Articles

WHY THE BRADENS DON'T COME HOME

LISA RAMSAY November 1 1952
Articles

WHY THE BRADENS DON'T COME HOME

LISA RAMSAY November 1 1952

WHY THE BRADENS DON'T COME HOME

LISA RAMSAY

With British TV, radio, stage and movie jobs and a public acclaim that would massage any actor’s ego, Bernie and Barbara Braden, once of Vancouver, will stay right where they are, thanks

WHEN Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent visited London a couple of years ago Canada House held a reception for him. Among the many Canadian and British guests were the then Prime Minister Clement Attlee and two young Canadians. Bernard Braden and Barbara Kelly. They had been making thirty thousand a year in Canadian radio in 1949 when they decided to go to Britain. In London thev had been playing in West End theatres, on radio and TV . Barbara had made a movie and their morning radio serial. Breakfast with Braden, was amusing millions of Britons who are a soft touch for North American comedy.

Attlee knew their names pat. St. Laurent had never heard of them. ''However." he said conversationallv. “we are having great new developments in Canada now.”

“In what fields?” asked Barbara hopefully.

“In the oil fields." said St. Laurent.

That puts in a nutshell, the Bradens say. the reason thev left home.

One anemoon last summer I sat with the Yancouver-bom Bradens, who have been married for ten years, in the shade of old trees in the garden of their rifteen-room house on the Thames at Shepperton. Middlesex. The English voices of the three young Bradens. Christopher. Kelly and Kim. setting out on a picnic were fading down c, path. Behind us, Creek House, the comfortably rambling part-El iza bet han, part-V ictorian house where Charles Dickens is said to have written most of Oliver Twist drowsed in the sun. It's Braden property now, along '-vlth a smoke-blue Ford and a grev-blue Hillman a big river launch, two servants and ^ gardener. Bernie bounced up and down as he talked, pouring Canadian rye. spacing the lawn, picking a flower. Barbara lay slung low and easv in a deck chair.

"We thought it out carefully before we left in 1949,” said Bernie. It was clear radio wasn t going to be the medium of the future. I was over thirty then and Barbara was twenty-five.

I guess. And we d teen just doing radio. W e wanted to learn

other things too. There was no opening at that time in Canada for gaining experience in television, films, or professional theatre.

We hoped our trip to England would allow us to gain experience and help us to return to Canada better fitted for work in other media. We have Iteen lucky here. We’ve got breaks. We’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best people in the business.

“The problem of being an entertainer in Canada is that one has no way of finding out whether one is really good or not.” “It’s like this,” Barbara said. “An artist needs critical and public reassurance. You want to know if your work shows promise. The usual attitude in Canada, at least up to the time we left, was, ‘If you think you’re so good, why don’t you go to New York or Hollywood, or London?’ We did.”

“Just as soon as you claim to be a professional,” Bernie added, “they want you to prove it somewhere else.”

Seven-year-old Kelly flew back, her round face anxious, to report that Jason and Jackson, the golden retrievers, were in the neighbor’s garden again. “Oh, jolly good.” Barbara switched into as impeccable an English accent as her private-school-taught daughter had used. “The Harrisons must be in a rage . .”

“We don’t stay here for the money,” Bernie says in his broad Canadian accent. “Last year fewer than a hundred people in Great Britain kept more than fifteen thousand Hollars after pay mg income tax. We weren’t in that select group. A year ago we were offered three thousand dollars a week to appear in a special show for the Festival of Britain for ten weeks. We sat down with our accountant to figure out the net. After expenses and taxes we’d have kept a little less than seven hundred bucks. We took a holiday instead.”

The Bradens stay on in England for two things: one is the experience and scope that they don’t see existing at home; the second, no one’s asked them to come home.

The first reason doesn’t apply to them alone. Last season in London this is what a few other young Canadian actors were up to: Edmund Hockridge starred in Carousel at Drury Lane. Bill O’Connor played the lead in Brigadoon. Joan Miller starred in Come Back Little Sheba. Arthur Hill played in Country Girl. Bob Famon was writing and conducting music for half a dozen films. Bob Beatty was appearing in plays and films. John Colicos—not yet thirty -played King Lear at the old Vic. Frances Hyland played with John Gielgud in The Winter’s Tale.

Female for the Male Animal

The story of the Bradens’ nearly four years in Britain starts off with the kind of lucky break that should, but rarely does, happen to young people who take a chance.

The day they arrived Henry Sherek, a London producer, was pacing his flat wondering whether to drop entirely the production of Thurber’s The Male Animal because he couldn’t find a female lead he wanted. That night he switched on his TV set and there was Barbara Kelly, who’d been asked by chance to make an impromptu appearance as a “visiting Canadian radio artist.”

By the time the Bradens found their Chelsea flat Barbara was in rehearsal for The Male Animal. It opened on their tenth wedding anniversary and the reviews were as good as an anniversary present.

Bernie had taken with him from Canada a wolf-from-the-door CBC contract for a year’s series, Bernie Braden Tells a Story. (He points out that this was canceled by the CBC, not by him. at the year’s end.) Now he sat down and wrote himself a script of a young man who goes to the BBC to take an audition, and then proceeded to use it for an audition at the BBC. After the first gasp the BBC auditioned him three times the same morning and he landed a program he called Leave Your Name and Number, which reported the troubles of a young professional couple seeking jobs in London. Whatever the professional merit of the show, because they were Canadians with fresh new accents, because their humor was what the English dub “American”—in short, they were “new”—the Bernie-Barbara team caught on immediately.

Before long Bernie was producing a series of half-hour radio shows starring John Mills, called The London Story, built around famous short stories set in London He was broadcasting on Radio Luxembourg for Cadbury’s Chocolates and starring in a series called Johnny Washington. Then came the chance to do the Breakfast with Braden series. Glib and entirely un-English it caused the majority of London radio critics to demand that it be given peak timing. The Daily Graphic wrote: “I should imagine that the Bradens must lie glad now that they left Canada which unaccountably cold-shouldered them professionally, and came to England. We only hope they are here to stay.” However, when the Bradens produced Bedtime with Braden, critic Victor Feather wrote in his column: "Bedtime with Braden has given most people insomnia."

Sir Laurence Obvier heard Bernie in

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the Breakfast series at the time he was casting for Streetcar Named Desire, and thought him just right for the part of Mitch. So Bemie. in London to learn about the stage, got his first lesson, plus forty pounds a week, in an Olivier production starring Vivian Leigh and Bonar Coileano. the latter now one of his best friends.

Before The Male Animal had finished its seven-month run Barbara had a contract to play opposite Coileano in her first film. Tale of Five Cities, in which she took the role of an American newspaperwoman. Her second him, Castle in the Air. was rather a footling comedy. Late last summer the Bradens finished their first movie together: Hold My Husband.

Bemie Braden’s somewhat startling energy and versatility was demonstrated dramatically last December when he stepped into the lead of The Biggest Thief In Town after five days of nonstop rehearsal, thus sa%ing the play from a closure. The show ran rwo hours and twenty minutes, of which Bemie was off stage c-nly seven minutes. Critic Harold Conway wrote: "The new star, heavy-lidded with lack of sleep, apologized to the audience for his sketchy performance. He needn't have done—it was a remarkable

All through this, the Bradens’ radio show, which has been running two years, has been one of the two BBC shows heard three times a week. The estimated audience is roughly equivalent to the population of Canada.

When they take their annual thirteenweek summer layoffs they pack the music halls for five weeks, playing to summer-swollen seaside towns like Brighton and Blackpool. They make more money in those five weeks than from the entire season of broadcasting. Their average weekly salary comes to three hundred pounds plus percentage: Bemie’s best week, six hundred and fifty-eight pounds. 1

This fall Bemie is going into rehearsal for a new play by Mel Dinelli called. The Man. His co-star will be Joan Miller, a Vancouver girl who once won a drama festival award in Ottawa. Next January Barbara and Bemie begin a new TV show.

As if all this wasn’t enough. Bemie is also busy finishing his semi-autobiographical book on his father called. Preacher's Son. He has already been assured six hundred pounds in royalties. plus fifteen hundred pounds in serial rights for the first four chapters.

No. the Bradens aren’t doing badly at all.

But still, there’s Canada.

Young Christopher Braden, a blond slight boy of nine, is as aggressively Canadian as his father. In spite of his little peaked cap and striped school tie he remembers Vancouver as home. "At school there.” he recalls, "there were girls.” When his parents turn up for cricket matches or commencement exercises and his schoolmates at St. Martin's surround them for autographs he is horrified. Once he brought home a couple of autograph books with requests for signatures and told his parents sharply "This is the last time I'll do this for you."

"Sure.” says Bernie, "we like it here. But it’s not important enough to hold us here it we thought we were really wanted at home.”

Braden knows he can play no part in building a Canad:an theatre or film industry from outside the countrv. "Nor can you build it from inside the country.” he adds, "as long as the public is apathetic, the critics are patronizing, and business is not willing to invest money in such s project.” He likes to think of some Canadian magnate saying one day, "Let's take

this unknown quantity of Canadian talent, let’s latch onto it before it leaves the country-, and invest monev the same way we would in an oil well, on the assumption that there is oil down there somewhere. We may lose our shin but if we win. Canada will have s voice in the worid of an. as well as in the world of produce and manufacture: and that’s a hell of a lot more satisfactory than meeting the deficit on the local symphony orchestra every year.’’

In the meantime, however t lie Bradens are staying in London. "Because London and England seem to care whether we stay or go and because nobody in Canada during the past three years has asked us to come

In England the Bradens are the darlings of the popular-program fans. At hockey games they are surrounded by autograph hunters, both the English equivalent of bobby-soxers and the housewife types who claim they wouldn’t miss a Braden program for anything. In restaurants like the Caprice, where theatricai people gather, their progress through the dining room is punctuated with constant hellos from England’s theatrical and literary

One recent night after the Bradens had eaten at La Rue. a smart Curzon Street restaurant, there had been the usual requests for autographs: the

waiter commented on their previous day's BBC program.

On the way out. waving to friends, they were stopped by „ very Britishlooking elderly man. "You're Mr. Braden, aren't you?" he asked. “I happen to have another Canadian here with me. I thought you might like to meet a compatriot.”

"Well, and what do you do. son?” asked the visiting Canadian.

"I am sort of an actor, sir.” said

"And what did you do in Canada?” "I was on the radio, the CBC.”

"I’m from Toronto.” said the visiting Canadian. ’’Stranze i never heard of