Simon Callow is on his third book about Orson Welles, with one still to come
Hubris. It gets most of them in the end, all those alpha types – men and women – who have started to believe their own press releases. That at least was the message from the big tent in Charlotte Square yesterday.
Take, as Simon Callow did, the case of Orson Welles, whom he’s been writing about (three volumes down, one to go) for the last 27 years. Speaking entirely without notes, he fleshed out his extravagantly talented subject’s life.
At first, all doors opened to Welles, thanks to the endless encouragement of his family and an astonishingly progressive school which just happened to have its own radiophonic workshop and a state-of-the-art theatre. His own talents for self-promotion did the rest: the way in which he charmed Irish actor/impresario Michail MacLiammoir into thinking that he was the teenage toast of Broadway, or Thornton Wilder and John Houseman into truly becoming one. Luck played a part too – as in the succès de scandale of his 1939 War Of The Worlds radio broadcast which fooled a large slice of Middle America into thinking that the Martians had actually landed in New Jersey. So there he was, on the cover of Time magazine with the world at his feet, the best contract anyone has ever been offered in Hollywood, and about to make Citizen Kane.
But now the bigger forces come into play. On the last day of shooting The Magnificent Ambersons, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour. Welles is sent on what is basically a propaganda film in Brazil. He loses himself in the project, wants to turn it into an epic, ignores all requests to trim budgets and return home. So he’s away when the studio imposes a final, ruinous edit on The Magnicent Ambersons. And in any case the film’s story, slighting new, industrial enterprise, goes against the nation’s wartime spirit.
Of course, there’s more to Welles – or art, come to that – than whether he or it overlapped the driving forces of the age. But this was precisely the topic Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan addressed in an equally eloquent (and equally noteless) talk.
If you think individuals don’t matter, she said, just try taking them out of the picture. If anyone else other than David Cameron had been in power, would the Brexit referendum have happened? Someone like Harold Macmillan, for example, would surely have found a way round it.
The bigger forces – the economy, war, environmental and social change – can never be ignored, so there probably always would have been a strong right-wing government in Germany after humiliating defeat in the First World War even if Hitler had died in the Flanders mud. But only such a hubris-infected demagogue could have brought about such a thorough eclipse of civilisation, so convinced he was right that, even when all was lost in 1945 he ordered Albert Speer (who for once disobeyed) to blow up all the Rhine dams.
Asked which individuals could play a similarly destructive role today, she singled out Russia’s president Putin and China’s Xi Jinping (especially if he breaks precedent and extends his term of office). Yet this was such a wise, humane and wide-ranging talk that, instead of being worried, her audience left the main tent curiously reassured.