You can already see what you're in for. The asterisks must be obvious even from up here in the first paragraph. But you've chosen to read a review of a biography of the actress Coral Browne, for 50 years the Queen Wasp of the West End. And where there is Coral Browne, there will be certain words that must, on these pages, remain concealed beneath typographical pantalettes. They were a significant presence even at her memorial service, at which her fellow Australian Barry Humphries delivered a rhyming tribute: "She left behind an emptiness/ A gap, a void, a trough/ The world is quite a good deal less/ Since Coral Browne f***ed off."
Browne did just that in 1991, but still they tell stories about her. The fruitiest Browne anecdotes are contained within this poisonously enjoyable book – from a frozen mascara crisis outside a Moscow hotel ("My God! My f***ing eyelashes have dropped off!") to her celebrated assessment of a colleague's marriage: "I could never understand what Godfrey Tearle saw in Jill Bennett, until I saw her at the Caprice eating corn-on-the-cob."
The men in Browne's life form a cast of thousands. Top of the bill is the British spy Guy Burgess, with whom she spent several weeks in Moscow in 1958, listening to him complain about the dodgy craftsmanship of Russian dentures, and observing the shabby circumscription of his exile. The husbands, are here, naturally: Philip Pearman, whom she married in 1950, despite his homosexuality, and Vincent Price, whom she met while playing a theatre critic whom he scorched to death under a salon hairdryer. The ones she didn't marry make up the Chorus: explicable candidates such as Paul Robeson and Christopher Cazenove; more leftfield acquisitions such as Cecil Beaton and Michael Hordern, that magnificently crusty character actor who turned throat-clearing into a high art. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Browne ate her lovers for breakfast. Or at least she would have done, had she been sufficiently relaxed about her weight to entertain the idea of breakfast.
As a biographer, Rose Collis is known for her rigorous and celebratory treatment of trouser subjects: the cross-dressing journalist Nancy Spain, the cross-dressing recidivist Major Victor Barker. That has two measurable effects on the contents of her book. First, it means paragraphs of excitement when her heroine takes on the part of a skirt-loathing aviator called Connie Crawford and collapses on stage at the end of the first act. ("Coral was back on her feet and in her trousers a few days later.") Second, it ensures that her work does not degenerate into the literary equivalent of a night of after-show anecdote-tennis over the tablecloths of Joe Allen's. Collis tells you when she detects the musty smell of theatrical apocrypha, and names her sources for material that has, over the years, been transformed by green-room whispers. Barrie Ingham, for example, is the man credited with the official version of a story in which Browne bets a colleague a pound that she can't tickle an on-stage erection from a fellow actor in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. (The punchline has Browne returning to the wings and declaring, "I owe you 10 shillings.")
That said, Collis sometimes professes too much faith in her subject's celebrated wit. I'm not sure how madly witty it is call an actor a "fat c***t" and then propose to increase the lazy tempo of his performance by shoving "a f***king alarm clock up his arse". And it's not too hard to see why she is the first biographer to make a book of Browne. Much of her heroine's life seems constituted by acts of glassy-eyed careerism, casual unkindness and reckless cosmetic surgery. What's more, Alan Bennett has already bagsied its most delicate episode – he listened to Browne talk about her melancholy interlude walking Moscow on the arm of a tumbledown British traitor, turned it into An Englishman Abroad, and gave her the defining role of her career – Coral Browne. It's just possible that this was a better part than the one she had created herself.Oberon, £19.99