Des de Moor
Agnes Bernelle 1923-1999: Everything is so dangerous that nothing is really frightening
Agnes Bernelle, one of the most popular and best-loved performers ever to appear at Pirate Jenny's, died in February 1999. Reproduced below are edited extracts from the obituaries that appeared in the Guardian on 3 March 1999, and a supplementary tribute by Des de Moor, written to the paper but never published.
Singing Brecht, and living out the songs
AGNES BERNELLE who has died aged 75, used a quote from Gertrude Stein -- "Everything is so dangerous that nothing is really frightening" -- to introduce her memoirs, The Fun Palace (1996); she lived her life, its successes and hardships, with vigour, humour and warmth. And her own story surely surpassed the plots of the films and plays in which she appeared.
Agnes, actress and singer, was born in Berlin. Her mother came from a provincial German town; her father, Rudolph Bernauer, was a wealthy Jewish Hungarian who owned several theatres and also wrote lyrics for satirical cabarets.
In The Fun Palace, Agnes wrote that, while her formal education was not extensive, she was receptive to a world of music, literature, theatre and opera. Marlene Dietrich was a family friend and Agnes made her debut on screen aged seven in a comedy, a self confessed "little monster" playing a sailor-suited boy.
Then the Nazis came to power. The family moved to London in 1936, where Agnes's father wrote and directed low-budget films. With the war, Agnes performed with the London-based Freier Deutscher Kulturband ['Kulturbund'?] (Free German League of Culture). She was also Vicky, "the Sailor's Sweetheart", in allied broadcasts to Germany. She married her Irish husband, Desmond Leslie, an RAF fighter pilot, in August 1945.
They stayed in London, and in the 1950s her friends included Klaus von Bulow and the exiled King Farouk of Egypt. She played opposite and was directed by Orson Welles in a BBC radio series, and as Salome became the first non-stationary nude on the English stage.
In 1963 Agnes put together her first solo show, based on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's songs, at Peter Cook's Establishment Club in Soho. She was destined to perform this material for the rest of her life, and it led to collaborations with an eclectic range of musicians including Marc Almond and Elvis Costello -- who was executive producer on her album Father's Lying Dead on the Ironing Board (1985).
With their two sons (later to be joined by a daughter), in 1963 Agnes and Desmond moved to his ancestral home, in County Monaghan. But their marriage ended in 1969 when she met the architectural historian Maurice Craig.
In Dublin, she worked in radio, theatre, film, television and cabaret. She also featured in I Was That Little Girl, a TV documentary in which she returned to Berlin to perform her cabaret material and explore her roots. Her final screen performance was last year, in Still Life.
She is survived by Maurice Craig, her two sons and her daughter.
John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy write...
Having escaped the holocaust by a hair's breadth, Agnes Bernelle always seemed to feel she never quite fitted in anywhere. Irish television marked her passing with a film full of her cabaret songs....as though it had to be assumed that this was all she was, an exotic historical survival, not really to the point in the "real world" of the 1990s...
In fact, [she] was very much to the point. In 1981 she was a founder of Women in Media, one of the first groups of its kind in Ireland to be affiliated to the National Council for the Status of Women; she continued her involvement for the rest of her life.
We remember her as an inaugural broadcaster on Galway's unlicensed Women's Sceal Radio (later known as Radio Pirate-Woman). She supported any cause in opposition to tyranny or prejudice: anti-nuclear, anti-apartheid, anti-racist, anti-homophobia, Aids, prison conditions.
She demonstrated at the age of 69 in the Galway courthouse against the closure of a hostel for homeless women; if the judge had been an ounce more bloody-minded she might have gone to jail for it. She not only sang Brecht's songs; she lived their essential spirit. She longed to play Mother Courage before she grew too old; instead, she fell ill and died. In one sense she was Mother Courage -- not the harsh opportunist displayed in the play, but warm, generous, enduring, the abundant inner truth of the nickname.
Agnes Bernelle (Bernauer), actress and singer, born March 7, 1923; died February 15, 1999.
Des de Moor adds...
Readers who, like me, were saddened to read of the death of Agnes Bernelle (Obituaries, March 3), may be interested to hear that she was actively working as a musical cabaret performer until very recently. I first met her in 1995 while looking for acts for my club, Pirate Jenny's.
I tracked her down by the simple expedient of dialling the London number that appeared under her name in the phone book and being referred from there to her Dublin number. We talked for ages about cabaret songs, and I couldn't believe my luck when she agreed to a gig there and then, but I later learned that this friendliness, directness and open enthusiasm was typical of Agnes.
The resulting appearance, to a packed house at the Vortex in Stoke Newington in July 1995, was electric and I will always treasure the memory of it and feel proud at playing a part in it. I subsequently promoted a handful of other events featuring Agnes, including what I believe was her last ever London appearance, at the 100 Club on 26 June 1997 (she was also booked for last November but cancelled due to failing health).
My last sight of her was wandering off down Oxford Street in the company of two rather merry young Irish women, who were trying to persuade her to take a cab back to her lodgings rather than her expressed preference for a bus!
Your writers quite rightly mention Agnes's prowess as an interpreter of the theatre songs of Brecht and Weill -- indeed, she was partly responsible for popularising this material in the British Isles when she took it up in the early 1960s. But in the latter years Brecht and Weill accounted for only a small proportion of a repertoire that was mainly concentrated on lesser known cabaret songs from writers like Kurt Tucholsky, Fritz Wedekind, Friedrich Holländer and her own father, Rudolph Bernauer.
Her particular favourite was the surreal and satirical Joachim Ringelnatz, whom she performed in her own translations with new musical settings by the late Michael Dress. Keeping alive this 'pure cabaret' repertoire, and encouraging contemporary songwriters like Marc Almond, Tom Waits and Ron Kavana to supply new songs in the same tradition, were among Agnes' most important achievements.
Agnes's death will be a great loss to anyone who had been touched by that irrepresibly warm intelligence and spirit. But it is a particular loss to anyone with an interest in musical theatre and cabaret, since she was a both a brilliant perfomer and a living link to the extraordinary hotbed of cultural and creative innovation and achievement that was Weimar Berlin. That link is now broken, and she will be sorely missed.
Des de Moor
Tribute by John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy
Tribute by Des de Moor
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