LAST time I saw Simon Callow was in December and he was making a hasty exit from the stage of the Arts Theatre in London. He was in the middle of his one-man version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but not long after he had conjured up the Ghost of Christmas Past, a fire alarm went off.
The audience trooped out into the slush and lingered for 20 chilly minutes until we got the call to return. Callow wandered back on stage and mused, ''Now where was I?'' before deftly explaining what had happened and reprising the plot to that point.
''I love those incidents in a way,'' he says now, ''though it does require an immense amount of concentration to bring yourself and the audience back to where we were before. It's very tiring, so after that performance I was absolutely exhausted.''
He doesn't want anything like that to happen tonight when he delivers the keynote address at the opening of the Melbourne Writers Festival. His subject is - what else? - Dickens. More particularly, Dickens and the theatre, the theme of his new biography of the great 19th-century novelist.
Dickens was obsessed with the theatre as a child and wrote his first play when he was seven. He carried on writing plays, some of which were performed in the West End. They weren't disasters, Callow says, but he was a terrible playwright.
''They were shocking. The thing that is so bad is that they have no trace of Dickens' voice about them. There is not a thing he did or wrote - a note to his butcher or a brief note to his subeditor - which doesn't contain some Dickensian touch. But because he was so completely stagestruck he just imitated the theatre of his time and did a completely lifeless facsimile.''
Callow is an actor, writer and director. He trod the stage as Mozart in Amadeus, in Peter Pan and Waiting for Godot with Ian McKellen; on screen he has been seen in such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which he played the flamboyant Gareth, who memorably danced himself to the solitary funeral, and A Room With a View, in which he frolicked naked as the Reverend Mr Beebe. He has written 13 book, including two volumes on the life of Orson Welles - the third is looming - as well as a biography of Charles Laughton and a memoir of his own life in the theatre.
And then there's Dickens. He has played the great man on television in Dr Who, on stage in Peter Ackroyd's The Mystery of Charles Dickens, which enjoyed a run at the Athenaeum Theatre 10 years ago, and is relishing a return season in A Christmas Carol this year.
But A Christmas Carol hasn't always been a pleasant experience. Callow was taken as a little boy and was terrified. He avoided Dickens after that. But later, when ill with chickenpox, his grandmother gave him The Pickwick Papers and he was hooked. ''I just fell into that world of Dickens with such delight. In a way the prevailing feeling I have about Dickens is the joyous celebration of language, of character, of Englishness of a particular kind. Of course, the later novels become much more sophisticated, much darker in many cases, but they remain bursting with life. That's the essence of Dickens, the vitality.''
He discovered Dickens the man when he was asked to re-create his public readings. ''There's nobody like him. I love his restlessness, his vitality, his compassion, his unending reserves of concentration, his mad passion for just letting off steam.'' But he draws the line at Dickens' treatment of his wife, Catherine, who bore him 10 children but who was cast aside in favour of the young actress Ellen Ternan. That, Callow says, was shocking.
It's a curious fact that there is a memorial to Dickens in Sydney's Centennial Park, but none in Britain. Two of his great-great-grandsons this week are re-creating the walk of Nicholas and Smike from London to Portsmouth in Nicholas Nickleby to raise funds. Callow, a patron of the campaign, is amazed there is a statue in Australia. Dickens, whose 200th anniversary is this year, expressly forbade one in Britain.
''But now it's a bit coy,'' says Callow. ''It would be a wonderful sculpture for a sculptor to create.''
Simon Callow: Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World is at the Melbourne Town Hall tonight at 7 and at the Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts, Ballarat, on Saturday at 7pm. mwf.com.au; wcpa.com.au