Lisa McCune and I will give one performance of ‘Letters From The Heart’ at the Loreto College Theatre on Friday 21st April, commencing at 7.30pm. This season of ‘Letters From The Heart’ is dedicated to the memory of the late Googie Withers. The character of Diana was inspired by Googie and her wartime stories. She was already an established star during the war and spent the six-years entertaining the boys in Europe, and working on the West End and touring the country. She told me: I was in Antwerp, a beleaguered city, playing the title role in Mrs John. The theatre was part of a complex which backed onto a cinema, over the top of which was a Sergeants’ mess. It was a Saturday matinee the place was packed. I’d just been called by the stage-manager and was making my way when we had the direct hit. I remember being sucked back into a sort of hole by the most tremendous force. Miraculously, I survived and managed to scramble out of the debris and onto what was left of the stage. The auditorium was now an open space and in front of me was a mountain of rubble. I knew that everybody – all of my audience, and there were about 500 of them, was buried beneath that pile. There was about the same number in the cinema and Sergeants’ mess. They were dead. Finished.” During the war she made several remarkable propaganda films: ‘One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing” – which is now considered to be a classic, and “The Silver Fleet’. Both stand the test of time. Googie was always a naturalistic actor and the films might have been made yesterday – so fresh is her performance.
In writing ‘Letters From The Heart’, I talked with a number of actors about their wartime experiences: Dame Vera Lynn who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, Margaretta Scott (Mrs. Pumphrey from All Creatures Great And Small), Moira Listerde Gachassin-Lafite, Vicomtesse d’Orthez (she came to Australia to star in ‘Move Over Mrs. Markham’), Beryl Reid (‘The Killing Of Sister George’), Evelyn “Boo” Laye, who was a great West musical theatre star. I went to her 90th birthday luncheon at the Ritz Hotel. Her great friend, The Queen Mother, could not attend but she sent her private secretary, Sir Martin Gilliat, who brought the most enormous bouquet of roses, and Sir Robert Helpmann, with whom I worked on several occasions. He managed to flee the Nazi invasion by only hours when he and Margot Fonteyn were dancing Swan Lake on the back of truck in Arnhem. It took them six-weeks to zig-zag their way back to England.
Over the years Googie and I worked together on tenplays in Australia and England including The Cherry Orchard, An Ideal Husband, The Kingfisher, The Circle, Stardust, and Cocktail Hour. I never tired of watching her on stage. Googie was a star in every aspect of her life. She was an extraordinary woman and it was a remarkable and glittering career. Wherever we went in the world there was always a Brigadier or Major General in her dressing room after the show. On one occasion I met Charles Spencer Denman, 5th Baron Denman, 2nd Baronet CBE MC TD, one of the great heroes of the Second World War. He was a kind and unassuming man who risked his life to save his men.
I first encountered Googie while I was working on the William Douglas-Home comedy, The Secretary Bird, starring Patrick Macnee at the now-demolished Palace Theatre in Castlereagh Street. Googie was appearing further along the street at the Theatre Royal in ‘Plaza Suite’, a Neil Simon play.
A couple of years later, 1971, we worked together first at the Melbourne Theatre Company. She starred in both ‘The Cherry Orchard’ and ‘An Ideal Husband’ at the Comedy Theatre, and on tour around Australia. It was in Perth that an actor did not turn-up for the opening night of An Ideal Husband, and I had to go with no rehearsal. Wendy Hughes, who was playing Mabel Chiltern, pushed me around the stage to make sure I was in the right spot at the right moment. The actor who failed to show claimed he fell asleep while putting-on his socks! There is not a lot one can say to that. The late Frank Thring was in both plays and together they were a dynamic duo. Frank was at his zenith and between them they created a special magic. Wherever we went in Australia we played to packed houses. We became great friends and over the 40-years spent much time together and talking on the telephone.
Georgette Lizette Withers was born March 13th 1917 in Karachi in what was then British India. She was 94 when she left us.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30.