When I was eighteen, I wrote Laurence Olivier a letter. He replied, by return of post, inviting me to join the National Theatre company – in the box office. I accepted immediately, and as I crossed the foyer to be interviewed by the box office manager, I thought, crystal clear and without any sense of destiny about it: ‘One day I shall run this place.’
Which was rather strange. I was a hopelessly lost adolescent working in a library wholesaler’s, sending crateloads of Mills and Boon romances to the corners of the British Isles, sure of only one thing: that I didn’t want to go to university. I’d had enough of education. I wanted to live, I said. The inadequacy of my grammar school had turned me into an auto-didact. There was nothing, I insisted, that an arts course, the only one for which I was at all eligible, could teach me that I couldn’t find out for myself.
What to do instead, though?
Not many alternatives presented themselves to a mind stuffed with fin de siècle notions of burning always with a hard, gem-like flame. Most careers seemed either insufferably bourgeois or unattainably remote.
Into the second category came the theatre. There it was, vivid and real, but quite other. I loved going to the theatre, though there was no special family tradition of doing so. True, my grandmother had run away to go on stage before the First World War; my greatgrandfather had been a clown at the Tivoli in Copenhagen, then a ringmaster, then an impresario for Sir Oswald Stoll; another greatgrandfather had coached Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Hamlet. This was all legend to me. Like most people, I saw the acting profession as an exotic tribe with its own customs and rules, into which one was born. The idea of becoming an actor was as unlikely as becoming Prime Minister or Pope. Somebody had to; but how?
I had, it is true, been overwhelmed at an early age by two acting performances, both in films: Olivier’s Richard and Laughton’s Hunchback; and I was liable at any moment to become possessed by one or the other. I was a monstrous show-off and infant transvestite, mostly with and for my flamboyant grandmother; and for many years I topped the bill in the school playground, regaling astounded twelve-year-olds with my jelly dance and cod Shakespearian recitations. All this was in the past though (I had also won first prize in a fancy dress competition as a Can-Can dancer, but I kept fairly quiet about that). As the shutters of adolescence closed on these youthful excesses, there was no legitimate outlet for all the energy. At none of my schools was there drama of any kind. So when I thought of careers, it never occurred to me to go on the stage. Behind everything that I did think of, however, was the idea of acting. It was the acting in being a barrister that made me think of that; it was the acting in being an ambassador that appealed. I just didn’t see it.
So I left school baffled and badly adrift. I started to visit the theatre more and more frequently, being almost morbidly drawn by the colour and intensity otherwise absent from my emotional and social life. Olivier’s National Theatre, then at its zenith, was the great magnet. Six bob seats in the gallery to see The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Much Ado About Nothing, Juno and the Paycock. One day, at a performance of The Three Sisters, a thought crept into my brain: ‘I would be part of this.’ My heart beat wildly, I kept turning the thought over and over until I was almost too excited to move. It wasn’t simply the performance, moving and remarkable though that was. It was the whole enterprise: the ushers, the atmosphere, the graphic layout of the programme: the result of a number of people drawn together, working at full stretch to produce a unique experience. People had done this. Perhaps I could be one of them. What had I to lose?
And so I wrote three foolscap pages to Laurence Olivier, telling him all this, adding at the last moment a PS in which I made it clear that I was willing to serve him and his theatre ‘in however humble a capacity’. His reply was gracious and swift; and here I was, crossing the foyer, succumbing to mild megalomaniac delusions. I suppose I thought that if I’d come this far, anything was possible.
The interview with the box office manager quickly knocked such nonsense out of my head. A grim, lizard-like man, Pat Layton, who prided himself on never having seen a single show at the National (he once blushingly admitted he’d seen ‘half’ of Othello), indicated that my duties would be largely confined to the mailing room. With time, I might eventually be allowed to man ‘the window’ – the advance window, that is: the ‘this evening’s performance’ window was his special preserve, and he used to sit at it like an iguana on a rock, eyes darting to left and right, doing what he liked best: refusing people tickets. He was at that time one of the most courted men in London, and it cannot be said that he wore his power lightly. Occasionally, one of the recipients of his favour would appear at the window, and would receive his smile: a terrifying sight, the glint on the blade of the guillotine.
Pat ran a tight ship. He was the number one; there was a number two; and two number threes. Beneath them, us, the juniors, and a huge army of casual staff needed for the booking periods, during which the mail was delivered in fifteen or twenty sacks a day. The juniors sat and answered the telephones and dispatched tickets in a tiny office which had been Lilian Baylis’s. That gave a frisson (the only frisson). Otherwise it was relentless slog in that tiny space. The work itself was like oakum-picking. To be sure, we laughed a lot: silly side-splitting jokes about people asking for two tickets for Three Sisters (‘Won’t it be a bit of a squeeze, madam?’), and the lady who couldn’t get her tongue round the title, and who, after being helped by the box office assistant – ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, – madam’ replied: ‘Oh dear, I shan’t be able to come then, will I?’, and the legendary woman who’d demanded tickets for Louis Armstrong’s farewell concert, apparently misled by the title Armstrong’s Last Goodnight. When Peter Brook’s Oedipus created a scandal we thought of answering the phones: ‘Dirty Old Vic’.
Best for me was the constant infusion of gossip from the theatre itself: rumours of scandals both personal and artistic. I learned to call all the actors by their first names, even though I’d hardly met one. Jeremy this, Charlie that, and I hear Frank’s leaving after Much Ado. Sometimes one would find an excuse to take something down to the box office itself, and one of them would be there, bantering with Pat. His repartee was on a fairly unsophisticated level, being largely concerned with physical functions. I felt I’d made a major break-through the day he greeted me with ‘What you want, cunt?’ I was wrong. You never knew where you were from day to day with Pat. I felt certain that I was in favour the day he went to the safe, pulled out a battered old book and said ‘Want to borrow this?’ It was Last Exit to Brooklyn, then a banned book. ‘Read the bit where the queers go round the park picking up the used Johnny bags and sucking them,’ he said affectionately. ‘That’ll make you throw up.’ Even this outburst of camaraderie proved delusory, however, and it was weeks before he spoke to me again.
No, the box office as such was not fun. But I was happy. It was exhilarating to be part of something which was at the front of the national consciousness. The theatre’s affairs – I felt they were ours – were reported in the newspapers. There was an unbroken stream of extraordinary people crossing the foyer. We were definitely something big. Above all, it was wonderful to know that ‘Sir’, as Olivier was universally called, was on the premises every day, and often on the stage. I could sneak in and see him any time I wanted.
The canteen, too, was a great revelation. In those days there was a chef who in his tiny kitchen managed to make ravishing things at deliberately low prices; the combination of quality and cheapness persuaded most of the actors to eat there, which maintained the sense of company: everyone who worked in the building was deemed to be part of The Company. Sir always ate there, and generally chose to eat with the ushers or the box office staff. I can’t say that I ever actually spoke to him; or indeed to any of the actors much, beyond a smile or business exchange – ‘Tickets for tonight?’ – and so on. But here they were, in quantity – the mysterious endangered species, rarely glimpsed, and never by the light of day – actors! I liked them; and what’s more, they seemed, if not exactly ordinary, human. I saw what they did on stage, exotic peacocks, and I saw them; and I could see that the journey from the one to the other was possible.
The way to the canteen lay through the pass door in the auditorium. One would sneak through, trying to catch sight of John Gielgud or Maggie Smith, straining to hear what Peter Brook or Tyrone Guthrie were saying. So this was actors’ work. In the canteen, one would hear bitter recriminations, or wild laughter over someone’s retort, or again deep anxiety over this problem or that. It all seemed highly charged, but possible. The magic that had so dazzled me had been worked on. In other words it was, after all, a job, and not some divine succession. Actors were made, not born.
On Monday nights, the theatre was dark. The box office staff were the last to leave the theatre, through the stage door. On those nights, passing through the empty auditorium made my heart stop. It seemed to me a sacred space, Stonehenge. It was throbbing with energies and a curious power – an altar without a tabernacle. One night I lingered, and, certain that I was the last, instead of walking across the wings through to the stage door, I stepped on to the stage. Feeling that at any moment I might be struck dead by God or Laurence Olivier, I said ‘To be or not to be’ – just those words – and bolted. It was a shock, hearing my own voice so loud and resonant; but just as shocking was the physical, or even the psychical, power momentarily released, a small earthquake. Had I found the famous Spot in the centre of the stage? Or was I just overwrought?
Whichever, there was now no longer any question of what I wanted to be. I was impatient to do something about it. Pat Layton’s bleak regime was no longer to be endured; but I was in any case obliged to make a decision about my immediate future. Back in the almost unrememberable past before I’d joined ‘The Theatre’, I had in desperation applied to a university. I couldn’t now see any future without a degree. I was sure that Oxford or Cambridge would be out of the question, so I inclined towards Trinity College, Dublin, not only for its romantic aura but for being out of the country. Then I discovered that the British government won’t give you a grant to study there, so I decided, in my comic ignorance, to apply for the next best thing: Queen’s University, Belfast. They accepted me.
The academic life was still anathema to me, but I saw that I could use it to further my violent ambition: to get on stage at all costs. The only alternatives, as I thought, were amateur dramatics or some kind of highly unlikely sideways leap from the box office. It’s a measure of the lopsided view of theatrical realities gained from working at the Old Vic that I never thought of drama school at all. I could at least see that a university drama society was far more feasible than the other alternatives, so I set off for Belfast, cynically determined to act my little heart out.
On my first day, I made straight for the Dramsoc’s little wooden hut, and was received with open arms, undoubtedly because of my glamorous connection with the Old Vic box office. For the first production, alas, I was hors concours, because the director had elected to set the seventeenth-century Norwegian comedy in Belfast, and my lips and tongue were not yet round that perverse patois. I was allowed to play the small part of an English-accented barrister: my first appearance on any stage. This I did with, if anything, rather too much feeling. Next term, however, glory. Or potential glory. I was cast as Trigorin in The Seagull. We were to tour the campuses of the North and be entered in the Irish University Drama Festival, which no less a legend than Micheal MacLiammóir was to adjudicate. It was a crucial experience. The production was monstrous. The director had made the discovery, as all directors do, that Chekhov describes three out of four of his great plays as ‘comedies’. So, we would play it for laughs. This approach led the production to be known as The Seagoon. As for me, I was appalling. The earth opened up under my feet every time I stepped on stage. It was a shallow, nasty piece of work. I didn’t know what I was doing, while at the same time knowing all too well. By now, I had become an avid theatregoer, and I knew what was good. This was not.
‘My very dear friend Mr Simon Callow,’ said MacLiammóir, adjudicating. ‘Not, I fear, a born actor. A born writer, perhaps [this was on the strength of an article I’d written about him] but not a born actor.’
‘Micheál,’ I said to him afterwards, ‘you said I was not a born actor.’ ‘Ah, but you could become one,’ he replied.
I was ‘his very dear friend’ because, after the article for which I’d interviewed him at his home in Dublin some months before, I’d been seconded to him as his dresser and general factotum for the duration of the Festival. He gave two performances of The Importance of Being Oscar as part of his adjudicator’s fee; during them, transcribing his notes, or accompanying him to lunch, or sitting over a bottle of Bushmills in the Grand Hotel in Belfast, him remembering Orson Welles or talking about the latest film he’d seen – from the front row because he was now so blind – we had become quite close. He was the first actor that I’d really known, spent any time with. Bedizened, berouged and blasphemous, he spoke of Yeats and Ireland and Beauty and Art and Illusion, all in capital letters. His incomparably rich and mellifluous voice was as capable of the most scandalous scurrility (‘I feel fucked – but not in the way I like to be’) as of haunting evocations of the great dead and ruminations of a philosophical character (‘I’ve always felt that Beethoven, like the Christian view of heaven, was not for the likes of me’). At the interview he’d seemed to give his whole personality to this rather unprepossessing adolescent; when the tape-recorder was switched off, he proceeded to give the unofficial version, which was even more glorious, though certainly less printable.
He was a real Man of the Theatre: actor, designer, director, playwright. He’d given his life to it, and what’s more in Ireland. When he might have made a mainland, or indeed an international, career, he had learnt Gaelic, returned to Dublin, and with Hilton Edwards created a glittering showcase of the most modern European plays (English language premieres of Cocteau, Giraudoux, Anouilh), English classics and his own and others’ Gaelic plays; what’s more, in so doing, he never for a moment stopped being scandalous, provocative and downright naughty. I loved him and now I love his memory.
Simply being in Micheal’s company was delightful in itself – having lunch with him, sitting next to him for the shows he was to adjudicate, writing down and then transcribing his comments, basking in the great warmth of his large self. Being his dresser, however, was quite something else, an experience compounded equally of pity and terror, and my first encounter with the reality of performance.
I would arrive at the theatre somewhat before he did, to iron and arrange his clothes. I was a stranger to these arts, and he showed them to me, as well as the arts of packing a suitcase and preparing his interval drink of gin-and-tea. He always arrived in the highest good humour, full of jest and profanity. He divested himself of his clothes to the accompaniment of a seamless patter of erotic speculation, literary quotation, character assassination (‘of course when poor dear Cyril Cusack played Hamlet in a selection of costumes purloined from sundry shows of the previous season, he became the Prince of Great Denmark Street’) and self-revelation. As he stood in his underpants he gazed in a melancholy manner at his groin. ‘My testicles,’ he said, moodily, ‘have become distended’ – the bulge did seem unusually substantial – ‘as a result of a virus contracted, I fear, from a seaman. Are you a virgin?’ The unexpectedness of the question made me blush. ‘No,’ I lied. ‘Good, good. And to which are you more inclined, men or women?’ ‘Both,’ I lied again. ‘Very good,’ he said, ‘although I must confess that the older I get, the less I am able to enjoy the company of women – except of course our own dear Enid who is so notorious a Sapphic as to be virtually hors concours. And now, my dear boy, the time of the performance must surely be approaching?’ I was keeping a close watch on the clock. I had been firmly instructed that I was to announce when there was half an hour before the curtain rose, when there was a quarter of an hour, when five minutes, and finally, when it was time for us to go to the stage.
As the time approached, a change came over Micheál. The patter became a trickle and finally dried up. His make-up – which in fact only amounted to touching up his street make-up – was quickly effected; his costume consisted of nothing more than evening dress, and of course a green carnation. He sat in front of his mirror staring, haunted, at his face. He seemed barely to hear the calls. As the curtain got closer and closer, he started to tremble. Sweat trickled through his rouge. He grasped on to the table in front of him till his knuckles were white. The stage manager arrived to give him his call. He reached out for my hand. ‘Lead me,’ he said. ‘I can’t see, d’you see.’ Down the pitch dark corridor we went, his fingernails digging ruts into my palms, while with his free hand he crossed himself again and again. ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph. Jesus protect me. Jesus.’ We reached the stage. I said: ‘There are three stairs now.’ ‘Where? Where?’ I helped him up, one, two, three. He fumbled with the black cotton drape, pushed it aside, and was on stage. In the pitch black, the light dazzled, but I heard big, solid, welcoming applause, and then Micheál’s voice, rock-steady, as if he’d been on for hours: ‘To drift with every passion till my soul. . .’ I slipped round to the front and watched the ebullient unrecognizable figure juggle words and emotions, drawing his audience of largely middle-aged, middle-class Belfast burghers and their wives into his charmed circle, luring them into a world of sophistication and wit that they would under any other circumstances abhor, somehow making them feel that he and they shared a secret and a wisdom. He used to claim that he was really a seánachai, a storyteller, and here was the spell in action.
I fell under it so completely myself that I forgot that he was so nearly blind that, whenever he performed the show, he brought with him his own carpet with a bright bold pattern that he might follow, and so not fall off the edge of the stage. Such was his command and apparent inexhaustibility that I almost forgot the interval too. In the nick of time I flew to the dressing room, scooped up his gin-and-tea, and met him at the edge of the stage. He quaffed the proffered cup in a gulp, and faltered down the steps, drained, old, and silent. I bubbled about his performance, about the piece, about Wilde; he grunted almost inaudibly. In the dressing room, he found an armchair and slumped in it, loosening his tie and his cummerbund. Suddenly, for a minute, he slept, then woke and stared ahead of him. ‘This is the last, the very last.’ A bucolic figure appeared at the door. ‘Mr Mac, I’ve come to pay my compliments.’ ‘Who is it? Who is it?’ he said panickily. The man moved closer. I didn’t know whether to stop him or not; didn’t know the form. ‘You stayed with me and the wife in what was it, ‘51 or ‘2, I should think, in Dundrum.’ ‘Of course, of course, my dear fellow, of course, how sweet of you to come to see me.’ He grasped the man’s hand: ‘Wonderfully kind. Now you must excuse me, I have one or two small preparations to make. Please remember me to your dear wife.’ The man left in a glow. Micheál groaned. ‘Who on earth was that? Twenty years ago. I can barely remember my own name. A good man, though, kind of him to come.’
He turned to his mirror and reassembled the genial aesthete of the performance. A little make-up; a change of shirt; a sharp breath to allow the cummerbund to be re-fastened; and we made our now less nerve-racking journey down the black corridor. He ascended the steps almost jauntily, and stepped into the light twenty years younger, as before.
At the end of the show he was tired, but triumphantly so, like a boxer who’s won. After a crumpled minute or two, the earlier Micheál, so different from either the urbane charmer of the stage or the desperate fearful man of the corridor, re-appeared – most welcome, he was, too, this larky, naughty boyish Micheál. ‘We chorus girls,’ he’d say, grinding his hips. Again he regarded his inflated groin, covered in red pants. ‘Fish-net, they call them,’ he said, his eyes wide with amazement. ‘Some catch,’ I ventured. He laughed generously, and then said: ‘So you were in Morocco,’ referring to something I’d mentioned in passing two months before when I interviewed him. ‘My god, when Hilton and I were in Morocco, in the thirties, it was like the Arabian Nights. It was at a dinner party in Tangiers that I received one of those shafts of inspiration that come rarely, too rarely: an ineffably tedious woman approached me and said: “I’ve heard you prefer men to women. Is that true?” With barely a flicker I replied: “Of course. Don’t you?” And it has been my singular fate to have heard my happiest inspiration attributed on innumerable occasions to Noël. Dear Noël – we were together as child actors, of course, and to this day, whenever we meet, all too rarely nowadays, he says: “I’m still one month younger than you.” ’
The one week that I spent at MacLiammóir’s side had an overwhelming impact on me. It was a headlong plunge into a bubble-bath spiked with cinnamon: froth, gaiety, relish, discrimination all pouring out of a personality that I now knew to be human to his fingertips: vain, generous, frightened, brave. It seemed to me that he offered a vision not only of what the theatre and acting might be, but a vision of life’s possibilities, too.
The only other actor I knew at all was Victor Henry. Between them, they covered a lot of ground. Victor was the caricature of the self-destructive, demon-driven artist. He chewed whisky glasses till the blood ran down his cheeks. He picked fights, five foot four and weedy, as he was, with truck drivers. (‘D’yer want me to take me glasses off? Is that what’s holding yer back? OK, they’re off. Now whatcha gonna do?’) He thrust his hand up waitresses’ skirts. Filth poured in torrents from his mouth. He destroyed other actors’ performances if he didn’t think they were good enough. He himself would appear on stage smashed out of his skull, giggling and making other actors laugh – and then suddenly he’d do something so extraordinarily pure and intense that your heart would stop beating. He was the most absolute actor I’ve ever seen. He alarmed me to the point of terror, but when he spoke about acting and the theatre, raging against the pusillanimity (he was playing Jimmy Porter at the time) of the entire theatre, except for himself and some – some – people at the Royal Court, insisting that the theatre’s only job was to wage war on bourgeois mediocrity, I agreed with him, and wanted to be up there with him: me, as I felt, the embodiment of bourgeois mediocrity.
Between them, these two impossibly different men fuelled my vision: the one celebrating in the most sophisticated and self-aware way civilized values, the other leading the attack on complacency, screaming ‘Wake Up and Be Alive’; one seducing and alluring, the other exhorting and electrifying. To combine the challenge of the one with the invitation of the other!
I met them both while I was at Queen’s, and they both gave an extra shove to my determination to leave the place. Within four months I had confirmed my dislike of the academic life (‘You mean, Mr Callow,’ said Dr Purcell, my brilliant English tutor, ‘you want less analysis and more synthesis?’ ‘Yes, sir.’) and discovered acting. Why wait around when I knew exactly what I wanted to do? ‘Safety net! Safety net!’ they all shrieked. ‘No!’ I cried back, ‘I think I’m on to something. I must test it. Am I an actor, or am I not?’ Through it all, I was sustained by an enormous strength: I knew how bad I was. Had I thought that I was any good, I would have been lost. ‘If I have a safety net to fall back on,’ I said, ‘I’ll never do anything. If I don’t have a safety net, I’ll have to make a go of it. There’ll be nothing else.’ There was an element of bravado in this, and also a deep resistance to continuing work on my paper on ‘The Ulster Linen Industry in the Sixteenth Century’ now I’d discovered something real: real work on something really useful to real people.