The following pages contain excerpts from—and sometimes the bulk of—interviews, meetings and occasional exchanges at press receptions, with a wide spectrum of performers over the past 30 years or so. From those encounters I have tried to retain, for this book, information and anecdotes that still are of interest today, or shed light upon the interviewee.
It always has been my policy to ask questions which I personally wanted to know the answers of, and to avoid questions which someone obviously has been asked countless times before. I believe that the major part of this book contains facts new to most readers. In some cases I have detailed briefly my prior interests and knowledge of the interviewee.
Most of the encounters have taken place in Australia where I have been fortunate to obtain the co-operation of all concerned.
On a personal note: I arrived in Australia towards the end of 1958 having arranged with the editor of England’s leading theatrical periodical, the trade weekly The Stage (founded in 1880!), to supply any appropriate news, reviews and articles. Some six months later I undertook similar duties for the American Variety, usually referred to as ‘the Bible of show business’.
This proved to be a double ‘Open Sesame’. It meant more to people performing Down Under to be reported upon in these two international weeklies than in the local press. I believe this still applies, although certain local publicists disagree with me. Therefore, I had no difficulty in obtaining the interviews, and in some cases was sought out by those concerned.
I have tried never to interview anyone I did not want to, although in a few cases I was ‘persuaded’ to, and finally won over. Seldom have I interviewed anyone without knowing a great deal about their career, frequently surprising them with my knowledge.
I remained with Variety until 1977, when I switched to Screen International, which proved an even better deal as it provided the opportunity to visit a number of film sets. Then in 1985 I changed to The Business of Film which, although financially a better prospect, did not bring me in touch with the people I should like to have contacted. Along the way I have written for numerous other periodicals as well, both in Australia and other countries. I still am writing for The Stage.
During a six months’ visit back in England in 1961 I purchased a large reel-to-reel tape recorder: useful for recording purposes rather than note-taking or relying upon one’s memory. But oh, it was such a nuisance to carry around and have to plug in to power points at the various venues! Today I am surprised at how tolerant everyone was with it.
Since then I have utilized a small cassette recorder or a pocket microcassette-corder. Unfortunately there have been occasions with these have failed to work satisfactorily, when batteries have run down, and once again I have had to rely upon my memory.
Meeting these people has highlighted the fact that, despite all the glamour and fame, basically – when one gets down to talking ‘man to man’ – they are just like anyone else. The big surprise always is how much shorter a lot appear away from the screen: Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich to give but two examples.
There really have been only three occasions on which I was unable to obtain the interviews I wanted. The first was when Eartha Kitt made her first Australian tour. I attended the press reception for her, a personal interview was more or less lined up, then the news broke of her separation from her husband and she refused all further interviews. However, I did meet her backstage on a subsequent tour.
Then there was Judy Garland. It had all been arranged, as I relate in this book, but she was a very sick lady and there were no interviews with her in Melbourne.
The third person was Claudette Colbert, always one of my favourite film stars, and who came to Melbourne with Rex Harrison to star in Aren’t We All?. There was a press reception for Harrison, but not for her. There had been articles on her in the Press prior to her arrival in Australia, written in London or New York. As far as I know there was one radio interview, and that was all. Apparently she did not think it necessary to do any publicity; the play perhaps would have done better at the box office had she not been so ‘press shy’.
Today I do regret that I did not do in-depth interviews with some people I met briefly at press receptions, actors such as Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave. I could easily have arranged it. Why didn’t I, I ask myself now. It probably was because at those particular times I could see no immediate venues for placing pieces on them.
It is my earnest wish that all readers will get something out of this book. It is written for those who enjoy reading about show business (with an occasional piece of trivia thrown in!), and to provide clues for future biographers.
At the 1966 Adelaide Festival of the Arts Dame Judith Anderson was seen in four performances of a program that consisted of excerpts from Macbeth and Medea. Reviews following the first performance were not the best for Dame Judith and her supporting cast, and I went along on the second night with sinking heart.
The first half of the program, lasting about half an hour, was devoted to all the major Lady Macbeth scenes. Looking impressive in simple but dignified royal blue robes, the actress was most subdued a great part of the time, but never failed to bring out the beauty of the verse, and gave new meanings to a number of lines.
As Medea, in a condensed version o the Robinson Jeffers’ adaptation, which occupied about an hour and a quarter of the second half, with one brief interval, Dame Judith looked beautiful in a loose yellow gown and again did not overdo the ranting. She managed almost at time to inject humour into the situations and only once or twice get the impression of being a little stale in the part.
After the poor reviews I was pleasantly surprised and quite enthusiastic, and could recall few performances I had seen in Australia to equal this, and felt impelled to go backstage, introduce myself and congratulate the Dame.
I had expected someone tall and regal and, on entering her dressing room, was amazed to be confronted by a tiny old lady with a black shawl around her shoulders, so different to the onstage illusion that had been created.
She listened almost impatiently to my words of praise and cut me short.
‘What did you think of my leading man?’ she asked.
‘I thought he was very, very good,’ I truthfully said.
‘Then will you do me a favour?’ she asked. ‘Go to his dressing room and tell him so. The reviews have been so unkind to him, so unjustified.’
Incidentally, Dame Judith had taken no fee for her performances, but donated her services to the Festival.
A few days later I saw her again – in a huge auditorium – alongside an Australian actor, enthusiastically reading English translations of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poems when the Russian poet gave three public recitals of his work.
Legendary are the tales I have heard told concerning Australian-born actress Coral Browne, some of which are absolutely true, as I was told them first hand by a friend who was in the company during the time she played at the Old Vic.
Several of these anecdotes, slightly distorted, have already seen the light of print. One, which, to my knowledge, has not is of when she temporarily left the Old Vic to play Vera Charles opposite Rosalind Russell in the film version of Auntie Mame.
From Hollywood she sent a postcard to members of the Old Vic Company saying: ‘Here in Hollywood you can get any kind of sex you want—with man, woman, child or dog—at a price!’. At the bottom of the card she wrote: ‘P.S. I’m broke!’
Also I was told about her generosity and consideration. She heard about the death of the father of one young member of the company who, straight from drama school, for the moment was playing only minor roles.
Realising how hard it was for him to exist on £7 a week, and with a widowed mother and younger brother still at school, in the nicest way, so as not to offend the proud boy, she persuaded him to accept some of her husband’s cast off clothes.
I had always enjoyed and greatly admired her stage performances, ranging from Maggie Cutler in The Man Who Came to Dinner, the title role in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and Lady Frederick, her classical roles at the Old Vic and many more. It had always been a disappointment she had not been more active in films.
In 1961, with a brief to interview Australians in London for an Australian theatre monthly, Coral Browne would be high on the list.
Coral Browne as Lady Frederick Berolles in Lady Frederick, Savoy Theatre, London, 1946. Photo by Angus McBean.
Harvard Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Accordingly, I wrote her, requesting an interview, and received a telephone call from her agent’s office agreeing and setting up the time of 5 p.m. one afternoon at the Comedy Theatre, where she apparently was rehearsing in the play Bonne Soupe.
‘On no account must you be a minute late,’ I was warned and then, with uncontrolled curiosity in the voice came the query: ‘Have you ever interviewed Miss Browne before?'
‘No, I haven’t.’
‘Then the best of British luck to you!’
That particular afternoon was being spent with Peter Cotes and his wife Joan Miller, at their then home at Crystal Palace. Naturally, I was anxious to leave and be on time, and seeing how I felt, Cotes said he would drive me there. But the time was speeding along and Cotes showed no signs of hurrying and I began to panic, knowing I should he late. By the time we left even Cotes realised we should not make it on time.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘Joannie will ring the stage door and say you’ll be a little late.’
A little late! We seemed to strike every traffic jam possible and it was exactly 5.30 p.m. when, hot and sweaty, I alighted from Cotes’ car at the Comedy stage door. Would Coral Browne still be waiting—and what would her mood be like?
I was shown into an empty room and, before I had an opportunity to sit down, Browne herself entered, and, just as I was about to make my apologies she burbled: ‘You poor man—I am so sorry to keep you waiting like this. We’ve only just finished the rehearsal.’ I made no comment, but began the interview.
It was not the greatest of interviews. There was nothing devastating in the way of wit, which I had hoped for, and naturally the bulk of it was aimed at Australian readers. Since leaving the country in 1934 she had only returned once, for her grandmother’s funeral. It had always been her intention to go back one day for a theatre engagement, but something always occurred to prevent it.
Coral Browne as Laura Foster in Simon and Laura, 1954. Photo by Angus McBean.
Harvard Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
‘All the plays I’d like to do there are being done by someone else, just as I’m making my plans. For instance, there was Simon and Laura, in which I appeared in the West End. Googie Withers and John McCallum came and saw me in it, and the next thing I knew they had arrange to tour it Down Under!
‘Cyril Ritchard wanted me to co-star with him in The Pleasure of His Company, in which I was appearing in the West End. Then I took over in the American production in Chicago and …
‘About three years ago I was going to tour Australia with the Old Vic Company, playing Cleopatra to Harry Andrews’ Antony, as well as other roles. Then Mr. Andrews had a film commitment he couldn’t get out of, so that also failed to mature.’
She assured me she did intent to appear on the Australian stage again.
‘It isn’t easy though, with a husband and a home to look after. Of course it isn’t like the old days when there were long sea voyages that took up so much of the time. One wonders how people like Marie Tempest managed it—so much travelling time without pay.’
Browne obviously was very proud of being an Australian and still retained her Australian passport.
‘Wherever you look here in England in the arts you are sure to find Australians at the top: Joan Sutherland, Sidney Nolan, Loudon Sainthill, Ray Lawler. Who wouldn’t be proud to be Australian? And I’m proud I’ve still got some of my Australian accent left!’
We discussed the then current West End theatre, and she admitted it was losing its appeal and certainly not what it had been. About the ‘kitchen sink’ drama she was most dogmatic.
‘There isn’t any beauty in it. When the theatre can offer so much beauty, visually and vocally, who wants to go and see an angry young man twiddling his toes through the holes in his socks? I saw Roots, after a really wonderful lunch, but the smell of liver cooking in the theatre made me want to vomit by the end of the first act!’
Of playwrights of that time, she felt Arnold Wesker could write good plays and admitted she had a great admiration for Harold Pinter.
How did she like acting on television?
‘It’s terrifying, absolutely terrifying. To be judged by one’s first performance in a play is simply awful. When opening in the West End, the audiences’ reactions are vital. And one doesn’t get this with television.
‘Another thing, all the plays one would like to do on television appear to have been done. But I’d certainly appear in a Pinter play on TV if he wrote one for me.’
Films did not fill her with the same dismay.
‘Making films seem easier as one gets older,’ she observed.
Then she made the comment that playwrights did not seem to be writing plays for the stars.
‘There’s Edith Evans, for instance—the greatest actress in the English-speaking world—every playwright ought to be writing plays furiously for her. Yet since Fry’s The Dark Is Light Enough, no one has bothered to write her a play.’
She confessed that Lady Macbeth was her favourite Shakespeare role.
‘I always get to the theatre hours before when playing in Macbeth, to sink myself in the role, something I’ve never done with any other part.’
As with all the other people I interviewed in London, I sent Coral Browne a copy of the article when it was published. She was the only one to write me a letter of thanks. In it she said: ‘I liked the interview very much and gave it to Harold Pinter!’
In the late 1970s Geoff Burrowes (who later produced The Man From Snowy River films) told me he was hoping to being out Browne and her husband, Vincent Price, to co-star in a vampire film to be called Romance in the Jugular Vein, but this never happened.
In 1980 Price came to Australia to perform on stage his one-man Oscar Wilde show, and was accompanied by Coral Browne. There seemed to be little publicity about her return to her homeland. One would have expected all sorts of offers to have been made to her, but this did not happen.
Next time ... John Carradine