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Actor Simon Callow recalls time as a student at Queen's and campaigning for civil rights - I was told 'Go home sonny, it's not your problem'

'There aren't many plays about people looking at Belfast with surprised eyes, which mine certainly were'

By Ivan Little

Award-winning actor Simon Callow has written a new play for the Lyric Theatre about his student days in Belfast and he has revealed that the title was inspired by abuse he received nearly 50 years ago when he was campaigning for civil rights with the People's Democracy movement.

The Four Weddings and a Funeral star was told to go back home to England as he handed out leaflets for the PD, which also had Bernadette Devlin in its ranks.

"I was in Shaftesbury Square politely asking people to take a leaflet," said Callow, who recently starred in TV series The Rebel.

One woman clearly didn't approve of Callow's PD message and on hearing his English accent told him: "Go home sonny, it's not your problem."

Callow said the "indelibly marked" confrontation with "the very nice" woman sprang back into his mind as he worked on his new play, which was commissioned by the Lyric in Belfast to mark the theatre's 50th anniversary.

"There are lots of wonderful plays by Belfast writers," said Callow. "But there aren't many plays about people coming from outside Belfast and looking at the city through surprised eyes, which mine certainly were. So my play is a perhaps ambitious attempt to give a picture of Belfast and maybe Ulster society at that moment in time.

"I reckoned 'Go Home Sonny' would be an ideal title for the one-man show, which will be performed later this year by a young actor."

Callow, who married his partner Sebastian Fox on a Greek island in 2016, didn't spend long in Belfast - but not because he heeded the woman's 'advice'.

The 68-year-old Londoner brought the curtain down on his studies at Queen's University because he went back across the Irish Sea to study at drama school and launch his acting career.

But his nine months in Belfast obviously made an impression on him and when he returned to the city recently to back demands for more financial support for the arts, Callow said he felt like an honorary or adopted son of Ulster.

"This place, which I have now known for half a century, has meant so much to me at so many levels that it's almost impossible for me to describe," said Callow, who was originally planning to study at Trinity College in Dublin but couldn't get a grant for a 'foreign' university from the British Government.

He added: "I decided that I would go to Belfast instead. I reckoned it would be much the same as Dublin."

But how wrong he was. In 1968, Belfast was facing unrest as the clamour for civil rights grew louder on the streets.

Callow joined the PD at Queen's and the civil rights call was backed by a huge number of students including another Englishman, Nick Ross, who would go on to become a major BBC presenter in Britain.

But the more that people campaigned for civil rights for Catholics, the more that unionists opposed them.

Callow has talked in the past of being struck by RUC batons during PD marches. However, the positives outweighed the negatives for him in Belfast. Reflecting on his time in the city, he said: "It was altogether wonderful in so many ways, especially the panoply of theatre that was available."

He cited the Lyric, which opened in 1968, and the Arts Theatre, which was doing "fabulous, mad Sam Cree farces".

"There was also the Group Theatre where James Young was doing extraordinary shows that were hilarious and rather more remarkable for the completely non-partisan audiences that came to see them," he went on.

"And then there was the Belfast Festival, which was producing all kinds of wonderful stuff. And the Grand Opera House is one of the most beautiful theatres in the UK, if not the world."

Callow said the richness of the history of theatre in Northern Ireland was not always acknowledged. He also spoke highly of the range of actors who came from Ulster at the time, many of whom he worked with on television and on stage.

He singled out the late Bangor-born star Colin Blakely as one of the greatest actors ever produced by the British Isles and he also paid tribute to Belfast's James Ellis, of whom he said the city was 'rightly proud'.

He said the work that Ellis had done at the Group Theatre, including his attempt to stage Sam Thompson's controversial shipyard play Over the Bridge, was "sensational, passionate and extraordinarily ground-breaking".

Callow added that Harold Goldblatt, who was from Belfast's Jewish community, was one of the most remarkable actors he'd ever known, but he regretted the fact that his contribution to the theatre in Ulster had largely been forgotten

"He was a very funny man," said Callow. "But then everybody from Belfast is."

Callow recalled that during his time in the city he had been fortunate to meet a number of giants of the literary and theatrical world, including Sir Tyrone Guthrie, who was Chancellor of Queen's University from 1963 to 1970.

"He was one of the greatest men of the theatre of the 20th century and he chose to be in Northern Ireland and make himself part of the university's life," said Callow, who also knew Seamus Heaney, who was a lecturer at Queen's.

Callow recalled Heaney, giving 'great' talks on WB Yeats which didn't always go down well with his fellow students who he once said had thrown pieces of chalk and paper planes at the poet but he took it all in good humour.

Callow said he was extremely lucky during his time in Belfast to meet Micheal Mac Liammoir the distinguished actor, writer, poet and painter. He was his dresser during performances at the Belfast Festival. Callow said: "After his last show we sat in the old Europa Hotel with a bottle of Bushmills whiskey which we rapidly demolished and he recollected to me what Belfast had been like as a theatre city in the 1930s.

"He told me everyone wanted to play Belfast because the audiences were known to be the best in the British Isles." Callow revealed that when he was researching the life of Charles Dickens, who wasn't only a writer but also a performer, he found that he'd said the same thing of Belfast audiences.

Dickens, who visited the city three times in 1858, 1867 and 1869, was on record as saying it was "a fine place with rough people", but he thought audiences here were better than the ones in Dublin.

He added that he found that the personal affection in Belfast was "something overwhelming".

Callow said he also found a warmth in Belfast audiences when he acted here.

One of his fondest memories is of a touring production with the Traverse Theatre from Edinburgh at the Arts Theatre.

He said: "It was 1975 during one of the darkest and most terrible times in Belfast and when we played this crazy comedy, which we'd done at the Edinburgh Festival, we wondered if anyone would come to see it at the Arts.

"But the place was absolutely packed and despite bombs going off at 10-minute intervals the audiences laughed and laughed and laughed. And it was just like Dickens and Mac Liammoir had said, Belfast audiences were the best in the world.

"But we, as actors, were absolutely terrified. And the lead actress, who shall be nameless, was so terrified that every time a bomb exploded, she broke wind."

In 2013, Callow was forced to abandon one performance of a production, The Man Jesus, after taking ill on stage at the Lyric Theatre and he was helped off by a member of the audience and a technician.

He recovered, however, and the play went on to be a critical success across the UK.

At a 'celebration' of the arts in Belfast City Hall organised by Theatre NI and actors' union Equity, Callow said he endorsed calls for more support, encouragement and nourishment for the creative industries.

"We need to be given these pictures of life, "he said. "And Belfast deserves the best."

Niamh Flanagan, from Theatre NI, said that the creative industries accounted for 5% of Northern Ireland's workforce, with 43,000 jobs.

But she said that repeated government cuts to arts funding had eroded the work of the creative industries and were in stark contrast with the investment in the arts across the water and in the Republic.

She said: "The spend on the arts in the south and in England is £13 per person per year; in Scotland it's £10, but in Northern Ireland it's £5.

"We have lost £23m from the arts budget since 2012 and some of our independent theatre companies have been completely cut or left to produce work on minuscule levels of investment."

Equity general secretary Christine Payne said the arts had the power to transform Northern Ireland's economy, adding: "Across the UK as a whole the creative industries are now worth nearly £92bn and have grown by 44% since 2010. Northern Ireland deserves to share in this prosperity."

Sinn Fein MLA Sinead Ennis warned the arts here would face chaos following Brexit, especially if European investment didn't continue after British withdrawal.

The DUP's East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson told the City Hall gathering that most political parties here opposed the cuts.

He added: "There's no point talking about the glitzy and the glamorous if you are cutting at the knees the opportunities that young aspiring individuals have."

Belfast Telegraph

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