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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State