Googie Withers and John McCallum – Double Act

Cover of 'Double Act'
Cover of ‘Double Act’

Googie Withers and John McCallum are stars from British cinemas pre and post WW2 golden age who would go on to have a profound influence on the Arts in Australia. As Founding Patron’s of the Tait Memorial Trust they will forever be a part of our work to assist the careers of young Australian performing artists who study in the UK. In Double Act, Brian McFarlane charts their careers through the eyes of a lover of theatre, cinema and television; The glimpes into their personal lives throughout adds a unique poignancy to the book which really is a must for any lover of theatre and the performing arts.

John McCallum, famous for his rugged good looks was a highly successful film, television and stage actor and producer in his native Australia and in the UK before and after the war. After completing his military service with the 2nd AIF in New Guinea he returned to resume his acting career in the UK.  In 1948 he married the British actress Googie Withers, with whom he appeared in a large number of films.

Googie Withers best known work of the period was as one of Margaret Lockwood’s friends in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). Among her successes of the 1940s, and a departure from her previous roles, was the Powell and Pressburger film One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), a topical World War II drama in which she played a Dutch resistance fighter who helps British airmen return to safety from behind enemy lines. She played the devious Helen Nosseross in Night and the City (1950), a British film noir directed by Jules Dassin.

They were among the most gifted and distinctive of Ealing’s large company of actors. The pair had met and fallen in love on the set of The Loves of Joanna Godden, released early in 1947. Later that year they were to star in It always rains on Sunday directed by Robert Hamer. The film was re-released a few years ago by the BFI.

How they managed to juggle their first class international careers with a family of three children often on opposite sides of the world was a feat in itself. In 1958 John would go on to join Sir Frank Tait at J C Williamson’s where he was closely involved with the production of American musicals from Annie Get Your Gun to My Fair Lady. With Borovansky, formerly of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, they toured a cast led by Margot Fonteyn.

This company would go on to form the core of the Australian Ballet with the help of Frank Tait, John McCallum and Dr Herbert Coombes, the first Chairman of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. At the invitation of Sir Frank Tait, McCallum became joint Managing Director. McCallum was keen to encourage the casting of talented Australians in leading roles and was instrumental in beginning the starring careers of Kevin Colson, Jill Perryman, Nancye Hayes, Barbara Angell and others.

Still of John McCallum and Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) © Photo courtesy of Film Forum/Rialto Pictures.
Still of John McCallum and Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
© Photo courtesy of Film Forum/Rialto Pictures.

Their contribution to the Australian performing arts is considerable. In 1971, McCallum was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). In 1992, he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO). Both honours were made for services to drama and theatre. Withers was appointed an Honorary Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for services to drama, in the 1980 Australia Day Honours List. In the 2002 Queen’s Birthday Honours List (UK), she was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)

McCallum also wrote, directed and produced numerous films and television series, particularly the international TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1966–68) which he co-produced with Lee Robinson. Television series he produced in the 1970s include Boney, Barrier Reef and Shannon’s Mob. McCallum also widely acted on the stage. A particular favourite role was in The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham. In this production he acted alongside Googie Withers in the U.K. as well as in Australia.

The book includes more than 30 black-and-white photographs which complement the text and make you wish for more. After all, there are limits to describing the performing arts in words even though McFarlane does this par excellence.

John McCallum passed away on February 3rd 2010 in Sydney. The other part of this great double act, Googie Withers, died 17 months later at the age of 94. A great loss to the performing arts in Australia.

Googie Withers filmography on imdb

John McCallum filmography on imdb

Review of Double Act from the Sydney Morning Herald

Link to buy the book, Double Act from Amazon



Founding Patrons of the Tait Memorial Trust

The founding Patrons of the Tait Memorial Trust were Viola, Lady Tait AM, Dame Joan Sutherland AC OM DBE, John McCallum AO CBE and Googie Withers AO CBE.

The Tait Memorial Trust was formed in 1992 by Isla Baring OAM, in memory of her father, Sir Frank Tait and his four brothers. The Tait brothers ran the biggest theatrical group in Australia; called J.C. Williamsons, often referred to as, “The Firm”.

British Pathe tribute to the death of Sir Frank Tait

Manager of the ABC, Sir Frank Tait, Marion Anderson, USA Consul, Town Hall concert, Melbourne, 1962  Part of Lady Viola Tait collection
Manager of the ABC, Sir Frank Tait, Marion Anderson, USA Consul, Town Hall concert, Melbourne, 1962
Part of Lady Viola Tait collection

They owned theatres in all states and theatres in New Zealand,, their base of operations was Her Majesty’s ( or His Majesty’s for a period ) in Melbourne,. They employed local artists and international artists such as Pavlova, Chaliapin, Melba, Danny Kaye, Gracie Fields, Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thorndike, Margot Fonteyn, Vivien Leigh, Percy Grainger and many more.


They maintained offices in London and New York to ensure that they could book the best talent to come to Australia, JC Williamson’s famously acquired the Australian performing rights from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company for all of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

Dame Nellie Melba, Soprano
Dame Nellie Melba, Soprano

They put on most American musicals from Annie get your Gun to My Fair Lady. Sir Frank’s last enterprise, the crowning glory of his long career was the Sutherland-Williamson Opera Company in 1965. A company formed the previous year with no subsidy and brought opera to Australia, on tour. A true laurel in the crown of JC Williamson’s and Sir Frank Tait.

Googie Withers AO CBE & John Macallum AO CBE, Founding Patrons of the Tait Memorial Trust

Viola, Lady Tait, the widow of Sir Frank Tait, wrote, ‘A Family of Brothers’, a wonderful book and vivid account of the growth of the Tait brothers theatre business culminating in the golden days of JC Williamson’s Theatre Company and the Sutherland-Williamson Co. of 1965. Viola, Lady Tait’s zest for life was inspirational. She was a champion of new and emerging talent, adjudicating numerous scholarships and awards both in Australia and overseas. As an adjudicator for The Shell-Mobil Quest in 1950, Viola Tait was famously instrumental in launching Joan Sutherland’s career.

Lady McKell and Viola Tait at opening of the ballet, ca. 1950 1 photograph : b&w ; 20.7 x 15.2 cm. Part of Lady Viola Tait collection [picture]. 1850-1976.
Lady McKell and Viola Tait at opening of the ballet, ca. 1950 Part of Lady Viola Tait collection 1850-1976. National Library of Australia Archive

It became Sir Frank’s ambition to present Joan Sutherland to the Australian public after her international acclaim. The Sutherland Williamson Grand Opera Company opened in Melbourne in 1965 heralding her triumphant return to her homeland. It was a season never to be forgotten. Joan Sutherland sang some of the best performances of her career while on this tour. She performed in five of the eight operas along with the young Pavarotti.

In Richard Bonynge’s words:

“Sir Frank Tait has done the greatest service to Australian Theatre and to the arts of anyone we know.”

More information on the Trust history can be found on our website.

Tait Memorial Trust website

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