Double-Act – The remarkable lives and careers of Googie Withers and John McCallum
by Brian McFarlane
Monash University Publishing, 2015. 242pp. RRP $39.95
Googie Withers’ and John McCallum’s long, long love affair with the Australian public started in 1955, when they made their Australian debut at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne, in what J.C. Williamson’s publicity proclaimed to be the ‘smoothest, smartest, sparkling success,’ Simon and Laura, a new London comedy by Alan Melville. The anticipation was extraordinary. John was the local boy returning from overseas triumphs, while Googie was already well known to Australians from her many British films. In the half century that followed, these two remarkable people devoted their lives to entertaining us on stage, screen and television. In doing so, they gave us more joy, more laughter and more tears for more years than anybody else.
Googie died in 2009, John in 2010. Their personal memorabilia found a fitting home in Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection, where it provided a rich resource for author Brian McFarlane, well known for his authoritative writing on various aspects of British film. McFarlane had started his research while his subjects were still alive, so his text includes excerpts from his interviews with them, as well as quotes from many other people who contributed personal reminiscences.
McFarlane paints a warm-hearted portrait of two talented and apparently tireless people who, together and apart, personified all that is best in the performing arts. Double-Act is therefore a record mostly of highs, with only the occasional low. It could hardly be otherwise. The result will delight anyone interested in Australian theatre, film and television.
Perhaps understandably, McFarlane is at his best talking of his subjects’ film and television work. When it comes to theatrical details, he is sometimes off the mark: the Australian Ballet debuted in Sydney, not Melbourne; it’s Sybil Thorndike, not Sibyl; The Maid of the Mountains and Rio Rita were not first produced in Australia in 1945; E.J. Tait was a director of J.C. Williamson’s, not ‘the manager’; the 1968 TV production Melba was a miniseries, not a telefilm, and it would have been worth noting John’s presence in it, playing George Musgrove.
Nevertheless, this book is very welcome. As Bunty Turner, Australia’s original ‘My Fair Lady’, put it: ‘In the easy come, easy go, transient theatre life everyone is “darling”. At the risk of sounding idiotically sentimental, John and Googie really were.’
Frank Van Straten