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THE RISING STAR WAS ONCE A SWAGMAN... THIS
IS PETER FINCHS ASTONISHING
TODAY, IIS HIS ninth floor flat in Dolphin Square --Europe's largest block of apartments - overlook' ing the Thames, the Sydney actor Peter Finch could, if he liked, feel complacent about life,
Because of the beivilderingly varied existence he has led in much of his 37 years, he might have become many things a Buddhist priest in India, a city journalist, or for ever a footloose vagabond in Australia.
He might have had dreams of becoming a scientist, soldier or mountain climber like his distin- guished father.
But always, in a sense, he was an actor, and now he is acknowledged almost unanimously to be the British theatrical personality of the year, one of the finest character actors of the British stage and probably the one most likely to succeed to the mantle of the Gielguds, Richard- sons and Oliviers of to-day.
His career as a film star, too, is assured. He is a box-office hit in two films now showing in London, a third is to be released next month; and he co-stars in a fourth now being
To the London popular Vrmê Èfe is the "heart-throb of the cinema year"-a personality who is causing the women to flutter their eyes and
He is within reach, if he has not already achieved it, of a five-figurc sterling income.
Yet for much of his life he has been a plaything of bizarre fortunes, a boy among Buddhists, on the dole and selling flowers at back doors in Sydney, a youth who knew the Aus- tralian inland as a swagman, a bar- room song-and-dance man and soon afterwards a "bits" player in country
AU these and the later events make a remarkable story.
AMONTH or so ago,
when Peter Finch had his three outstanding screen appearances in Lon- don in a space of weeks, English journalists were quick to present him as "London-born" and "Eng- lish." *
Finch, flattered though he was by the adulation in al- most every London news- paper and . warmed by the
realisation that final success
had come after years of pri- vation, struggle and hard work, still remained aggres- sively, Australian.
"I was born in London," he retorted, "because my mother happened to be there at the time. But I am so Australian that I can still hear the clank of those con- vict chains!"
The exaggeration was per-
haps permissible. Fifth-gen-, eration Australian and almost truculently proud of it, Peter Finch was- not going to permit this journalistic metamorphosis of the "strug- gling Australian actor" into an accepted "English" star.
Convicts were, in fact, still being transported when his great-great-grandfather went to the Colony of New South Wales, but this ances- tor went, not :.n leg-irons, but as a soldier in the British Regular Army. He liked the country and stayed
His Parents Were
Finch's own father (now the distinguished atom physicist Professor George Ingle _ Finch) was born in Orange, N.S.W., Peter him- self, in fact, was the first of his family to be born outside
Australia for almost a cen- tury.
World War I was on and
George Ingle Finch,1 then an artillery captain, was serving in Salonika when, on Sep- tember 28, 1916, his first son, Peter, was born in an old, typical London house in the Cromwell Road, South Kensington.
His mother was the gay, beautiful Alicia Fisher, niece of the famous 'Admiral "Jackie" Fisher, First Lord of the Admiralty.
Child of a beautiful and wellrto-do socialite and of a
debonair artillery captain al- ready distinguished both as a scientist and as one of the world's finest mountaineers, Peter,' if not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, at least entered a world auspicious with pro- mise. It seemed scarcely possible that he would spend all his childhood virtually as an orphan, reach adolescence as "the child who never had a chance," and come to man- hood-on the dole.
Peter was aged 2 when his parents were divorced. The father was given custody
of the child.
Left with the war's legacy of excitement and adven- ture, George Ingle Finch was hardly the man to want to stay home with a toddler whom he had scarcely ever seen. Besides, there were
Peter Finch, one of the finest character actors of the British stage, and his ballet-dancer wife,
Tamara, exploring the sights of London.
mountains yet to be con- quered.
He had scaled almost every summit in Europe, and now the Himalayas beck bned. The British were plan- ning their great 1922 Everest expedition, and Finch had been invited to be a member of the final assault team which included Léigh-Mal lory, who was later to lose his life near the summit.
li was on that expedition that George Ingle Finch, with Captain Bruce, clam- bered to a height of 27,300 feet, then the highest point ever reached by man, before they were forced lo give up. "Everest," said Finch then, "will never be climbed with- out oxygen."
In the meantime, the mountaineer - father had transferred to his sister the
responsibility for caring for the baby. In the care of this aunt, Peter had gone to live in the tiny French village of Vaucresson, near Versailles, where7 the child's grand-
mother had a villa.
Here, in a strange intel- lectual melange of "artistic" people - writers, painters, composers, parasites, avant garde poets, and oddly as- sorted couples living together -Peter Finch lived for the next seven years.
"I remember it vaguely," he says now, "as something very romantic and strange and stimulating. Naturally, I had not > remembered my mother or father, and I was not to see either of them again for over 30 years nor even to know, until only a few years ago, that I had a younger brother!"
The crazy, undisciplined.
^ By GEORGE JOHNSON-FIRST INSTALMENT ^
artistic, unstable world o Vaucresson, with its pastora idylls and flamboyant pas sions, was a strange environ ment for the little London born boy, utterly opposed t< that world of men and sol diers, science and mountain eering, which would hav< faced him had he gone witt
But it was probably ai Vaucresson that the firsi shapings of the boy's artistic consciousness took shape.
It was not to last. When he was about 8 he was suddenly and inexplicably whisked off to India by the grandmother and the aunt.
The grandmother had be- come obsessed with theo- sophy and it was absolutely essential for her to visit the great theosophical congress at Adyar, near Madras, where Bishop Leadbeater was to introduce the "new Messiah," Krishnamurti.
The young boy, bustled into a strange new world of yellow robes, steaming heat, curry-powder smells and lurching ox-carts, must have been rather at a loss, particularly when the
aunt went on to Australia and his surviving guardian, his grandmother, suddenly began to busy herself with plans not only to embrace the Buddhist faith herself, but also to contribute her childish charge to the ex- citing religion she had dis-
Having decided to make Peter a practising Buddhist, she was not going to toler- ate half-measures.
She gave him to an elderly Buddhist priest. The child's head was shaved as a novi- tiate, he was clad in a tiny saffron robe, and marched off to Madras with his new
For three weeks the yel- low-robed boy lived in a tiny, little, cell-like house, austere and stifling, in the back streets of Madras, beg- ging for alms during day- light, listening to the old priest's interminable chant- ings all through the night.
And then the British Gov- ernment heard about it and
a red-faced military officer, Captain Clark, arrived, al- most speechless with horror and distaste, to take the child back to grandmother.
Grandmother, however, was not lightly to be denied her sacrifice to Buddha. One is forced reluctantly to think that she may have been find- ing the little boy something of an encumbrance to her spiritual activities, and, in any case, she was anxious to make a visit to Darjeeling.
Her next plan was to have him adopted by an Indian family of strong theo- sophical beliefs.
"I don't know that I'd al- together have minded it," said Finch, reviewing this colourful chapter of his childhood. "Since I've grown up I've read a lot about Bud- dhism and it's a good faith, as good as any other-better
in some ways. Even now when someone asks me my religion I tell them I'm a Buddhist and I'm more than half serious." He glanced toward a bronze Buddha
which occupies a place of honour in his Pimlico flat.
But his destiny was chang- ed by an irate grandfather in Sydney who had heard strange reports of the "boy Buddhist" of Madras.
Grandfather was a man cf inflexible moral attitudes and almost mid-Victorian rectitude, with no tolerance whatsoever for what he call- ed "exotic nonsense." He had been educated at The King's School, Parramatta, had been in the first volun- teer force in Australia, had twice won the King's Cup for rifle-shooting, had been ^a highly respected citizen as
chairman of the Land Board, was now living in retirement at Greenwich, and was al- most certainly entitled to an apoplectic stroke at the thought of having a Buddhist, priest as a grandson.
Had To Make His I
He demanded that the child be sent immediately to Australia. "The boy has never had a chance, and never will," he wrote angrily.
So young Peter Finch sail- ed from Colombo in the Moreton Bay, in the care of the ship's captain, bound tor Australia and yet another new guardian, who was to prove a kindly and steadying
For the susceptible boy it was a world just as strange as Vaucresson or Madras.
His grandfather lived in a world of mahogany and books.
lt was here that Peter Finch had to face for the first time the problem of formal schooling. He learnt to swim like a fish, but his ability in examinations was much less notable. At Greenwich Primary School and North Sydney Interme- diate High he left no lasting impression as a scholar.
And then the world which
had given him a few years of security split apart again. His grandfather died and he was sent to live with a cousin at Greenwich. Sydney was rocking to the first ominous tremors of the depression, the cousin had very little money,. Peter's absent and now-almost-forgotten father could not be located to con- tribute toward his support.
In his third year at High school the boy went out to make his own living: it was a neighbour. Norman K. John- son, a journalist, who found
him a job as copy-boy on the Sydney "Sun."
"For the first time I found myself in the world and not isolated from it," says Finch. "I was an indolent, lead swinger of a copy-boy, cheeky and untidy, but they were kind to me and I stayed there for almost two years.
"I used to go to sleep with 'boredom at the wool sales,
but then I became the per- sonal copy-boy of one of Sydney's real characters, George ('Doggie') Marks, who covered the Suprême Court for the 'Sun,' wearing
a straw boater winter or ^ summer and squeaky, elastic- - sided boots.
"I would never put my cigarette out when I had to go into the court, but would hide it under my hat. One day I was just leaving the court, trailing an unsuspect- ed plume of smoke behind me, when I heard à rasping cough from the bench.
"I turned. Justice Boyce, whom I had thought to be asleep, was beckoning me. I went up to him and he mop- ped his face with a red ban- dana handkerchief and pushed his wig back.
"Tn future, when you gentlemen of the Press come into the court,' he said, 'would you mind putting your hats out!' "
. Continued On
1 RUSSIAN MASQUERADE
. Continued From Previous
Finch confesses now thal he began to think of act- ing during these courtroom days. "I doubt whether I have ever seen such acting, even in the years since, as the performances put on by those Sydney Judges and counsel. I still think, for in- stance, of Boyce and Dovey and Windeyer as thespians of the very highest order. Dovey playing Iago to Win- deyers Othello is still a dream-fantasy I have which fills me with the most ex-
But he was not" to get a chance in newspaper work either. (He is still a "frustrated" journalist, and would rather be a writer than an actor!) The depres- sion had really come, and Finch was sacked, partly be- cause of retrenchments, mostly, he admits, "for gene
He was 16. He had no job, no prospects, no home - for he did not go back to his relatives. His entire worldly wealth consisted of 30/, a second- hand suit, one shirt apart from the one he was wearing, and a few books.
He decided to "go if alone." In
Peter Finch when
Sydney the queues for the dole stretched a hundred yards long and the Domain was full of dossers. It was a tough situation for a 16-year old, and in the years to come Finch was to develop an in- timate and searing know- ledge of the derelict world of dole and doss-house.
The classified advertise- ment pages of "The Sydney Morning Herald" were past- ed up outside the Salvation Army shelters, but there would be 50, 100, 200 youths queued up for any of the occasional jobs that were advertised-and Peter Finch was never one of the lucky
"It was a wonderful ex- perience, though," he says. "It gave me a tremendous affection for my fellow human beings. We were all
pretty cióse io starvation and there didn't seem to be much future, but everybody was always good - natured and they would go out of their way to be nice to each other. You never saw anything vicious
Things like wars and depressions seem somehow
Peter Finch with Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier at their home after
the Australian arrived in London. He was under contract to Sir Laurence.
to bring out the best in people."
But he couldn't pause to philosophise. He had to stay alive as well. He made a few shillings by selling arti- ficial flowers in Darlinghurst, tramping from door to door; borrowed an old bicycle and worked as a taxi-boy at Tay- lor Square.
He slept where he could in the Salvation Army shel- ters; otherwise it was out in a park or on a bench.
Once he talked a German sea captain into giving him a job aboard the Norddeuts cher-Lloyd freighter Ham- burg, down at Woolloomoo- loo, but an hour before sail- ing time the dock police dragged him off because he didn't have a seaman's tic- ket.
Then he took a commis- sion job selling advertising space on a magazine; it was only when he returned one day to find that his employer had disappeared one jump ahead of the police that he discovered the magazine did not, in fact, exist.
Began To Over act
Other jobs followed: rouseabout on a station near Queanbeyan for 30/ a week, then as a waiter at the Hotel Astra in Bondi. He had to get up at 5 a.m. to clean the brasswork and work through to 7.30 p.m. He lost the job when he opened a bottle of champagne all over a dinner party.
Finch had by this time de- veloped a friendship with -Donald Friend, later to be- come one of Australia's best known painters. One night they stood together under a street lamp in Darlinghurst and reviewed their lives. "Well," said Friend, "what- ever else you say, one thing is certain: it's no use starving in the city. Let's go."
That night they "jumped the rattler" on a goods train heading north, and from there they made their way up to Cairns, living on hand- outs and occasional odd jobs, sleeping in the paddocks and under bridges.
"It was the most valuable philosophical period of my life," says Finch, who re- mains intensely interested in philosophic values. "To be a hobo was the dead bottom, but we felt there was a cer- tain beauty and logic in be- ing beyond the pale of re- spectability, lt was so much better than being only half- way down and still having to try to keep up appearances."
In the outback Finch and Friend acquired a valuable piece of knowledge: farmers and storekeepers, their pati- ence and pockets alike ex- hausted by the endless army of importunate unemployed wandering the countryside, were always inclined to be more friendly and helpful to foreigners than to their own countrymen.
The two swaggies imme- diately adopted unofficial
Russfon nationality, invented a vast rigmarole of gibberish words as a substitute for a language of which they were entirely ignorant, and began barnstorming the pubs and shearing-sheds of the out- back.
Friend, the artist "from Omsk," did sketches: Finch sang "Russian" songs and performed Cossack dances and for months they wander- ed, earning money, food, beer, and occasional hand- outs of clothing.
"The trouble was," says Finch, "that we got obsessed with our roles and began to over-act the parts. At Kat- oomba the police twigged us, and we just fled the town in time. Donald went back to Sydney, and for a few more months I bummed around alone.
"But Sydney was an in- sistent siren-Sydney is still my town-and one day, in rags and with the soles out of my boots, I found myself in Martin Place again." .
He was able to get a five shilling room, austere but clean, in Brougham Street, Woolloomooloo, kept by a golden-hearted Irish woman, Mrs. O'Halloran, who lived so close to the edge of pov- erty that her only luxury was a bottle of stout every Sat- urday morning.
She knew that her young boarder could never pay the rent, but for months she looked after him, fed him, stitched the more spectacu- lar holes in his clothes, end- lessly darned his socks until they were all darn and no sock.
And suddenly, in a dole queue one day, Peter was ad- vised to seek work in the theatre. He still had the
As he ts to-day-when not growing a beard for
a new film.
remnants of what passed as an English accent, although in the dole queue it was de- scribed as "that toffee bloody voice of yours."
^Already he had poked a tentative finger into the theatre world when a copy boy on the "Sun," playing the tiny part of a bootblack in one of Doris Fitton's plays, and occasionally painting scenery for her to earn a few shillings.
Now, destitute and with no prospects, it was to be- come his career. The "toffee voice" earned him an audi- tion and a 30/-a-week job with Joe Cody's vaudeville, then playing two shows a night (sixpence and one shil- ling seats) at the Maccabean Hall, Darlinghurst.
Finch's job was chorus boy, buck-and-wing dancer, and (that "toffee voice" again) "feed" to a Jewish comedian with the improb- able name of Bert le Blanc.
Even now, Finch's eyes still sparkle with delight as he talks of these first steps into the world of theatre:
"The audiences were
rough, almost all depression characters, with no more backside in their pants, most of them, than we had. The curtain always went up with the chorus, twelve of us, dancing on gaily, bawling out our theme-song, "We're in the Money!" which was the theme-song of the de- pression, too.
"We all wore horrible, crumpled, cherry-coloured dinner-suits, years and years old, patched and mended and covered with ancient
. Continued On
I HAPPY IDIOTS
I OF THE -STAGE f
. Continued From Previous
stains. There were only 12 to go round and they stank of mothballs and it was .a case. pf the first to come got the best fit.
"Bert le Blanc was won- derful to work with; he was fast and unpredictable; He had 60. fixed 'comic routines, and he'd change any of them right in the middle when he wasn't getting the laughs, and you had to think fast. It taught me a lot.
"But more important than that was the love I develop- ed for the happy idiots of the profession.
"They were broke, and a good many of them were rogues and vagabonds, but they weathered the depres- sion with more gaiety and courage than most people I knew. They got fun out of poverty. They knew how to cook on a gas-ring in a cheerless bed-sitting room. They were past masters in the art of the moonlight flit. But they knew how to laugh at life, and they were good companions.
"I loved them.
"King's Cross then was a wonderful place - nothing since then, London, Paris, Hollywood, New York, has been quite as wonderful and although I lived always on the very edge of destitu- tion, I had never been hap- pier in my life."
In this world of sordid rooms, slapstick, tarnished
spangles, satin lapels, and comradeship, Finch's voice was still a subject of com- ment. It was Bert le Blanc who said: "Why don't you take that voice of yours up
tc the A B.C.. kid? It's all cream-caramel up there."
Finch went up as a joke, was given an audition by Lawrence Cecil, and to his . bsolute astonishment found himself with a small part in a radio serial, "Khyber Pass," and an injunction to get himself a dinner-suit, for those were the days when formal dress was compul- sory for actors - engaged by
Finch did not own a din- ner-suit. He never has own- ed a dinner-suit. (Last week, in London, I sat in his flat while he phoned five friends to see if he could borrow a dinner-suit to attend the London premiere of "The Caine Mutiny.") But there was not a pawnbroker in the Cross to whom he was not a familiar figure.
There began a series of highly involved transactions which was to keep him circling in the world of three brass balls for years
"I think there are still little fragments of me hang
ing about all around Dar- linghurst which I have never been able to redeem," he says to-day, grinning.
There was another prob- lem, too, for rent had to be paid- and there was never enough money. (Finch now pays the tax people more in a single year than he earned in 10 years in Sydney.) He. was sharing a room now with an A.B.C. script-writer, but their combined, resources were seldom sufficient to satisfy their landladies.
In six months they chang- ed their place of residence in the Cross 23 times generally by escaping under cover of darkness-and even when they did stay on life bristled with problems.
Both of them had the choice of staying indoors all day or leaving their rooms before dawn and coming home quite late at night, in case they met the landlady. An additional headache was that if Finch was playing in his serial he had to change into his dinner-suit: the problem was finally over- come by the script-writer staying home and lowering Finch's borrowed suit in a fibro suitcase from a back fifth-floor window on a piece of string. They were never caught.
The wild, carefree, Fran- cois Villon life ended sud- denly. Claude Fleming and Frank Harvey, who had established Sydney's first theatrical agency, rang Finch one day to tell him that they had found him a juvenile role in Ernest C. Roll's comedy "So This Is Holly
Finch and his wife, photographed af the
time of their wartime
marriage in Sydney.
wood," which was to open
The young actor, never dreaming that in 15 years' time he would be drinking Manhattans in the Brown Derby and really saying, "So this is Hollywood!", packed his toothbrush and spare shirt in a borrowed fibre suitcase and went down to Central Station whistling.
Ahead lay tragedy, comedy, romance, the war
To Peter Finch, then, it was just another .episode in the undisciplined, farcical life of the child, now grown to young manhood, who had "seen a lot of life." But he had had a lot of fun, and he knew intuitively that his destiny lay somewhere in the crazy world of theatrical make-believe, surrounded by a "cry of players," the people he loved.
NEXT WEEK: The Open Road - to