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Interviews > Frank Bren

Frank Bren has been in the industry since the late 60s. He has appeared in several television dramas and films and has even animated his own short cartoon. Neighbours fans will remember Frank as the unforgettable Colin Taylor - the boring, irritating eccentric with a heart of gold, who managed to sweep Marlene Kratz off her feet after facing stiff competition from his twin, Alf, for her affections. Frank took some time out to speak with us about his long and varied career, and his time on Neighbours...

Can you give us some background on your career prior to Neighbours?
Well, Neighbours means two isolated episodes during the year or so before they installed "Colin Taylor" as a semi-regular for 10 weeks in 1994 then 3 months in 1995.

Before that? A fairly thin acting career interspersed with writing though I began professionally as an actor in Melbourne in 1967. I no longer know what drives anyone to become an actor - maybe the cinematic prospect of making love to beautiful women in exotic locales, being handsomely paid for it and flattered in magazines made it seem a desirable career path. Of course, that never happened and I did not act in a movie until years after Neighbours. My great male screen heroes were Alec Guinness and Pierre Etaix so I only ever wanted to be a "character" actor or comedian. Anyway, to sketch in some background...

In 1967, I co-formed a Melbourne actors' co-operative called Company One, initially with Stanley Page the driving force, Anne Charleston and Michael Howley. Company One staged plays and revue in theatres, hotels and restaurants around the city. The same year, I began a long association with La Mama, a small 50 seat theatre in Melbourne founded by Betty Burstall and modelled on the New York original. I've written, produced and acted in about 10 shows there over the years, the last in 1997.

From the 1970s, I enjoyed several years in England, highlights including 1973/4 with Incubus, a company co-founded by Paddy Fletcher, touring England playing a variety of monks, knights, witches and eccentrics in Paddy's very funny, "mediaeval" plays. That included stints at the Oval House and Roundhouse in London. By then, I was interested in film animation, resulting in a small BFI shooting grant, then a 10 day summer animation course (1975) run by Jean Allainmat in Lille, France, where I befriended a bunch of cartoonist/writers running a great animation magazine called Fantasmagorie - among them, Phil Casoar, Andre Igual, Annie Sauli, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I remain a close friend of Casoar; as we know, Caro and Jeunet subsequently achieved well-earned fame; in 2000, I contributed a memoir on Andre, who sadly died that year, in a unique dedication magazine called l'Andre Igual put together by his friends, including the above. Lille led to a 1975/76 animation course at the London International Film School where I made my only film to date, a ragged cartoon called A Helluva Bet in the Wet. It played in the Annecy Animation Festval then in "Best of British Animation" at the London Film Festival in 1977. So, Lille looms large in my mind.

In the late 1970s, I developed a stage "persona" called Jim Bonaparte, a struggling private detective, in several short cartoon-style comedies staged in small theatres in London, Amsterdam then Melbourne. Amid occasional acting chores of the 1980s, I went to Poland for several weeks to write a history of Polish cinema called World Cinema - Poland (1986), which I think is in the odd library there as well as in Australia.

Of course, I still act, given the odd lucky commercial or TV drama, and with a couple of stage plays currently on the boil, venues yet unknown. Happily, there was a good role in the movie, Sensitive New Age Killer (2001), directed by my friend, Mark Savage. Did it reach England? Mark wrote the character (a vicious hitman) with me in mind, perversely naming him "Colin" though he was the exact opposite of Neighbours' "Colin Taylor". I recently appeared in Mark's new feature, Trail of Passion, made for cable TV release in the US, also as a villain.

One thing - this affected the Neighbours scripts - was my sudden passion for Hong Kong movies from 1991. Melbourne had a rich supply of them in two (later four) cinemas so I saw 2 or 3 a week. That resulted in annual visits to the Hong Kong International Film Festival and my friendship with film historian Law Kar. We have just spent 6 years co-writing a history of Hong Kong films covering 1897 to around the 1980s, for US publisher, Scarecrow Press. I fell in love with many of the actresses who dominated HK cinema during the 1940s-60s, and even developed a website on forgotten director Esther Eng (1914-1970) on www.estherengstory.com. This merged into a broader interest in modern Chinese history and oddly enough there you have the "China" interest of Colin Taylor specifically developed in those 1995 episodes. At the moment, I'm pursuing several book/script projects out of this interest.

How did you get to join the Neighbours' cast?
Almost every actor in Australia approaches casting at Neighbours, any local series for that matter. Out of the blue, in 1992 or early '93, my agent relayed an offer of a day's work - no audition - for an episode shot in a holiday resort on the Mornington Peninsula. It was a comedy-relief character, a verbose, enthusiastic, well-intentioned, slightly boring widower named Colin Taylor who befriends a young couple at the resort. That was it. But the producer/director (I am ashamed to say I've lost his name), who was English incidentally with a lot of theatre/TV experience in Britain, liked the work and mentioned maybe doing something "more" with the character. Ultimately, I thank him. A year later, another episode (I forget the exact pretext); then, many months later, the offer of 10 weeks in 1994.

What were your first impressions of the show and its production?
It was hard to get any impression in the first isolated episodes; nothing to distinguish it from any short-term job on any series where you're just doing a one-day character to vary the show's landscape. No time for a real impression. It was different with the 10 weeks in 1994, when you were sharing the Green Room with others in the cast, and you met everybody. I had never watched the series and it seemed that anyone who "admitted" watching Neighbours made it appear accidental as if Channel 10 just happened to be on when they were having tea or something, like they'd "accidentally" watched some porn. Therefore, I'd somehow imagined it as something slap-dash and full of "television" actors, i.e., not 'real' actors, completely formulaic, etc., which was all nonsense. Yes, I was struck by the quality and experience, pedigree if you like, of many of the actors, the sheer efficiency with which the producers conjured 5 half-hour eps per week using two shooting units, the egalitarian atmosphere of the Green Room and of course by the star "look" of Kimberley Davies who should - had we a big enough industry - have become a major screen star here if not in the US. She reminded me of a young Lana Turner or Gloria Grahame.

How did you approach the character of Colin Taylor? Were any traits added at your suggestion?
Answering the last point first, I did make suggestions in 1995 just to change some of Colin's spoken Chinese from Mandarin to the Cantonese dialect. A good friend, Irene Wong, was teaching me Cantonese at the time and it was easier to use for the few phrases where Colin spoke "Chinese" though another Chinese friend taught me some Mandarin phrases too.

The "approach"? It was virtually there in the script. I thought Colin was a wonderful comic creation and no doubt a better actor may have done it more justice. Very difficult to learn - a man using 10 words where 3 would do, almost like speaking an overwritten English essay. Fine concept for a character and I fell about laughing almost every time a new script arrived. I didn't attempt "character" acting as I would have back in the late 60s/early 70s because I don't think television can stand that.

My attention was drawn to a Neighbours piece on the Web criticizing (I think) actors like me who had appeared in the children's series Pugwall (dir: John Gauci), for resembling too much their later work in Neighbours. Guilty, and I plead no talent. However, what can you do except the best you can with a script you like and try to be as "real" as possible in a quickly made series? I can't change my physiognomy. In fact, I changed my mind over the years about the so-called virtue of "losing yourself" in a character and being so different, such a virtuoso with every new performance that there is no discernible personality underneath. It's why I generally preferreded American actors particularly of the 1940s and 50s - e.g., Bob Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart - personalities-plus and the screen was better for it. I mentioned Guinness, a wonderful man-of-many-faces actor, but to me he had a distinct personality under all that. Incidentally, I'm not locked back in that era but of today's stars, I generally prefer the women like Reese Witherspoon and the superb Mira Sorvino. All I'm saying is the best you can do is be true to the script (or get it changed) and not look like you're "acting" too much. Difficult to do and, looking over some of those scenes, I sometimes failed.

So how did the dual role of Colin's twin brother Alf come about? Was it challenging playing the two roles at once?
I don't know how Alf jumped into the production team's mind but I thank them for it. Following on from the above - and Alf was introduced in a "bush" episode in 1994 - it was a wonderful opportunity to do a little "acting", almost revue comedy with that drawling Alfian voice. They gave me carte blanche in the approach and of course I had a ball. It's not difficult for an actor to do that simple differentiation; it actually makes you look versatile which is not always true; just that you rarely get the chance to play twins on television. Even better, in 1995 they reintroduced Alf and - very brave of the producers - had him confronting Colin with the both of them onscreen together interspersed with a back-viewed double. Irritating though for some actors kept waiting while I changed costumes to play reaction shots of one or other brother. It was hardly City of Lost Children (Dominic Pignon as several clones) or the new Matrix (numerous Hugo Weavings) but a great, old-fashioned cinema touch. Buster Keaton did it for Pete's sake.

The twin role must have placed some strain on the show's hectic schedule. How was that approached, and did it cause any headaches?
Yes, you're right. I know it took extra time to shoot those scenes but someone came up with the idea - and Neighbours is not an SFX show - and they went with it. The main "headaches" probably went to the odd co-actor getting home too late because some of the scenes took longer to shoot, what with incessant costume changes and placement of my stand-in "double" who looked nothing like me except via a three-quarter back view. The two of us often changed costumes while he stood in for different brothers so this took time. Happily it wasn't a waste of time from the show's viewpoint.

Who did you most enjoy working with on Neighbours?
Er - pass! I had no favourite co-performer and I am not aware of nasty tensions with others (or I'm blissfully ignorant of them). As in any group there were some I liked - as people - more than others but that's about all.

Were there ever plans to make Colin a regular character?
I don't think so. For example, there was no way I would appear in arranged publicity shots which was just practical because I was not going to be around that long . I think Colin and Alf were quick Seat-of-the-Pants creations that worked for a certain time. Oddly, in the final script, when Colin leaves - on an overseas ceramics expedition with Chinese friends - he says "I'll be back", though I did not see the final on-air version. So presumably he's lost somewhere, maybe in the South American jungle, maybe deep in an American or Asian library pursuing new knowledge. Stout chap.

Why did you leave the show?
I guess the above nearly answers that. Whatever comic relief the Taylors may have provided had done its dash. The creators moved on to other things. I must say in passing that my own brother (not a twin) drew my attention to a website created by Thomas Clayton who, bless him, dedicated it to Colin and Alf Taylor. Naturally, I was delighted to know that he liked them enough to do that. Anyway, it was hardly a "decision" on my part - I liked the income.

In retrospect, what were the most and least rewarding aspects of working on Neighbours for you?
The best part - aside from taking me off Poverty Row for a while - was actually putting in the screen time. It's too late for me now but if, say, I'd done 50 movies (you can do that in France and Hong Kong), I'd be a pretty fair screen actor by now simply through having honed my craft or whatever ability I may have to camera. You can't do that without practice. Most previous TV work comprised a couple of days here, a day there; you don't learn enough beyond the old guideline of try not to "act" too much. It was good to meet for the first time some "name" actors like Anne Haddy and Tom Oliver whom I'd seen briefly on stage in Sydney during the 1960s. The late Anne Haddy was a remarkable actress and I was fortunate to see her live in the play Love Letters in 1995. "Least" rewarding? I can think of nothing to grumble about. Absurdly enough, I bought two pairs of clip-on dark glasses to use occasiuonally in the street. The "instant recognition" out and about was initially a bit of a shock, though occasionally pleasant when someone came up to say something about the show, or unpleasant when a bunch of hoons stopped you in the street showing mock interest ready to put you down. How the real stars of the show coped with all that I don't know. I'm no more "private" that other citizens but the sudden exposure was a jolt, not unanticipated and only occasionally irksome. Once off air though, people forget you quickly.

Would you ever return to the show if invited? Have you any idea what Colin might be doing today?
Of course, it's always good to work, but it won't happen. In fact, if someone had the idea to bring Colin back there'd be an opportunity to cast another actor. A man can change a lot in 8 years - he could hardly lose more hair but he could get fatter and even change his outlook or aspects of his psychology. In fact, I believe the show has changed actors for the same character mid-stream in the past. Am I wrong? I don't know how viewers react to that. As a kid, I loved radio serials in the 1950s and was outraged when a new voice took over a familiar character. I haven't speculated much on Colin's fate. Perhaps he met a woman who reminded him of his late wife; perhaps he settled in China, offering his "expertise" to help Beijing win hearts and minds in the lead up to the Olympic Games of 2008. Hmmm...

What are you doing today?
Writing or developing writing & production projects mostly. Right now, doing last minute chores on Hong Kong Cinema - a Cross Cultural View, our history of HK movies, for Scarecrow Press. They like the book very much and it should be out in December. Director John Woo - a friend of Law Kar's - wrote us a wonderful and wise Preface. The Hong Kong connection has been very important, including two long stints (6 months and 8 months) of film & theatre research there. I'm also working on projects related to the Australian, W. H. Donald, aka "Donald of China" back in the 30s. A massive undertaking - but getting there; his time in China (1903-46) coincided with one of its most tumultuous periods in history. It has made me several new close friends in China, HK and Australia including Donald's relatives and Ansie Lee Sperry who spent 3 years in captivity with Donald (1942-45) in the Japanese-occupied Philippines. This has really "kept me going" in several ways. For example, it took 4 months to figure out how to construct a website, specifically on Donald. The other, on Esther Eng mentioned above, was a piece of cake after that. Also planning to make a short film of my own featuring "Jim Bonaparte" though getting the finance may take a while. Non-commercially, I am trying to instigate the possibility of a Pierre Etaix film retrospective with feelers out trying to make that happen in at least the 3 Eastern state capitols here. I even exchanged cordial letters with Mr. Etaix, my favourite film comedian, who for some reason is now forgotten by too many people including the fact that he won an Oscar in 1963 for his short comedy, Heureux Anniversaire. Otherwise, the odd audition and even role-offers turn up, maybe not enough to survive on but it's great to keep a toe or two in the industry.

Interview by Stuart. Added on 8th August 2003