Is there an actor who personifies the notion of the bon viveur better than Simon Callow? Into the elegant Hampshire hotel in London’s Leicester Square he strides, bright scarf flying, shaking my hand and laughing, all in the same instant.
He’s got to be at the theatre in an hour, to prepare for his show, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, but over coffee he will tell me about his new series on Classic FM, which matches classical music with wine. The idea came from “psychological research” proving that flavour can be enhanced by music. Really? That’s a fact?
Callow throws his head back and laughs, loudly. “I don’t know. I know wine can influence how music sounds – that seems more likely.”
Either way, Tasting Notes seems like an extremely jolly two hours, during which classical pieces are paired with an “appropriate” glass of vino. Callow thus might suggest a Neopolitan red while listening to Mozart’s Così fan tutte (set in Naples), and conducted by Riccardo Muti (born there). Or a glass of Caprense, made on Capri – while listening to Debussy’s Les collines d’Anacapri.
“It’s a bit of a wine travelogue,” muses Callow in his mellifluous baritone. “How wonderful,” I echo in my squeaky soprano, getting more theatrical by the minute. Impossible not to, really, with Callow.
He looks at me sharply. “Well, we’re not going to these places, you know. I’m just reading the words in a studio! It’s not a whistle-stop tour of Burgundy and then down to Puglia. Although,” he says, dreamily, “that would be wonderful, if one went to all those places and drank the wine in the places where they were made.”
Are you a wine buff, then? “Oh, no. I just like drinking it and have a vague idea about what goes with what.” He pauses. “I have friends who have done wine courses. Can you imagine? I’m sure it enhances your pleasure but the idea of going to night classes is a little much.”
So, you’re not immediately handed the wine list, I take it. “Well, normally I am, because I am paying! Ha! Ha!”
His great laugh booms out. He may not know a lot about wine, but he’s certainly a music expert. “I’ve been immersed in classical music since I was a boy. My grandmother was a singer, and had a huge collection of 78s. She loved the tenor Beniamino Gigli. And the baritone, Tito Gobbi. I grew up listening to them, and to the classical pops, you could call them. Grieg’s piano concerto on 12 separate ten-inch 78s. Marvellous.”
Does he play? "I am obsessed by music but I cannot make music, maddeningly. I am the only person in the world who begged his mother for music lessons – and she wouldn’t give them to me. I had fantasies of playing the flute,” says Callow, pronouncing the word with spectacular emphasis, “but I never did. It shows it was not pressing.” He looks at me shrewdly. “It’s like when people say, ‘I wish I had been an actor. I could have been wonderful.’ And you say mmm. Ha!”
Wasn’t it tricky to get music from every major wine-growing region? Chile, say? “Well, I’m not sure about composers there, but there are some wonderful Chilean performers. Tasmania might be a bit tricky, admittedly, but there are lots of composers in Australia. And California, I’m sure we won’t have a problem finding composers.”
“Can you include the Beach Boys?” Callow fixes me with an eye. “It’s called Classic FM.” Indeed, but might Tasting Notes have the purists gasping with horror when they hear you matching Beethoven with, say, Liebfraumilch? I mean, could this series be another flag flying in the vanilla world of the middlebrow?
“No,” says Callow firmly. As if! “No. I am quite highbrow. I am very familiar with classical music and I listen to every kind of it.” Like what? “From the first music that we know of right up to contemporary classical music. I listen to marathon chamber recitals and things like that. I am obsessed with classical music and listen to it in all forms,” he says with added emphasis, as if I haven’t quite got the point.
“But it is not anyone’s exclusive reserve. We use music for different purposes – to dance, to seduce, as well as the purer motive of listening to it in itself as a complete work of art. And I don’t feel at all fussy about that, in any way.” Take that, Radio 3!
Anyway, this show is not going to threaten the Classical Top 100. “Because of our slightly odd remit,” says Callow, “we are likely to play music a little bit off the beaten track. So the very familiar sits up against the less familiar. For example, the greatest composer in the Auvergne is the very obscure Déodat de Séverac, who wrote the most extraordinarily attractive music about Languedoc.”
But the series probably isn’t going to go big on Britten, or Elgar, is it? Correct. “There is wine in England, of course,” says Callow, “but perhaps not quite to be spoken of in the same breath as...” He tails off tactfully.
In a subsequent series, he could play music alongside famous beers? Callow shudders. “I would prefer not to be doing that. I have never liked beer in any form. Ever. And I hate pubs.”
At home, however, drinking fine wine? Perfect. Tasting Notes comes on at 3pm on Sundays. Callow hopes people might continue eating lunch, listening to him. “Getting legless, ha ha ha! Although if you wanted to follow, with a drink for each piece of music, you’d have to open lots of bottles.” He pauses, thinking. “Maybe we should devise some kind of container, with wine by the glass, like a six-pack.”
You could call it the Simon Callow Sampler, I suggest. Callow thinks this is a marvellous idea. “Do you want to be on a percentage?” he says, laughing uproariously.
Simon Callow presents Tasting Notes at 3pm on Sundays on Classic FM