My Story: Eithne Browne
Eithne Browne never meant to be an actor. Never meant to star in Blood Brothers. Or land a role in Brookside. Never really meant to be one of Liverpool’s most loved stars of stage and screen at all really. But boy are we glad that fate, and talent, had other plans in mind...
“I was born in Huyton, which was still a rural community in the late 50s. I suppose my first public performance was singing at the opening of Huyton’s new Catholic Church. Of course, even at six, I knew I was going to hell – every Catholic kid did. So I had to put on a good show. I wanted to do my parents proud.
My father was a merchant seaman. He’d spend long periods away at sea until we were older; then he’d do the cattle run from Ireland to England. Mum kept the house going. She was amazing. She was a born entertainer, and a gifted musician. But her voice was a thing of beauty.
She regularly entertained people at church halls. If they needed someone to sing Ave Maria, they called on her. My grandparents ran the Castle pub on Vauxhall Road, so our weekends were often spent there, where dad would regale us with stories from his travels. He’d bring the world back with him.
I loved learning about other people, other cultures from him. That’s probably why, even in my 20s, I’d socialise with my parents - the Casa, the Somali Club - I’d take them everywhere with me!
“It’s a funny life. you wait for the call, then pack your little suitcase and go where the work is”
I suppose I’ve got my mum’s face, and her voice - to a degree. But I’ve not got her quality - everyone stopped to listen when she sang.
It’s the singing that got me where I am, I suppose. I had a son at 17 so, being a single mum, I took a succession of jobs to make ends meet. I was working at the Medici Gallery in Bold Street and a group of friends and I went for a picnic in St James’ Garden beneath the Cathedral. Drink had been taken, and I struck up a song.
I remember my manageress being dumbstruck. “I didn’t know you could sing!” she said, and told me a friend was looking for a singer to help him work out some harmonies for a play he was scoring.
That guy was working on a new musical called Blood Brothers. I got a call when I’d moved to another job, selling blinds on London Road. “I’ve heard you can sing,” said the caller. Turned out he was Musical Director for the Playhouse, Peter Filleul. I had a good ear for harmonies. So I could help him to work out various vocal parts. This was just to work out the score, it was never an audition for the play.
But somehow Willy Russell heard the tape, and told me to come in. The Director, Chris Bond, had already set his heart on Barbara Dickson, but Willy insisted I was given a part in the chorus for its opening in Liverpool and, a few months later, at the Lyric in London.
Then, one night, minutes before curtain up, Barbara took ill and I was put into her clothes – which swamped me, I’m 6 inches shorter than her – and practically pushed into the spotlight. I heard the groan when the audience were told Barbara wasn’t performing. And the only thought in my head was, ha, you’ve all paid a tenner to see a venetian blind saleswoman!
By the end of the show, I got a standing ovation, and flowers were thrown on stage. I ended up doing 50 performances. I was hooked.
I got the role in Stags and Hens on the back of Blood Brothers, but I’ve always done other jobs. I’ve been a telephonist – I love that, being able to talk to people every day, and sometimes put on different accents!
I had to audition three times before they gave me the part of Chrissy Rogers in Brookside – for an actor, getting a regular job like that is such a boon. I was living at home, and earning money doing something I loved. They were very happy times.
It’s a funny life. You wait for the call, then you pack your little suitcase and go where the work is. We toured with Tartuffe, which was fantastic, but it’s still not glamorous – you’re pulling another suitcase through another London station. All your life in there! I’ve become very good at living out of a case!
I never complain. I just think ‘thank God the work’s come in.’ Some years are trickier than others. That’s why people like Steven Fletcher, and places like the Royal Court are so fantastic.
When he put ‘Mam I’m ‘Ere’ on over Christmas, he had to take the risk. He had to hire the chairs, pay for the staging. Everything. But because of him, 16 people got work over Christmas that they never would have done otherwise. And the Royal Court – what a wonderful place that is. They don’t get a penny in subsidies.
These days, I’m involved with a lot of off-stage work, and it’s incredible. I work with recovery through drama – projects aimed at younger people who, for whatever reason, feel marginalised, or who are at risk of falling through the cracks of traditional education.
I’ve seen young lads blossom, grow in stature. It’s amazing to see, just through a series of tricks and hats and sessions, you give one person the confidence to stand up and say “I can do this.’ How can that not be rewarding?
It’s the same when we go into Fazakerley Hospital, or care homes, as the Twin Sets, dressed in our 1940s garb. You can sit beside someone in their hospital bed and they will really open up to you. You hear stories, see the staff relax for a precious few minutes. It allows us to see the patients as human again.
Next up for me? I’ve got a Christmas show at Scarborough’s gorgeous Stephen Joseph Theatre – playing the witch in Hansel and Gretel, in a play scored by the amazing band, Stornoway.
Acting? Well, 90% of the time, you’re sitting in corner, in the dark, talking to yourself. You just bump along, being picked up and then dropped again. But it gets to you. Put a hat on me now, and I’ll be off…
Image by Jane MacNeil
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