Jane Birkin is another favourite with Hero Culte, so expect to see a lot about Jane on here (eventually!).
Jane made her theatrical debut in 1964 in Graham Green’s play Carving a Statue. Jane had just spent several months in Paris staying with a Mme Pouget in boulevard Lannes – according to an interview in J. Ph. Thomann’s Jane Birkin, this was the same building where Edith Piaf lived, so presumably it was at no. 67. Jane was staying there when Piaf died, which was in October 1963, so she must have been just short of 17 years old at the time – when the news of Piaf’s death broke, crowds began to assemble outside the building and Jane says she was mistakenly identified as Françoise Hardy when, as a resident, she was allowed to gain access to the building.
After her break in Paris was over, she joined her father for a trip to Italy, taking in Venice, Rome and Florence. Whilst there Jane took the opportunity to spend some time on the set of her cousin Carol Reed’s film The Agony and the Ecstasy, which was filming at Dino De Laurentiis’ Cinematografica Studios in Rome. Jane asked her cousin if he thought she had any chance of being successful in film and he offered her the following advice: “The important thing is, it’s not about being good or bad, it’s whether the camera falls in love with you. That’s all; it’s a love affair between the camera and you.”
Jane Birkin in Rome during the filming of The Agony and the Ecstasy, photograph taken by Penelope Dudley Ward (Lady Reed), the wife of Carol Reed
Upon returning to London, Jane met with theatre manager and producer Binkie Beaumont – a friend of her mother, the actress Judy Campbell – who advised her to go to an audition immediately. He advised her not to take acting lessons in case the techniques destroyed what she had and he told her that it was possible that she would be chosen instead for her “defects”.
Jane went to audition for a role in Carving a Statue, in which Ralph Richardson would take the lead role. In J. Ph. Thomann’s Jane Birkin, Jane recounts what happened: “I saw all the girls who had come directly from drama classes, there in the corridor chewing gum. Me, I was wearing a very simple dress, decorated by my father with a rose, which made me look like a starry-eyed romantic. It was because of my naivety that the others let me go and audition first. Them, they had the time! I forgot the text that I had learned so well; I wanted to leave immediately. They replied that, in any case, for this play the text was not important because the role of the girl was a deaf-mute role. They just asked me if I was light because I would have to be carried by an actor in the play. The actor chosen for the role lifted me without difficulty and I was engaged. I was told that I was lucky because I was having to symbolise innocence, not to speak, and to die crushed by a bus at the end of the first act. That was my first role, I was almost eighteen.”
The actor who had to carry Jane Birkin was none other than The Sweeney‘s Dennis Waterman! The text Jane completely forgot was from Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning, which she had been practising with her mother. It also appears that Jane was actually going to an audition for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie but she turned up at the wrong theatre and at the Haymarket, where she arrived in error, they were auditioning for Carving a Statue. In Gérard Lenne’s Jane Birkin, Jane is quoted as saying she arrived at the wrong time as well and “I wasn’t made for that – it was insanity!” – so she obviously didn’t see herself as being a natural for that line of work but, somehow, despite everything she seems to have made herself a very long, successful career in acting (amongst many other things).
There were other problems to face though as Jane arrived for her new career with septicemia in her leg. Rather than telling anyone about it, for fear of losing her role, she soldiered on until her condition was discovered by one of the dressers. She asked the dresser not to tell anyone but, fortunately, she did and Jane was sent off to hospital for an operation – she was supposed to be acting that evening and was concerned that the role would be passed on to her understudy who she thought was better for the role than she was anyway, but, again, luck was on her side as the role was still hers when she recovered and returned to the theatre.
Jane appeared in Carving a Statue for five months and the play was a success, possibly in some way due to the scandal caused by the scene where Ralph Richardson’s character, working on a statue of God, had to sculpt God’s genitals!
Here is the programme for the Brighton run of Carving a Statue, which started on 31 August 1964 at the Theatre Royal:
The information for this article was taken from the following publications and translated from French by me (please excuse any mistakes as I am not fluent – yet!):
- Jean-Philippe Thomann, Jane Birkin, PAC Editions, Paris, 1979 – information taken from pp25-30
- Gérard Lenne, Jane Birkin, Editions Henri Veyrier, 1985 – information taken from pp11-12