Simon Callow on Christopher Hampton

Christopher Hampton

As Simon Callow directs the 1970s play The Philanthropist, he looks back at decades spent working with its writer, Christopher Hampton.

Some people call him Chris. I have always addressed him as Christopher; I don’t why this seems significant, but it does. I could imagine calling him Kit, but Chris? Never. I first met him in 1981. I was about to leave the National Theatre after two years of doing Amadeus there and mentioned to Christopher’s agent, the formidable Peggy Ramsay, that I had a passion for Total Eclipse, his play about Rimbaud and Verlaine, which I had seen during its first run at the Royal Court Theatre in 1967. “Would you like to do it?” she said. “I would,” I replied, with alacrity, and such was Peggy’s authority and influence that the whole thing had been set up by the end of the day, with David Hare directing and Michael Codron producing. Peggy then arranged for Christopher and me to meet, which we did at Geales, the fabled fish and chip restaurant in Notting Hill Gate. I was young and brash and for the moment (Amadeus was still playing to packed and wildly appreciative audiences) king of the world, but I was pretty nervous. I had followed Christopher’s plays from the beginning. I didn’t see his first, When Did You Last See My Mother, but as a gay 15-year-old had read it agog and with envious admiration—Christopher was only three years older than me when it appeared, at the Court, and then transferred to the West End; three years later I saw Total Eclipse during its first run, and it knocked me sideways.

I knew and loved the poets whose love affair the play charts, and was enchanted by the elegant, incisive way in which Christopher had written them; the play was also suffused with a kind of tenderness which I hadn’t expected. There was a subtlety and a finesse about his writing that was all his own. Many of his contemporaries were boldly pushing the boundaries of form and of language, but it was his much quieter voice that captivated me. Play after play followed in which his subject matter expanded to take in a vast range of history and experience, but the wit never disappeared, the finesse remained central, despite a certain underlying fierceness which lurked behind the cursed poets and the unhappy schoolboys and, most strikingly, behind the sparring academics who peopled his third play, The Philanthropist, his comic masterpiece, which he completed in 1970 at the ripe old age of 23. Like everyone, I was taken aback by the non-stop brilliance of the language, by the originality of the characters, by the constant and apparently effortless surprises. Here, unmistakably,  was a classic, with immortal line following immortal line. I was not yet an actor, but I  thought to myself that if ever I were to become one, the central role of Philip, forever apologising, was one I must certainly play: I could relate to that.

More and more remarkable plays came from him on a regular basis in the intervening 13 years, so by the time we met I was really daunted. I was 32, he was 35. I hadn’t done so badly, but he was already a classic. As it happens, the man who sat opposite me over fish and chips was exactly as I had imagined he might be: soft-voiced, soft-faced, with fine longish hair giving him a rather Romantic appearance. The thing that took me by surprise was how readily and merrily he laughed: he was a master dramatist, after all. Surely they were rather severe and self-important? Not a bit of it. We fell into a very easy conversation, as if we were old friends, a conversation which continues to the present day. From those early, triumphant times to the present, with intervening troughs and peaks, he has maintained a wonderfully wry attitude to his life and work, an underlying sense of the absurdity of things which I share and find enormously congenial, but perhaps what I love and indeed cherish most about him is the quality that pervades his work and his conversation: wit – glancing, delicate, occasionally rebarbative wit. I have a vivid memory of the first night of our revival of Total Eclipse, when he overheard the critic of the recently defunct London Evening News saying in a loud voice that the play “didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now”. “Your paper’s closed,” said Christopher with deeply gratifying venom. Asked what he felt about critics, he replied ‘Roughly what lamp posts feel about dogs.’ For that remark alone, he deserves immortality, but his body of work – that astonishing sequence of plays which continues unabated to the present day – secures him a place for ever in the pantheon of British dramatists, among, let’s face it,some pretty distinguished company.

Read Christopher Hampton on Simon Callow here.

The Philanthropist (until July 22); Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, Westminster, London SW1A 2DY (0844 871 7632); @TrafStudios

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Credit: Jill Fumanovsky

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