It was 1969 and I was studying English and Linguistics at Monash University. Word had spread that one of the original cast of On Our Selection was looking for actors to perform scenes from the play. I knew the play and its characters and liked the idea of performing something quintessentially Australian, and light-hearted. I contacted J.B. and after a phone conversation was invited to come to a reading. He subsequently cast me as Joe (he played Dad) and we performed a selection of scenes for various literary interest groups, such as the Australian Literature Society and the Henry Lawson Society.
This experience led to numerous other performances over the next few years, mainly scenes from Shakespeare plays for meetings of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society. We only ever performed monologues and/or scenes, never the whole play, but they were well rehearsed and performed in costume. Despite a hearing impairment at the time, J.B. knew the texts thoroughly and had a good rapport with fellow actors, so timing and cues were generally secure.
When I met him, J.B. lived in a large bed-sitting-room in Graham Street, Albert Park. Rehearsals were usually held there. He was always welcoming and happy to be ‘working’.
His approach was to give general guidelines at the start and then run scenes. He was never critical out-right, more oblique with his notes. For example, he would sometimes describe how someone else had played the role, certain traits they had emphasized, or how they had pointed certain words. We’d have tea and biscuits at the end of a rehearsal and there was good camaraderie.
I remember that J.B. worked with several gifted actors on a regular basis: Lindsay Edwards and Robert Davidson. There was mutual respect and Lindsay and Robert gave some fine performances under J.B.’s aegis.
I was privileged to see J.B. perform solo, with some great monologues from King Lear, Richard III and a number of other plays. He completely inhabited a role and it was transfixing to watch him. Time, place and circumstances were real. Acting, dramatic art, was his life.
It’s Saturday midday, 11 December 1971. I’ve collected J.B. from his home in Albert Park and we’re travelling in my car to the city, where we’re to perform scenes from Twelfth Night for the Melbourne Shakespeare Society. I’m not au fait with the roads around that part, so I rely on J.B. for direction. Suddenly he bursts into song, full-throttled and resonant: ‘Follow the Tram Line’, a song from the 1920s. Good directions. I can hear J.B.’s hearty singing now.
J.B. passed away on 17 July 1972. His death was reported in the news pages of The Age the following day.
He was a gentleman and an Australian theatre pioneer who gave generously and whole-heartedly.
Melbourne actor, writer, director and producer Jack Beresford Fowler was by nature optimistic and indomitable, but did regret a decision made in the 1930s. Opera singer/stage director Miss Gertrude Johnson had returned from England and contacted Jack about her exciting plans to form a National Theatre. The proposal was ready for submission and Jack was invited to join the company as producer. On two occasions he declined, explaining to Miss Johnson he was busy with his own flourishing Arts Theatre Company, but later admitted to doubting the National Theatre proposal would succeed, particularly after previous unsuccessful attempts. Miss Johnson admirably persevered, secured the services of producer W.P. Carr, and the National Theatre Movement became a reality, eventually receiving financial assistance from the Premier of Victoria, Thomas Hollway. Jack would forever ponder the unknown possibility of achieving ‘big things’ if his Shakespearian knowledge and experience had been utilised with financial support from the National Theatre grants.
Changes to Melbourne’s theatre scene during the 1940s impacted adversely on Jack Fowler and his beloved Arts Theatre Company. Formed in 1925, the Arts Theatre Company had enjoyed success for almost twenty years, treating Melbourne audiences to classic plays which at that time were ignored by commercial theatres. Dedicated casts performed under the enthusiastic, passionate direction of J.B. Fowler, and sell-out shows relied on favourable reviews published in the daily press.
But now venue hire costs were increasing and more amateur and small theatre companies formed, competing for box office takings and audience disposable income. The biggest issue for the Arts Theatre Company was the decision by daily newspaper editors to only review fully professional shows. Although professionally directed, the company’s plays were mostly performed by amateur actors. Jack greatly appreciated continued supportive show reviews from the Melbourne weekly publication Listener In, which coincidentally commenced as a radio magazine in 1925, the same year as the Arts Theatre Company formed. But broader coverage and reviews of the company’s productions in the daily press were necessary to ensure full houses and cover costs. Savings from Jack’s professional theatre employment soon depleted, but driven by theatrical passion and determination, he persevered to present shows. The result was a decline in production standards and subsequent damage to Jack’s reputation as a successful theatre producer/director.
Determined to overcome these financial challenges encountered in the 1940s, Jack devised an innovative fundraising concept. He would collect autographs from world-famous people and use proceeds from selling the autographs to establish an Art Theatre. An early recipient of Jack’s request for an autograph was Australian poet Dame Mary Gilmour. Dame Mary replied that she knew of Jack’s 1942 collaborative play with Sylvia Archer and had a family connection with General Sir Hector MacDonald, the play’s protagonist. She acknowledged her signed letter was intended for his autograph collection and generously included a cheque for £10, ‘ … because you are doing good work’.
American playwright Clifford Odets also responded to Jack’s request for an autographed message to help augment Art Theatre funds, writing on bright yellow notepaper:
‘I heartily approve of an art theatre for the people. When countries are dead at the top, we must build them from the bottom.’
Amid successes and knock-backs to autograph requests came an amusing reply in 1946 from President Eisenhower, then Chief of Staff of the US Army. Written on US War Department letterhead, the message read: ‘While I am quite in sympathy with your Art Theatre Players, I have made it a practice not to autograph any material which might have commercial appeal. I am sure you will understand my position. With every best wish. Sincerely, Dwight D. Eisenhower’ (signed in his own handwriting).
Barry O. Jones and Peter O’Shaughnessy write that in his later years, Jack Fowler’s impressive collection of autographed letters, documents and photographs was sold over time to help his survival.
In 1943, 20 year old professional radio actor Peter O’Shaughnessy performed as an amateur actor in Jack Beresford Fowler’s productions until 1947. At this time, the venue for shows presented by the Arts Theatre Players was the Old Players and Playgoers Association Hall on the north side of Little Bourke Street, between Elizabeth and Queen streets. The Association later dropped the ‘Old’ from their title. Peter O’Shaughnessy attributes his successful professional theatrical life to that earlier ‘close acquaintance’ with the great plays presented by Jack Fowler: ‘Few actors, in whatever country they worked—never mind about the cultural desert of Australia—had such an opportunity to become familiar with the works of Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen and Coward.’
Courtesy of the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, 1984.092.001
A theatrical encore awaited Jack when joining the Melbourne Shakespeare Society. Formed in 1884 and still operating today, the Melbourne Shakespeare Society is one of the oldest literary societies in Australia. Since the early 1920s Jack had remained indebted to Allan Wilkie, founder of Australia’s first touring Shakespearian company, for sharing his Shakespearean performance and directorial knowledge. Barry O. Jones and Peter O’Shaughnessy describe Jack as inheriting ‘something of the expansive acting style and much of the “stage business” contrived by the actor-managers Sir Frank Benson and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’. In 1925, Allan Wilkie was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to theatre, particularly relating to Shakespeare and education. As Jack began sharing his inherited Shakespearian knowledge and expertise with members and audiences at the Melbourne Shakespeare Society, he felt his prestige returning. He would also meet new friends with similar interests.
When casting juvenile roles, Jack Fowler visited Melbourne elocution or dance teachers for their recommendations. These teachers included Maie Hoban, Jenny Brennan, Louise Dunn, Dulcie Bland and Alice Uren. Miss Uren sent me to audition successfully for the title role in A Must for Dolly, Jack Fowler’s sequel to George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, presented in 1958 at the Arrow Theatre, Middle Park. The show was restaged in 1960 at the Arts Theatre, Richmond, with Helen Pickering in the role of Dolly, and I performed in various plays under Mr Fowler’s direction for the Melbourne Shakespeare Society.
Sylvia Archer was the hostess for this 1959 Melbourne Shakespeare Society event, and often sat in on rehearsals in Albert Park. Miss Archer was a beautifully spoken, elegant close friend of Jack Fowler and a former leading actor in his Art Theatre Company and Melbourne Repertory Theatre Company. She also collaborated with J.B. in 1942 to co-write the controversial play General Sir Hector MacDonald. Jack never married, and although admitting to falling in love with several leading ladies, Sylvia Archer remained his favourite. In 1960, her death in Fremantle at age 55 whilst travelling to England, would have been devastating news for Jack.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was presented on 9 March 1963 in the Russell Street Theatre Conference Room, where Jack Beresford Fowler played the role of Bottom. J.B.’s vigorous direction has ensured the closing speech of Shakespeare’s mischievous sprite Puck remains indelibly etched in my memory.
Notable patrons of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society in 1963 were the Right Honourable R.G. Menzies, Allan Wilkie CBE, Professor William Alexander Osborne and English poet and writer, John Masefield OM. Jack Fowler later became President of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society
Jack Beresford Fowler also shared his Shakespearian performances with students, either visiting their schools or hiring city venues such as the Postal Institute. The students would see their studied Shakespearian texts transformed into theatrical performances in J.B.’s unique style. Theatre historian Frank Van Straten AM remembers discovering Shakespeare ‘or a form of it’ when Beresford Fowler visited his school. In the city venues, it was not uncommon for students to bring pea-shooters or other items to try to interrupt performances. Jack’s familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays also enabled him to play multiple roles.
J.B.’s happiest memories included touring Australia pre and post-World War One with Bert Bailey’s company in On Our Selection. In the early 1960s Jack took up Peter O’Shaughnessy’s suggestion to rewrite the On Our Selection script from memory. In 1962, fourteen cast members, including myself as Sarah, rehearsed weekly in Jack’s Albert Park one-room bedsitter and Jack typed the script progressively. The programme reports that after typing copies of the script, one disappeared, ‘causing Mr Fowler to copyright the play.’ The performance venue was St David’s Hall, Latrobe Street, Melbourne, two doors from The Argus office.
When arriving at the theatre for the show’s first dress rehearsal, Mum was astonished when Mr Fowler handed her a brush to finish painting a backdrop. J.B.’s endearingly quirky, unpredictable style of doing things may have been interpreted by some as chaotic, but on reflection, he was a versatile, hard-working one-man-show, a determined, independent operator with a passion for creating theatre. He had adapted the script, typing all copies on a manual typewriter, had cast and directed the actors and performed the role of ‘Dad’. J.B. would also have paid to hire the venue, organised the scenery and props, designed and printed the programme, marketed the show and sold the tickets.
On Our Selection was presented from 17-22 March, 1962. The cast included Peter Brown, Ray Fedden, Kitty Virgoe, Cheryl McPhee, Brian Lockwood, Jean Voller, J. Beresford Fowler, Clive Barton, Frank Booth, Reg Campbell, Robert Davidson, Edward Thomas, George Sullivan, Peggy Pearl Oakley and Simone Cohen. I had not noticed J.B.’s deafness until we performed onstage in On Our Selection and observed his intense lip-reading of fellow actors delivering their lines. He was determined not to miss a cue—and never did. A wonderful effort.
During rehearsals, J.B. had continually praised Laura Roberts who portrayed Sarah Rudd in Bert Bailey’s 1915 touring production. I was now guardian of this role, and Laura’s legendary performance was a lot to live up to. Thankfully, J.B. later wrote this positive message inside the cover of his book Stars in My Backyard:
Looking back on his life, Jack wondered if he should have returned to professional theatre when his personal savings diminished, instead of persevering to present shows of a deteriorating standard. A director of the J.C. Williamson firm had discussed offering Jack a place in the company, but by then his hearing was deteriorating badly and Jack knew performing unfamiliar plays would be difficult. He was familiar with Shakespearean dialogue and that would have been fine, but entire companies were now presenting Shakespearean plays.
During his theatrically successful years, Jack Fowler was disappointed and baffled by jealousy from fellow colleagues, hence the title of his autobiography The Green-Eyed Monster (1968). Jones and O’Shaughnessy describe Jack as ‘gallant, indomitable and quixotic’ and ‘mercifully oblivious of criticism’. The AusStage online national performing database records Jack Beresford Fowler as having participated as performer, director, or both, in thirty-five shows presented in Melbourne, regional Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania from 1916. This does not include Jack’s national touring seasons such as with On Our Selection with Bert Bailey pre and post-World War One, and other productions not yet recorded which would substantially increase this total. One of his last roles is said to have been playing the Grave Digger in a production of Hamlet at the Union Theatre.
Regardless of negative or positive views regarding Jack Beresford Fowler’s productions in the final third part of his life, Jack’s splendid overall contribution to twentieth century Australian theatre was unquestionably the result of resolute determination, dogged hard work and passion for his craft.
Our family always exchanged Christmas cards with Mr Fowler and I am extremely grateful our life paths crossed. In his later years, I regret not visiting the kind, talented man with twinkling eyes who warmly welcomed Mum and I at his front door for an audition in early 1958. Just as he did for so many others, J.B. would introduce me to the wonderful world of theatre.
On 18 July 1972, The Age published a page two article titled ‘A Noted Thespian Makes his Exit’, which attributes the late ‘Veteran Shakespeare actor J. Beresford Fowler’ as keeping Australian theatre alive during the Depression years. Jack would be rightly proud to read this, and would no doubt chuckle in delight at the article reporting his birthplace as England, when records and his autobiography reveal he was born in Darlinghurst, Sydney. This conflicting information at the end of Jack’s life resembles the quirky debate surrounding his birth date so many years earlier. His mother’s friends remembered young Jack’s birthdays because they insisted he was born on the shortest day of the year, 21 June 1893. However, the official date registered for his birth is 21 July 1893.
Jack Beresford Fowler, actor, playwright, producer, director, novelist, memoirist, soldier, son, brother and friend, took his final curtain call in Albert Park on 17 July 1972.
A life well spent.
The Age (Melbourne), 18 July 1972, ‘A Noted Thespian Makes His Exit’, Google News Archive, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=MDQ-9Oe3GGUC&dat=19720718&printsec=frontpage&hl=en sourced per Bayside Libraries 8 October 2021 (accessed 8 October 2021 via Bayside Library Service)
Bauer Media Pty. Ltd., People, ‘Tricks of the Autograph Trade’, 4 March 1959, p.43
Jack Beresford Fowler, A Puppet’s Mirage, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, United Kingdom, 1957
Jack Beresford Fowler, Stars in My Backyard, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, United Kingdom, 1962
Jack Beresford Fowler, The Green-eyed Monster, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, United Kingdom, 1968
Barry O. Jones and Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Fowler, Jack Beresford (1893–1972)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 14, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1996, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fowler-jack-beresford-10228 (Published online 2006)
James Murray, illustrations by Verdon Morcom. The Paradise Tree, An Eccentric Childhood Remembered, Allen & Unwin, London, 1988
Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘J.B.’ On Stage, Vol. 8, No. 4, Theatre Heritage Australia, https://theatreheritage.org.au/images/OnStage/backissues/2007-4.pdf , Spring 2007, p.9
Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Autobiography Part Two’, 2012, https://sites.google.com/site/peteroshaughnessyinfo/autobiography---part-2 (accessed 5 November 2021)
Television.AU, ‘Remembering Listener-In, TV Scene’, https://televisionau.com/2017/06/remembering-listener-in-tv-scene.html (accessed 14 July 2021)
Cheryl Threadgold, In the Name of Theatre: the History, Culture and Voices of Amateur Theatre in Victoria, publisher Cheryl Threadgold, Victoria, Australia, 2020, p.1
Jack Beresford Fowler enlisted on 10 July 1916 to serve his country in World War One, having left Bert Bailey’s Australian tour of On Our Selection after two years. His soldier training soon commenced in Melbourne’s Domain before transferring to Seymour to join the Third Pioneer Battalion. When the Bailey and Grant company passed through Seymour returning from a Sydney season, Jack was granted leave to meet them at Seymour Station. With no dining-cars on the trains in those days, Seymour was a refreshment stop. Jack reckoned the kisses he received from the theatre company ladies were the envy of the Military Police and reasoned good-naturedly that soldiers expected ‘the natural feminine response to our heroism in volunteering for “the big scrap”.’
On 21 October 1916, the Third Pioneer Battalion embarked for England on the troopship Port Melbourne, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and Sierra Leone to avoid mines and submarines in the Suez Canal. During the ten-week voyage Jack participated in debates and concerts, with his most popular monologues derived from C.J. Dennis’s The Sentimental Bloke and Ginger Mick.
After arriving in England and training at Larkhill, Jack was assigned to the Dental Unit in Salisbury Plain for eighteen months. Although grateful for his mechanical dentistry training in Melbourne which secured this position, Jack confided feeling uneasy ‘with so many fine cobbers on the other side of the duck-pond’ (cryptic term for The English Channel). During limited leave, Jack saw famous theatrical stars of the era in shows and festivals in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bath and Stratford, including unknown young actor Noel Coward playing a small part in Scandal with Arthur Bouchier. Jack also enjoyed entertaining troops with his Battalion concert-party, including a proud performance in a production number at London’s Aldwych Theatre, where he recited ‘The Singing Soldiers’ from C.J. Dennis’s Ginger Mick.
In March 1918, all available soldiers were summoned to the Somme, and Jack joined his Third Pioneer Battalion at Heilly. A talented entertainer and cricketer, Jack conceded he was, however, not a particularly good soldier, especially when digging trenches with blistered hands. ‘I was out of my element in the Pioneers doing pick and shovel work, but I had some good cobbers.’ The soldiers engaged in infantry work at Villiers Brettoneaux, Bray-sur-Somme and Tincourt. During a lull, Jack wrote a one-act play titled The Dame of Corbie, which he presented at Corbie after the Armistice. One night Jack accidentally walked into enemy lines. After his mates brought him back, Jack queried how they knew with nothing on the track as a guide. They blamed his being a ‘city bloke’.
Jack Fowler wrote little of war’s horror and grief, pointing out ‘the war has been written by many able pens.’ In A Puppet’s Mirage, he describes slain bodies beside a road: ‘They were silent voices that spoke more eloquently than any saga or epic of the greatest epoch in history.’
Allied Forces launched ‘the big push’ on 8 August 1918, a huge Western Front offensive to push through enemy front lines. News of signing the Armistice and peace arrived on 11 November as Jack’s Battalion awaited orders to return to the line for what they believed would be the final great battle. When the Battalion later moved to Daours for sporting recreation, Jack captained a cricket team and managed the sports store in Huppy, another French village, before returning to Salisbury Plain and entertaining troops in the concert-party.
In August, 1919, Jack arrived home on the troopship Rio Pardo after another ten-week voyage, once more via Sierra Leone and The Cape. His mother and brothers met Jack in Melbourne in a hired car decorated with the Third Battalion’s purple and white colours. Jack wasted no time re-joining the Bert Bailey and Julius Grant Company and toured for twelve months with On Our Selection, Grandad Rudd and Duncan McClure, all adapted from the works of Steele Rudd (pseudonym for Arthur Hoey Davis).
Jack then independently staged his own amateur production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at The Playhouse, located just over Princes Bridge, playing the lead role of John Borkman. In a dramatic opening night, Jack’s leading lady was said to have suffered a nervous breakdown in the dressing-room and all takings were returned to the audience. Professional actor Emmie South was hired to learn the part over the weekend, but the leading lady recovered and the production was well received by audiences and the press.
Extracts from Melbourne newspaper reviews reflect high regard for Jack Fowler’s shows at this time: ‘A very successful entertainment much above amateur standard was given at The Playhouse last night’ (The Age); ‘J. Beresford Fowler as Borkman achieved a notable success’ (The Herald); ‘An absorbing play … J.B. Fowler gave a realistic portrayal of Borkman …’ (The Sun); ‘The part of John Gabriel Borkman, egotist, ruined bank manager, who bartered love to further his ambition, was capably taken by Mr Fowler’ (The Argus). Jack then staged a successful Australian premiere production of Ibsen’s Ghosts. In May, 1922, The Pioneer Players invited Jack to stage manage Louis Esson’s play The Battler at The Playhouse before English actor/manager Allan Wilkie employed Jack as actor/stage-manager in Australia’s first touring Shakespearian Company.
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
In professional theatre, Jack’s shortish stature was ideal for character roles and one of his favourites was playing Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew.
Three years later, Jack believed his sacking from Allan Wilkie’s company was due to requesting a sleeper when travelling to Sydney (to which he was entitled), after having just joined the Actors’ Federation. Regardless of his sacking, Jack remained indebted to Wilkie for sharing his knowledge of acting and producing Shakespearian plays, and they remained friends after Wilkie disbanded his company in 1930 and returned to England.
Buoyed by the success of his earlier independent productions, Jack made ‘the momentous decision’ to form his Art Theatre Players in 1925. He chose The Queen’s Hall for the company’s first production, The Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. The theatre’s location in Collins Street, almost opposite The Athenaeum Theatre was convenient, but its tiny stage proved challenging for larger shows.
Packed audiences enjoyed A Doll’s House, revivals of John Gabriel Borkman and Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler. The plays were again well-received by the press, with The Argus reviewer writing: ‘Hedda Gabler was played last night with the same high standard of skill that The Art Theatre Players have shown in their handling of other pieces.’
More praise followed for Jack Fowler in a review by The Age for Ibsen’s The Wild Duck: ‘This is not the first occasion on which this courageous and enterprising actor-producer has delighted drama lovers with the production of this truly great play, but it is certain he has never achieved such success as that which signalled last night’s splendid performance. It was a perfectly cast production and The Queen’s Hall was packed to capacity’.
Jack moved larger shows to The Playhouse, but began encountering difficulty for the plays to pay their way. The first of two productions for bushfire relief was Man and Superman presented in conjunction with The Players’ and Playgoers’ Association. One critic wrote: ‘Bernard Shaw and Beresford Fowler in pleasing collaboration: and with the advantages of the bigger Playhouse stage and real scenery against the dog kennel platform and monotonous green curtain of Queen’s Hall, Fowler’s Little Art Company begins to live.’
The second bushfire relief production was Othello’s third scene between Iago (Fred MacDonald) and Othello (Jack Beresford Fowler). A production of Shaw’s Major Barbara later followed at The Playhouse. Jack also worked with Bert Bailey in a professional season in Adelaide of The Sentimental Bloke in September, 1926, playing the crook ‘Spike’ Wegg. In 1929 when Gregan McMahon returned to Melbourne from Sydney to work under the J C Williamson banner, he engaged Jack as stage-manager. Based in Melbourne to be near his beloved St Kilda football team, Jack also presented shows in Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong, Albury and Colac.
Jack Beresford Fowler’s company The Art Theatre Players treated Melbourne audiences to an impressive variety of theatrical culture for almost thirty years. Barry O. Jones and Peter O’Shaughnessy describe the Art Theatre Players as ‘an oasis in Melbourne’s cultural desert’. Playwrights included William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, Noel Coward, Eugene O’Neill, Anton Chekhov, Hermann Sudermann, Lennox Robinson, Elizabeth Baker, Haddon Chambers, Arthur Schnitzler, August Strindberg, Arnold Bennett, Stanley Houghton, Githa Sowerby, John Drinkwater, John Van Druten and Australian playwrights.
Professional and leading amateur performers in Jack’s casts included his mother Fanny Fowler, Sylvia Archer, Ray Lawler, Keith Eden (later a leading radio artist), Paddy Tuckwell (who became model Bambi Smith, Countess of Harewood), Peter O’Shaughnessy, George Lomas, Robert Earl, Lucy Ahon, Mollie Locke, Ruth Conabere, Mona Pepyat. Marjorie McLeod (established the Swan Hill National Theatre branch), Nancy Fryberg, Thora Coxhead, Lilian Lavender, Linda Newcome, Joan Wisdom, Lois Cooper, Richard Ross, Norman Foote, Douglas Kelly, Wilfred Blunden, Norman Heymanson, Leslie Moxon, Mostyn Wright, Kevin Miles, Marjorie Carr, Michael Bolloten, Claude Thomas, June Clyne, Ruby May, Winifred Moverley, William Clarkson, Norma Canfield, Nell Boreham and Bruce Henderson.
In 1942 Jack collaborated with friend and fellow actor Sylvia Archer to write the controversial stage play General Sir Hector MacDonald (a play in nine episodes), a defence of a Scottish soldier who suicided in 1903 when accused of homosexuality. The Melbourne Argus wrote, ‘The authors seek to clear the name of one of the most tragic figures in the history of the British Army.’ Positive reviews included from the Scottish newspaper in Ross-Shire where Hector MacDonald was born. In contrast, The Lord Chamberlain in England banned its production and George Bernard Shaw described the play as ‘unpleasant and economically impossible in commercial theatres.’ General Sir Hector MacDonald received a public reading in Melbourne, but was never performed onstage. Several libraries purchased copies, but Jack believed its ‘scandalous nature’ prevented it being placed on library shelves. The manuscript is now available from State Library Victoria.
Two years later, Jack sent the manuscript to George Bernard Shaw, who returned the covering letter with signed hand-written comments:
Jack Beresford Fowler was a passionate, talented theatre maker but no businessman. He would later admit his mistake in not realising that whether broke or not, productions must be kept up to standard, and now they were not. He attempted to present too many shows, putting them on quickly with insufficient rehearsal ‘in an effort to get three meals a day and a roof over my head.’ He believed jealous enemies were showing their teeth, ‘gathering like vultures around my carcass.’ A war pension at this time would have been a huge financial help to Jack, but with savings from professional work now exhausted, he had no money left to live on.
The press began ignoring Jack Fowler’s shows and some newspapers were annoyed he responded to criticism. In hindsight Jack regretted doing this, conceding ‘it is probably more harmful to be ignored, especially when you have been accustomed to more eulogism than attack.’ Jack would later reflect: ‘The productions went off and my reputation sank to zero.’
Melbourne’s post-World War Two theatre scene was changing, and numerous amateur theatre companies were forming in regional and urban Victoria, assisted by the newly established Council of Adult Education (1947) and The Victorian Drama League (1952).
Although financially poor, Jack Beresford Fowler remained culturally rich, modestly acknowledging: ‘On their own small scale, my productions over three decades were worthwhile.’
JCW Producer Gerard Coventry’s advice to young Master Fowler forty years earlier was not forgotten, and would fuel J.B.’s optimistic, indefatigable spirit for coming decades: ‘Persevere for success and never give up or lose heart.’
Barry O. Jones and Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Fowler, Jack Beresford (1893–1972)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 14, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1996
J.B. Fowler, A Puppet’s Mirage, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, United Kingdom 1957
J.B. Fowler, Stars in My Backyard , Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, United Kingdom, 1962
J.B. Fowler, The Green-eyed Monster, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, United Kingdom, 1968
Born in 1893 in darlinghurst, sydney, Jack Beresford Fowler’s middle name given by his father honours the distinguished First Sea Lord Charles Beresford. A sip of ale would save the baby’s life when near death in the cradle, yet after that Jack remained a strict teetotaller because ‘I heard of so many actors ruined by drink’. His registered date of birth is 21 July, but Jack believed it should be 21 June because his mother’s friends said they never forgot his birthday as it was on the shortest day of the year. Such quirky debate would be synonymous with Jack Fowler’s colourful 79 years, dedicated mostly to his passion for theatre, sport, and literature.
I first met Mr Fowler in 1958. He had visited a Saturday afternoon class at The Alice Uren School of Stage Dancing where singing, acrobats, ballet, toe, and tap-dancing lessons had been taught since the 1920s. Alice Uren’s huge studio was located on the first floor of the Mutual Arcade in Flinders Street, Melbourne and many of her students went on to perform professionally, such as Val Jellay, Toni Lamond and Helen Reddy. Miss Uren chatted to the gentleman visitor and later told my mother that a director, Mr Fowler, had called seeking a girl to play the title role in his play A Must for Dolly (a sequel to George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman) to be presented at the Arrow Theatre, and I had been suggested. We were to meet with Mr Fowler at 97 Graham Street, Albert Park.
A single-storeyed Victorian terrace house matched the address, and while Dad and my young brother waited in our F.J. Holden, Mum and I were greeted at the front door by a smiling, cardigan-wearing gentleman with twinkling eyes who introduced himself as ‘J.B.’. When J.B. warmly ushered us into his compact one-room bedsitter, I instinctively sensed something special. The well-used typewriter with cluttered papers, theatrical scrapbooks and autograph albums stacked on shelves, costumes hanging on a rack and framed photographs adorning the walls formed part of a wonderful, atmospheric space enriched by Jack Beresford Fowler’s marvellous positive energy.
As we prepared to leave after the audition, actors began arriving to rehearse and Mum and I were asked to stay for at least another two hours. J.B.’s endearing unpredictability led to Dad organising driving lessons and a little Austin A30 for Mum to undertake future rehearsal runs. Until then, Dad and young brother Bernie spent rehearsal nights watching football at the South Melbourne Football Ground. A Must for Dolly, written and directed by J. Beresford Fowler, was presented by the Players’ and Playgoers’ Repertory Players on 31 October 1958 at the Arrow Theatre, Armstrong Street, Middle Park. The cast included J. Beresford Fowler, Violet Auburn, William Allen, Reg Campbell, Dawn Mott, Cheryl McPhee, Russell Johnson, Edward Jobbins, Dalene Koops and Frank Booth.
Throughout his life, Jack Fowler was an avid fan of football, cricket and the performing arts. The latter was thanks to his uncle Garnet Walch and parents Frank Harry Fowler and the former Fannie Adele Ellard. English-born Frank was a well-known musician in Brisbane who founded and conducted the Brisbane Liedertafel. Jack’s mother Fannie performed professionally during the 1870s and early 1880s as actress Ethel Adele with theatrical big names of their time such as Alice Dunning Lingard, Maggie Knight, Fred Marshall, J.C. Williamson, Maggie Moore and visiting American actor William H. Leake (Mrs Fowler’s first name officially spelt ‘Fannie’, is written as ‘Fanny’ by son Jack).
Frank Fowler died when Jack was just three months old, leaving Fannie to care for four boys. She moved Horace, Frank, Noel and Jack to Melbourne in 1896, and lived in Elsternwick, Brighton, Armadale and Hawksburn, where Jack would attend Hawksburn State School. His uncle, Garnet Walch, had dramatized Rolf Boldrewood’s novel Robbery Under Arms into a stage production for Alfred Dampier, and Jack recalled getting free seats to see his first-ever play. Jack’s first musical theatre experience was at age three in 1896, seeing the pantomime Djin Djin presented at the Princess Theatre by J.C. Williamson and George Musgrove, with music by Leon Caron and libretto by J.C. Williamson.
Fannie Fowler enjoyed Dickens, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the ‘good theatre’ of the day, as well as taking her children to the Tivoli to see Paul Cinquevalli the juggler and Dante the magician. She produced two successful juvenile productions of HMS Pinafore to augment her income, having played Hebe in the first Australian professional production. An Elsternwick performance involved the Fowler brothers: Frank as Captain Corcoran, Horace played Sir Joseph Porter, Noel was Dick Deadeye and Jack portrayed the Midshipmite. A non-singer, young Jack was hooked on theatre performance. The second juvenile production featuring Jack’s classmates from school, was presented at the Prahran Town Hall. One day Jack overheard the family Doctor talking with his mother. ‘Jack is deaf’. His mother was in disbelief, but the Doctor insisted, ‘Yes, I’m sure he is’. Jack reckoned it was not until twenty years later that outsiders noticed his deafness.
Jack’s first employment was with M.S. Sowerby’s Dental Depot in the Burke and Wills Chambers at 145 Collins Street, Melbourne, starting at 5/- per week and staying for two years. He describes ‘varying fortune’ with other dentists, including a sacking after one week ‘for not being good enough’.
In 1910, aspiring young playwright Jack Beresford Fowler‘s first play about Major-General Robert Clive, first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency, was courageously sent to J.C. Williamson producer Gerard Coventry. The play was not produced, but Mr Coventry invited Jack and his mother in to see The Catch of the Season. Undeterred, Jack submitted his next attempt, a dramatization of Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo. Gerard Coventry returned the manuscript twelve months later before leaving for England, encouraging ‘Master Fowler’ to persevere for success and to never give up or lose heart.
Sydney professional producer and actor Gregan McMahon launched his Melbourne Repertory Theatre Company in 1910 and Jack Fowler contacted him. For his first production, McMahon alternated presenting Act Two of Richard Sheridan’s The Critic and St John Hankin’s The Two Mr Wetherbys with Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, presented at the Turn Verein Hall, an old German beer hall in Victoria Parade, East Melbourne. Medical student Frank Kingsley Norris portrayed Borkman and J.B. Fowler played Foldal, the Old Clerk. A reviewer from The Booklover praised both players as being ‘startlingly good’. The Age described Norris’s portrayal of Borkman as ‘unparalleled among amateur achievements for many a day.’ Jack Fowler was later invited to present a scene with Norris from John Gabriel Borkman on the same program as Nellie Melba for the Conservatorium of Music. Frank Norris would later become Major-General Sir F. Kingsley Norris KBE, CB, DSO, ED.
Prominent people appearing in McMahon’s early productions included Mrs Fanny Fowler, Doris Fitton, later producer for the Independent Theatre in Sydney, Jack Cussen, son of Judge Cussen, Louie Dunn who taught Irene Mitchell who would work at St Martin’s Theatre and Gregan McMahon.
Jack Fowler performed with Gregan McMahon from 1911 to 1914. He transitioned to professional theatre just before his twenty-first birthday, performing in 1914 with the J.C. Williamson firm in Louis N. Parker’s dramatization from Genesis, Joseph and His Brethren at the Theatre Royal. He recalled prejudice against amateurs and being introduced to producer Cecil King with: ‘This boy is only an amateur. He has played however in Ibsen.’ Mr King reasoned that Joseph and His Brethren were earlier than Ibsen and cast Jack as an Extra. During the show’s run in Adelaide, actor Godfrey Cass was missing and Jack Fowler, waiting in the wings, went on and played his scene, delighting producer King. When Jack made one hundred in a cricket match between the Theatre Royal and His Majesty’s Theatre, King shouted him a drink and Jack requested a part in the next touring production, Sealed Orders. George Musgrove invited Jack in 1914 to join Nellie Stewart’s touring company opening in Sydney, as actor and assistant stage manager in David Belasco’s Madame Du Barry and Paul Kester's Sweet Nell of Old Drury.
Writer/director/theatrical manager Albert Edward (Bert) Bailey, actor/playwright Edmund Duggan and business manager Julius Grant, united in 1911 to lease The King’s Theatre from entrepreneur William Anderson, establishing The Bert Bailey Dramatic Company.
From J.B. Fowler, The Green-eyed Monster, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, UK, 1968
Jack joined the company for two years playing Billy Bearup in an adaptation of Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, touring Australian towns from Geraldton in Western Australia to Cairns in Northern Queensland. Jack also acted at Melbourne’s King’s Theatre on Easter Saturday, 22 April 1916, in the company’s reproduction of the play The Squaw Man by arrangement with J.C. Williamson Limited.
In July 1916 Jack Fowler enlisted to serve his country in World War One. On his last night with the Bailey and Grant Company, he was presented onstage at the King’s Theatre with a luminous dial wristlet watch. The inscribed message from the company wished Jack ‘the best of luck in the part you are going to play in the world’s greatest tragedy.’
‘Miss Ethel Adele’, Brisbane Courier, 20 August 1928, p.12
J.B. Fowler, Stars in My Backyard, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, 1962
J.B. Fowler, The Green-eyed Monster, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, 1968
Barry O. Jones and Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Fowler, Jack Beresford (1893–1972)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 14, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1996
SIGN UP for our newsletter and get more great content like this delivered to your inbox. It's FREE!