Vale. Bille Brown. Actor.
Bille was not only a great Queensland actor, but a Rugby League tragic since his days as a referee in his tiny Queensland hometown of Biloela, or “Bilo” as he called it.
He clung to that memory as would a child.
Bille Brown was the director and script consultant on my play of Over the Top With Jim for the first Brisbane Festival in 1996.
He sent me to Lang Park to get an official Queensland Rugby League referee’s cloth badge from the 1950s, a red poinsettia one, which referees had sewn to their white jerseys.
Bille tried to teach me about the theatre. We sat on my front patio eating meat pies, talking about how the script was progressing, when Bille suddenly looked up and said: “I’ll tell you what, let’s have the first rugby league match ever put on the stage… Mary Immaculate Convent versus the State School Kids.”
It was a difficult assignment. But Bille auditioned boys from my old school, Gregory Terrace, to play the State School Kids. Then he choreographed a rugby league scene with our our convent coach Sister Vincent as referee.
(Bille had created the role for himself. But he was recalled to London to finish filming on John Cleese’s Fierce Creatures.)
For dramatic impact, Sister Vincent blows the whistle, discards her nun’s habit, and steps out in the full referee’s regalia: white shorts, white shirt, with the blood-red poinsettia badge over her heart.
She also stiff-arms a State School Kid who is about to score, turning to the audience to say: “The Lord moves in mysterious ways.”
Bille then filmed the rugby league match and sent the video to schools on the Gold Coast, Caloundra and Rocky, Townsville and Charters Towers for boys there to learn the drill for the match on the stage in their town.
Bille told us that his mother always advised him “don’t make yourself too high or too low”. At the family funeral, I asked Bille’s sister Rita Carter what their mother had meant, and she said it was: don’t get too haughty and proud nor too obsequious and self-hating. You are from a farm in the bush, that’s as good as anyone else; no need to pretend to be otherwise.
Bille certainly never made himself superior to anyone else. He was very very inclusive and generous with his time.
When he was on the set of Fierce Creatures with Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis and John Cleese in England, Bille’s mother fell ill and it was Jamie Lee Curtis who marched on to the set and said to Cleese, “get this man on a plane to Australia straight away! Bille needs to be with his mother!” Bille was really impressed with Jamie Lee for her compassion. Bille’s sister Rita Carter was then a teacher at a primary school in Kenmore. It was Rita who sent Bille a little yellow copy of “Over the Top with Jim” when he was at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Bille said theatre is meant to make you laugh and make you cry, and he said that’s what the little yellow book did.
Bille was honoured with the new Bille Brown Studio, which became the Bille Brown Theatre in 2018.