Simon Callow - One Man Band

Actor and writer Simon Callow

Simon Callow: One Man Band – Lighthouse, Poole (Tuesday 22nd March)

Orson Welles once said that he started at the top and worked his way down.  On the face of it he was right. His first big film was the cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane but by the end of his career he was making ends meet by telling tall stories about himself on TV chat shows and advertising anything from cameras to cheap sherry and Japanese whisky.

However things aren’t always they way they seem and actor, writer and Welles expert Simon Callow points out that this wayward genius continued to make his brilliant mark in not only film but theatre, radio, TV and even at one point ballet. Unfortunately he committed the ultimate Hollywood sin. He didn’t make any money.

Callow, has nursed an obsession with Welles since he was a university student. He has studied and researched both the man and the myth publishing an epic survey of his life and career along the way. It runs to three volumes (so far) containing more than 700,000 words.

“I’m fascinated by my fellow human beings,” says Callow. He’d be hard pushed to find a more complex and compelling subject than Orson Welles

His touring talk One Man Band  - it shares its title with volume three of the sweeping biography - reveals Orson to have been an extraordinary and precocious child who would go on to triumph on the New York stage in the 1930s before being courted by Hollywood.

Alone on the Lighthouse Studio stage and talking for more than two hours, Callow painted a vivid picture of Welles’ ceaselessly energetic but chaotic life - a shooting star touched by flashes of genius, strokes of good fortune and occasionally disastrous decisions.  He was writing opera reviews at nine, sending foreign dispatches to the Chicago Tribune  just a couple of years later. He was extraordinarily talented, passionate, headstrong and filled with unshakeable self-belief. The self-mythologising bombast wasn’t to everyone’s taste though and alongside those who saw him as charismatic and inspirational there were others who believed him to be a bully and a fake.

Welles certainly had his demons. Not least the terrifying childhood memories of the death of his mother, jaundiced and withered in a darkened room. Even worse perhaps was his much-loved father’s fatal descent into alcoholism. Richard Welles died after the young Orson threatened to break all contact until he had given up drink. Alone and desperate his father simply hit the bottle harder than ever drinking himself to death in a distant hotel room. Orson never forgave himself.

It was perhaps partly this guilt that drove him to achieve so much, though most of his critical triumphs were commercial disasters and little of his work brought him the kind of conventional success that America usually expects from its cultural heroes.

The lack of a big bank balance never seemed to have worried Welles too much though. As Callow stressed at the end of his talk: “He was never in it for the money”

Jeremy Miles



© Jeremy Miles 2021