Writing & playing Dickens: Q&A with Simon Callow (MWF 2012)

Cross-posted from the Melbourne Writers Festival 2012 blog.

Simon Callow is an actor, writer and this year’s festival keynote speaker. At the festival he’ll be talking about the great storyteller Charles Dickens, the subject of his latest book Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. I asked him a few questions about his work…

You’ve not only played Dickens’ characters, but you’ve played Dickens himself. Was this part of the reason you became interested in writing about him? 

The whole reason. I felt very close to him. I wanted to tell the world about this wonderful person that I had come to know. It was as if he was my best friend, or my brother.

You’re well known as an actor, but you’re also a musician, theatre director, and have written several books, including Being an ActorLove is Where it Falls, and biographies of Orson Welles and Charles Laughton. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process and how it fits into your busy creative life? 

In a way, the work on the biographies is not unlike the work one does in preparing a  role. I try to figure out what it was like to be him, and what it was like to be around him. In addition, I have to account for his life—why did he and it turn out the way it did? Which is also true of playing a character.

What is your favourite Dickens’ work? Has that changed since you began writing the book? 

My first, which was also his first, The Pickwick Papers. I love its freewheeling, 18th century quality, the vastness of the canvas, the profusion of sublime comic characters, and above all, Samuel Pickwick, Esq., one of the few utterly credible decent human beings in literature. And, no, much as I love Bleak HouseDrood and Dombey, my loyalty to Pickwick has remained constant.

Many people encounter Dickens today via the screen. I’m interested to know if you think (as an actor and director) that anything is lost if the works are only in adaptation (or intertextually). Or can a good adaptation be as good—or even better—than reading the novel? 

Never. But it can be a good thing in its own right. The problem with most Dickens adaptations is that they treat him as an essentially realistic writer, ignoring the fantastical, surreal element. This applies  not simply to the physical productions (film or stage) or the adaptations themselves, but to the acting. Dickens requires a kind of comic-expressionist style. Many—most—of his characters are grotesques, gargoyles. Something pre-Shakespearean—Chaucerian, in fact—about them. Dickens is a carnival writer. It’s worth remembering, too, that one of the most profound influences on his writing was The Arabian Nights. The sense of Fairy Tale is never far from his work, and that should inform and inspire the acting of his characters.

Click here to find out more about Simon Callow’s MWF events.

4 thoughts on “Writing & playing Dickens: Q&A with Simon Callow (MWF 2012)

  1. You’re so lucky to have met Mr. Callow. His voice is wonderfully expressive. When I was a kid I had a two cassette set of him reading an abridged version of “David Copperfield.” I can still hear him now. This is at least twenty-five years ago, so I’d be curious to know if he even remembers doing it. Probably just another day’s work for him!

    • Hi Glen, this Q&A was via email, but I do hope to meet him during the festival! I’m sure he probably does remember doing the cassette, as all his work with Dickens’ books seems very close to his heart.

  2. Wow, what charming answers that man gives. Short, sweet and to the point. He has exactly encapsulated my own Dickens reading experience, right down to the comments about the comic element and the characters. My own favourite is Hard Times, as I studied it in my first year of University and connected with exactly that element of the writing. I would say Dickens is one of my absolute favourites now.

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