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Grande dame of queer theatre: Bette Bourne

Bette_BourneForty years ago Bette Bourne turned his back on a career in ‘straight’ theatre to embrace a life filled with queer rights activism and radical drag performance – all carried out with a sense of camp second to none. The extraordinary British actor spoke with Katrina Fox on the eve of his trip to Australia where he is due to star in a show about his life for the Sydney Festival.

13 December 2010

From the late 1970s to the mid 1990s a troupe of radical drag queens took to the stage to celebrate queerness and critique gender, politics, war and consumerism among other topics. But this was no solemn agit-prop theatre. Queer and straight audiences alike would double over in fits of laughter at the antics of Bloolips.

With no-budget costumes made of old tat gleaned from skips, charity shops or the actors’ kitchens, Bloolips members would prance about in lipstick and frocks in shows such as Lust in Space or Get Hur, singing hilarious little ditties. One such number I recall from a show at the Drill Hall in the early 1990s began ‘Baubles …. Bangles …. Bumholes’.

“I’m afraid I made that one up myself,” laughs Bette Bourne, co-founder – with his partner of 35 years Paul Shaw (aka ‘Precious Pearl’) – of Bloolips.

Bourne is on the phone from his flat in north-west London where he has lived for more than 45 years. He’s nursing a bad cold and attempting to keep his cat from chewing the phone cord. “I’ve got two cats called Frankie and Johnny. They’re named after a song,” he says, before croaking out a few lines: “Frankie and Johnny were lovers...”

If the words ‘camp’ and ‘queen’ befit anyone, it’s Bette Bourne. Like his “great friend of 20 years” Quentin Crisp (who Bourne played to great acclaim in the play Resident Alien in 1999), he embraced his feminine side in a world that was and still is hostile to men expressing anything other than what’s considered traditional masculinity.

Whether it’s popping to the shop wearing a dash of scarlet lipstick or parading through Portobello Market in the most outrageous and over-the-top drag, Bourne refuses to hide who is.

But it wasn’t always that way. For the first 30 years of his life, Bourne felt compelled to conform to societal expectations. After graduating from the Central School of Speech and Drama, he went on, under his birth name Peter Bourne, to act in television and stage roles throughout the 1960s. These included popular shows The Avengers and The Prisoner, and in 1969 he toured with Ian McKellen in Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard III, all the time keeping his sexuality a secret from all but a close few friends whom he knew were “discreet”.

On the brink of a potentially long and successful career in ‘straight’ theatre, Bourne “more or less stopped” working after he joined the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

“I had an Australian lover called Rex and he came in one night and said, ‘I’ve been to this meeting, a political meeting with all these queers and dykes fighting for their rights’ and I was really shocked. I said, ‘Are you mad?’ I was thinking about my career and reputation because I was doing quite well. He said, ‘Well there are loads of gorgeous guys there,’ and I was down there the next Wednesday!”

Bourne chuckles as he remembers this encounter. But in an instant his mood changes to a more sombre one.

“The meeting was very emotional; it took me by surprise. There were 300 of us, gay men and women, talking about our lives and things we had never talked about in a public way. There were some shocking stories about blackmail, going to prison, and being beaten up, even people being murdered and taken to court.

“There were all these things I found out that I didn’t know about because I hung around in West End gay bars which were a fairly safe environment.

“Then this guy said, ‘This is just like another fucking gay bar, we’re all just cruising each other.’ I shot out of my seat. I said, ‘If you think this is like a gay bar you’re out of your fucking tree, what’s the matter with you? We’re all here talking for the first time in our lives about our situation. Don’t you see this is a real chance? You’re fucking stupid.’ Then someone came rushing up to me and said, ‘We’d like you to be on the steering committee.’ Well, I’d never heard of a steering committee. I had no idea of politics at all.

“I realised I’d lived this extraordinary life and I felt very angry and ripped off having to pretend all those years that I was straight – because I was butch in the streets but femme in the sheets!”

All that changed when shortly after that first GLF meeting, Bourne moved into a radical drag commune – radical because the queens didn’t rely on misogynistic mocking or denigration of women. “It was very sexy and very freeing because no one had to pretend they were men,” he says.

“We were wearing frocks all day and night, and ladies’ beautiful long nighties. We were very relaxed about it. The drag was very inventive. We weren’t trying to be women. What was exciting was we were a new kind of man. We were always men in frocks or in drag with heels on. We never put tits on or padded our hips – we thought we looked good enough. A lot of lesbians said to me, ‘I’d kill for your legs!’”

Although initially worried about his break from acting, Bourne became inspired by Hot Peaches, a flamboyant drag troupe from New York, which led to him starting Bloolips in the late ’70s.

The group disbanded in the ’90s, with one of their last shows being Belle Reprieve, a collaboration with lesbian feminist theatre company Split Britches featuring Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver. The show was a theatrical yet complex extravaganza involving drag, tap dancing and torch singing with the aim of exploring illusion within Tennessee Williams’ play A Street Car Named Desire.

Bourne played the character of Blanche DuBois as if she were a drag queen, while Shaw took the role of Stanley Kowalski. “Peggy was very sought after by all sorts of ladies and even men were coming up to me and saying, ‘Oooh, she’s a fucking dish!’” Bourne chuckles. “She never had any nonsense with the boys, of course, she was very happy with the ladies and Lois was her girl at the time.”

Since then Bourne’s theatrical career has come full circle. Having walked away from mainstream theatre 40 years ago for fear of being ‘outed’ as gay, he’s now returned on his own terms, appearing in a season of Shakespeare at Stratford and a show at the National Theatre as well as a series of productions by high-profile playwrights including Neil Bartlett and Tim Fountain.

“I do it as myself – I’m billed as Bette Bourne. They can take it or leave it. Some take it, some leave it,” he laughs.

Bourne_Johan-PersAudiences in Sydney will no doubt be not just taking it, but lapping up Bourne’s latest production, A Life in Three Acts, which is part of the 2011 Sydney Festival. Written by playwright Mark Ravenhill, the show is a two-hander featuring Ravenhill interviewing Bourne who recounts stories from his colourful past.

The idea for the show came about after Bourne made a flippant comment about living in the drag commune at a theatrical workshop and Ravenhill recognised the importance of documenting the life of such an extraordinary and unique character.

“Mark interviewed me over three long sessions and then edited the transcripts, sent them to me, and I did my fiddling about and added anything I felt shouldn’t be left out. We then agreed upon a text and we’ve stuck to it,” Bourne says. “He’s great fun to work with. He’s a very loving, generous man.”

The two-hour show, as the title suggests, features recollections from three stages in Bourne’s life. And there will be singing. Bourne offers a short preview: “I shall be singing a song that goes, ‘Oh b-a-n-a-n-a-s bananas, they’re lovely in tuxedos or pyjamas; we love them here, we love them there, we even love them in our hair, so share … a banana with a friend’.”

Bourne is, no doubt, a grande dame of queer history. At 71 he shows no signs of slowing down and tries to “keep up” with current queer performers, regularly visiting Duckie. The online world still has him foxed though.

“I saw Peggy [Shaw] recently in New York and she got me onto Skype. I don’t really know much about it, and I managed to erase myself by accident. I’ve never really understood what Facebook is either. I suppose you have your face on there. There’s a lot of stuff about Bloolips on the internet. I’ve no idea who puts it there but it’s very kind of them.”

Quentin Crisp once told New York performance artist Penny Arcade that “time is kind to the non-conformist”. When I ask Bourne if that has been true for him, he says: “I hope so. I hope it goes on being kind because I feel very disapproved of by many people. They tend to have these views about me. You get a lot of disapproval even from your friends.” He pauses, then sniggers: “But you just have to have a few days away from them.”

He has nothing but good words to say about his old pal Ian McKellen though – who took a different path to Bourne, remaining in the closet until 1988 after he had established himself as a mainstream actor.

“He’s a good bloke,” says Bourne warmly. “He’s older than me and goes around schools telling kids about bullying gay people. He’s doing that as well as playing King Lear at Stratford. We’ve had terrible rows over the years, both politically and about acting, but we accept each other. We don’t see much of each other but he’s very generous and kind.”

Our interview time draws to an end because Bourne’s throat is getting sore, but despite this, he can’t resist ending in his inimitable camp and dramatic trademark manner. When asked if he’s finally ‘made it’ career-wise, he responds: “Noooo! I’m clinging by my painted fingernails to the edge of a cliff!”

Then quietly adds: “Don’t get me wrong though, I’ve had the happiest life of anybody I’ve known and the most adventurous. It’s been a wonderful time.”

A Life in Three Acts runs from 4 to 15 January 2011 as part of the Sydney Festival. Visit the Sydney Festival website for more information and to book tickets.

Watch a trailer for the show on Youtube.

Watch a 30-minute documentary about Bloolips on Vimeo.

Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief of The Scavenger.

Images from top: Bette Bourne, photo courtesy of Sydney Festival; Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill, photo by Johan-Pers.


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