By Golly! It’s Hello Dolly : RIP Joan Brickhill

I have just heard of the passing of Joan Brickhill. As a tribute to her I remember an interview I did with Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke.

Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke. Photograph by Andrzej Sawa.

Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke. Photograph by Andrzej Sawa.

The giddy glitter and G-string gun ‘n doll of South African stage and cinema fulminate into the room – Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke.

Before I can say Follies Fantastique, I am whirled out, slow-slow-quick-quick-slow into Joan’s garden to ‘ooh-aah’ the marvel of Joan’s Green Thumb.

“She talks to them you know,” Louis explains proudly, whizzing me past outsized rhododendrons….

“….and of course they respond!”

We zoom past seed-packet Technicolor ranunculus, delphiniums and snapdragons, before stopping at a giant rose-garden that would have done Capability Brown proud.

“She’s had a rose named after her you know – yes! ‘Joan Brickhill’ It’s a beautiful yellow rose…”

The original of the beautiful yellow rose is clad in lemon-meringue yellow. She’s an immaculate Barbie Doll.

“Oh Louis, let her come in out of the rain!” she calls in a modulated voice.

I had forgotten it is raining. Why should I remember when the sunshine and spangle of the Brickhill-Burke’s twosome is beamed at me?

Louis obediently polkas me back into the house and on to an antique chaise-longue. His mother Poppy Solomon (I later learn) danced with Anna Pavlova.

“That’s Dick King’s couch you’re sitting on!” he barks, accusingly, immediately assuming center-stage …

Downstage left the leading lady enters. A flawless cast as the Charming Hostess.

“Joan’s great-great-grandfather, James Brickhill, was one of the first eleven men in Durban and he was friendly with the King family” Louis continues.

He has the kind of Machiavellian good-looks that first nights and velvet blazers are made for.

As pioneers of South African showbiz, the Burkes have ploughed through the seas of snide criticism, financial deep water and adversity – pick your cliché – but still they remain a befeathered and bejeweled institution. They are known and respected by anyone worth their showbiz salt and sequins.

Joan, a feisty grande dame of the footlights, has the trim figure of a girl of sixteen.

She pours coffee. It is a carefully choreographed ritual.

Theirs is a love-match, but it’s fun to hear the verbal dueling.

“I’m dedicated. He’s stage-struck,” explains the lemon meringue, tart and sweet.

“No, my darling! I’m not stage-struck. You’re obsessed.” Louis’s teeth are bared in an Ivor Novello grin.

They’ve been together for twenty years.

“And in forty we’ll still be having fun!” Louis gazes at her adoringly.

Swords are swopped for simpers faster that the final drop of a curtain.

Both are ex-drama teachers (Stanislavski disciples) from Durban. They have guided and coached a vast number of actors and actresses, from their first tentative steps to tantrum-impacted top-billing.

In fact, Joan, at one stage, coached Louis.

“We both saw ‘Fame’ and we were in tears,” recalls Louis. “That’s what it’s all about. Imagine the responsibility I have as a director when I can change someone’s life with my decision?”

We discuss their supremely noble and utterly futile attempt to save His Majesty’s Theatre from closing.

“We were madly idealistic and completely stupid.” Louis shrugs elegant shoulders.

“It was the most traumatic period in our lives. Sleep? Well at one stage sleep was a thing of the past! Joan – Joan knew it would never work, but Joan NEVER said ‘I told you so.!’ ”

“I’m a fool to stay married to you!” laughs Joan.

Louis has just cast her as Dolly Levy in “Hello Dolly”, their “Goodbye His Majesty’s.”

“People have said a lot of bitchy things about Joan taking the lead, but I ask you, WHERE, WHERE could I get someone who can SING better, ACT better and DANCE better than her. AND walk down a staircase the way she can?”

Where indeed.

Joan, it is said, is endowed with the constitution of a horse.

“Joan will come home, having been at the theatre the whole day and cook us a full roast and three-veg meal at two am.” Louis tells me.

Joan waves a manicured hand deprecatingly.

“I’m actually a scatterbrain.”

“No you’re not. You’ve just got too much to do! You’re grown a lot!” he adds a tad patronizingly.

“I’ve been good for you’, counters Joan archly.

Joan was a victim of her parents’ vanity, a child prodigy. She made her stage debut at two.

“She should be a world star!” Louis exclaims.

Joan hushes him gently.

“I was needed to do other things, darling…”

Doing other things she certainly does, whether it is acting as cast psychologist, nurse, organizer of the impossible – or planting bulbs by flashlight at one in the morning.

The tandem are currently preparing for possibly the most exciting roles in their careers – those of Executive Entertainment Producers at Sun City.

“Louis thinks there are 35 hours in a day. Of course we all know there are only 29!” teases Joan.

A few days later I attend a Gatsby-themed garden party at their home.

TV cameras rove hungrily and the air is heady with the smell of jasmine and joie de vivre.

He is wearing a double-breasted suit; she is in a crocheted confection contoured to the formidable chassis.

They float among the lesser mortals dispensing charm and champagne in magnum quantities….

I slip away and give thanks for their adornment to the showbiz scene.


This column originally appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle and was later republished in Jani Allan’s 1983 anthology, Face Value