Julie Andrews Autobiography
#1 on the New York Times Best Seller List
as of 27 April 2008

The Sunday Times
23 March 2008
Antonia Quirke

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews

Julie Andrews has long lived in Los Angeles, married to the director and writer Blake Edwards. This memoir of her very English childhood ends in 1963 with her getting on the aeroplane at the age of 28 to make Mary Poppins - Hollywood still a mystery. No nuns, no Nazis, no Christopher Plummer. And yet the book is magic.

On the face of it, Home describes more innocent times. From an early age, in the years following the second world war, Julie performed with her pianist mother Barbara in variety shows all over the country, singing popular ballads and light opera in her “freakishly high” voice between acts by comedians and ventriloquists long past their best. Andrews writes movingly about these end-of-the-pier days, all gone now. She tells of relatives and pets called Hadge and Doll, Fen and Shy, and of living in a house in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, where her aunt (a locally renowned drummer) ran a dancing school called Twigs out of the garage. After classes, back at Uncle Ding's cottage in the garden (called Bung - the nicknames in this book are pure Nancy Mitford), her mother would run-up chiffon dresses for Julie to wear on stage and the “little pot-bellied fire would be stoked...and everybody would smoke and play Canasta”.

By the age of 12, Andrews had been recognised as a talent (“Pocket-money star stops the show!”) and was performing nightly at the London Palladium, posing as an audience member in a prim blue smock, who responds to the question “Would you care to sing for us tonight?” with “Oh, yes!” and then getting up on stage and belting out the Polonaise from Mignon, ending on an almost impossible F above a top C. The audience would go completely mental. Afterwards, she'd catch the 9.30 back to Walton-on-Thames and walk home in her T-bar sandals, slightly anxious about muggers lurking in the dark, until Barbara, draining her 20th glass of the day, told her to stop being ridiculous (“who on earth would be interested in you?”).

Mum was no picnic. In truth, as Andrews quietly reveals, her family wasn't innocent at all. Barbara and her second husband, Ted, were alcoholics, and Julie's life was largely one of anxiety and hard work - she was supporting the family financially from the age of 11. Andrews is far too polite to exploit her catalogue of hurts (this book does not point accusingly and scowl), but some moments really sting. Particularly when Ted says “Come into bed with me. I'll show you how I cuddle with Mummy”, leaving Julie to pick at her fingers and hammer a lock onto her bedroom door. Or the evening that Barbara makes her daughter sing at a party at the house of a local businessman, carelessly informing her on the way home that the man is her biological father.

Andrews writes later in the book about her successes on Broadway in My Fair Lady and Camelot, and there's talk of Rex Harrison's farts, and Richard Burton's beautiful mouth. Cecil Beaton marches into her dressing room and tells her off for wearing one of his hats backwards (“not that way you silly bitch”). And Laurence Olivier drops by after a performance to say she really ought to project more (thanks, Larry).

But none of this grips like the early stuff. You flick past the celebs thinking interesting, ta, desperately scanning for a mention of Twigs, or of Julie sitting in a Nottingham boarding house after playing Red Riding Hood in a pantomime, eating a lonely egg salad and fingering her cold sore. Or the day she starts falling for her neighbour Tony (much later, her first husband) because he talks well about leaves. It's not often that you clamour to hear about an actor's childhood. These are usually the bits in such memoirs that you politely wish weren't there, like buskers in the carriage on the Tube.

Andrews does write about her voice, but only once or twice does she acknowledge its “phenomenal range” and revel in its delight - and even then it's rather as though she's talking about somebody else, complimenting a friend's kid at the school gates. There's an acceptance in her tone, a calm that catches the reader. Andrews writes and looks like someone with the rare talent of knowing that time is not the most important thing that has happened to her. As with the Queen, her hair has remained the same since James Dean was playing bongos at the Actor's Studio. Just knowing that this sort of thing is even possible makes you pull your duvet right up under your comfy chin. But not before another story.

This one stars Barbara's first husband, Edward Wells, the man Andrews lived with until she was six years old and whom she considered her true father. One night when she's 14, he picks her up from a theatre. Julie is very low indeed. She's thin, freckled, and “so exceedingly plain” that she has recently failed an important screen test. The only thing she feels she gets right is music - but what if her voice bails out on her and the mortgage is stuffed? A man of few words, Wells doesn't quite know what to do. Then he drives to the moonlit lanes of Leith Hill in Surrey.

They get out of the car and he tells her to listen - to the nightingales that are suddenly there in full voice, in every direction, singing wildly across the Downs. Putting his arm around Julie's shoulders he just says, “Isn't that lovely, chick?”

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