Derek Jacobi and Simon Callow first met at the Old Vic in London. Jacobi was treading the boards with Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole and other greats in the fledgling National Theatre company; the younger Callow was working at the box office. Prolific as ever through this lockdown year, both are juggling an assortment of stage and screen projects from home. They took time off to talk about Shakespeare, scathing reviews and how rifling through their family’s wardrobes led them into an acting career.
Derek Jacobi: Have we ever worked together, Simon? I can’t remember!
Simon Callow: A thousand years ago, Derek, we were in Ken Branagh’s radio Romeo and Juliet. You played Mercutio; I was Benvolio. Much later you played it on stage – it was a huge triumph in 2016.
DJ: We’ve both been at this for so long now!
SC: Well, I sold tickets to see Derek when I was a box-office clerk at the Old Vic during Laurence Olivier’s glorious tenure, when the National Theatre was based there. That must have been one of the most extraordinary eras for British theatre in the 20th century.
DJ: The very first production at the National Theatre was Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier. I was playing Laertes. It was on 22 October 1963 – my 25th birthday. There was a party afterwards. All the glitterati were there and I was boring the arse off everybody saying it was the best night of my life. Suddenly a silence was called for and on the stage Shirley Bassey started singing Happy Birthday. Probably just to shut me up. But that Hamlet didn’t get good reviews.
SC: How did you feel about it yourself?
DJ: Well, I was just in awe of it and in awe of everybody. I was fresh from the Birmingham rep. Sir Laurence had seen me playing Henry VIII and he gave me a job. I was on cloud nine. Hamlet was all done on a revolving stage at the Old Vic and I remember the set was too heavy for it. One night it stuck completely as we were all coming on for a scene – Michael Redgrave, Rosemary Harris, Peter O’Toole. We decided the only thing to do was push. So you could see the cast of Hamlet pushing the set into place, as one of the court ladies desperately tried to stay in character, saying: “I thought Hamlet looked a bit down at the wedding!”
Chris Wiegand: What was O’Toole like to work with?
DJ: He was gorgeous. I thought he was a lovely Hamlet but he reacted badly to the reviews. He’d been very sober all through rehearsals and it sent him back to the bottle. When we got to the duel scene between Laertes and Hamlet he used to wink across the stage at me and it meant I was in for it. He’d slash his sword at the front row! But I adored him.
SC: Hamlet has had a rather chequered history at the National Theatre, starting with that one. Albert Finney’s for Peter Hall was not very much liked. Often, artistic directors like to start their regime with a Hamlet but it is a difficult play, quite frankly.
DJ: It is difficult – and very long!
CW: Derek, you’ve returned once more to Romeo and Juliet for a hi-tech version filmed in lockdown. You speak the prologue.
DJ: It was done in my living room! It’s a green screen production, pretending to be in the theatre. I was lucky last year, too. I was in France for three months in the summer and my partner set up a recording studio in a spare room. I recorded Captain Sir Tom Moore’s memoir from there.
SC: It’s amazing how easy it is now to do these things. The BBC asked me to film myself doing Shakespeare’s sonnets for their Culture in Quarantine series. I picked half a dozen sonnets about time. Nobody wrote more eloquently about time than Shakespeare and during this pandemic, time has become a preoccupation for all of us. I attached a little tripod to my smartphone, which is incredibly versatile. I used the phone to record overhead shots of myself, like a crane, and did sort of tracking shots in the garden. That’s what those cameras can do now. Imagine what Orson Welles might have been able to make with this technology!
CW: Lockdown has been a time of great creativity for theatre-makers, but of crisis too.
DJ: I can’t see theatres reopening this year. It’s a disaster. Theatre and the arts in general are not only about entertainment – they provide an enormous financial boost to the country.
SC: The West End is no more a constant carnival. Derek and I have had a good crack of the whip at playing in theatres over our lives. It’s devastating for people who are graduating from drama school, having done their courses online, which is a sort of impossibility for actors. Connecting with each other, being together, responding to each other’s physical presence – that is what acting is. This is a nightmarish situation. Stage managers are leaving the profession, as are others with years of experience. Think of the people who make the costumes, the sets and the props – the historical knowledge of all those people, right down to the sort of underpants each character would have worn.
CW: When did you start acting?
DJ: It was at school. An enterprising English master got us to the Edinburgh fringe in 1957. It really was a fringe then. I was doing Hamlet. From there I went to Cambridge University where it was like being in rep. We acted all the time. Then I did an open-air production of Hamlet in the Bancroft Gardens in Stratford-upon-Avon and the powers that be at Birmingham rep saw it. So when my begging letter arrived there they gave me an audition and I got in. I’ve never had to hustle. I’ve been blessed in a difficult profession that doesn’t owe you a living. We were a normal lower-middle-class family in east London who had nothing to do with theatre, so where the acting gene came from I don’t know. But at the age of seven I ended up performing at the Leytonstone library, cast in the dual role of a prince and a swineherd in the Christmas play.
SC: There was no theatre in my parents’ lives but my grandmother had been a chorus girl and was highly theatrical in herself. All my interest in theatre came from her. We’d dress up together, invent plays and I’d work my way through her wardrobe.
DJ: I worked my way through my mother’s wardrobe!
SC: We had wonderful times. Further back in my family, there was a very strong theatrical element. My great-grandfather became a ringmaster at the circus and married my great-grandmother, who was a bareback horse rider and came from a long line of theatrical equestrians. Her grandfather was the equestrian Jacques Tourniaire, who opened a hippodrome in St Petersburg. When he left Russia he was given one of Napoleon’s horses by the tsar as a parting present.
DJ: What a story! Have you ever ridden bareback, Simon?!
SC [laughing]: Very good! Actually I’m allergic to horses! I sneeze the moment I sit on them. I fell in love with the theatre as a teenager – I spent every penny I had on going to the theatre, read every book I could about it. I was obsessed by the National Theatre at the Old Vic. Everybody in the building really seemed to care about what went on that stage. I had no thought in my head about being an actor but I wanted to work for an organisation like that. So I wrote Sir Laurence a letter – three full foolscap pages, closely typed – about what a wonderful theatre he was running. He wrote back by return of post and said if you like it so much, why don’t you come and work here? So I went to work in the box office. You won’t remember, Derek, but I met you in the canteen.
DJ: Oh, that canteen was lovely. I watched the 1966 World Cup there – when we won!
SC: Sir Laurence would sit with the ushers in the canteen. He was an old-fashioned actor-manager. Very paternalistic, benevolent. He was obviously a pretty complicated human being, but as a leader of a company he was supreme.
DJ: I absolutely agree. He could be monstrous when he wanted to be, but when you have that kind of responsibility I suppose you have to have that streak in your nature. I totally lacked that – I yearned for it.
SC: You’d catch him nipping into the toilets to check that the toilet paper had been replaced. He took terrific pains to know the names of everybody. When you get a building that’s as huge as the National Theatre’s eventual home on the South Bank, it becomes harder to create that sense of a company. Repertory was already kind of dying by the time I worked at Lincoln rep. Within 10 years it was gone – the idea that every town had its own theatre with actors that the audience got to know and could watch develop. Rep gave you a good grounding. How to learn, for example, to get on with actors you didn’t like very much because you had to. How to deal with directors who were no good. Or how to rise to the challenge of directors who had completely radical new ideas. And how to deal with the problem of being miscast.
CW: When did you each feel miscast for a role?
DJ: The one I really got wrong was Macbeth at Stratford in 1993. I was no good. Usually if I’ve been miscast I’ve found a clue, a way in somehow, but I didn’t with Macbeth. My brain comprehended him but my heart couldn’t.
SC: I was rather extraordinarily cast as Orlando in As You Like It at the National Theatre in 1979. People expect Orlando to be this gorgeous thing. I made the mistake of listening to the radio review of the production in my dressing room. I remember hearing Michael Billington say to Stanley Wells: “And what about Simon Callow?” And Stanley Wells saying: “Well, lacking in glamour surely!”
DJ: I spent years not reading reviews. They either praise you to the skies or they damn you. I played Cyrano de Bergerac at the Barbican for the RSC in 1983 and it was a huge success. The next day I found a copy of the Times in my hands. Irving Wardle was the Times critic then. I thought, I’m going to read it because it was sensational last night. And he said that once in a decade an actor comes along born to play Cyrano de Bergerac – and Derek Jacobi is not that actor. I haven’t read a review since!
SC: They cling to you like burrs, these judgments. I played Verlaine in Total Eclipse at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1981. I was very happy with the performance. Then I read James Fenton, the critic in the Sunday Times, who said my stomach was “a warning to us all”. I’d been in my underpants in the play. It’s very hard once you’ve got a line like that in your head – it limits you.
CW: How have you dealt with the fame that has come with acting?
DJ: I’ve always tried to avoid the celebrity side of what I do. My offstage personality is rather timid – that’s why I couldn’t do Macbeth. I don’t seek the spotlight. As long as fame keeps me in work that’s fine, but I can’t see any other use for it really. Ask Simon – he talks far better than me. Well, he writes, directs, does it all!
CW: What drives you, Simon? You’re incredibly prolific.
SC: I’m an amazingly greedy person. When I discover something I just can’t get enough of it. For the first 10 years of my career, my appetite for acting was a compulsion. I did sort of burn that out by the time I’d done a long West End run of a play called The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. I came to a bit of a standstill – that appetite had been sated. Then I was asked to direct and teach. I gave a speech about acting and that led to writing a book and then came more books. As to fame, I’ve never felt famous. You wouldn’t finance a film on my name. I honestly and truly had no sense of a career at all. I deeply admire those actors who have planned to some extent their lives and careers. I’ve not been able to do that. Something comes my way and I get excited and do it. Like Derek, I’ve been lucky. Luck is so much a part of life.
DJ: Listen, chaps, I’m in the embarrassing position of having to work in five minutes! I’ve got a little studio at the bottom of the garden and I’m recording a Doctor Who series. Will you forgive me if I bow out? I’m playing the Master. Simon, I’d have liked to listen to you all day …
SC: And you too, Derek!
Derek Jacobi is in Romeo & Juliet until 27 February. Simon Callow is writing the fourth and final volume of his Orson Welles biography.