The Rebel Interviews: Simon Callow

Interview with Simon Callow who plays Henry Palmer in The Rebel.

Simon Callow as Henry Palmer

What drew you to the lead role in The Rebel?

The script is just bursting with life! It has a weird, eccentric energy which I responded to very warmly. At my age, it is something I could directly connect to.

Are you at all similar to Henry?

In some ways, Henry is very, very different from me. I don't have a passion for 1970s rock or smoke large quantities of marijuana. But I do identify with his general sense of rage against the encroaching mediocrity of modern life.

Can you expand on that, please?

Everyone understands very well indeed the inane aspects of modern life - the jargon people embrace the moment it appears, the incompetence, the arrogance, the indifference to older people. Viewers will really relate to all that in Henry.

What other characteristics does Henry possess?

He is an anarchist and a mischief maker. Whatever situation he finds himself in, he gets into trouble. He is also profoundly nostalgic. He would love to go back to the days when he was carefree and which came to an end when he had to earn a living. He was a quantity surveyor which involved discipline and having to speak to clients, and that drove him mad.

What else is made him so furious?

He and his wife had a tempestuous relationship. But now she's dead and he's very angry about that. There is a deep life anger within him about the whole darn thing. Here he is at 70, and instead of feeling he is being recognised for nobly toiling with honour throughout his life, he is now on the scrap heap.

Tell us more.

Henry has been a rebel since the cradle, but that feeling of being discarded has only exacerbated his rebellious nature. Now his rebelliousness has turned cantankerous. It started as a joyful affirmation of life, but has ended up as general grumpiness as his protests have inevitably fallen on deaf ears.

Why is Henry's anger so funny?

His rage is so comic because it's so extreme and so instant. I've got friends like that who can turn on a sixpence. You're having the loveliest conversation with them, and then suddenly you scratch the wrong surface and they take off like an Exocet!

Can you give us an example?

My friend, the late playwright Simon Gray, was like that. We would be having a lovely time in a restaurant. Then I'd say something like, "I've ordered a bottle of Merlot, is that all right?", and Simon would explode. "No, it is not all right! Merlot is disgusting!" He would go into a vertical take-off.

Talk us through Henry's relationship with his friend Charles, played by Bill Paterson.

It's a wonderful relationship. Charles is an ex-hippie and Henry is a former Mod, but they still have a lot in common. They share a vision of life untrammelled by the need to earn a living or to conform to society's demand for achievement. They believe in the soul of man as opposed to the structure of society. That makes them behave in a very different way from most people.

What is the most rebellious thing you did when you were young?

My life has been a non-stop rebellion. I was always doing outrageous and wicked things and getting into trouble. I was head boy at school, but I thought the system was absurd. So I devised a new system for the prefects and went to present it to the head. I told him, "This is the only way forward. If you don't like it, I'll resign." He replied, "I will inform you when you can stop being head boy." So I became head boy in exile. I refused to obey orders and didn't turn up for sports day. So my life has been one long, ongoing rebellion.

What irritates you most about modern life?

Where to begin? The formulaic way people treat each other, the astounding ugliness of modern architecture. I'm also really irritated by the corruption of language. What drives me beyond fury is the persistent use of the word "pop" as a substitute for anything. That drives me insane. People say, "Pop yourself down while I pop along the corridor." It is a virus, like some terrible killer ivy that has spread across the whole town.

Finally, have you enjoyed playing The Rebel?

I've loved it, and I'd love to carry on doing it for many more years. I'll be a 90-year-old rebel!