Simon Callow wins Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography

Actor's "elegy" to the theatre wins independent award.

Simon Callow has won the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography for My Life in Pieces, a collection of his journalism and programme notes, interspersed with a narrative of his life.

The Sheridan Morley Prize, or "Sherrys" were set up in 2008 to honour the memory of Morley, a critic, author, actor and director, who wrote for the New Statesman, amongst other publications. This year's judges were the actress Sian Phillips, the newspaper editor Geordie Greig and the theatre director Richard Eyre.

Callow, who was on the judging panel for the first Sherrys in 2008, shared Morley's love for the theatre. He said that his book, while "not exactly a love poem to the theatre, is an adoring evocation of what theatre might be". The book includes his account of working with his "first boss", Laurence Olivier, and his acting partner Paul Schofield -- "two twin peaks of great acting".

In his acceptance speech, Callow paid tribute to his fellow nominee Mike Bradwell for The Relucant Escapologist, "an unrelentingly magnificent" account of Bradwell's career in alternative theatre. Callow went on to speak about how the theatre is changing: "many more chambers of life are opening up". While he welcomes change, he "mourns what's gone and, as David Hare said, the book is in many ways an elegy, though not a mournful elegy".

The judges lavished praise on the other shortlisted books: Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim, Putting it on by Michael Codron and Alan Strachan and Born Brilliant -- The Life of Kenneth Williams, by Christopher Stevens. The aspects of the industry covered by the shortlisted books demonstrate the breadth of theatre biography as a genre. The subject matter of the books ranged from Sondheim's "witty , savage and informative" annotated lyrics to Putting it On, which Leon hailed as "a real explanation of the nuts and bolts of putting on a play."

Phillips said Born Brilliant, "wonderfully captures the shabby glamour of 1950s London". However, Callow's book, which Philips said "makes you realise how great it is to be there on the first night", was a unanimous favourite with the panel.

Morley's widow, the author and critic Ruth Leon who chairs the prize, said, "Sheridan wrote wonderful biographies of people in the theatre. How do you honour somebody who did this? You honour other writers who are trying to do the same thing, and hopefully in doing so gain a better understanding of the work of theatre professionals."

Leon stressed the importance of the prize not receiving any corporate sponsorship, being entirely supported by public donations: "It's much harder if you do a prize supported by corporations because then they want to use it as advertising, and it's really about recognising those who write about theatre". Greig and Eyre sent their apologies for being unable to attend the ceremony at London's Garrick Club due to events in the Middle East and theatre commitments, respectively.

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The NS Q&A: Naomi Alderman on Oprah, Ovid, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer

"The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20."

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on a striped blue-and-white deckchair with a migraine. My mother gave me orange squash. We’ve worked out (from the deckchair) that I was 18 months old.

Who was your childhood hero?

I was incredibly inspired by Oprah Winfrey as a young woman. Her childhood (sexual and physical abuse, teenage pregnancy, the death of her baby) was traumatic, and her subsequent life has been defined by hard work, talent and one glorious victory after another. People in the UK can sneer about her because we are terrified of emotions and she’s not perfect (who is?), but she introduced me to the possibility of improving one’s internal life. A miracle.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. It’s as if he managed to voyage back a few hundred years and just take notes.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Florence Nightingale, who was a terrible nurse but a brilliant statistician and wielded her public image to influence politicians to improve health care. I wish that she were still around, skewering ministers misusing statistics on Question Time.

When were you happiest?

Now. The worst things that ever happened to me were before I was 20. It has been slow, hard-won improvement since then.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Ovid. Both are intensely serious, as well as funny. Both wield myths to talk about their modern world. Both are subjects I’d like to revise.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

The future. As far as possible. Not to live, though – just to visit.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’d like [the 16th-century Dutch painter] Jan van Scorel, please, with the same affection and knowingness as his portrait of Agatha van Schoonhoven. They lived together and had six children, even though he was a canon and couldn’t marry.

What’s your theme tune?

A Jewish song that goes: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor . . .” It translates as: “It’s not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And have you followed it?

I know how this sounds, but my deceased grandmother appeared to me in a dream once and told me something I can’t share. But I did follow her advice and it was excellent. (Thanks, Booba and/or my subconscious.)

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit. I want to start a campaign called “Back in 30” – to get us back into the EU by 2030, when Remainers (or Rejoiners) will almost certainly be a convincing majority.

What single thing would make your life better?

I wish that Gordon Brown had called a snap election in 2007.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I think I would have enjoyed running a business (and I sort of do run one now, with the video games). I’ve got the brain for systems and a head for figures. But all these daydreams end with: “And I could carve out time to write.”

Are we all doomed?

No. The species will continue, whatever apocalypse we manage to unleash. It just won’t be much fun to live through.

Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power” (Penguin) is shortlisted for the Baileys Prize

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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