FAMOUS FAMILIES AT HOME: The Bradens
Bernie and Barbara went from a great success here in show business to a greater one in England; they still bounce as happily as ever among the ups and downs and their equally bouncy children love it too
IN THE SPRING of 1949 one of Canada’s most successful show business couples, Barbara Kelly and Bernard Braden, left Canada to try their luck in England. They had saved a substantial amount of money to see them through what they assumed would be a lean period. As insurance Bernie had a one-year contract with the CBC for a daily taped radio program, Bernie Braden Tells a Story. While they had worked extensively in Canadian radio (there was no Canadian TV ten years ago) the Bradens were anxious to widen their experience. They had come to England, Bernie said, "to try television and films — and then go back home. You can’t work too long away from your roots.”
The Bradens were an immediate hit in Great Britain. Except for occasional visits they haven't been back to Canada since.
Within a year Bernie had impressed himself on both the newspaper columnists (who called him prow-jawed, ruffle-topped, lean, hatchet - faced. The Man of the Year), and on millions of listeners to the British Broadcasting Corporation. You could have Breakfast with Braden, and later. Bedtime with Braden, and still later. Barbara With Braden. He played stage roles, beginning with Mitch in the London production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. He made films. Relations between Braden and the BBC grew so cordial that one wag suggested that BBC stood for Bernard Braden Club.
Meanwhile, his wife Barbara was carving out her own little Cinderella story. She too worked in films, on the stage, in radio and finally the panel of a new television show' called What’s My Line? What’s My Line? became a national institution in Great Britain, and Barbara Kelly a national personality.
By 1951 the Bradens were being touted as the television Couple of The Year. But even as early as that a critic on London’s Daily Mail hinted at the great hazard facing all TV performers. He thought they were on the air too often for their own good. “Will nothing,” he wrote, “save Mr. Braden from Mr. Braden? I’ve tried, and failed.” Bernie allowed he didn't like critics and went on to further triumphs.
But when I visited the Bradens this summer they were both out of work. 'I'his is a statement that needs to be taken in context.
They had just made a film called Jet Stream. In the spring they were both starred in a new American play called The Gimmick that toured the provinces but didn't make it into London’s West End. Bernie had recently filmed a series of fifteen-minute short stories for TV in w'hich he is seen in the principal role and plays all the other characters as voices. His last major BBC series, eighteen months ago. was an experimental comedy TV half-hour that got mixed reactions. "The audience was pretty evenly divided over it.” Bernie said. "Fifty percent of them didn’t like it and the other half hated it.” Barbara, after almost live years on What’s My Line?, had voluntarily resigned. "I had to decide whether I would sit on that chair and grow' old or go back to my profession, which is acting,” she said.
The Bradens arc in no sense destitute. But working in a field in which your reputation depends on your last job. and with their last job receding into the past, they are thinking seriously about the future.
As Bernie put it: "People in our business should know precisely what they are going to be doing during the next six months, and we don’t.”
There are things he would like to be doing. One is to co-produce and star in Royalty is Royalty, a new play by W. O. Mitchell based on Mitchell’s Jake and The Kid characters. It concerns a grand mix-up that develops over a Royal Visit to Crocus, Saskatchewan. But even these plans were being held up this summer.
"There’s a certain anti-Canadian feeling around at the moment,” Bernie explained, “and Royalty is Royalty isn’t likely to help that. Just to show you what it’s like, I got a letter the other day from a woman who said she’d written me five years ago to say how much she objected to my being chosen one of the BBC commentators for the Coronation. Now' she was w'riting to say she knew she’d been right about me in the first place. Just look at the way those nasty Canadians were treating the Queen on her visit.”
To add to the general confusion while I was there, the Bradens were preparing to move from the fifteen-room country house they had lived in for nine years. They have now squeezed themselves into a ten-room fiat in central London.
While not as roomy as the country place, it is closer to schools and more convenient for entertaining. The material rewards in modern show business are substantial, and w'hile Barbara retained the cook, the maid anti a secretary in London. she let the gardener and the housekeeper go. On the other hand, she now employs a wardrobe mistress to take care of her clothes.
While this makes the Braden establishment sound like that of a Toronto mining magnate, the fact is their life is both casual and homey. They have never allowed the somewhat hectic life they lead to interfere with their family activity. When touring in The Gimmick, for example, they managed to spend almost every weekend with the kids, leaving for home right after their Saturday performance.
The Bradens are serious parents. While their three children, Christopher, sixteen, Kelly, fifteen. and Kim, ten, are each as individual as either Barbara or Bernie, they are quite unspoiled, a pleasure to meet and talk with. They lead normal lives — which seem very attractive when compared with much of the teen-agô activity one sees in Canada. Kim is a little pixie, an expert horse woman, and crazy about ballot. Kelly is the clown of the family.
"One of the problems with Kelly,” Bernie said at one point, "is that she got off to a had start. She was the only one born in Toronto.”
"I’m going to beat you up,” Kelly said.
“You’ve got the weight for it,” her father replied.
So, Kelly, who has the weight, beat him up.
Christopher, slim and serious, was busy cleaning the Braden launch when 1 visited them. He and several of his friends had made a deal with Bernie to borrow the launch for a holiday on the Thames provided they cleaned and painted it. Unfortunately it sank
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"We give the kids as few orders a~~s possible and those few are obeyed without any sighs"
The disaster caused a surprisingly small amount of consternation. “We try and run our family so that everyone will be happy,” Barbara said.
while the boys were working on it, which complicated the job.
Christopher, as the heir and a male, is expected to get a good formal education. “But I don't care so much about education for the girls,” Barbara said. “If they go on and get married an elaborate university education is wasted on
them. One of the good things about England is that it has schools that specialize in what children are interested in. The only thing Kim is interested in is the ballet, so next year she goes to a boarding school, where in addition to her regular classes she will get three hours of ballet a day.” Kelly wants to be a singer, and already goes to a school in London where she takes singing and acting lessons.
While the Braden children are individuals, with minds and personalities of their own. there’s no question of who's boss.
"We’ve only two rules,” Bernie explained, "one for the kids, and one for ourselves. The one for the kids is that they do exactly what they’re told to do. when they’re told, without any sighs or argument. The rule for ourselves is that we don't tell them what to do any offener than necessary.”
I asked Kelly if she really always did exactly as she was told. “Sometimes we don’t,” Kelly said, after thinking about it for a moment.
Bernie looked at her. He was born and reared in a manse and can look at a child in a way that suggests that the fires of Hell are very real and meant for those who don’t tell the truth. “Tell us when you last didn't do what you were told to do,” Bernie said. Kelly tried. Kelly couldn’t.
“We’re' very strict,” Barbara said, “more so than most parents. The rules worked — up to a certain age, until the kids began to feel their oats. Lately we've changed them a bit by explaining why we want things done in a certain way."
“It takes a lot of explaining, sometimes,” Bernie said ruefully.
“Take Kelly and the problem of makeup,” Barbara said. “Most girls start using make-up early these days, but I explained to Kelly that I didn’t want her to use it until her complexion was strong enough and clear enough that make-up would enhance it.”
I asked Kelly if it made any difference. "It’s a hardship,” she said.
"You can have make-up and high heels and adult things when you can accept the adult responsibility that goes with them." her mother said. "Like taking care of your room . . . ”
"And fending off fellows,” Bernie chimed in, laughing.
"I find we have to be careful always to ask ourselves what our motives are in making rules,” Barbara said. "You have to know whether you're following your own prejudice, or what’s good for the kids. We’ve always been stern as far as manners were concerned. I've found that good manners and strict rules make for more peace in the home.”
With peace maintained Bernie has managed to survive forty-three years, the last ten primarily as a comedian, without noticeable loss of hair and with only enough added weight to soften those originally "hatchet-faced” features. Barbara, who married Bernie when she was seventeen, is an attractive woman—striking rather than beautiful — with a smile that is radiant in the exact sense of the word.
Their home when I visited them was what might be described as “comfortable Canadian.” with the emphasis on comfort. There is a tendency these days for
actors' homes to be stylish — very modern, or very French provincial, or very nothing-at-all — but stylish in a way no more expressive of the owner’s personality than a paper bag is of the groceries it contains. The Bradens home feels as if they live in it: its comforts are utilitarian: the chairs are deep, the rugs keep the floors warm, and the ornaments are personal.
Bernie, for example, showed off a small Rodin sculpture. ‘‘It’s about the only really good thing we have,’’ he said, "and 1 find it compelling, even if it is a little grotesque. It’s called Main Crispée; it’s the hand of a child who was burned to death.’’ As he turned it around I understood just what he means by compelling, for it’s almost impossible to take your eyes from it.
It is remarkable just how Canadian (he Bradens remain. After ten years away they retain that loose casual ness that is so typically Canadian, their love of informality, and their accents. This last trait is no accident, for their Canadian accents'are. to a large degree, their fortune.
"The trans-Atlantic accent is a big asset — or was, until so many Canadians came over,” Barbara said, "It's almost impossible in this country for a native to get across the class barrier—the minute he opens his mouth he’s typed. People could accept us because they couldn't categorize us as to class.”
But while they are superficially as Canadian as they ever were, the Bradens have been away from Canada too long to retain more than a neighborly interest in what goes on there. Bernie tends to parry questions about what he thinks about this or that in Canada with a disarming smile and the remark: "I dont really know any more—we've been away too long.”
“Canadians, go home”
Even the long-held position that they would one day return to Canada has now crumbled. “1 don't think we’ll go back now',” Bernie told me. He didn't say it in anger, or despair, or with any bitterness, but in a quite matter-of-fact way. There have been rumors that he has received attractive offers to return to Vancouver if and when a new commercial television station opens there. Presumably if the money is big enough he will consider it seriously. Meanwhile, a permanent return to Canada seems unlikely.
For the Bradens are caught in the old dilemma of the successful Canadian expatriate entertainer or artist. What sends him from Canada in the first place is not only gold, but glory. There is a certain amount of gold in Canada, particularly for the good actor who can never hope to be a star. But there’s very little glory. It is presumably the latter that lures platoons of hopeful young Canadians to London each year.
Barbara doesn't really approve of their coming. "The thing that helped us most is that we were here first.” she said. “We came prepared to spend a year without doing any work at all — fortunately we didn't have to. In addition to that we had a lot of experience. Now kids are Hooding over here without experience or money. And I say, 'Canadians, Go Home!’ ”
They won’t, of course, unless they fail. About the only Canadian Barbara Kelly know's well who intends to go home is her own son.
‘'I’ll end up in Canada,” Christopher said. “I went back last summer — it’s wonderful there. There’s no future for
me here — England's so overpopulated. I’m going to study history (Christopher hopes to go to Oxford) and with a degree like that about the only thing I can do in England is teach. There's much more opportunity in Canada. England's for the English."
Christopher has always had a mind of his own. Once, when asked whether he liked watching his parents work he said. “I'd rather watch a good western.”
The remark w-as in character for television is. naturally, a big subject in the Braden household. All the Braden chil-
dren enjoy it: Kim likes Popeye; Christopher has graduated from westerns to Sergeant Bilko; Kelly likes everything. But like most families, the Bradens have rules. "In school term the kids can watch two hours a week after their homework is done.” Barbara said. “The rules are relaxed in the holidays because it’s easier for us. But the way the dinner conversation is dominated by TV programs is terrifying. I’d chuck the thing out if l had my way.”
"It's hard to remember what we used to do before television." Bernie said.
While Barbara may not approve watching it. she loves working on it. “She has the quality of never being aware she's on." Bernie explained, with the enthusiasm of a connoisseur. “She’s just — herself. I hate it. It scares the hell out of me, and it shows. In that last series of mine 1 was behind the camera — in my mind — as much as 1 was in front of it. 1 kept thinking: what are they doing to me now?”
They were, in fact, doing quite a bit to him. The show, called Early to Braden, attracted a small hut enthusiastic audi-
ence. It was, Bernie said, a truly experimental program and represented his most ambitious attempt to break through what he feels is the deadening and destroying effect of television’s frantic search for a mass audience. Braden believes there is a place in television for “minority” programs, and this was such a program. “Most people want their comedy served up to them on a platter,” Bernie said. On Early to Braden the comedy came in chafing-dishes, under glass, à la mode, and even straight.
This item from Early to Braden may illustrate what he did:
One program opened with an American tourist ordering breakfast in a patio restaurant on the French Riviera. Behind him stretches a magnificent panorama,
including the bay dotted with small boats, yachts, even one large battleship. A waiter brings coffee which is served, French-style, in one of those machines with the plunger on top. The American protests, insists on a cup of plain American coffee. The waiter, adamant, explains that in France one does as the French, and that in any case the machine makes superlative coffee. The American, in despair, finally gives in. plunges the plunger, whereupon the battleship in the bay blows up and sinks.
Braden tried to inject as much satire into Early to Braden as he could. As always it got him into trouble. At the end of one program he announced. “This has been a party political broadcast,” and was told not to do it again. On another
program he did a particularly acid takeoff on an advertisement for a hair oil dispenser, and after protests from the commercial TV network was ordered not to parody ads again.
“That sort of thing got us publicity,” he said. “Not that we needed it.” While publicity is as essential to the modern entertainer as his blood, Bernie feels it often gets out of hand.
The public loved Barbara on What’s My Line? “My function was to enjoy myself,” she said. One of her trademarks was the fresh pair of earrings she wore on each program. One evening she endeared herself to millions of viewers — and got space in every morning paper — by giving the ones she was wearing to a woman contestant who admired them. “After a year away I'm still getting earrings sent me,” she said. “About three pairs a week come in the mail. There have been hundreds of pairs. I send them to a charity.”
But that kind of publicity is not the problem. “I found I was being quoted on all sorts of things,” Barbara said, “on spankings, child marriages, segregation. A judge in a county town said in a case that early marriages must be all right because Barbara Kelly had been married at seventeen and the next thing I knew all the papers were phoning. I found that I couldn't be honest — I had to say what was expected of me. I couldn't afford to make enemies. I found that I was being forced to express dishonest opinions.”
"You have to look at it this way,” Bernie said. “What do we represent to the British public? A little bit of entertainment in their lives. We can’t afford to jeopardize that. If a political issue comes up — well, you know that about half the country's Conservative and about half is Labor. You have to be a little dishonest.
“Sometimes you get a break, something you can cash in on. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. A few years ago I said something facetious about Labor in a broadcast and this was picked up by a Labor politician named Victor Feather who claimed I was trying to take the mickey out of the government.
Feather also said: “Braden has playfully suggested that politicians shouldn’t use jokes in their speeches because they might put him out of a job. Politicians’ jokes are usually very old chestnuts. Mr. Braden ought to be able to stand the competition. I know one man who's had insomnia for twenty years, but Bedtime With Braden cures him.”
“Feather distributed his speech to the press twenty-four hours before he was to deliver it and naturally the papers phoned me for some comment. ’Well,’ I said ...”
“Wait till I phone my writers,” Barbara added.
“Yeah. So we worked out a few things to say to the papers and some stuff for the program.”
“I like this man Feather’s gags,” Braden told the papers. “I'd be happy to hire him.” On his program he played a song titled I Feel Like a Feather In The Breeze, after elaborately announcing that by playing it they didn't mean to offend any people whose name happened to be Breeze.
“We got a lot of publicity out of that,” Bernie said. “It did us a lot of good. But it doesn't always work out that way. The British are funny: they don't mind you making a lot of money as long as it isn’t apparent you’re making a lot of money. One day a man came to the house and asked to see our television license. I assumed we had one. I thought the secretary got it. She thought the gardener got
it. Actually, we didn’t have one. It came up in court and the inspector who’d come to see me said in the stand things like: ‘Mr. Braden said his gardener . . . His gardener! I paid a five-pound fine, and of course it got in all the papers, so we decided to make a little routine for the show out of it. We pretended no one in the cast would speak to me — I'd gone fishing, but I didn't have a fishing license. When I was about to drive home it turned out I didn't have a driver’s license. To top it off I said, ‘You’ll have to excuse me, there’s something 1 want to check with Barbara.’ The whole routine backfired. No one thought it was funny. We were ridiculing the law. Still, we get along well with the papers.”
The Bradens have never hired a public relations man. 'They do you more harm than good,” Barbara said.
“Yeah,” Bernie said. “Just a few weeks ago we were on the set of Jet Stream and a PR man came along to get some information. I decided to play it straight. When he asked me how we’d gotten into the picture I told him. I said we’d met the director in Spain, who, after five nights of heavy drinking, decided we were just right for the part. The next thing I know I’m reading that in the papers.”
The Bradens are not quite sure where they go from here. They would like to make more films, particularly in the
United States, but the American market is difficult to break into, unless you are known. “We are not known,” Bernie said. They would like to star in a serious successful play in London. “We hold Open House to good new plays,” Bernie said. While they have a standing offer in Britain to do a domestic TV comedy show Bernie is not enthusiastic about it. “There isn’t a big enough budget available,” he said. "Any show like that is automatically in competition with I Love Lucy, and unless you have the best resources, the best writers, unless you can do a show that’s as good or better than Lucy, what's the point?
“I’d like to be able to give up television,” he added. “The great danger seems to be that you’ll wear yourself out. Where a man could last twenty years on radio, he's only good for a few seasons on TV. TV seems to bring out the avarice in the viewer. You can almost hear him: ‘Who’s next on the block?’ ”
He thought for a moment. “Television’s in a state of transition,” he said. “We’re waiting it out.”
The comedian, as always, is searching for his audience. Braden once explained the way it felt: "I used to think it was me people didn't like. I thought maybe it was my face, or my hair, or the way I walked. When I found out it was only my sense of humor they objected to I felt much better about things.” ★