in a gay version of Pygmalion, currently being penned by Willy Russell) to his friend Kylie Minogue (they met on the set of Streetfighter). He drinks tea, is Britishly charming and quite proper. Oddly, I’m reminded of Callow having a nude bathe with Rupert Graves and Julian Sands in A Room With A View. Did he realise that the scene would become such a classic homoerotic film moment (well, for me at least).

No! It was, of course, a very anxious moment. It was such a cold day. Goosepimples were the largest promontories that we had to offer, laughs Callow, almost by way of an apology. It was a gorgeous scene to shoot, but for me it’s just misery to watch. There are these two gazelles pursued by a hippopotamus, just unbearable -¦ I immediately lost two stone afterwards!

 

The Mystery Of Charles Dickens runs at the Theatre Royal from 15 to 27 October. Tickets are available on 9266 4800 or at www.ticketek.com. For groups of six or more, phone 8512 9933.

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