Grin and bare it
18 April 2010
In an unpresupposing brick Strathfield school hall, the air is thick with funny lady banter. Standup comedian Rachel Berger is seated at the piano she’s only just now learning to play for her new stage role; thankfully, she says, she’s been given instructions Helen Keller could have followed.
Leggy Rhonda Burchmore leans on the piano and dishes up the script’s delicious bon mots, while centre “stage” wearing sunglasses and sun visor one-time
host Cornelia Frances serves a little faux tennis to satirist Jean Kittson. Alas, Amanda Muggleton seems to have escaped the rehearsal room latch with co-star Anna Lee; is this
all over again?
TV drama memories of the more homespun variety come flooding back as I spot the veteran star of this all-female
ensemble at the side of the hall, poring over her script. Can Lorraine Bayly – long etched in the minds of many Australians as the wartime mum Grace Sullivan – really be 73?
With her brown hair piled unfussily high, Bayly’s still instantly recognisable face is a picture of concentration; perhaps she’s contemplating how exactly she can use her character Jessie’s woollen knitting as a strategically placed “prop” when she takes off her clothes, which this role demands.
This play is based on a true story – a group of women in a small Yorkshire town pose nude for a charity calendar – and was adapted to film in Britain in 2003. In the story’s traditional spirit, all proceeds from the first preview in each city of this national Australian cast tour will be donated to leukaemia research, with the Leukaemia Foundation supplying all the merchandise and keeping those funds too.
There will be no undress rehearsal today: everyone here must eventually disrobe, of course, though “discrete” nudity is the publicist’s qualification for Bayly. Were discretion a concern, however, surely some thicker macramé strands might have been more suitable?
The odd tummy roll or dimple in the advance cast photo appear to have been Photoshopped out of posterity. It is Bayly who cautions against the word naked: “It’s nudity,” she says. “There is a difference.”
She makes her point – indeed, will make her every point –
, with disarming sincerity. Born and then raised for a chunk of her childhood in country NSW, Bayly has never lost that small-town openness, even as the Logies piled up as a household name from
The Sullivans, Carson’s Law
As we initially sit in an anteroom which doubles as a walkway, Bayly constantly smiles at each school staff member who stumbles through; she apologetically explains we’re conducting an interview. “Pardon us being here,” she says.
This is not at all diva-like behaviour befitting a queen of the TV soap pantheon, much less a theatre craftswoman with a 50-year stage CV. Her career began and will likely end on the stage: Bayly was a founding member of Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre, begun by her mentor, US-born actor Hayes Gordon, in 1958.
In 2001, she was awarded an A.M. (Member of the Order of Australia) in the Australia Day Honour’s List; then Bayly officially retired from acting on August 2, 2003, the closing night of
, a play she had been appearing in at the Opera House.
What changed her mind? “It wasn’t my mind that changed, actually; it was my blood pressure,” she says. “It had started to play up a bit, and was getting a little bit dangerously high at one stage there during
“I thought, ‘Oh I’ve done a lot, it’s time to retire.’ Even my doctor said, ‘If it’s stressful on stage, it’s best not to do it.’ I retired, and was happy about it at the time, but a little reluctant.
“Anyway, I ended up being put on medication. As soon as I knew I was safe to go back – appearing in Rabbit Hole (a 2007 Ensemble production) was the test – I did, and my blood pressure has been terrific. Taking up tennis has had a lot to do with that.”
Indeed, Bayly has become an energetic ambassador for successful aging: last year, she competed in Sydney’s World Masters Games. Notwithstanding going down 6-0 on day one, she was happy enough just to return serve.
Locals meanwhile can see Bayly being very un-star like at the shopping centre near her Neutral Bay home, where she has lived alone since the death of her most recent partner and soul mate, Steven, from a heart attack related to kidney disease several years ago.
“People were friendly when I first moved to the city, but nowadays I think it’s a little sad that people don’t say hello to each other, particularly if there’s only two people in the street,” she reflects.
“I do a test quite often when I go grocery shopping on Saturdays. I walk to the shops, and as people come towards me to pass, I sum them up, and I’ll often just say, ‘Hello’, you know?
“I love seeing the reactions you get from different people. Often – more so young people, unfortunately – they just freeze. Some reply. But it’s lovely the reaction you get from older people: ‘Oh!’ then a lovely warm smile.”
Country people were always “one big family”. In recent years, Bayly and her sister June, who is three-and-a-half years younger, have visited the country NSW towns of their earliest childhood memories. The sisters became very close as adults, but it was not always so: a court decision tore the family in two.
Bayly was born in the western NSW Riverina town of Booligal in January 1937. The family of four moved south to Narrandera when her policeman father was transferred. Then, when Bayly was five, the family moved again, to Batemans Bay, 280 kilometres south of Sydney, where her loving parents’ marriage was crumbling.
The Baylys divorced, and a court awarded Lorraine to her father, and June to her mother. The police force transferred her dad once more, this time to the apple and timber-growing town of Batlow, 440 kilometres south-west of Sydney. “It’s even hard to talk about it now, all these years later,” says Bayly, voice quivering.
“It wasn’t like living in the city, where you were a suburb or two away and could go and visit. My sister and my mother were in one town, and my father and I in a totally different town.
“We’d see each other on school holidays – my sister would come to Batlow or I’d go to Bateman’s Bay – but I remember it used to kill me, the wrench when the holidays were over. That’s never gone. I can still feel it.”
Her father was an amateur magician who performed tricks with silver hoops, as well as a ventriloquist. “He had this big doll – about the same size I was at the time – called Gerry, who had red hair, with a white suit and purple pom-poms. He was magnificent, with strings inside that would move his eyebrows, his eyes, and his forehead.
“My father taught me how to use Gerry, so I had this ventriloquist act when I was quite young; I used to do it at concerts. I’d organise concerts, write plays, and put them on.”
Bayly, brought by her father to Sydney at age 11, would endure two stepmothers. The first started out kind but temporarily “went a little strange” through depression – once threatening to throw acid over Bayly as a child – and the second was simply “not very nice”.
Bayly left home and worked in the ledger department of a Martin Place bank. Having already begun a performing career of sorts in her early teens playing piano Saturday afternoons on radio 2UE, at age 21 she helped launch the Ensemble Theatre, having participated in Hayes Gordons’s free acting classes for the previous 18 months. All the students had to pitch in renovating a decrepit boatshed at Kirribilli into a theatre.
Six days away from performing in her first professional play, in 1958, her father, who had encouraged her acting, died. “He’d said, ‘Give it a few years and see how you go’,” says Bayly. “I just wish he’d been here to see some of it.”
Her TV debut was in comedy sketches, in 1960 and 1961, performing on Bobby Limb variety shows. Less intentionally comical was her 13-episode Sunday morning program on Channel Ten some time around 1963,
Slim As You Clean With Lorraine Bayly
, in which twenty-something Lorraine gave a multi-skilling master class that combined housework and weight loss tips, sponsored by household goods companies. At night, she was appearing on stage in D.H. Lawrence’s play
Daughter In Law
If Bayly was two decades ahead of Jane Fonda workouts, she’d hit the pop zeitgeist in 1966 with her first TV drama series,
, set on a spaceship on which she played astronaut Vera Balovna – months before anyone had seen the first series of
in the US, which debuted the same year. On board the spaceship were two computers, Henry and Alys, which fell in love. Bayly wore a silver lame outfit with a black-lined cape.
Her next series that year was just as camp: she played an air hostess on
Be Our Guest,
bringing the likes of the Bee Gees, Normie Rowe and Johnny Young on her “airplane” to the studio, where the guests would burst into song. Soon came guest roles for Crawford’s drama production house:
Homicide, Division 4
In 1976, while appearing in the drama
Case for the Defence
in Sydney, her agent phoned to advise Bayly that Crawford’s was making a new series in Melbourne.
With no time to remove the TV makeup designed to make her look old for her character, she was put on a plane that night for the next morning’s audition.
Bayly, scared of riding in elevators, managed to fool the girl at the Melbourne hotel desk when she arrived and asked to be accompanied up to her room. The staff member thought she was assisting an old lady, and was stunned the next morning to see Bayly, her makeup removed, was actually barely middle-aged, not yet 40.
Of course, Bayly won the role as Grace Sullivan, and starred in
for the first two-and-a-half years of its seven-year run. When she took a break from the series and elected not to return, her character was killed in a London bombing raid, sending viewers into mourning. “I didn’t have any idea the impact Grace leaving would have on the audience,” she says. “Had I realised, I might have stayed a little longer, but then I wouldn’t have got
Bayly still hopes she can entertain and move her audience with Calendar Girls. She’s fond of quoting Laurence Olivier, who said film was for money, TV for fame, but that theatre was what acting is really all about.
And going nude? “Most of us aren’t having a problem with it, because it’s up to each of us with our props, and how careful we are,” she says, then laughs: “I’m going to be very careful with mine.”
Calendar Girls opens at the Theatre Royal on April 29