Phyllis Babette Fergusson was born on 26 April, 1910 in Knightsbridge, London into an upper-middle class family. Both her parents were singers but the marriage was short-lived and her mother remarried when Babette was still a small child. As her step-father Philip James Robin had been badly gassed during World War One, a warmer climate was recommended so the family (which now included a half-brother) emigrated to Townsville, Australia in 1925, sponsored by Robin’s brother Bryan, then Sub-Dean of the Townsville Cathedral.
Her step-father had worked in London for one of the top manager/producers of the time and knew a lot about theatre. Once installed in his new position with the New Zealand Insurance Company in Townsville he involved himself and Babette (who had secured a job with the Main Roads Department) in theatre by forming an amateur group called the St James’ Players. She gives credit to her step-father for the invaluable training he gave her – she called it an apprenticeship in theatre where you learned on the job.
In 1928 she joined the Townsville Repertory Theatre and it was through that association that she experienced a life changing event that galvanised her desire to be an actor. Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society brought to Townsville’s Theatre Royal their 1929 production of Dear Brutus, directed by Barbara Sisley and featuring Rhoda Felgate in the lead role. Nineteen year old Babette knew immediately that she wanted to be involved with this dynamic theatre group so, when the opportunity came to live and work in Brisbane, she did not hesitate.
A chance meeting on a Brisbane tram in 1930 with Repertory member Cecil Carson encouraged Stephens to attend a casting for the English drama Rutherford and Sons, a dark family saga to be directed by Rhoda Felgate. Despite Carson’s warning that no newcomer ever got a part – he told her she would have to prove herself to Miss Sisley through the Club play readings and one act plays and hope to be noticed – she turned up. Determined to get the part she wanted, she showed no fear, an early sign of that unflinching self-confidence that was soon to become such a personal trademark:
I was asked to read a particular role which was the housekeeper in a Scottish household and I said “No, thank you, I don’t think that’s me!” I don’t think anyone had ever said “no” in the history of time! And because of this they offered – I think just to slap me down – they offered me the lead to read. Which I got! And that was my first show with Repertory![i]
It was in fact a supporting role that she secured but as far as the press was concerned she was the leading lady. The Daily Mail reported that “The acting honours go unreservedly to Miss Babette Fergusson”.[ii] And Stead’s Review stated, “Hail to a real actress at last among the cohorts of engaging and accomplished amateur players!”[iii] A role in Vance Palmer’s Christine was followed by the lead role of Gloria in Shaw’s You Never Can Tell in 1931. Playing opposite her was Tom Stephens, a young solicitor from a prominent Brisbane family, who had been involved as an acting member of Brisbane Repertory for several years. Reportedly disliking each other at the outset, they nevertheless fell in love, married in 1935 and enjoyed a long married life until Tom Stephen’s death at the age of 97 in 1997.
Throughout the 1930s she was much in demand, working as theatre critic for The Courier-Mail, social reporter for The Telegraph, The Sunday Mail and Teleradio, public relations for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and a sought after actress for ABC Drama broadcasts. Intimately involved with setting up Twelfth Night Theatre in 1936, Stephens directed her creative energies there for a number of years. However, as her husband was by this time Brisbane Repertory’s Honorary Treasurer, she continued her involvement as Rep’s Social Committee convenor.
Soon after the birth of her first child Wendy in 1939, she made her professional stage debut with Will Mahoney and Evie Hayes’ Production Company in The Lilies of the Field. After the birth of her second child Christopher in 1945, she had a short break before her Repertory directorial debut the following year with Emlyn Williams’ He Was Born Gay, described as “an outstanding success”.[iv] The following year she played the lead in the psychological drama Black Limelight to excellent reviews, The Courier-Mail critic Te Pana stating that “As far as performances went it was Babette Stephens’ night”.
It was in 1957 that Babette Stephens stepped up to a leadership role as Brisbane Repertory’s Council President. Under her astute stewardship the organisation prospered. Membership increased from a healthy 509 to an extraordinary 920; she doubled the number of performances per play from four to eight nights; and by 1959 she and her Council had purchased three adjoining houses in Hale and Sexton Streets, Milton, one of which was converted into a box-like performance space in 1967 to become the first La Boite theatre.
In 1960 she was offered the new role of Theatre Director with an accompanying annual fee of £250. As she chose to interpret it, this position went far beyond artistic matters and for the next eight years she dominated all aspects of Repertory’s artistic and organisational life. The plays that she chose were mainly British or American and drew heavily on what was successful in London’s West End or New York’s Broadway. Sharing direction with Stephens was another ‘star’ and great personality, Gloria Birdwood-Smith. Although the Australian play almost disappeared during their time, these two experienced directors programmed highly successful, often professional standard, mostly contemporary plays – dramas, thrillers, comedies, romances - with a high entertainment value that drew big audiences. Together they nurtured into professional careers aspiring actors such as Judith Arthy, Ray Barrett, Barry Creyton, Elaine Cusick, Rosalind Seagrave and Rowena Wallace.
By this time Babette Stephens was such a well-known Brisbane personality that and was invited to join Reg Grundy’s game show I’ve Got a Secret with Brisbane’s Channel 9. The show made her a television star and before long she was celebrated for her acerbic wit and regal presence, earning her the nick-name ‘The Queen Mum of Television’.[v] Throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ’80s she continued a career in television, appearing on panel shows Play Your Hunch and Funny You Should Ask, Beauty and the Beast, Bailey and the Birds and playing character roles in Carson’s Law, Matlock Police, Homicide, Consider Your Verdict and the Brisbane-made Until Tomorrow. She took roles in a small number of films as well – Let the Balloon Go in 1976, The Irishman in 1978, and despite undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, agreed to a role in The Settlement in 1982.
In 1972 Stephens was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her services to Queensland theatre, a fitting acknowledgement (amongst many others) of her distinctive contribution to Brisbane Repertory’s developments during her stewardship. Her final role for Brisbane Repertory Theatre was in the 1973 production of The Anniversary playing with panache the domineering matriarch, directed by Jennifer Blocksidge. Thereafter, until her death in 2001, she rarely missed a La Boite opening night, usually accompanied by her great friend Bette Murchinson and later Muriel Watson and always welcomed like theatre royalty by Rosemary Walker, La Boite’s long-serving Publicity Officer.
Invited to be a member of the inaugural Board for the proposed Queensland Theatre Company, she had a hand in appointing the English-born Alan Edwards as its foundation Artistic Director. It was with QTC that her professional stage career flourished. She performed many roles with the Company and was appointed an Associate Artist during Edwards’ time. In 1993 she received a QTC Lifetime Achievement Award. Memorable roles included Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest in 1975 and Hetta ten Dorp in Deathtrap in 1979. Under Aubrey Mellor’s artistic directorship, in 1990 she played at the age of eighty a minor role in A Month in the Country and Rebecca Nurse in The Crucible the following year. In fact, she did six plays in a row at this time. It was her role in QTC’s 1995 production of The School for Scandal that unnerved her more than usual as she succumbed to memory problems that had plagued her for some time. At the age of eighty-five she was finally persuaded that the time had come to retire.
She died aged ninety on 28 February 2001. The Courier-Mail’s coverage of her funeral, attended by five hundred mourners, began: “A sustained round of applause echoed in St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane, yesterday as mourners paid their last respects to Babette Stephens, one of the most significant figures in the history of Queensland theatre”.[vi]
Writer: Christine Comans
Rod Lumer & Marguerite Steffensen’s 1991 interview with Babette Stephens
McKee, Jay (2004) Never Upstaged-Babette Stephens Her Life and Times, Temple House Pty Ltd, Hartwell, Victoria.