HOW WE MET; SIMON CALLOW AND SNOO WILSON
Sunday 05 October 1997
SIMON CALLOW: It was 1975 and I was doing a play in the West End with Harry Secombe which was coming to an end. Roy Marsden and I were sharing a dressing room and Roy was sent a script called The Soul of the White Ant, set in South Africa, with Snoo Wilson as the author. Roy was in the middle of some terrible love affair and couldn't face it, and said, "Why don't you do it?" I read it and said, "I went to school in South Africa and I think I could handle that." The director offered me the part.
I met Snoo at rehearsal and was a bit intimidated by him, to be honest. He's a very striking-looking man and at the time his hair was green, or red and green, and he was obviously powerfully intelligent and seemed to be full of inner preoccupations. He would be quoting from Babylonian mythology, and the works of Marx and Jane Austen, and making silly music- hall jokes.
His play was completely peculiar. It was about a woman who's having an affair with her house boy in South Africa, but she thinks it's immoral to have intercourse with someone who's married so she has him relieve himself into Tupperware. My character was called Pieter de Groot, a journalist. I'm afraid I endowed him with some of the qualities of my late father, a man with whom I didn't get on very well.
Snoo and I had a good rapport, but we didn't have terribly much to do with each other. We didn't really become friends until about 1982, when we co- directed his play Loving Reno, about an incestuous Chilean magician. We were at supper with people who ran the Bush theatre and Snoo wanted to direct the play himself, and they said they didn't think he was good enough, so I said, "Why don't we co-direct?" He thought that was a terribly good idea. I was filming Amadeus so couldn't do it full-time, but that was my debut as a director.
I was such an alcoholic in those days that I lured him into my alcoholic ways. We used to have crates of wine and drank bottle after bottle and smoked hundreds of cigarettes - and probab- ly a bit of dope. We discovered we thought much along the same lines about his plays and their mystical quality. He wanted to stress the mystic element and I was happy to liberate that. I think other people had tried to rationalise his plays.
We liked working together as co- directors very much, but we thought the name "co-directors" was too prosaic, so we called ourselves the Co-Optimists instead, after a music-hall group who used to do turns on the end of the pier.
Snoo's always working on ever more extraordinary projects. When he wrote a film about the mystic Aleister Crowley, we went on a recce to Sicily (where Crowley lived). Snoo's visionary powers are so overwhelming he goes into a trance when faced with extraordinary phenomena like those in Sicily. That film never got made.
He sent me his play HRH, which I'm directing at the moment, when he first wrote it - when obviously there would have been no way he could have anticipated the death of Diana. After that happened, everybody working on the show was terribly worried because they felt it might seem defamatory: but this is a play about an earlier generation of the House of Windsor and how they behaved.
Neither of us is political, but we like to think that we're both quite radical. He's a great humanist and has all kind of fascinating and curious pursuits - he keeps bees and casts astrological charts, and he knows everything about the natural world and a great deal about the intellectual world. His brain is a very weird kind of crucible out of which curious things emerge.
Every generation throws up people who are approved actors and dramatists, and I don't think Snoo or I fit into that category. Yet he is such a valuable man of the theatre because he simply puts on stage what nobody else does. We both believe in the future of the British theatre, and the future of the British theatre is dependent on the production of as many of Snoo's plays as possible.
I think he's the friend I'm most relaxed with, though our friendship is based on intellectual talk about the books we've read, the plays we've seen. We don't live in each other's pockets, but we have many friends in common and we see them. And dogs have gone from my house to his house and his house to mine.
We're both bound up with the fact that we're theatre people. We're very different, but we both have a great desire to break away from ordinary naturalism and drag in a bit of poetry if we can find it. And we're always planning things. We never stop planning.
SNOO WILSON: Simon was in a play of mine called The Soul of the White Ant, which has a plot which is hard to describe unblushingly. It was a very interesting experience, because he was actually exorcising his father who had lived in South Africa: he had these photographs of his father wearing baggy tropical shorts, which he brought in for a bit of local colour.
After that, I don't think we worked together until we directed Loving Reno. Rapidly - in about a week - we established that he was the better director, having never directed anything before. Thank God he doesn't write plays.
It was fascinating because what we were trying to do was get rid of the play's naturalistic elements - but the designer was mired in naturalism and we had terrible problems getting anywhere with him. It just shows there are two very different ways of looking at theatre. Naturalism can be sublime, but we try to find some deep symbolic logic and psychological truth in the stuff of theatre. I think we've got common priorities about that. But Simon is an awful lot better at pulling out organ stops in actors to make them realise their potential. He's not afraid to jump in and ask things from them.
Simon's got a good and easy familiarity with my work, and is very good at helping with the editing and bringing out the best in it. Most writing in theatre is completely soaked in the personality of the writer who wrote it, and that's particularly true in my case. I'm not an easy writer to be a broker for, but Simon has good ideas. My play HRH works not just because of the way I've written it, but because Simon's made a number of choices about how the material is to be relayed to the audience which are absolutely invaluable. He also has some interesting ideas about why I write like I write - to do with ultimate responses to the nature of the universe. But I'm not sure whether they're true.
HRH had an interesting genesis. I think I showed Simon an early draft. It was written in 1991 and Alan Rickman did a reading of it in The Ivy for anyone who was interested. Theatr Clwyd did it and its Broadway rights were bought. I wanted to work with Simon again so we devised this Broadway- ish version of it which had submarines coming up through the floor and swimming pools and things. It would have had hordes of West Indian servants. I'm sure it could have been done, but they subsequently couldn't get the cash to put it on. Then that option lapsed and it languished until the producer Paddy Wilson picked it up.
Simon's enormously generous both in person, and professionally with his time, and he's very good to work with. I think he has a lot of people who feel close to him. My fondest memories of him are to do with a stage when he had a friend called Bruno Santini, who had a dog called Brunj which seemed to end up living with us. I remember Simon bringing around some absolutely marvellous presents for us and a crate of dog food. It was done with great charm.
But sometimes months go by when we don't see each other. He's always extremely busy, always doing 18 different things. It's quite impossible to telephone him, so we have a faxing correspondence.
When we do meet, we have a vigorous mental exchange. But probably the only political discussion we've ever fallen out over was when I'd written a film about Aleister Crowley and we went to Sicily. We had a wonderful time, but we disagreed about Margaret Thatcher. I think Simon wasn't prepared to toe the anti-Thatcher line. He just thought she was a woman in a hurry and I thought she was doing the country quite a lot of harm.
He's extremely perceptive about the world and about other creative people. He's a very good biographer, particularly of Orson Welles. He's a Gemini and the base line for Geminis is "thought as sensation", which I think summarises quite a lot of Simon's activities. He's very compassionate, but very mentally driven.
In retrospect, when I think of him and the polymath he's become, I think he must have had a hard time of it in adolescence and early youth - because he's highly intelligent, highly energetic and totally individualistic, and you can't look for role models for somebody like that.
I think our friendship is about a debate in ideas and a fascination with theatre. The myth of our friendship is that everything is terrific. We don't bring major problems into it. And we make each other laugh.
! 'HRH', wriiten by Snoo Wilson, and starring Amanda Donohoe and Corin Redgrave, is now previewing at the Playhouse Theatre, WC2 (0171 839 4401); opens Thurs.
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