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As a young girl in Athens, Maria Callas would watch the films of the extraordinary Hollywood actress Deanna Durbin, and, entranced by that child-star’s utterly perfect voice, vowed to become an opera singer. A couple of decades later la diva divina went backstage at a New York theatre to congratulate another former child star with an equally perfect voice on her performance in her major Broadway triumph. The triumph was My Fair Lady, and the star was Julie Andrews.

8 April 2008

12:00 AM

8 April 2008

12:00 AM

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years Julie Andrews

Weidenfeld, pp.344, 18.99

As a young girl in Athens, Maria Callas would watch the films of the extraordinary Hollywood actress Deanna Durbin, and, entranced by that child-star’s utterly perfect voice, vowed to become an opera singer. A couple of decades later la diva divina went backstage at a New York theatre to congratulate another former child star with an equally perfect voice on her performance in her major Broadway triumph. The triumph was My Fair Lady, and the star was Julie Andrews.

As a young girl in Athens, Maria Callas would watch the films of the extraordinary Hollywood actress Deanna Durbin, and, entranced by that child-star’s utterly perfect voice, vowed to become an opera singer. A couple of decades later la diva divina went backstage at a New York theatre to congratulate another former child star with an equally perfect voice on her performance in her major Broadway triumph. The triumph was My Fair Lady, and the star was Julie Andrews.


The creation of this musical, perhaps the finest ever crafted, is covered in three chapters of this book, and as Miss Andrews’ memory for the process makes clear, it wasn’t all luverly. She is wryly revealing on the near misogyny of her co-star Rex Harrison, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, given his reputation, wasn’t above hurling the c-word at her, and she cocks an amused eyebrow at the hissy fits she sustained from her costume designer Cecil Beaton.

But this was in 1956, long before Julie’s most famous film performances, especially the one that made the wee Rupert Everett pop into his mother’s red peignoir, insisting, thus attired, on living up a tree. And unaccountably, Julie makes only a single fleeting reference to her first, and in many critical opinions, best movie. The Americanization of Emily, a second world war rom-com, pitted her against seasoned Hollywood and English actors, James Garner and Joyce Grenfell among them. I don’t really think my view of the film is over-coloured by the fact that about this time, in Manhattan, I had been introduced to Julie by her enchanting first husband Tony Walton; they asked me to its glittering première party high up in the Rainbow Room.

Julia Wells was born in leafy Walton-on-Thames, where her parents, both descendants of stout Surrey yeoman stock, had, by this point in the mid-1930s, become daintified, and Julia’s childhood is a touching extravaganza of an echt suburban life, spent — bar wartime evacuation to distant Farnham — in houses called endearingly Kenway, Threesome or Deldene; there were woolly-swimsuited breast-stroke lessons in the Surbiton Lagoon and visits with Dad to the Esher Filling Station. The very names, Auntie Gladdy, Nona-Doris, Madge, Hadge, Dingle and Winnie, bring a lump to the throat, and make Mrs Dale’s Diary seem positively regal. There’s even a friend called Virginia Waters and an Arcati-like figure, Madame Lilian Stiles-Allen, coaches Andrews’ by now burgeoning voice.

While her mother Barbara and new husband ‘Pop’ Andrews were theatre folk of the music-hall and variety-show rather than West End capability, they were performers worthy of having their publicity shots taken by the smart London photographer Vivienne. But ‘Pop’ gradually descended into belligerent alcoholism, during which times Julie stayed with her ‘real’ father, Ted Wells. Though hardly a stage mother like Ginger Rogers’ (who had a very pronounced limp; ‘Here comes Mother, always dancing’, Ginger would warn people) or Gypsy Rose Lee’s monster Momma, Barbara certainly pushed her daughter stage-wards, and later sometimes performed with her. Julie’s looks, poise and innocent talent took them up through concerts, panto, very comme il faut cabaret and wireless. Her equally innocent nature was needed to survive a baptism of fire. After a party at some friends, her mother asks, ‘Did you like the husband?’ Julie is non-committal. ‘Because that man is your father’, Barbara says.

Being the resident singer on the hit weekly radio show Educating Archie made her a household name. The Broadway production of The Boyfriend catapulted her into the musical stratosphere, Lady, as luvvies call it, being followed by the same team’s Camelot, whose most haunting song became the leitmotif of the lamented Kennedy court. The author writes vividly of the process of its creation, from staying with T. H. White, on whose book, The Once and Future King, the musical was based, in his astonishing house on Alderney, to her co-star Richard Burton’s change from ‘overwhelming allure’ to ‘calculatingly, deliberate’ unpleasantness. Had he begun to hate his part? Was he drunk? Did he suddenly despise her? Had he had a row at home? Julie is too soft-hearted to press that point, and its ramification — Elizabeth Taylor.

Julie tells the really quite harrowing part of her childhood with the same breeziness as she does her subsequent stardom. If there are one or two clichés — The Boyfriend was ‘a tremendous learning curve’; Grace Kelly ‘extends her hand’, as a few sentences later does Cary Grant; Bing Crosby is ‘relaxed and easy in his own skin’ (could have fooled me; always looked like somebody else’s) — they are overcome by her very clear love of words to music rather than on paper. And she ends, reticently, with a telephone call as she’s lying in a hospital bed after the birth of her daughter, Emma Walton. A groggy ‘Hello?’ ‘Hello! This is P. L. Travers.’ Come down from that tree, Rupert; you’re on.


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