Desley Deacon reviews 'Double-Act' by Brian McFarlane

Desley Deacon reviews 'Double-Act' by Brian McFarlane

Double-Act: The remarkable lives and careers of Googie Withers and John McCallum

by Brian McFarlane

Monash University Publishing, $39.95 pb, 259 pp, 9781922235725

Although many attempt it, writing the biography of an actor of a previous era is fraught. They consist mainly of lists of movies or plays long forgotten. The reception of their art is recorded by critics, once all-powerful, but now unknown. Their personal life and personality are hidden behind a screen of studio publicity. Writing the lives and careers of two stars might seem to double the difficulty.

Brian McFarlane, however, has overcome these difficulties admirably and shown in Double-Act: The Remarkable Lives and Careers of Googie Withers and John McCallum that a dual biography, if the subjects are married, can be twice as good. The theatre and movie public seem to love a married couple. This was certainly the case with this duo, who are rightly called Australian theatre royalty in this entertaining and informative book.

Googie Withers and John McCallum were both children of the Empire, born in 1917 and 1918 in Karachi (in then British India) and Brisbane. (Googie’s unusual nickname seems to have been given her by her Indian ayah.) Their peripatetic childhoods prepared them for the transnational lives they lived as adults. Withers was seven when she left India, living first in Paris and then in England. John’s father was the proprietor of Brisbane’s Cremorne Theatre. His restless British-born mother moved the family to England when he was nine, and he attended school there and in Switzerland for three years.

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Desley Deacon

Desley Deacon

Desley Deacon is a writer and historian living in Sydney. She is currently revising a manuscript, Four Husbands, a Lover, and a Friend: Mary McCarthy’s Experiments in Heterosexuality, for University of Chicago Press and is working on a biography of Australian-born actress of stage and screen, Judith Anderson. She was formerly Professor of History at the Australian National University, where she is now Professor Emerita, and taught for a number of years at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life (University of Chicago Press), and Managing Gender: The State, the New Middle Class, and Women Workers 1830-1930 (OUP), and has co-edited, with Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott, two volumes on transnational biography.

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