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23 February 2011

Simon Callow wins Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography

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

By Susannah Butter

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”.

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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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