theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
When I first heard that Faith Brook was to be back on stage to perform in her solo show at the Mill Studio in Guildford, I knew I would be disappointed if I wasn’t able to get an interview. When I was a teenager, desperate to go on the stage, I wanted to look like this beautiful and elegant actress whose family, like mine, were actors. Not for me the face of Diana Rigg, Peggy Ashcroft or Helen Mirren — oh no, I wanted to look like Miss Brook. And what actress in her right mind could fail to envy a resumé that contains Millament in The Way of the World or Charlotta in The Cherry Orchard, both at the Old Vic, or relish being directed by Alec Guinness? Not me, that’s for sure.
Born in York in 1922, Faith Brook was brought up in California along with her younger brother Lyndon, an actor and writer who sadly died at the beginning of this year. It was in Hollywood that their father, the stage and film actor Clive Brook, was making his mark and his daughter’s accent still betrays signs of her childhood. Having made her stage debut in 1941 at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, in a play called Lottie Dundass, here she is, many years later, treading the boards once more in The Colour of Poppies at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre’s Mill Studio and a later run in London at Jermyn Street Theatre.
The Colour of Poppies is adapted by Yann Le Gouic de Kervéno from the French writer Noëlle Châtelet’s novel, La Femme Coquelicot. The play was a great success in Paris last year and treats the subject of love in old age — two states often regarded as mutually exclusive, if not taboo, especially by the young — with sensitivity and sensuality. The novel caused a sensation when it was published in France in 1997.
“It’s appealing and I think it’s an area of a woman’s life that needs a bit more exploring,” says Miss Brook. “The few people I’ve permitted to come and see it so far, they’ve been enchanted by it, and I had someone here yesterday who was hearing lines and she was very moved by it so yes, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t believe in the piece. As a director friend of mine said, a one-person play is as much about the character one is portraying as about oneself, and I think this is probably true.”
Love has certainly made a difference to the actress’s life. “Fairly late on, about ten years ago, I did meet somebody and in the same sort of way as this character, Marthe, who finds love at the age of 75. She meets a man who treats her as a woman for the first time in her life. I think it’s life-giving stuff. This woman has been leading a fairly monochrome life. She was married and her husband has died 20 years before and he damped her down, he stamped on any sort of dreams and ambitions she had, and her father had done the same thing to her and they thought she was over-emotional and so on. And she’s got a family, she’s got grandchildren. She’s not unhappy but it’s pretty boring really and it’s sort of colourless and that’s why we call it monochrome. And then she meets this man in a local brasserie and he makes the overtures and it becomes an affair. And she turns from monochrome to Technicolor and it’s really quite joyous when she’s been made love to, and as she says, she’s treated as a woman for the first time in her life. It’s recognizable to a lot of women.”
I ask how the production came about. “My son who is my producer — my son the producer! — was getting a little bit worried about me and it had been quite a long time since I’d done any theatre. He thought something should be done so he spoke to a friend of his who’s an academic and bilingual and because this guy, John Roberts, travels around a lot, he said, well if you ever see anything that would suit my mum, let me know. Within a few days, John had come across this play in Paris so we went on from there.
“I put my fourpence in because he’s an academic and I had to be with him for the translation because he was apt to be a little bit sticky so I was there to give it some air, so to speak. We got on very well and we turned out, well, he turned out a very good script and so that’s what I’ve been working on and still am. And I just hope it goes well, at Guildford, and then eventually we’re going into Jermyn Street. Three weeks in Jermyn Street from the end of June.”
When I tell her how glad I was to hear she was going back on stage, she says that “it’s rather nice to be back on stage though this is a very frightening way to do it. I absolutely shake every time I think of walking on that stage all by myself and nobody to get me out of trouble. And I talk to the audience for an hour and twenty-two minutes. I think I’m absolutely barking, really. It could be my swan song!”
Talking of her childhood, she tells me she was aware of what her father did for a living very early on. “I knew he was going off and making movies but I wasn’t allowed, my mother wouldn’t allow me to see them because she thought that I wouldn’t understand when he was kissing some other woman. Well, what about my mother?” she says, hinting that this restriction may have had more to do with how her mother felt about seeing her husband kiss another than protecting her daughter.
Clive Brook [1887 – 1974] made his stage debut in 1918 after serving in the British Army during the First World War. He went on to appear on stage in London and the provinces, as well as on film, before moving to the States in 1924 where he spent the next decade or so under contract to Paramount for whom he appeared, among other films, in the 1927 silent, Hula with Clara Bow, played the title role in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929), featured alongside William Powell and Richard Arlen in The Four Feathers (1929) and had the distinction of being Marlene Dietrich’s leading man in Shanghai Express (1932). He returned to England in the mid-30s and later adapted, directed and appeared on screen in Frederick Lonsdale’s On Approval with Beatrice Lillie (1944). Although he was to continue working on stage, here and in the States, until the mid-50s, disappointed by the reaction to the Lonsdale film, he did not make another apart from The List of Adrian Messenger in 1963, playing the Marquis of Gleneyre.
Living in Hollywood did not immediately make Brook’s daughter keen to follow in his footsteps. “I think I would say that if I’d been exposed to any theatre at all when I was being brought up, I might have thought about becoming an actress sooner. As it was, I actually started wanting to be a dancer when I was three and that went into ballet and by the age of 14, nothing else counted and I was still working at it. And by that time we were back in England and my father took me aside one day and said, ‘I don’t think you’re ever going to make it beyond the back row of the corps de ballet. Really, you haven’t got the right sort of shape or body to be a ballet dancer. What do you think about being an actress?’ And so he started taking me to see plays and I think the first thing I ever saw was Ivor Novello’s Glamorous Nights and I thought it was absolutely fantastic, I mean, this was a revelation. And then I started going on my own or with chums and I got bitten. And then my Dad said, ‘You could, if you work hard, become a first class actress.’ So I’ve worked hard and I think he felt that I’d achieved something before he died, anyway.”
If it hadn’t been for her father, she might never have benefited from the invaluable guidance of two British actresses who made their names on the Victorian stage: Kate Rorke [1866 – 1945] and Dame May Whitty [1865 -1948]. “I had a problem with my mother who didn’t really want me to go into the theatre,” she says, “and I was still in my early teens, before RADA and all that. She insisted I go and have a domestic science course — one learnt how to fold the napkins properly and all that. And I said, right, well, I’ll do that; then my Dad actually put his foot down. He said, ‘Well, she can have some elocution lessons, for goodness’ sake, and start working on it if she’s that keen.’ And of course he wanted me to become an actress because, as he said himself, ‘anything else I wouldn’t know what to talk to you about’. So I did work with Kate Rorke. She was wonderful and she put me through a lot of good stuff and one of the things was I finally gave a public performance up at the domestic science school of a Christina Rossetti poem.
“But when I went back to California at the beginning of the War — that was partly due to Lyndon who was not at all well. He had a very bad back and the doctor had to operate, so we went back to Hollywood — when I went back to California, one of my first jobs, certainly in the theatre, was a play calledLottie Dundass, which Dame May Whitty and Geraldine Fitzgerald — the original Geraldine Fitzgerald — and various people were in, and Dame May Whitty said to me one day, ‘Darling, you don’t really know what you’re doing.’ ‘Yes I do, I’ve been to RADA!’ ‘Well, I think we ought to do some work.’ So she volunteered. She put me through most of the Greek tragedies and so on and so forth and I learnt an enormous amount from her, I really did. I learnt more from her, certainly, than I did at RADA, I can tell you that.”
Called up during the War, she found herself in the ATS, the Auxiliary Territorial Service, forerunner of the British Women’s Royal Army Corps. “I offered to join the Navy and they said at the time, they said, I don’t think you can do that because you have to know an Admiral or two to get in. I said, well, I can work that one out! Before I had a chance to do anything about it, the Army called me up and I really hated most of it, though I did get myself into Stars in Battledress. That’s right, we did Rattigan’s Flare Path and then we did a whole bunch of plays in Italy and Greece. We did Flare Path for a year, all over Southern Command and all the camps, American and British — more or less one-night stands. It was tough, it was tough, but I didn’t not enjoy that, it was great fun. And of course I was working with people like Griffith Jones.”
“I’ve had a lot of very funny times on stage,” she says, and it was during her time with Stars in Battledress that she proved the hero of the hour for a delighted audience. “I was in a play called Someone at the Door by Dorothea Owen Campbell, or something like that, and there were about seven or eight fellas and me. I’m the only woman so I had to pack up all the stuff when we struck the scenery. They carried off the scenery but they also put it up and sometimes they didn’t put it up very well! One night we were in an army camp somewhere playing and I think a bomb exploded not very far away and the set started to… the walls started to fall down inwards and I just, absolutely casually, without saying anything, put my hand up and just pushed it back. The whole audience of fellas said, ‘Oh, you’ve had your Wheaties this morning.'”
Having worked with some of the greatest actors of the 20th century, I ask her about Sir Alec Guinness in particular, opposite whom I saw her play in Alan Bennett’s The Old Country at the Queen’s Theatre in 1977. She is rhapsodic. “Oh, I adored him. He was a very good friend. I’d known him forever. I went to so many schools, I can’t tell you, but the last school I went to was in Kent. The headmistress was a Quaker and she absolutely adored the theatre. And for our play — that was my last year at school — she put on The Merchant of Venice and she got Alec to come and direct us and his wife Merula to do the cossies. So that was the first time I met Alec and that was about 1937 and then in 1947/8 I’m at the Old Vic and he’s directing me in Twelfth Night. The first day, he said, ‘Come and have a coffee.’ And I said, ‘I have met you before.’ He said, ‘Yes, I know, I directed you in Merchant of Venice.’ And we constantly bumped into each other and I was on the first night of colour television with him in a play called Baker’s Dozen, I think it was called. No, he was a great friend and I miss him very much.”
In 1999, she worked opposite Charles Dance at the Donmar in C P Taylor’s Good, directed by Michael Grandage “I just think he is fantastic. And I owe a great debt to Robert Chetwyn because he directed me as Gertrude with Ian McKellen as Hamlet and that was a big success for me and I really was Bob’s idea of Gertrude and I went along with it and he helped me do what I did. Oh, and I loved working with Philip Prowse — that was in A Woman of No Importance  — I took over in that at the Haymarket.
Her memories of Sir Michael Redgrave as a director are linked with the Yvonne Arnaud for it was here in 1965 that she joined Redgrave’s opening season as director of the newly built theatre. “Yes, yes, that very first season where I played Dalila in Samson Agonistes and I was understudying Ingrid Bergman in A Month in the Country. Never got to play for her, of course; she was pretty healthy then, so that was it. Samson wasn’t an enormous success. It’s a bit dry. I don’t think it’s worth putting on, I think it’s something that you read. I don’t know why but Michael fancied himself, I think, as Samson. I was very fond of him, he was lovely. Lovely man. These great big wonderful actors, they’re very moody creatures. You never quite know where you are with them. Alec and Michael had the same quality but I think that’s part of the genius probably. But I certainly got on very well with both chaps.”
Now she’s on stage alone for an hour and twenty minutes at a stretch. “Faith Brook,” said the Oxford Times following The Colour of Poppies at the Old Fire Station Studio Theatre in Oxford last month, “has the gift of casting off the years, and reassuming them before our eyes.” Oxford Daily Info described her as seeming to have “even more vivacity than the similarly aged character that she portrays”. It’s quite clear that whatever stage fright she may feel every time she makes her first entrance as the 75-year-old Marthe, the actress has the rare gift of entrancing an audience for whatever length of time she chooses.
Update: Faith Brook died on 11th March, 2012.
Sarah Vernon © 2004
Originally published on R&V on 26-04-04
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