Archive Interview • GAYE BROWN • Guys and Dolls • 2005
“I’ve never done Guys and Dolls in my life! I love her, I love General Cartwright to death.” Gaye Brown is having a ball in the famous musical created by Loesser, Swerling and Burrows out of Damon Runyon’s short stories, which is running at the Piccadilly under the direction of Michael Grandage. It is such perfect casting that I’d convinced myself she must have played the part before, even though it’s not mentioned on her resumé. It was, though, as she reminds me, her great friend Diane Langton who played the role in Richard Eyre’s famous production for the National Theatre in 1982.
Gaye Brown’s background is fascinating and includes a grandmother who was one of George Edwardes’ [see below] young ladies at the Prince of Wales Theatre at the turn of the century. She herself was co-founder of the all-girl band Rock Bottom with fellow actresses Diane Langton and Annabel Leventon. Rock Bottom was the original of what became, in the hands of Howard Schuman and Thames TV, Rock Follies . Even though it was Brown, Langton and Leventon’s idea, and their experiences as such a group, that formed the basis of the series, it went ahead without any acknowledgment, let alone payment. It was ten years before the court case from which the three of them emerged triumphant and which added a new ruling on the statute books.
I think of you as very much a musical lady. Does this still hold true?
I have had a huge dearth of musicals ever since 42nd Street because the French [Les Misèrables] and Andrew [Lloyd-Webber] sort of took over really and that’s not really up my street and I don’t think I’m up theirs, do you know what I mean. And apart from doing the musical version of Mapp & Lucia for Peter Benedict, which we did at Jermyn Street, I have done no musicals at all, which is quite interesting. So it’s lovely to come back, but it’s the only part that doesn’t actually get to sing as such, which is quite, quite lucky! I don’t have any of the worry! I join in the best song, which is ‘Rockin’ the Boat’ and that’s it really.
Did you ever think of doing anything else for a living?
It never occurred to me. My grandmother was a George Edwardes’ young lady at the Prince of Wales Theatre — not this present Prince of Wales but on that site. And also, her sister was a dancer so, you know, there was always music around. And my mother was in the theatre. She wasn’t musical, my mother, but it’s always been part of the life. As a child, my grandmother used to take me to musicals all through every holiday because there used to be lots of wonderful shows on. I saw Call Me Madam and The King and I and all that. And when I was at this convent school in North Devon, of course they encourage you like mad, they love all the singing. So I was encouraged and went to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
Did you enjoy GSMD? Did you find it valuable?
I suppose so. It keeps you off the streets for three years or whatever! I think it’s very good. You grow up a bit and learn to be a student, and being a student is a very marvellous part of one’s life, I think. I don’t know if they teach you anything, I’m not sure. I did most of my graduating with Theatre Workshop and I learnt everything I know there. I never acted much at drama school, I never used to do much of that there! Everything I learnt was with Joan [Littlewood].
I envy you that! And having interviewed Victor Spinetti and talked to Brian Murphy about Joan Littlewood at a dinner party, there is no doubt that the strength of feeling shown by her ‘disciples’ surpasses that of other actors when citing mentors.
I think that’s absolutely true and as Dudley Sutton always said, she’s our university. That was my university and it was a long haul and I would never want to repeat it, I have to say, but there’s nobody to match her as far as I’m concerned. I’ve worked with very, very fine directors and none of them have commanded what she did with thinking and not doing and what to play. Funnily enough, it’s exactly what Michael Grandage is after and people have different ways of asking for it. Trevor [Nunn] does the same — he’s very much a kind of devoté of hers. But it has to come from something, and apart from anything else, she was this highly intelligent and extremely well-read lady. She knew her stuff so well. I’m not talking about stuff that we took and then made more of but if we were doing the Classics, she was absolutely à pointe. Extraordinary. I loved that.
Is there any advice or comment you remember in particular?
“Let the audience come to you.” And that was interesting because that took me about fifteen years to totally comprehend. I didn’t know what she was talking about at the time. I was 23 and tears streaming down my face at Wyndham’s, I remember, and they were off to America and we, Nigel Hawthorne and myself and various others were off round England and then to Europe. And the others, Brian Murphy and the other, older lags, as we called them, were off to America. And we were rehearsing this particular scene and she kept on making me come on. I didn’t know what I was doing, what she wanted.
Anyway, I did what she asked but it was years later when I was playing with my band in Monkbury’s and the audience was going mad and I was doing nothing, and I went, “Oh fuck! This is what she means!” I almost dried. It was a wonderful realization and when I told her, she said, “Oh well, better now than never.” It took me fifteen years to suss what she was saying! It’s things like that. And she’s always there in one’s mind: “Stand still, for goodness’ sake. Stop bossy-bootsing around, just be. Don’t give them too much — they will take what they want and ask for more.” So, you know, it’s all those kind of things. And I think it’s teaching you integrity, really. It’s always easy to do funny voices; it is very tempting. But I’m sure you’ve heard that from Vic [Spinetti] anyway.
There’s a very nice actor in [Guys and Dolls] Sevan Stephan, who I think is a wonderful, wonderful, remarkable actor — he played Toulouse-Lautrec in Lautrec — he plays Big Julie. And he said, “Oh, tell me about Joan Littlewood.” And it’s awful because you kind of think it’s boring, really. You know it’s not but you don’t want to kind of give it out too much. I don’t mean that you’re keeping it for yourself but you don’t want to appear that [you’re saying] “this is the way to do it”. But actually, it’s awful to say, but that is the way to do it. It does actually work.
This is the first time you have worked with Michael Grandage. How are you finding it?
I like working with him a lot. I have to say I never saw the National production. I was working at the National at the time and never saw it so I came to it completely clean. I saw a production of it up at Chester years ago and loved it as a show and I was brought up on the music but it was a whole new experience for me. I just think [General Cartwright] is quite fun, really. Those women who succeed in those positions in those particular organizations, or any organization really, are pretty knowing and pretty marvellous.
What I love about this particular show — Michael has been working very much in the vein of Theatre Workshop — is this marvellous thing that every actor in it — one line, no lines, all lines — every single person is a rounded character, every single man, Jack on that stage is of great interest.
Do you think that comes partly from the fact that he started out as an actor?
No idea. It’s just that he doesn’t want to see empty spaces on the stage and dull nonsense and old hat stuff and there’s nothing old hat about this at all. I think it’s the very best. I’m thrilled to be associated and I’ve been associated with some funny old numbers over the years, all of which you try and make the best but know deep down “oh my god, with this not a glimmer — one is being very, very hyper-critical all the time. Guys and Dolls is wonderful, and when people have been off, and people have, with this throat or various, people slot in and do it and although it’s not the same, it’s not the same, it’s fantastic. And, of course, it’s a filip for the company as well. There’s never a hint of “oh my god, the understudy’s on” — that doesn’t even come into the equation. And that is him., that is absolutely him and his determination and energy and I love it, I love it, myself. And he’s on your case. He isn’t on your case all the time; he lets you find it and then he says, “Right, stop. That’s quite enough.” I mean, I’m very naughty because I will play until I’m caught. I’ve been caught a couple of times! That’s fair, isn’t it? Do it until you get caught!
Then bring it back and that’s fine!
Absolutely — I’m bored now so I’m going to start playing and then they say that’s enough, thank you very much! Trevor [Nunn] always used to say, “Thank you for the improvements but we won’t want them today. No improvements”, which I think is very nice. What he didn’t want was us ‘improving’ the script. “The script is fine. Please, I don’t want any of your improvements! Don’t put them in there. They’re fine, they’re lovely but not wanted.”
Guys and Dolls sounds a hoot to work on, especially with everyone getting on so well together. Unless, in reality, you’re not!
We are. There’s no reason not to. It seems to me from what one hears of other productions that anyone’s ever been in, it’s always a joyous experience and I think it is — it’s one of those shows that only creates bonhomie, as it should. And when you read the Damon Runyon, actually, you’re smiling always because there’s something very clean-living about these villains and something very proper about them. Their ethics are within their law.
None. It’s all been good stuff. It’s quite accident-free, really. And not too much scandal, I’m afraid!
I’m not looking for scandal, don’t worry! Full houses?
And some! It’s a bit like Rock ‘n’ Roll every night. They all come to see Ewan [McGregor] at the stage door. They love him. And they all hang about outside and it’s all quite fun really.
Have you played the Piccadilly before?
It’s my third time and the first time I was there I was with a show called The Great Houdini with Stubby Kaye, no less. And Harold Fielding produced it and it was quite a dramatic situation because in fact we were asked to take a cut. I remember we had a ‘cuts’ meeting in the Stalls Bar which still holds great amusing memories for me and we all went, “Good gracious, how dare they!” and then Stubby, who was our sort of grandee, said, “Now, listen. Fielding’s loaded, right. So forget it!” So we didn’t have any cuts and we lasted a year and a bit, and it was absolutely fine. Doris Hare was in the company as well, which was great fun. That was my first foray into the West End. It didn’t quite do for me what I was hoping it would do! It didn’t put me off quite but I couldn’t wait to get back to the Theatre Royal [Stratford East] because I thought that was the way we had to work. Now I enjoy going to the West End because it beats working, really!
Was there any point when you thought of giving up?
My career went up and down, up and down. I don’t know what I’ve got now, I just sort of do it and get on with it, because I’ve got to a point where I just am thrilled to bits to stil be walking around. We formed Rock Bottom in 1974, Annabel, Diane and myself, and that all went swimmingly until certain things happened and then we ended up ten years later in court. That’s a whole different story and we’ll talk about that at another juncture. It’s now eight pages of a law book. That was an extraordinary and fantastic experience. That was a kind of standing up for ourselves. We actually got done by the very people we were standing against in a funny way, which was a multi-national. However, we won the case and all kinds of other things happened because of it and it gives you a huge strength and nobody can touch you after that. It was horrible but it was very interesting and, of course, in the end it all worked out very fine for us. We got our credibility back, which is what it’s all about. It was always a very good idea and that’s great.
I’d much rather have seen you three on the box.
That’s very kind of you. We were stunning. We were fantastic. But there we are and that’s fine.
Gaye Brown is “very fine” herself and alone worth a ticket to Guys and Dolls.
Sarah Vernon © 2005
Originally published on R&V on 18-08-05