Born Peter Bourne in Hackney, east London, he made his stage debut at the age of four as one of the members of Madame Behenna and her Dancing Children. Encouraged to take part in amateur dramatics by his mother, he chose a career in the theatre at 16, working backstage at the Garrick Theatre, London.
His brother is actor and singer Mike Berry.
He studied drama at Central School of Speech and Drama in London and went on to act on stage and on television throughout the 1960s. He appeared in TV series such as The Avengers and The Prisoner, and in 1969, he appeared alongside Sir Ian McKellen in a touring double bill of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard II. In the 1970s, he put his acting career on hold to become an activist with the Gay Liberation Front, becoming part of a gay commune in London. It was during this period that he started wearing drag and changed his name to “Bette”.
In 1976, he joined the New York-based gay cabaret group, the Hot Peaches, performing with them in Europe, culminating in a show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. When this group went back to New York, Bourne formed his own troupe, Bloolips. Featuring songs such as Let's Scream Our Tits Off, the shows were mostly written by playwright John Taylor with titles like Lust in Space and The Ugly Duckling. He toured the UK and the rest of Europe throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, winning an Obie Award (Off Broadway Theater Award) for the New York production of Lust in Space.
In 1996, he appeared in Neil Bartlett and Nick Bloomfield’s production of Sarasine at the Lyric Hammersmith. He worked with Bartlett again at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2003, performing in a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
In 1999, Bourne played his friend, Quentin Crisp, in Tim Fountain’s play, Resident Alien, at the Bush Theatre in London. He also performed it on tour around the world, including New York and Sydney. Fountain wrote two more plays for Bourne: H-O-T-B-O-I, which was produced at Soho Theatre in 2004 (originally Deep Rimming in Poplar at its premiere at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow); and Rock in 2008.
Bourne was part of the Donmar Warehouse production of The Vortex in 2002, for which he won the Clarence Derwent Award. In 2005, he appeared in Read My Hips at The Drill Hall in London, playing the gay 20th-century Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy living in Alexandria.
For the Royal Shakespeare Company, he played Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at London’s Novello Theatre in 2007, and at the Royal National Theatre he was in Improbable Theatre’s stage adaptation of the film, Theatre of Blood, in 2005.
In 2009, he talked about his life in A Life In Three Acts at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, a staged reading of transcripts of conversations with playwright Mark Ravenhill. Bourne worked with Ravenhill previously on a short play, Ripper, playing Queen Victoria at the Union Theatre in London in 2007.
- Edward II (Edmund of Kent), Edinburgh Festival & West End, 1969
- Richard II”, Edinburgh Festival & West End, 1969
- A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep (1989-1990) for Gloria[disambiguation needed] at The Drill Hall, London.
- The Importance of Being Earnest (Lady Bracknell), 1995
- Sarasine, Lyric Hammersmith, London, 1996
- Resident Alien (Quentin Crisp), Bush Theatre, London, 1999
- The Vortex (Pauncefort Quentin), Donmar Warehouse, London, 2002
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Narrator), Lyric Hammersmith, London, 2003
- H-O-T-B-O-I (aka Deep Rimming in Poplar) (Reg), Soho Theatre, London, 2004
- Read My Hips (Constantine P. Cavafy), The Drill Hall, London, 2005
- Theatre of Blood (Michael Merridew), Royal National Theatre, London, 2005
- Ripper (Queen Victoria), Union Theatre, London, 2007
- Much Ado About Nothing (Dogberry), Novello Theatre, London, 2007
- Rock (Henry Willson), Oval House Theatre, London, 2008
- A Life in Three Acts (as himself), Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 2009
- A Life in Three Acts (as himself), St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, 2010
- A Right Pair (as himself), Brighton Festival Fringe, 2012
- Macbeth (Porter), Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, 2013
- The Lightning Child (Tiresias), Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, 2013
- Caught Looking (1991) – Narrator
- A Little Bit of Lippy (1992) – Venus Lamour
- My Summer Valentine (1996) – English interviewee
- Chéri (2009)
- Edward II (1970) - Edmund of Kent
- The Avengers (1968) – Preece
- The Prisoner (1967) – Projection Operator
- The Saint (1967) – Perry
- The Baron (1967) – Peter
- The Avengers (1966) – Allen
- Dixon of Dock Green (1965) – Matcham
- Dixon of Dock Green (1964)– Blackie
- Dixon of Dock Green (1963) – Robert
- Megson, Chris (2012-05-24). Modern British Playwriting: The 1970s: Voices, Documents, New Interpretations. A&C Black. pp. 81–. ISBN 9781408129395. Retrieved 5 August 2012.
- Cullen, Frank; Hackman, Florence; McNeilly, Donald (2006-10-16). Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America 2V Set. Psychology Press. pp. 123–. ISBN 9780415938532. Retrieved 5 August 2012.
- Wilmer, S. E. (2002-09-23). Theatre, Society and the Nation: Staging American Identities. Cambridge University Press. pp. 179–. ISBN 9780521802642. Retrieved 5 August 2012.
- Cuthbertson, Ian (December 27, 2010). "Bette Bourne: Gay life through the eyes of a show-off". The Australian. Retrieved 6 August 2012.
- Smith, Rupert (4 December 2005). "Rupert Smith talks to actor Bette Bourne". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 6 August 2012.
- The Independent (London) http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/pericles-lyric-hammersmith-london-581608.html
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- Donmar Warehouse | The Vortex
- Improbable Show - Theatre of Blood
- Ravenhill, Mark (23 August 2009). "The fabulous life of Bette Bourne". The Guardian (London).
- Ravenhill, Mark (14 October 2007). "Sometimes nothing's scarier than a bit of sponge and rubber tubing soaked in stage blood". The Guardian (London).
- Bourne, Bette; Ravenhill, Mark (2010-04-16). A Life in Three Acts. A&C Black. ISBN 9781408133439. Retrieved 6 August 2012.
- A short documentary about Bloolips, 1993