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Friday, March 1, 2024

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‘On the Streets I Ran’ With Liverpool Actress, Eithne Browne

Matt Jacobson, The Bus Stop & My Pages of the Past.

A recent journey and afternoon to my old North Liverpool Jacobson home triggered much needed satisfaction, joy, love and security to a reflective searching soul.   

During my afternoon of wandering and wonder, I longed to feel the poetry from the past and for the past to allow me time to reread the 48-year-old script and play I have been part of. I wanted to refresh the senses and take in the life I left behind; to hold and hug the aura from the avenues, streets, buildings, people and places. 

Matthew Jacobson – Photo by Michelle Marshall

I opted for the 45-minute bus journey to my old Northern district. As I waited at the bus stop, I noticed the green metal machine was on its way. My arm was out stretched high, but the bus laid low and drove past me with a driver unable to look at me and the waiting commuters. The bus stop society behind me shuffled, tutted and shrugged shoulders in unison. So, as the next bus turned up, the sultry me headed down the bus to the last available seat. I sat with 15 strangers but, most importantly, sat amongst 15 hearts from our city. 

At my destination, I stepped off the bus deep into the core of the area. The streets invited me in and showed me exactly where I had flip-flopped and zig zagged through my younger years. My old streets still displayed my youthful schemes and plenty of my discarded dreams, but a plethora of beautiful people passed by with a grit and wholehearted working-class determination to succeed.

I spent hours walking around – to my old house, to shops and parks which filled and flooded my eyes with vivid emotions only the past can bring. This trip to the place I still call home reinvigorated the body by delivering droplets of delightful memories to the older me, as I looked back at the younger me, on the very streets I ran. 

The return journey home provided a pivotal moment of the day. As I looked back with a drained and heavy heart, I said my goodbyes and the bus moved sluggishly down the stretching avenue. Then I noticed that it was moving through several chapters of my early life. From one bus stop to another, there was a page of my past, flicking and flashing before me. And these initial bus stops of the journey provided reminders, rhythms and patterns of the past. 

The first bus stop, where I had just boarded, stood 200 yards from my old house. As a boy, teenager and adult, I had stood there through the decades with parents or friends and travelled to school, work, train stations, and airports. To nights out and hundreds of gigs, including travelling to see my hero in concert.

The next stop, or chapter two, on the right hand side was my old infant school and I can to this day vividly remember running out of the school to my beautiful Mum with her arms open beaming smile that greeted me as I ran into her loving arms. I hugged her and never ever let her go – until she had to leave me recently to sleep peacefully and to rest her soul with the protecting stars in the sky.

Next to the infants, was my Junior school where friendships were formed. Thankfully, these friendships still stand today. But, I still look for the football I foolishly left-footed onto the school’s rusty roof and cringe at the cracked window I caused because of my clumsy right, or wrong-footed half volley…  

Bus stop three, the church I attended with family or school for a gazillion events and eventually attending the social club underneath to drink Shandy with the family and to eat crisps. Until I moved on to drink alcohol with the family ….and still ate crisps.

The bus then sluggishly led me to the bus stop of dreaded doom. The bus stop by the old swimming baths, where I tried to swim, but excelled in slipping on the edge of the pool, banging my head and slipping below the waterline. It probably wasn’t that dramatic, but it certainly felt it. Rescued by a teacher, I gripped to the side of the pool and at that point, I decided no more swimming. However, on that day, I still managed to spot the voluptuous pending vending machine – I could see crisps to soften the bruised heart and bashed ego.

Bus stop five sees the green machine gel and side-part its metal hair as it is Rachel’s road. I don’t know the name of the road; all I know it was Rachel’s road. Rachel was the prettiest girl at the youth club. But I never ever spoke to her, so Rachel never knew how much I really liked her, because I never even told her, oh but I meant to….

The next bus stop and chapter in the diary on wheels is Broadway with its two infamous roundabouts. Formed like two colliding planets planted precisely on earth to ensure I stalled my tutor’s car on my first, second and third driving lesson. But I drove majestically with aplomb through it when I passed it on my driving test.

And then Queens drive bus stop. For three years, I left the first bus for another bus to travel to my first job. A job that hid any creativity behind barren and awful admin, but adulthood was now here and the world opened. The wallet, on the other hand, may have emptied quickly but it was time to explore the world around me.

Just those initial bus stops gave my memories ammunition for the remainder of the journey. There are 22 bus stops from my old house to the Liverpool city centre and all 22 tell a tale with 22 different endings. 

The journey to the city centre took me through Norris Green, Broadway, Breck Road, Everton Valley, London Road and then dropped me at the Royal Court – all of those areas played a part within the chapters of life. 

The city centre may have some of the glam and the glitter where real life can often be lost or hidden amongst the costly cafes and brash bars. But for me, the areas outside the city centre will always light up the mind of the creative and sprinkle magic or genius into the artists of tomorrow. 

Areas like the Dingle, Huyton, Kirkby, Speke and Croxteth have all provided pulsating artistic provisions to many box bedroom rebels. 

So now, whenever I jump on the bus or train and look out the window, I wonder what kind of people live in these houses? And where and who will be the next star to be unearthed from this fine city? Who will rise from this fine Liverpool earth we adore, to be adored – forevermore?

Huyton born Liverpool actress, Eithne Browne, is one of those creatives who did just that. Eithne is stage and TV royalty with a plethora of outstanding appearances behind her in the top shows of TV and stage. Eithne is a much loved and adored personality, so I met with Eithne to talk about the early years, Blood Brothers and lying to nuns.

‘On the Streets I Ran’ With Liverpool Actress, Eithne Browne
Eithne Browne – Photo by Michelle Marshall

The early years, was the home and family an inspiration for your career?

Well, I am one of seven children and I first lived in Page Moss and then we were moved into Molyneaux Close, Huyton. The house is still standing today, and I know this because… I looked at it on Monday! It was strange because everything looked so small from what I remember.

My Dad was a great man, one of my best mates. He was a merchant seaman and went away to sea quite a lot. And when he came home,I remember music playing, lots of music playing. My mum had the best voice as she got older her voice went lower and deeper, she was magnificent. She taught herself to play piano and accordion. 

And also, my Grandparents owned a pub on Vauxhall Road, which is still there and at the weekend we would be there because Mum helped behind the bar and she would sing and entertain everyone. Also, there was a Dansette on the bar and all the American records were coming in. I remember all the 78’s of the time that Nanny would have on the bar which were brought over from America. There was always a piano at home, and I was sent to piano lessons in Huyton Quarry, well not in the Quarry obviously, in somebody’s house! I remember playing it, but not keeping it up, I’m self-taught really. 

But it was music, music was always there. Irish music from Dad and music from Mum with lots of piano and singing.

Did you have any favourite shows when you were growing up? 

Well you forget, I am the age of Muffin the Mule and children’s story time! These were the days when television was only on for a couple of hours a day. Although, I do remember being terrified from a scene in Bonanza and not wanting to go to bed!  I could be haunted by some TV shows or scenes. I had a real suggestive mind. 

It may sound contradictory, but I was very shy as a child. So much so, my Godmother came back from Canada once and couldn’t believe Eth was on the TV and on Brookside, because as a child, I was so, so shy. 

As a child, I remember setting up a puppet show using a clothes maiden, with towels over it so it looked like a theatre with stage. And then I also remember getting all the kids together in Molyneaux Close and taking them all to the old folks’ home in Huyton Village, we knocked on the door and told them we had an entertainment show! Until I was told not to come back, you know, thank you we have had enough now!

So, your imagination was in full flow at that young age?

Yes, I didn’t want to be confined really. I was the girl who couldn’t wait to get into the Huyton County library to read books. I forged the application form to join. My Mum wasn’t at home, so I wrote her name on the application form! The librarian quizzed me saying, “this doesn’t look right?”, so I replied, “Mum has broken her arm!”. But imagination is everything, books use your imagination – they take your anywhere around the world. I even remember being in a cot with a cloth book – I was only ……..12! (laughs)

Ha ha, was it last week, drunk again? 

(laughs) Yes again, I was rotten! But yes, I remember as a baby, with a beautiful book with a gorgeous cloth cover… just lying next to me in the cot. It was everything to me. And the written word has had a huge impact on me. But Libraries and words are wonderful and powerful.

At school, ….

Ugh, next question! (laughs)

Ha ha, did it play a huge part in starting off your career?

Not at first, but in some ways, I suppose it did. Maybe I didn’t realise it at the time, but on stage to become somebody else is quite powerful and after it, you can go back to being you know, shy and you don’t want people to look at you. It was attention seeking to an extent. It is common that very shy children can become actors. I can remember my first role as a Plum Pudding …(laughs)

I bet you did it well though?

Who knows, what is a good performance as a plum pudding?! (laughs)

I was shy, but I had a voice that needed to be heard really. I had such an imagination as a child. I remember running for the bus, sat down and I was out of breath. I was asked, ‘if I was ok?’ I was, but I invented a lung problem, I was only 8, but I wanted to play a part to be someone else. It was marvelous, but I was lying through my teeth! I’ve lied to nuns, I read a book about a boat in Norway once, so I told them I was on it!

So, you created characters in your mind, is your mind still like that now?

What, a mind that lies to people? (laughs). No, but a mind that can slip into a character. Sometimes a character I’ve created, and these characters can come out at any time. It can be useful! I still listen out for and look out around me for influence for aspects of characters.

At rehearsals, I like to be directed by good directors. And that approval when it works, when you hear, ‘well done’ – is everything. They can ask you to be someone and when you say, yes, I know who you want, your heart sings and you know the character they want you to be, usually drunk and with a ciggie! It is wonderful as you have what they want. After all these years, I’m not blasé about it, ever, I always give it my all. And the recognition from someone I respect and admire is everything.

Was there a turning point, when you realised this could be a career?

No, not really. If I’m honest, at school I was always in the chorus never at the front. I loved the dressing up into character and being somebody else. I still have a wardrobe full of clothes at home such as fairy Godmothers outfit and some Downton Abbey clothes. I will use them; I won’t just sit there on my own in them! (laughs)

I was pregnant at 17, just before my 18th, and actually just wanted to have my own space and family. I was one of 7 and lived in a noisy household and wanted to go to the next step in life. 

I ended up working at George Henry Lee’s and I was asked by an actor, who I worked with in the China and Glass department, to do a play at the Neptune Theatre – so I did and a couple of the Spinners came to watch!  I enjoyed it and it was wonderful experience, but I had no intention of becoming an actor. 

I then worked at the Housing department and then Kirkland’s – wherever I could work to ensure I could pick up my son. My life was just moving forward. It all changed with Blood Brothers, that was a big change

How did that come about?

I was working at Peter Kavanaghs and I was living around the corner. A regular customer who worked at a gallery on Bold Street asked me to work for her. It was at the time in the 80s’ when shops would close half day on a Saturday afternoon. So, we would go to the gardens of St James for a Saturday picnic and I would sing, usually after a few drinks. And the shop manageress was actually friends with Liverpool legend, Brian Dodson, who was looking for a singer for his band. But the guy from his band was also arranging the music for Willy Russell. 

I then moved work and joined Gemini blinds on London Road – I could still sell you blinds now! But, one day, a phone call comes through, 7 months later, and this chap says, “I know you don’t know me, but I believe you can sing?” I said, “Mate, if you think I am singing down the phone, you can sod off!” I was convinced it was one of my friends playing up, but he then explained that he was the musical director for the Liverpool Playhouse and wanted someone who could hold a tune

So, I went to a small recording studio and started working on the music for Blood Brothers. Willy Russell then heard the tapes and he wanted me in it, but I then met the director, Chris Bond, who didn’t want me in it. He explained later that he already had one singing non actress in Barbara Dickson and didn’t need another in the chorus.

Was the audition terrifying?

One of the worst auditions ever. I went looking like a clerk – I was certainly dressed like a clerk. He then asked me to read ‘I wish I was our Sammy’ from the show and I did. He was hugely unimpressed, I could tell. It was horrible. I had raced up the stairs and introduced myself, shown into a room and it quickly was thank you and goodbye. So, I headed back for the stairs and then fell over a table. As I stood up, I turned around and he was looking at me through a glass partition. I cried all the ways down the stairs.

And then, on my birthday, I received a call offering me a role in the chorus in Blood Brothers. I spoke to my my Mum and Dad about it and they said I must take this opportunity, so I did. I shouldn’t have really got the offer on the West End because I didn’t have enough stamps on my equity card, but Barbara Dickson wanted me to be her understudy because I was like her. We got on so well together. She didn’t want a West End understudy, she wanted, well, ‘my little Eth’. She also called me, ‘a blast of wind through the Mersey Tunnel’, so I went to London with my parents blessing. 

Then one night, in the West End at 7.20 pm, there was an announcement on the tannoy: “Barbara Dickson will not be appearing tonight – Ethnie Browne to the dressing rooms for costumes”. So, they dressed me in Barbara Dickson’s costume, basically warm from her body. But she is 5ft 7 and I’m 5ft 2. She takes a size 7 shoe, I take a size 4 and the coat was too big. They shoved newspaper in the shoe to make them fit! I looked like dopey from the dwarfs. 

I was calm, but probably in shock. But I could feel the atmosphere in the theatre change with groans when they realised Barbara wasn’t appearing.  After having a ball for months, here I am now leading a show on the West End. The audience had paid £15 to see a venetian blind sales woman on a stage!

In the end, I did over 50 shows for her, she had fallen ill on stage and felt really stressed, so I carried on the show with Barbara’s blessing. She gave me a locket too with a lovely message in it. I was just the right person at the right time really.

Eithne Browne – Photo by Michelle Marshall

The stage, if you do so many shows on stage like you have, does every stage then become the same?

No, not at all, they are different. It can be the venue, or the audience make it different every time. The audience sometimes want to play, you can feel it and sometimes you must win them over. There is an excitement at times and you can also feel the audience wondering what they will experience. Some shows fly by and you want to do it all again straight away. It’s a different experience each time.

When playing a show in Liverpool, do you feel more welcomed, loved or enthused?

Oh yes, because I am known; I have nowhere to hide here. It is a closer experience with the audience, I don’t dwell on it, but Brookside changed the way I am viewed and looked at here. But it’s certainly a different audience and experience and when people give me compliments and support. I think I’m just a kid from Huyton. It’s such a welcoming audience here. I don’t take anything for granted and I always give it my all, always.  

You have appeared on Brookside, Emmerdale and Coronation Street, – which is fantastic and a pinnacle, so what next after that?

Well, I have always talked about all the girls going to EastEnders! (laughs) I’ve always had a dream that I could take Sue Johnson, Kate Fitzgerald on an away day down to London on a shopping trip via the Vic, walking in – “get us another half a lager!” How lovely would that be?! 

The shows have been a pinnacle, but I never aimed for it which is remarkable. I was stunned when I got Coronation Street as it was during lockdown and I thought others may have got there first, but I was delighted when I did.

In terms of reflection. You mentioned you walk around Liverpool, on the very streets you ran, what buildings or places stir real emotions within you? 

Yes, I do, I walk the very streets I ran – regularly. In the last week, I was looking for what’s gone really, plus places of meaning. There was a cinema in Huyton village. I went to see Bambi there and I remember sobbing wondering why someone had taken me to see it?! Huyton Library was huge influence for me. And, Huyton girls’ school – I, again, forged another document to go to the girls’ school rather than go to Broughton Hall to follow my sister! Because I read so much, I had an Enid Blyton existence in my head, I wanted midnight feasts and to be brilliant at school and a brand new uniform! 

I went to Broughton Hall and didn’t like the activity aspects like my Sister, she ran and swam and done all sorts. I just lied to get out of swimming, I still can’t swim! They stick you in a pool with a cork float that looks like a gravestone. 

Yeah, I’ve joined that club!

We used to go to the West of Ireland where Dad came from, I slipped in a river and nearly drowned, I don’t remember the terror, but I remember the injustice of it – I was wearing a Noah’s Ark frock, how can I nearly drown in this? But nothing soothed me from water. 

Do you spend time reflecting on your career etc?

Yes, I do. I’m a flaneur, I walk around Liverpool, just like you do, and I look around. I do mourn the history that has gone missing, I am looking for the lost time. The dolls hospital on Mount Pleasant, the pet shop on Tithebarn Street. You look for memories of your past. I look down Mathew St and can see the audition room where I cried all the way down the stairs. The city has changed in such a short space of time.

Liverpool has a full history and a plethora of talent and creatives – what is in the water here?

The water of Liverpool has been flavoured by the welcome we give to people from around the world. We have a huge diverse population and culture, it is wonderful. Even in my early years I loved the music from other cultures. Dad brought much of it home and I loved it. We were brought up without prejudice. 

It is a beautiful city full of creatives and always will be I think….

Long before acting, I served in pubs and bars like Kirklands, serving George Melly and swigging Whisky with Beryl Bainbridge. Even then I was aware of eccentrics in the city. It’s a wonderful place with wonderful people. The city has influenced me, and my close friends have helped me. 

And finally, On the Streets I Ran, could you name three Liverpool Streets that mean the most to you and why?

Oh, this is difficult – this is like asking what your favourite three records are!

  1. Bold Street – if I feel bad or down, I can get the bus to Bold street and when I walk down Bold Street it brings me out of that feeling. It’s a vein that takes me into the city centre. It’s my history, it’s a walk to the City Centre but it’s a walk to the Royal Court and the Playhouse.
  2. Huyton the area really around Seel Road as such, plus Molyneux Close, maybe not just the one road but the area as I grew up there.
  3. Sefton Drive – I had a flat there, for 13/14 years and it was home. It was a top floor flat with its roof chimneys and blue skies and view.

Eithne, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you! 

No, I thank you…. let’s do it again next week!

Matthew Jacobson, 

Explore Liverpool – Writer, 

Author 

Curator

@MatthewMozzer

Matthew Jacobson – Photo by Michelle Marshall

READ MORE: “On the Streets I Ran” With Justine Kerrigan & Michael Starke – Brookside Close, to my Heart

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