13 January 2013 | Bille Brown (1952-2013)

Bille Brown was a man and an actor of the world. His worldwide travels before him, he was born in Queensland and worked often there, surviving as a confidently gay man in an often alien society. He has just died in Brisbane, two days after a birthday party, for which he ordered crab, lobster and champagne.

I knew him first in 1986, when he worked outside Australia, on Broadway in Chekov's Platonov play written by Michael Frayn Wild Honey and later when I was playing Widow Twankey  in his pantomime Aladdin at the Old Vic Theatre in London. Bille knew a lot about many things literary and theatrical and he was an expert on pantomime. His Swan Down Gloves put the young William Shakespeare at the centre of a pantomime version of his travels from Stratford to London. This was commissioned by  the Royal Shakespeare Company, whom he later joined to play a definitive Wicked Witch of the West in their stage version of The Wizard of Oz.

At Aladdin rehearsals, Bille gave me a very helpful  acting note to this effect: "The audience loves Twankey because she loves Aladdin her son. So you must find the mother inside yourself Ian." I wonder whether his notes to John Cleese when he directed the master's solo show of late, were as revelatory.

Bille was renowned at home for many performances in Shakespeare and other classics, as well as in in his own plays: as Oscar Wilde in David Hare's Judas Kiss; as King Arthur in Spamalot - an enviable range, all delivered with that extravagant relish and  joyful energy which were his trademarks offstage too. He fell in love often, passionately: he befriended people easily and remained committed: he adored telling stories, wild and improbable but always true, about the theatre. His company would lift any dinner-party, any rehearsal room and will be forever missed.

Other tributes will praise the bigness of his personality, the flourish of his  dress sense but they might miss the sweetness of the man. Inside the big bear was a gentle gentleman, not shy but always polite, considerate and eager to please, not because he wanted to be liked but because he wanted to help. He was never happier than when cooking for a hungry mate or treating a penniless one.

Australia rightly gave  him an honour: so did his University of Queensland.  I just hope, as his spirit leaves us, that he realised how respected he was by the rest of us, his friends, colleagues and audiences:: how we too honoured him and how much we loved him.

Ian McKellen, 13 January 2013

Bille Brown

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