Book festival review: Simon Callow | Tom Watson
THE writer and theatre journalist Al Senter has been a long-standing jovial presence in the chair at the book festival, but he can rarely have spent a more silent hour than befell him once Simon Callow got into his stride.
This was conversation turned exhilarating monologue, as the veteran actor built up a head of steam on the theme of Charles Dickens’s theatre: a virtuoso chair-bound performance enlivened with all the theatricality of its subject.
It turns out that the novelist was also an ardent thespian, first taking the stage in the “theatrical karaoke” of the 19th-century playhouses where punters could pay for a role among the professional cast. In time he earned fame as a comic actor (“he had a lovely throwaway technique,” Callow explained, “he didn’t hammer it out at all”), and ultimately he would encourage friends like Wilkie Collins to write serious plays for him. Performing in these, he could give deep vent to the torments of his troubled marriage.
The core of Callow’s performance exposed the “imperative to connect” which drove Dickens’s acting, celebrity speech-making and novels. An emotional dislocation made close relationships difficult, and it would lead to a tragic conclusion – for the famous writer died of overwork in servitude to his adoring audience. “There could never be enough love for Charles Dickens,” lamented Callow. “It was like mother’s milk to him; it intoxicated him to a very dangerous degree.”
Narrating one of the greatest media scandals of the last half century, Tom Watson is far too much of a politician to indulge in theatricality. It took a typically sparky interrogation from James Naughtie to prise the drama from the MP’s take on News International’s corruption.
So great was the extent of the Murdoch organisation’s web of covert surveillance, computer hacking and other mendacious operations, Watson revealed, that it was almost a fluke that phone hacking was the issue that blew the lid off. As a member of the Commons Select Committee to examine the scandal, he himself had been followed and bugged, he said, while the journalists investigating the scandal were targeted too: “It took courageous investigative journalism to root out corrupt journalism.” One of the problems of this story, of course, is that it has no ending. But Watson’s hope for a post-Leveson press seemed plausible: “Some kind of light-touch regulation – a million miles away from the politicians.”
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