How could such an extraordinarily vivid and outrageous showbiz character be forgotten?
This troubled actress and playwright Maureen Sherlock when she started noticing mentions of Coral Browne in showbiz biographies.
There she was in a Peter Finch’s biography. Then again in Judy Dench’s. In Maggie Smith’s.
“I decided to find out who she was,” says Sherlock.
What a glorious voyage of discovery.
The more Sherlock learned, the more wildly unforgettable seemed this forgotten star.
She was one of the most colourful people to emerge from Australian showbiz.
The tales about her were so sizzlingly sensational that they set the Sherlock creative juices bubbling.
Maureen Sherlock is known for cheeky, funny, satirical shows: Alzheimer’s the Musical; A Night to Remember; Ada & Elsie; and Wacko-the-Diddle-oh!, as well as penning scripts for assorted television series. In partnership with Rob George, she was also behind the Don Dunstan play Lovers and Hatersand the Percy Grainger play, Percy and Rose, and indeed running Theatre 62 in its heyday.
Recently Sherlock has been, of all things, writing questions for quiz shows.
Then Coral Browne stepped in.
As Sherlock puts it, Browne was “a potty mouth”.
Despite being deeply religious, she was fast and free, often shocking, with the vernacular.
Hence the heavily asterisked name of the show.
It derives from a famous Browne anecdote in which a taxi was flagged down simultaneously by Browne and another man. The gentleman was quickly leaping in the door opposite to Browne when the cabby protested:
Sorry, guy, I stopped for the lady.
Said the guy: What lady?
Said Browne: This f***ing lady.
As a young Australian actress, Browne made her name in London where she thrived as a light comedy performer in the 1940s and 50s. Left a large inheritance, she upped her artistic game. “She re-invented herself as a classical actress,” says Sherlock.
In this capacity she was touring in Moscow in 1958 with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Gertrude to Michael Redgrave’s Hamlet when a drunken man staggered into her dressing room and vomited into the sink. It turned out to be the notorious British spy, Guy Burgess, who invited her to his flat and asked her to measure him for suits to be made by his Savile Row tailor in London, Russian suits being too crude for his taste.
This she did. She kept this tale secret for 20 years for fear of being linked to a traitor. When she did tell the tale it was over dinner with playwright Alan Bennett who swiftly wrote it into what was to become the television drama An Englishman Abroad. Browne played herself opposite the great Alan Bates. Both actors won BAFTAs for their performances.
While Browne lived a glamorous, stylish, somewhat glittering life, Sherlock describes her personal trials in a lifelong “vexed” relationship with her mother who was ever jealous of Browne’s success. “She made her life a living hell - and what’s more, she lived to 99, dying just a couple of months before Coral”.
Needless to say, the evil mother is in the new Sherlock play - along with Browne’s two husbands.
The first was an actor Philip Pearman. The story goes that when he was denied a role alongside Browne in King Lear, Browne swore there was a part for him. She demanded the script and pointed to a page: “There you are, the perfect part,” she declared. “A small camp near Dover”.
Her second husband was the American star, Vincent Price, with whom she embarked upon a new chapter of her colourful life.
“She dressed to the Nines from top French designers. She lived large. She performed large. She was the last of the Grand Dames of the theatre,” says Sherlock.
A meeting with distinguished Sydney Actress Genevieve Mooy of The Dish and Front Line fame accelerated the completion of Sherlock’s Coral Browne play.
“It was a week out from the close of Fringe applications when I told her about the play and she said ‘yes’,” says Sherlock.
So Mooy, who moved to Adelaide a few years ago, is playing Browne in the world premiere of what promises to be a fast, funny and important bio play.
Coral Browne: This F***ing Lady
Dates: 22 Feb to 18 March
Time: 2.00pm; 6.00pm; 6.30pm (60 minutes)
Venue: The G.C. The Clubroom
Tickets: $20 - $26