The battle is over before it begins. When a tray bearing fresh tea arrives in the hotel room at the same time I do, Simon Callow asks, “Did you want tea?” Before I can answer he says, “You take the stronger one, I like it weak.” He pours me a mug of stewed stuff from the old pot. He pours the fresh into a delicate china cup. Callow sips, I slurp. We have established how things will go – he will issue bons mots, epigrams and pearls of wisdom. I will listen.
And why not? The actor, director and writer’s voice is as charmingly fruity as ever and he looks absolutely sensational. Clear- skinned, sparkly-eyed, and wearing a close-cut suit of electric blue, there’s not an ounce of fat to be seen on a man remembered by most as Gareth, the chubbily carousing coronary victim in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Along with that show-stealing Brit-movie turn, Callow has a remarkable list of achievements behind him. He is the author of biographies of Charles Laughton, Oscar Wilde and now Orson Welles (the third instalment, One-Man Band, was published last year). He has written and performed a lauded one-man Charles Dickens show and the 1980s sitcom that Callow starred in, Chance in a Million, is regarded as one of the lost gems of British television. His latest role is Henry Palmer in The Rebel, a pensioner who pines for the social rebellion of his youth and behaves accordingly. Palmer is 70, Callow is 67 but, spruced up as he is today, could easily pass for 57.
There is a reason for this. “I’m getting married on Saturday!” Callow exclaims, clearly thrilled about his upcoming Greek Island nuptials with 33-year-old management consultant Sebastian Fox. After their honeymoon they’ll come back to the London maisonette they share. Callow has “a garden where I write” and “Seb has an outhouse where he plays the piano”.
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Not all will be jollity though; Callow has just had his 13-year-old boxer dog put down. “His legs had gone,” Callow says. “It’s no life for a dog if you haven’t got your legs.” I’m only half-serious when I say letting a pet go can be good practice for when you lose a human being, but Callow jumps at the comparison. “Totally. I’ve done the same thing to my mother, only a year before. The cycle of a dog’s life is exactly the same as ours, but speeded up.”
But he didn’t actually have his mother put down, did he? “Well, I had to,” he says. “Eventually they said, ‘Do you want to keep your mother going on antibiotics, or do you want her to have palliative care?’ And I said she should have palliative care. You have to do these things. These are harsh decisions but it was no good, she was a skeleton.”
Before a gloom can settle Callow declares, with a decidedly theatrical flourish, “Sebastian had both a hen do and a stag do, as it were.” When I point out there was some sneering and sniggering in 2015 when Stephen Fry married Elliott Spencer, a man only 30 years his junior, Callow says, “This will happen. People aren’t angels; they say stupid things, ugly things.
“I’ve had my share of hate mail,” he goes on. “I was in a show with Christopher Biggins, who I’m very fond of but have no intimate relationship with, and I got the most extraordinary letter saying, ‘You and Biggins, you perverts etc etc.’ Not attractive.”
Callow in Four Weddings and a Funeral
Callow is very serious about gay marriage. “It’s an extraordinary thing altogether for gay people to get married,” he says. “To do it publicly and be witnessed not only by family and friends but by our society.” Marriage does seem a conventional ambition though. Have Callow’s decades of indefatigable campaigning for gay causes really been about winning the right to be suburban?
“There are some gay people who feel like that, and hate the new dispensation,” he says. “Then don’t do it! I have no desire to be an outlaw. Resistance to gay marriage by conservative elements of society is one of the great paradoxes of our times. They should have been the ones supporting it, unless they actually say homosexuals are indefensible and must be put out into the middle of the ocean and drowned. I’m sure there are some people who think that.”
Some people clearly do. We meet in the shadow of the Orlando shootings, where 49 people died for little more reason than they were gay.
“We’re not in the Promised Land,” Callow says. “There’s a great deal of bullying and prejudice; some of the worst incidences of anti-gay feeling are in the playground. That’s very, very, very dismaying and strange. Children don’t, generally speaking, bully their black fellow pupils, the children of Poles or Italians or whatever, which they certainly used to do in my day. Now they very steadily and determinedly bully their gay fellow pupils. One can only assume they get it from their parents.”
In The Rebel, Henry Palmer is old enough to be a grandparent (though he’s not – his daughter has just given up teaching because she can’t stand kids). He’s a septuagenarian fighting the imbecilities of modern life and, ultimately, the one opponent none of us can defeat – the passing of time. “Yes,” he says. “It’s a difficult thing to be a 70-year-old rebel. I’m not a million miles away from Henry. The difference is Henry did what he had to do, he did what circumstances and society dictated to him, and now he just thinks, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’”
And you, Simon Callow, a 67-year-old man about to go on honeymoon with a 33-year-old?
“Well,” he smiles. “I’ve done what I wanted to do.”